Assange, Conspiracy, and Groupthink

“Conspiracies are cognitive devices. They are able to outthink the same group of individuals acting alone Conspiracies take information about the world in which they operate (the conspiratorial environment), pass through the conspirators and then act on the result. We can see conspiracies as a type of device that has inputs (information about the environment), a computational network (the conspirators and their links to each other) and outputs (actions intending to change or maintain the environment).” — Julian Assange.

“Since a conspiracy is a type of cognitive device that acts on information acquired from its environment, distorting or restricting these inputs means acts based on them are likely to be misplaced. Programmers call this effect garbage in, garbage out. Usually the effect runs the other way; it is conspiracy that is the agent of deception and information restriction. In the US, the programmer’s aphorism is sometimes called “the Fox News effect”.” — Julian Assange

It was while reflecting this morning on these statements from Assange’s essays on conspiracy and regime change, that it suddenly occurred to me what Assange means by conspiracies being “cognitive devices,” besides being analogous to a computer network. Conspiracies as cognitive devices was already described in the pre-digital age in the term “groupthink“.

The term groupthink was apparently coined by William H. Whyte in 1952. He defined it as follows,

We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity—it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity—an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.

In 1972, Irving Janis, from a social psychology perspective, elaborated on the phenomenon of groupthink, refining the definition further,

A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.

These definitions are linked, of course. If you already believe your course of actions is right and good, there is less incentive to “realistically appraise alternative courses of action”.  The nodes of the groupthink conspiracy or consortium are not necessarily wicked men who deliberately conspire against the public, although there may be a high degree of rationalisation and self-deception involved. Whyte is to the point, really, in noting that what is expedient, in self-interested utilitarian terms, becomes easily conflated with what is right and good in the groupthink environment.

Given these definitions of groupthink (which come very close to describing Christopher Lasch’s “culture of narcissism“, too), we are provided with further insight into David Ehrenfeld’s diagnosis of our social predicament generally as he gave it in “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology“. In a subsection of this important essay entitled “The Forces of Internal Breakdown — the Misuse of Information”, Ehrenfeld observed,

One of the most serious challenges to our prevailing system is our catastrophic loss of ability to use self-criticism and feedback to correct our actions when they place us in danger or give bad results. We seem unable to look objectively at our own failures and to adjust the behavior that caused them.

This description bears on the issue of “blowback” and “revenge effect” and much of what Ehrenfeld notes here is implicated in the hysteria and pathology that has been the reactionary response to Assange and Wikileaks — killing the messenger. As long-time readers of the earlier Dark Age Blog (now The Chrysalis) also know, I’ve quoted this passage many times as being one of the best descriptions of what I understand by the term “narcissism” and the culture of narcissism. Ehrenfeld’s assessment of our situation is also a succinct contemporary elucidation of the core meaning of the myth of Narcissus and Echo. And what Ehrenfeld is describing, too, is what we would also describe as “groupthink”.

Although “groupthink” has been known and reflected upon for some time, the additional contribution and insight provided by Assange is to elaborate on this in terms of what he knows from computer technology by comparing groupthink to a computer network and being akin to a single “cognitive device”. From that new perspective afforded by taking the computer as suggestive metaphor, the vulnerabilities of groupthink conspiracies became compellingly obvious in a way that was not entirely evident or obvious to earlier theoreticians. It also suggested an instrumental approach to disrupting the functioning of groupthink conspiracies and breaking the spell of groupthink on the mind.

“First take some nails (“conspirators”) and hammer them into a board at random. Then take twine (“communication”) and loop it from nail to nail without breaking. Call the twine connecting two nails a link. Unbroken twine means it is possible to travel from any nail to any other nail via twine and intermediary nails…Information flows from conspirator to conspirator. Not every conspirator trusts or knows every other conspirator even though all are connected. Some are on the fringe of the conspiracy, others are central and communicate with many conspirators and others still may know only two conspirators but be a bridge between important sections or groupings of the conspiracy…

Conspirators are often discerning, for some trust and depend each other, while others say little. Important information flows frequently through some links, trivial information through others. So we expand our simple connected graph model to include not only links, but their “importance.”

