On Establishing a Technical Union

The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which, neither army being able to get at the other, but never being able to deliver a final and decisive attack...That is the future of war—not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the break-up of the whole social organization…Everybody will be entrenched in the next war...All wars will of necessity partake of the character of siege operations…Your soldiers may fight as they please.
—Jean de Bloch, The Future of War

War and innovation are both journeys into the unknown. A process that combines the two becomes increasingly chaotic when changing needs, changing requirements, rapidly developing available technology, and uncertainties in all domains are mixed. To handle such a system, different countries take stock of their available resources and devise strategies to maximize the advancement and impact of their technological innovations.

Compared to other nations, America has a unique culture that was defined by its early stage of nation forming. Instead of restricting chaos or letting it run amok, the American system leverages a democratic framework to realize the full creative potential that stems from chaos.[1] The founding fathers provided America an elegant blueprint of such democratic framework: The Federalist Papers, which describe the elements necessary to create a powerful union by balancing individualities and national objectives.[2] I contend The Federalist Papers can equally guide the 21st century America towards a strategy to foster technological innovation by establishing a nation-wide Technical Union.

The boundary between chaos and order is where innovation resides—growth in technological development occurs when a balance strikes between free explorations and disciplined execution. The point of balance is determined by the society’s cultural view and methods for handling unknowns and chaos.[3] The application of chaos theory, a mathematical concept used to generate a rational and systematic understanding of dynamic chaos, has been used to analyze complex systems, such as organizational behaviors, technology innovation, military strategy, and deterrence models.[4] I will use chaos theory to frame the uniqueness of the institutional characteristics of the United States and her adversaries, and thus establish an understanding of where the point of balance is struck in their respective cultures. I will borrow the general concept of chaos theory to serve as an analogy for innovation characteristics, and this is not a scientific exploration of any kind.

To simplify the analysis, we will focus on two ends of the spectrum—magnifying chaos and suppressing chaos. The intent of the chaos magnification method is to intentionally increase the number of chances to create chaos and take advantage of all the results created. This is an effective strategy when it comes to learning and building an initial understanding of an environment.[5] By maximizing learning opportunities—or chaos—a system with no predefined rules can achieve some form of its goal very quickly.

The suppression of chaos method, conversely, seeks to limit or minimize chaos by applying rules or limitations to a process to achieve more predictable and controllable outcomes. This is an effective strategy in large organizations where rules are established and generally followed.[6] In such an organization, the path of least resistance to accomplishing a goal is to carefully plan a long-term strategy and eliminate frictions that entail deviating from the main path.

The figure below shows the relative approximate positions on such a single-dimensional spectrum of the U.S. and some of her competitors. I will focus on the analysis of violent extremist organizations and China as examples within this spectrum before situating the innovation characteristics of the U.S. The scale represents the cultural characteristics of America, as well as her adversaries, in handling the chaotic process of technology innovation.

On this simplified, single-dimension model, I will focus on two examples, because they sufficiently illustrate the concept.

A spectrum illustrating innovation profiles of the U.S. and key adversaries/competitors. (Author’s Work)

A spectrum illustrating innovation profiles of the U.S. and key adversaries/competitors. (Author’s Work)

Violent extremist organizations are on the magnify chaos end of the spectrum in their approach to technology innovation. The behaviors violent extremist organizations exhibit are complex not because they have some convoluted grand strategy, but because their actions and environments are characterized by non-purposeful confluences of actors and forces that ebb and flow constantly. They might have strategic goals as simple as survival, but they could employ a network of trial tactics to achieve their simple goal in a complex environment.[7] Violent extremist organizations want to maximize the benefits of the nonlinear effects of every application of technology and minimize the penalty by having a resilient outer layer of sacrificial members of the network. They will utilize any resources they can access, combine them in accordance with the needs of the nodes within the network, and strike in any way they can. They place less emphasis on long-term planning and more emphasis on action as speed and momentum are more important than the optimization of solutions within a volatile growing space.

As mobile technology, low-cost additive 3D printers, and small robots become more readily available, violent extremist organizations have shown themselves to be extremely adaptive in creating destructive weapons in ways that are surprising to their nation-state opponents.[8] Their mostly reactionary, adaptive, flexible, and risk-tolerant method of technological innovation allows them to advance an initial growth phase rapidly. If left unchecked, these seemingly fanatic patterns of attacks could turn into coordinated, sustained, yet constantly shifting campaigns.

