The Edge of Chaos: Emergent Factors in the Information Environment

This essay is part of the #WhatIsInformationOperations series, which asked a group of practitioners to provide their thoughts on the subject. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.

The adage that “generals always fight the last war” remains a truism describing how the gears of government tend to approach new conflicts; that is, with familiar yet outdated solutions. This mentality leads to other symptoms in a complex and dynamic information environment; one in which the U.S. appears to be ceding ground both with regards to its utilization of available messaging conduits, thus effective reach, as well as in maintaining influence advantage against both traditional and irregular adversaries.

A common counter-point is that “history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes,” summarizing the worldview of the planner who is interested in studying the competition’s long term strategic objectives, without much concern for changing technology. Planners who search for cultural and historical motives tend to lean on such schoolhouse cannons as, The Art of War, On War, and Seven Pillars of Wisdom for defining and targeting the enemy’s moral and mental spheres, to include their centers of gravity.[1]

However one justifies their philosophical stance, U.S. rivals in the influence space have developed tighter, more agile feedback loops, with the ability to make decisions and act in dynamically escalating situations. Outwardly, the U.S. battles both a “firehose of falsehood” from our competition, as described by Dr. Chris Paul and Miriam Matthews from RAND, and a perceived erosion of the U.S. moral imperative since the end of the Cold War.[2] To illustrate this point, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which coordinates a global media operation, has recognized a shortfall in the US obligation to aggressively message and promote Western narratives among key audiences, an essential cornerstone of U.S. soft power. In response to this vacuum, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has expanded its efforts with the development of the Russian language news and culture program, Current Time, a likely response to the effective reach of the Moscow-funded Russia Today.[3]

...a critical need exists to expand our risk tolerance in the information domain

Because of this tacit acknowledgement of a Western content shortfall, traditional U.S. platforms such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which were historically popular within both Soviet Russia and its satellite states during the Cold War, are now buttressed by U.S. non-profit organizations that operate radio stations, such as Spirit of America, which produces counter-points to Russian informatizatsiya in the Ukrainian information environment.[4] The emergence of various technological platforms and capabilities, combined with aggressive and persistent information operations by near-peer and irregular adversaries, has led to a quickening tempo which has not only become onerous to anticipate, but also to compete against, given our institutional risk avoidance. In this article I will argue that a critical need exists to expand our risk tolerance in the information domain by adopting more responsive ways of thinking about the information environment and its conduits, as opposed to bluntly and artlessly restricting or reacting to information flow from competitive sources.

Emergence Then

The term emergence, originally a concept from biology, has in recent times been applied to systems theory, complex systems, and intelligence analysis.[5] For analysts in the U.S. Department of Defense and intelligence communities, emergence simply describes a capability that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Stated differently, it means that unique technologies or ideas exhibit greater utility when attributed to a whole.[6]

An example of emergence we can study from modern warfare is the development of new aerial platforms during World War I. At the beginning of the war, the airplane was a recent invention, with few espousing its combat utility. That thinking rapidly evolved as pilots and engineers equipped the aerial platform with radios, cameras, machine guns, bombs, tail hooks, the capability to drop supplies and leaflets, and high-performance engines. After these capabilities were synthesized, the major warring powers witnessed the true emergent influence of the aircraft in battle. However, while it is important for the U.S. to identify modern emergent technologies for offset advantages, it is not a guiding strategy in and of itself. Henry and Peartree lament:

Technology-driven changes in military affairs are transient, sometimes eclipsed in less than a generation, and the competitive advantages that they offer are increasingly fleeting.[5]

This line of thinking leads us into the current debate regarding the technologies identified in our own Third Offset. No doubt, powerful capabilities for projecting power and deterring aggression in the near-term are contained in the strategy. However, the technologies we develop and field at great cost will likely have a brief moment of supremacy before our adversaries develop counter-measures, and we begin to realize the need for Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Offset Strategies. Much as generals a century ago came to realize the new reality of warfighting in the air domain, generals today are now embracing the inevitability of competition in two more domains, space and cyberspace, as well as higher stake gambits in the air, on sea and land, due to revolutionary weapons advancements. Realistically, it is only a matter of time before ingenious counter-measures makes even our most advanced technologies an anachronism.