On the other end of the spectrum is China, whose strategy is to suppress chaos. They take pride in surprising their opponent with a well-concealed, well-prepared, perfectly-aligned strategic plan. The technology innovation preferences and unspoken rules are influenced by a long history and established culture. As indicated by the People’s Liberation Army strategic document, Unrestricted Warfare, technology development system nest within a nationwide embodied understanding of warfare, and the Chinese style of warfare tends toward achieving strategic goals with a total control and alignment across all battlespaces and all levels of leadership.[9] When confronted with a chaotic system, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party determines the best course of action, exerts a significant amount of control to eliminate unexpected variables, and makes a chaotic system as predictable and efficient as possible. Chinese Communist Party strategies play to their strengths of mobilizing an entire nation to create a relatively high degree of synergistic efforts. They are undeniably aggressive and will create the strategically aligned technology to make their opponents hand over an ocean when they are offered an inch.[10]

American Chaos

For whoever habitually suppresses the truth in the interests of tact will produce a deformity from the womb of his thought.
—B.H.L. Hart, Strategy 

To establish technology dominance, the United States needs to adapt a whole-of-nation approach. Unlike a traditional war mobilization, the fuel for this race to technology dominance is the intellect and creativity of the American people.[11] The United States needs to establish a Technical Union and effectively execute and capture the result of innovation efforts to generate wholescale strategic impact.

Directly challenged and tested by adversaries of many different characteristics, the United States can observe the successes and failures of all opponents to create a technology innovation strategy wholly of her own. The creation of such a strategy and framework requires a return to America’s founding principles. Forming a union to stand amongst unified monarchs by aligning the self-interests of small groups was a daunting and unprecedented task, and The Federalist Papers laid out genius strategic thinking to fight for the survival of the Constitution. By understanding the democratic structures set up specifically to achieve national strategic goals by combining the free creative power of small groups, perhaps insight can be gained of a methodology to create a Technical Union to establish technology dominance. I will do so by examining the problems encountered by the Founding Fathers and their solutions of handling them, and then find the parallels between the two conditions.

Alexander Hamilton (painted by John Trumbull), James Madison (painted by John Vanderlyn), and John Jay (painted by Gilbert Stuart), authors of The Federalist Papers (Wikimedia)

Alexander Hamilton (painted by John Trumbull), James Madison (painted by John Vanderlyn), and John Jay (painted by Gilbert Stuart), authors of The Federalist Papers (Wikimedia)

At a chaotic time when the government that stood for liberty faced dismantlement from naysayers from within, Alexander Hamilton began the first paragraph of the first essay in what came to be known as The Federalist Papers with a plea for the survival of a fragile democratic country: “The subject speaks its own importance, comprehending in its consequences, nothing less than the existence of the UNION.”[12] As the Constitution is threatened, Hamilton asks the people to reflect upon the type of government they want for themselves and whether they are willing to establish it with careful reflection and action. The purpose of the Constitution is to form a well-constructed union from “an assemblage of societies” such that each small state republic can enjoy “internal happiness.” However, to achieve a greater sum, each part, at times, needs to accept and balance the larger national objective with their smaller personal desires. If each individual part is optimized to its conditions and mutually strengthened by “means of association,” a balance is achieved where the union can generate strategic power to rival monarchies.[13]

However, when distinctive, though related, parts come together, the “violence of faction” between societies introduces “instability, injustice, and confusion” into public councils, which Madison describes as the “mortal disease of popular governments.”[14] Founding a union upon democracy was “a thing more ardently to be wished, than seriously to be expected.”[15] History has shown that democracy without strategy and structure leads to “vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.”[16]

To guard against this disease, Madison laid out the characteristics of a union capable of breaking and controlling violent factions. He began this process by defining faction:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.[17]

What Madison is calling faction is the societal chaotic byproduct of democracy, and he continued to evaluate the possible routes to address faction within a democratic society.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. 

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.[18]

Two methods of removing the causes of faction—with faction equivalent to what we have termed chaos—are used by other countries and organizations. Countries that control chaos by eliminating variations remove the causes of faction by destroying liberty, and organizations that magnify chaos—to a more extreme extent—give every solution the same weight.

Madison then went on to reject the path of removing the causes of faction as a viable solution for the union:

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the later will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.[19]

On the one hand, liberty is air to political life, and it cannot be eliminated simply because it produces faction and chaos. On the other hand, giving all solutions equal weight and allowing all of them to be executed is impractical for a country; individuals are prone to making decisions based on self-interest, and therefore unregulated democracy could lead to large factions violating the rights of smaller factions. The first object of the government is to protect personal and property rights of all citizens by regulating the democratic expression of ideas with wise and thoughtful guidance.

One cannot suffocate the fire that drives a nation, and one cannot let air act as an uncontrolled fuel to a forest fire. To create a longstanding and healthy democratic society, the government needs to strike a balance that drives the country forward with a sustained burn. Madison concluded that “the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”[20] The causes of chaos cannot be eliminated, but its effects can be contained and harnessed.