Emergence Now

A more recent study in emergence can be seen with the global ubiquity of smartphones. This emergence was possible due in part to the synthesis of several simultaneous technology developments, and affordability from the economy of scale.

With regards to operations in the information environment, the Department of Defense must avoid loitering in the red cell shown while more flexible competitors advance into the illustrated yellow and green phases. The Department of Defense, like its competitors, must incorporate and exploit open-source, cost-effective methods and intelligence emerging from the consolidation of multiple capabilities. (Matt King/Citi Research)

It is important to digest what this consolidation means for the previous government monopoly on common operating picture gadgetry; for the right price, powerful commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies are now available to most everyone.

While government funding may have provided research and development for these capabilities in their nascent stages, the private sector refined these capabilities, ultimately resulting in a democratization of operational science and technology. Further, a second-order effect which resulted from the development of smartphones is the emergence of citizen reporting, whereby online raw footage from war zones or political demonstrations can be live-streamed across the internet and through the major news networks. This ground-level reporting, from war-torn Syria and Iraq for example, can also be used to drive analysis, with the evolution being that access to raw, publicly available information, is now drastically more accessible than just ten years ago. To demonstrate the quickening of commercial development, in 1996 the inhibitor that prevented commercial GPS transponders from receiving accurate geolocation data was, for all intents and purposes, switched off.[7] Once the U.S. government allowed GPS to become commercially viable, we witnessed a surge in handheld and vehicle-based GPS. This capability, as mentioned above, has spread to smartphones and privately operated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Illustrates the decreasing cost of information technology, the geometric rise in availability of data and devices, and the quickening feedback loop inherent in complex systems. (Matt King/Citi Research)

Unmanned aerial vehicles, now widespread and user-friendly, will serve as a publicly-available aerial platform which will combine many miniaturized and cost-effective technologies. In fact, we recently saw how quickly irregular adversaries adopted the new product, in the case of the Islamic State using a plastic explosives-laden COTS drone on an allied position in Mosul, which ultimately killed two Peshmerga and wounded two French soldiers. The Islamic State has also used UAVs for filming vehicle-borne IED attacks and subsequently creating high production-value content.[8,9] Looking ahead, we should ask ourselves on what timeline can we expect militarily potent capabilities to emerge from commercially available technologies? Perhaps Hemingway provided the most succinct answer, suggesting in The Sun Also Rises that these things happen, “Gradually, then suddenly.”

Life At the Edge of Chaos

In "The Complexity Challenge: The U.S. Government's Struggle to Keep Up with the Times," Josh Kerbel describes his perspective on systems theory, “…complex situations are very prone to emergent macro-behaviors, cascades, bubbles and crashes.”[10] 

Status-quo systems thinking tends to follow the classical system (left), whereby external shocks are absorbed until normalcy returns. On the other hand the evolutionary system (right) tends to follow power laws. These include complex systems such as stock markets, war zones, climate thresholds, and debt balances which can change exponentially until the system can no longer absorb the changes and the system shifts regimes dramatically. (Matt King/Citit Research)

In line with Kerbel’s emergent macro-behaviors are second and third order effects, unintended consequences, and blowback (e.g., a tactical event with strategic consequences). As shown in the figure above, evolutionary systems can be more volatile than classical systems.[11] Foreseeing the conditions necessary for the failure of a complex system is tackled by James Rickards, a financial expert who has advised the Department of Defense. He highlights that not all complex systems are prone to catastrophic collapse, because there must be a critical state present in order for a crash to occur. An analogy Rickards uses to describe critical states is the process leading up to an avalanche. He says we should not blame the last snowflake, nor try to predict when that will occur. What we should seek are the steep mountain slopes where snow accumulates.

The good news is that risk inherent in the system can be reduced, and brought into a non-critical state by preventative measures, such as snow patrols who detonate dynamite on avalanche prone slopes to lessen snow accumulation. However, if a critical state is present and not addressed, it can result in a cascading domino effect, where multiple systems fail in sequence. Rickards uses the example of the March 2011 Japan tsunami, in which natural and man-made complex systems failed in short sequence: major tectonic shifts, creating a tsunami which hit an under-engineered seawall, leading to total flooding and devastation for local life and infrastructure beyond it, a nuclear power plant meltdown with long term environmental consequences, and a fear-induced 20% drop in the Nikkei Stock Index.[12]

Rigid order leads to stagnation, mal-adaptation, and does uncertainty in purely chaotic environments.

Others have taken a slightly more optimistic stance on the fragility of complex systems. Analysts like John Cleveland state that complex systems should exist on the edge of chaos in order to iteratively and rapidly resolve what works and what does not.[13] Rigid order leads to stagnation, mal-adaptation and does uncertainty in purely chaotic environments. The system on the edge of chaos has elements of both autonomy aspects of swarm mentality. These autonomous units, such as a single fish swimming within a school, must be able to detect, interpret and act on information inputs received from the school. The rules which guide individuals determine how the swarm will behave, not vice versa, and figuring out how to influence the rules which guide individual agency is at the heart of the power of influence.

Under Predict, Over Deliver

Among the more burdensome issues in information operations is the notion of predictive analytics. While the sentiment of a target audience may be sampled from social media using either human statisticians or computer algorithms, we must keep in mind that there are confounding variables with this method. Questions we might ask include whether or not there is a representative cross-section of the target audience on the website, is it biased towards a particular faction or party, or are analysts improperly categorizing sentiment scores? While there are different perceptions on the viability and predictive nature of big-data analytics, experts like Michael Wu concede that given the methods involved, we cannot transform the internet into a crystal ball:

The purpose of predictive analytics is not to tell you what will happen in the future…It cannot do that. In fact, no analytics can do that. Predictive analytics can only forecast what might happen in the future, because all predictive analytics are probabilistic in nature.[14]

So, even if the Department of Defense could effectively forecast an escalating situation using big-data analytics, how likely is it that the Department would react to such an event, and in time?

One tactical exception, in the realm of predictive analytics, is using collected data to predict the location of a subject, spatio-temporally, using pattern-of-life analysis, also known as activity based intelligence.[15] Further, as the “internet-of-things” accelerates in the coming decade, the sheer multitude of sensors which will be present in the future information environment will afford the motivated hacker the opportunity to collect from their preferred sensors, be it a laptop camera, cellphone microphone or cellular connected automobile. Lastly on this point, intuitive artificial intelligence is already providing insights into the expected outcomes of events. Strangely, it doesn’t use a large sample of data which we commonly believe artificial intelligence is most adept with, but instead, it analyzes a culture’s specific decision making process, rationale and worldview in order to anticipate outcomes.[16] This method of artificial intelligence appears to act like an anthropologist, who interviews a few subjects in a tribe in order to publish ethnography on their structure and culture. The U.S. government is also making forays into the global commons where our competition operates, as noted with the Department of State’s Global Engagement Center and the Department of Defense's regional messaging programs, which include fully attributable actions and publications. While there are defined influence objectives with these types of engagements, the associated assessment methodologies are still in their nascent stages and in need of continued refinement.

Cyber Salvos

The public has recently learned about several cyber operations which had surprising physical effects. In the well-studied example of Stuxnet, Iranian nuclear engineer’s blind trust in a digital readout showing their centrifuges were “all-green” while the physical reality was all-red, is case in point of how a complex system can be destroyed before the very complacent eyes of a trusting human operator. In a more recent example, on 23 December 2015 the Prykarpattyaoblenergo power station in Ukraine was the target of an offensive cyberspace operation. The technicians lost control of their computers as hackers commandeered the controls, opened breakers and took circuits offline, plunging a quarter-million Ukrainian citizens into darkness. The hackers also took the station’s backup power offline and rewrote the firmware which controlled the electrical transformers, taking the plant’s technicians months to resolve.[17] The new reality is that cyber activities can have lasting effects even when general war is not present, occurring in the so-called gray zone. Current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford provided an assessment in a 2015 Center for New American Security forum:

“Current trends indicate any conflict in the future will be transregional, multidomain and multifunctional. When I look at information operations, cyber capabilities, space and counter-space capabilities, ballistic missile technology—they have all affected the character of the modern battlefield, and we see such capabilities fielded by both state and nonstate actors.”[18]

It would not be a stretch to say that the US must prepare for information operations-enabled effects which include physical infrastructure damage, deception, social engineering, spear phishing of essential personnel, as well as threats such as eavesdropping, data theft, and distributed denial of service.

Arrested Network Development

Technology spillage may occur due to a variety of reasons such as commercial-industrial interactions, espionage, hacking, asset loss in theater, and reverse-engineering. Regardless of the method, once the genie is out of the bottle, entities like the U.S. Department of Defense must remain attentive to a new balance and our diminishing advantage from technology now in possession of the adversary. At the heart of the matter, the Department of Defense requires access to cost-effective, yet cutting-edge computing like we see in the commercial sphere, with compressed development and accreditation timelines. To illustrate why we need more emerging software and decreased network latency increased and throughput, Tyler Cowen describes in Average is Over how two average chess players assisted by three commercial-off-the-shelf computers were able to beat both human grandmasters and chess-programmed supercomputers. He goes on to say that one could “use the tactical ingenuity of the computer to improve the strategic ingenuity of the human.”[19] This will undoubtedly be another example of emergence for military decision-making from the infantry soldier up to the flag officer.

Even before we can proceed to the testing, evaluation, and fielding of next-generation technologies though, there is a continuous struggle against the stringent software and hardware accreditation pipelines. Most would agree, including myself, that security precautions are necessary for information assurance. However, operators and leadership are essentially garrisoned behind informational redoubts, with few available to explore or engage in the “real” online information environment. By embracing practical risk tolerance in our acquisitions, we will benefit from emerging capabilities more quickly, and send a message to our adversaries that we are aggressively exercising informational power.

Cost and Effect

The concept of information operations return on investment was put forward as a challenge to the information operations community by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey at a worldwide information operations conference in 2012: “I admit to a healthy skepticism at times about [information operations]. I need to know a little bit more. About our return on investment.” This type of analysis will require the information operations community to explore effects-based cost-savings. With information operations return on investment, we should look at the return as a percentage change in target audience behavior compared to a baseline measurement, or how many dollars the Department of Defense is able to save by removing enemies from the battlefield using an information operations campaign versus a lethal one.

One outcomes-based method used by a major command was to simply measure the costs of information operations capability deployment, and then interview enemy deserters. For the sake of example, if you spent $500,000 dollars on leaflet drops, $500,000 on radio broadcasts and $500,000 on aerial loudspeakers, it would be advantageous to find out how the deserter received the message, and if they deserted due to receiving one of the allied operation’s messages, or if they surrendered under their own volition. Hypothetically, say twenty surrendered due to leaflet drops, fifteen due to radio broadcasts and ten due to aerial loudspeaker messaging. We may simply divide the cost of the activity by the number of deserters to find the most cost-effective method for removing enemy from the battlefield using Military Information Support Operations (formerly PSYOPS). In our example, costs would total $25K per leaflet surrender, $33K per radio surrender and $50K per aerial loudspeaker surrender, with the leaflet method being the most cost-effective in that particular operational environment. If the commander’s desire is to remove combatants from the battlefield, the financial costs, immediate destruction and unintended follow-on consequences of a kinetic campaign, should make an information operations campaign more attractive.

Information Operations Renaissance Required

Leonardo Da Vinci was able to conceive of the helicopter, tank, and dive suit hundreds of years before civilization had the technology to effectively engineer them. In the same vein, future scenario planning and concept development are as important as designing to specifications.

The nation that most convincingly and authentically communicates their narrative, based upon core ideals, will likely become the globe’s preeminent center of gravity.