The liberty that breathes life into America is integral to the makeup of the nation. To prevent the chaos it generates from ripping a democratic society apart, Madison proposed a governing structure to harness the power and contain the effects of chaos. The democratic structure that America’s forefathers established continues to mature with the growth of the country, stumbling at times, but surprising the world with the ingenuity of its people at critical junctures of history.[21]


John Quincy Adams, painted by George Peter Alexander Healy (Wikimedia)

John Quincy Adams, painted by George Peter Alexander Healy (Wikimedia)

In many ways, the current military innovation ecology parallels the chaotic factious environment the founding fathers faced. Stovepiped factional efforts permeate the military technology innovation community with little strategic guidance to harness their power.[22] Total control of technological innovation, like that seen in China, will be faced with resentment from the free-spirited American innovators, and stifle the potential of what technology can provide. Equally, a complete lack of control over the innovation process—or worse yet, allowing individual desires and capitalistic interests to lead technology innovations pertinent to national security—like that found in violent extremist organizations, is strategically immature and may lead to defeat. Achieving technological dominance by deriving power from localized technical efforts is possible; but, a union that brings together the technology innovation efforts throughout the entire nation in a strategic manner needs to be formed to realize this objective.

American strategy, as established by the founding fathers, finds its power in the delicate balance between order and chaos. On the opening page of the book The American Way of War, a quote from Colonel Rehkopf from the Army War College summarizes the importance of the duality of strategy to his graduating class: “For we study strategy as a science: the application of that knowledge, is an art.”[23]

Art is what allows America to create extraordinary futures out of chaos. And art, once again, will allow America to achieve policy and military success out of science. America embraces and disciplines chaos to create strength and power. For “liberty is power,” John Quincy Adams said. “The nation blessed with the largest portion of liberty must in proportion to its numbers be the most powerful nation upon earth.”[24] An artist who begins with a vision and nurtures and disciplines the power of chaos with a lightness of being and a firmness of mind, will be rewarded with the surprise of creating something that exceeds his or her original vision at the end.

Joanne C. Lo is the CEO and founder of Elysian Labs, a military-focused organization that provides warfighters with leading edge technologies for modern warfare. Prior to founding Elysian Labs, Joanne was a Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Labs and researcher at Google ATAP and Adobe Research. She has a PhD and MS in Electrical Engineering and a BS in Biomedical Engineering.

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Header Image: Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy (Wikimedia)


[1] Russell Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of the United States Military Strategy and Policy (Indiana University Press, 1977).

[2] Alexander Hamilton; James Madison; John Jay, The Federalist (Coventry House Publishing, 2015).

[3] Scott Cuomo; Olivia Garard; Jeff Cummings; Noah Spataro, “Not Yet Openly at War, But Still Mostly at Peace,” Marine Corps Gazette, 2019.

[4] See Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2009); Ulrich Nehmzow and Keith Walker, “Quantitative Description of Robot-Environment Interaction Using Chaos Theory,” Robotics and Autonomous Systems 53 (2005): 3–4; Vincente Valle, Chaos, Complexity and Deterrence (National War College, 2000); James Quinn, “Innovation: Controlled Chaos,” Harvard Business Review (1985): 1-28; R.A. Thietart; B. Forgues, “Chaos Theory and Organization,” Organization Science 6, no. 1 (1995): 19-31; Alan Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War,” International Security 17, no 3 (1992): 59-90.

[5] Ulrich Nehmzow; Keith Walker, Quantitative Description of Robot-Environment Interaction Using Chaos Theory (Robotics and Autonomous Systems 2005, 53): 3-4.

[6] R.A. Thietart and B. Forgues, “Chaos Theory and Organization,” Organization Science 6, no 1 (1995): 19–31.

[7] Kevin D. Scott, Joint Operating Environment 2035: The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World, (Joint Chiefs of Staff Washington United States, 2016); Philip Kapusta, “The Gray Zone,” (United States Special Operations Command, 2015).

[8] Brian Flood, ISIS Still Uses Instagram to Promote Jihad and Provoke Terror Attacks, Study Says., Fox News, May 2019, https://www.foxnews.com/tech/isis-instagram-jihad-terror; Ben Watson, The Drones of ISIS, Defense One, January 2017, https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2017/01/drones-isis/134542.

[9] Paul Triolo; Elsa Kania; Graham Webster, Translation: Chinese Government Outlines AI Ambitions through 2020, https://www.newamerica.org/cybersecurity-initiative/digichina/blog/translation-chinese-government-outlines-ai-ambitions-through-2020; Qiao Liang; Wang Siangsui, Unrestricted Warfare (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House 1999).

[10] Michael Pillsbury, Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (Henry Holt and Co, 2016).

[11] Recent strategic guidance touches on these issues. For example, see The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, DC: White House, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf and Summary of the 2018 National Defense strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military's Competitive Edge., Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.

[12] Hamilton, 1.

[13] Ibid., 44.

[14] Ibid., 48.

[15] Ibid., 1.

[16] Ibid., 41.

[17] Ibid., 48.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 49.

[21] Weigley, 34.

[22] James Long, Disruptive Innovation Wins Wars. Here’s How the Army Can Get Better At It, Modern War Institute. January 2019, https://mwi.usma.edu/disruptive-innovation-wins-wars-heres-army-can-get-better and Daniel Gerstein, The Military’s Search for Innovation. The RAND blog, August 2018, https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/08/the-militarys-search-for-innovation.html.

[23] Weigley, 2.

[24] Edwin Williams, Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States, Inaugural, Annual, and Special from 1789 to 1846 (Edward Walker, 1849): 594.