The knowledge that emergent factors are inherent in complex systems provides strategists a backdrop for creative planning in both a conceivable near-future and an uncharted far-future. What is at stake envelops the current diplomatic, informational, military, and economic power constructs, and stress-tests the West’s foundational ideals of the rule of law, individual liberty, self-determination, and democratic elections before a global audience. To remain the leading proponent of Western ideals, the U.S. and her allies should re-imagine the content and context of this narrative, accounting for aggressive and persistent counter-messaging operations in the information environment, and not solely rely on new technological conduits. A back-to-basics campaign can be accomplished by simultaneously solidifying our grand-narrative, explicitly defining our objectives, and institutionally increasing our tolerance for risk. The nation that most convincingly and authentically communicates their narrative, based upon core ideals, will likely become the globe’s preeminent center of gravity.

Thomas Lorenzen is an Air Force civilian in the Assessments Office at the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center, and has previous experience with U.S. Department of State and the Intelligence Community. The views and opinions in this paper are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, of the United States Government.

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Header Image: U.S. Army Sgt. Nijoku Odom, intelligence analyst with 303rd Psychological Operations Company, and U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Jameson Dudley, crew master with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252, throw leaflets from a KC-130 Super Hercules over southern Afghanistan, Aug. 28, 2013. Leaflets were dropped in support of operations to defeat insurgency influence in the area. (Sgt. Demetrius Munnerlyn/U.S. Marine Corps Photo)



[1] J.F.C. Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War, Hutchinson & Co. Publishers, London, 1926. pp. 93-114

[2] Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews. The Russian Firehose of Falsehood Propaganda Model. RAND Corporation. 2016

[3] "U.S. lawmaker congratulates BBG on Russian-language TV program." 29 March 2016. Broadcasting Board of Governors. Accessed 31 October 2016.

[4] David Welna. "American Charity Backs Military Radio Station in Ukraine." National Public Radio. All Things Considered. 01 August 2016.

[5] Stephen B. Johnson. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001

[6] Peggy Holman. Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2010

[7] "Clinton Lifts GPS Barrier, Boosts Industry." 11 April 1996. Washington Technology Online. Accessed 01 June 2016.

[8] "Booby-trapped ISIL drone in deadly Iraq attack." 12 October 2016. Al Jazeera News.

[9] "ISIS Mosul Drone Attack Video." Battlefield News. 16 Nov 2016. Accessed 22 Nov 2016.

[10] Josh Kerbel. "The Complexity Challenge: The U.S. Government’s Struggle to keep up with the Times." 26 August 2016. The National Interests. Accessed 5 May 2017.

[11] David Keohane. "It’s An Extreme World. We Just Get to React To It." 11 May 2016. Financial Times. Charts by Matthew King of Citigroup Research. Figures 1,2,3. Accessed 31 May 2016.

[12] James Rickards. Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis. Chapter 10. Penguin Group. 2011. 

[13] John Cleveland. "Complex Adaptive Systems Theory." 2005. Innovation Network for Communities. Accessed 25 Oct 2016.

[14] Jeff Bertolucci. "Big Data Analytics: Descriptive vs. Predictive vs. Prescriptive." 31 December 2013. Information Week. Accessed 18 July 2016

[15] LZX. "Enabling OSINT in Activity Based Intelligence." Recorded Future. 31 August 2016. Accessed 02 September 2016.

[16] Olsher, Daniel. Integral Mind. Accessed 02 September 2016.

[17] Kim Zetter. "Inside the Cunning, Unprecedented Hack of Ukraine’s Power Grid." WIRED Online. 03 March 2016. Accessed 31 Aug 16.

[18] Jim Garamone. "Dunford Discusses Implications of Current Security Environment." 14 December 2015. DOD News. Accessed 18 November 2016

[19] Matthew Rosenberg & John Markoff. "The Pentagon’s ‘Terminator Conundrum’: Robots That Could Kill on Their Own." New York Times. 25 October 2016. Accessed 25 Oct 2016