Return to our board-and-nails analogy. Imagine a thick heavy cord between some nails and fine light thread between others. Call the importance, thickness or heaviness of a link its weight. Between conspirators that never communicate the weight is zero. The “importance” of communication passing through a link is difficult to evaluate apriori, since its true value depends on the outcome of the conspiracy. We simply say that the “importance” of communication contributes to the weight of a link in the most obvious way; the weight of a link is proportional to the amount of important communication flowing across it. Questions about conspiracies in general won’t require us to know the weight of any link, since that changes from conspiracy to conspiracy.”

This modeling of groupthink was ingenius, but was already implicitly suggested through the computer network metaphor itself, which was not available to Whyte or Janis in their time. This is one way to understand what Marshall McLuhan earlier suggested by the phrase “the medium is the message”. What comes to consciousness in Julian Assange is the latent and implicit potentialities in the new media itself, against which the older culture of literate and linear thought (McLuhan’s “Gutenberg galaxy” of typographic man) is nearly impotent to respond with anything but violence.  Assange is, so to speak, the medium become the message and the messenger, and also the stranger.

Having successfully instrumentalised his insight and tested it’s efficacy by the strategy of “mass leakage”, Assange has disabled and degraded the conspiratorial “cognitive device” to function as groupthink. What happens when the nodes (the “nails” in his analogy) can no longer trust the lines of communication that bind them together in the groupthink consortium? Groupthink begins to degrade and the ability of the conspiracy to function in groupthink mode is impeded correspondingly. When this happens, though, the “nodes” that comprise the groupthink consortium (which is often unconscious)  become disoriented within the total conspiratorial environment. Being now isolated within the total conspiratorial environment, this isolation, disorientation, and lack of direction induces anxiety and paranoia,

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”

The total conspiratorial environment is what is meant by “regime”. Regime may be not just a single state, but also what Hillary Clinton refers to as “the international community” along with its “partnerships” and “alliances”. The total conspiratorial environment is formed by the linkages in which nodes of the groupthink consortium basically serve as functionaries and auxilliaries.

The disintegration of the groupthink mentality — the authoritarian conspiracy — leads to anxiety and paranoia as each node in the conspiracy now feels cut off, isolated, and directionless from the total environment. This is, at one and the same time, a sense of loss and disorientation, but also a liberation — an opening — from the total conspiratorial environment and the constraints of groupthink. For many, this opening to the unknown is uncomfortable. The key word here is nonlinearity: “secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems”. And although disruption and degradation of the groupthink mentality gives rise to anxiety and paranoia (much in evidence today in fact), it is also an opening towards the possibilities of self-realization,

“Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.”

This is key: groupthink is always vulnerable to the self-realised consciousness, which comes as a stranger (and Assange has been described in all the old language as a “traitor” or a “transnational threat”, etc). This fear of the self-realised is what informed the German nationalist Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s programme for a modern education:

If you want to influence him at all, you must do more than merely talk to him ; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than you wish him to will. (Addresses to the German Nation: “The General Nature of the New Education”)

That is, I think, the essence of groupthink, and the rationale for the authoritarian regulation and control of information (perception management). In effect, public education (which Jacques Ellul called “pre-propaganda” and propaganda is but mass education) is the prevention and pre-emption of authentic self-realisation. (The logic of Fichte’s programme, however, is simply compelling if you begin with the assumption that the mind is initially tabula rasa). What is promoted and encouraged as “self-interest” is a surrogate, inauthentic, and distorted form of self-realisation — narcissism (whether we call this ego-centrism, ideo-centrism, ethno-centrism, logo-centrism, anthropocentrism) they all amount to a deformed and defective form of association called “groupthink”.

And groupthink is what happens when real and genuine social dialogue is suppressed by a one-sided and imperious propaganda.

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9 responses to “Assange, Conspiracy, and Groupthink”

  1. amothman says :

    It is the same old battle ,just and unjust ,liars and truth-tellers…etc, repeated over many cycles, I feel our cycle is the most revealing, the most wonderful and the most ecliptic. We oftentime anchor our vision on the visions of similiar others , forgeting that there are divine visions , this remind me of a sufi saying; you have taken your knowledge from those who die ,while we have taken it from that who never die,the source that he is not begotten nor he begets.The universe is programmed on the pull and push of thoughts.The move is from the divine computer to the man computer, not otherwise,this the lie!!man computer is a god revelation not a human invention.The creative process is built in the human.The universe is designed on truth revelation, who have expected that one speaking the truth make all this commotion.If it is not for God to make people push and motivate each other the earth get stale and deteriote.it is not physical push ,it is thoughts push.The entropy of badness is a must of the God.

  2. Scott says :

    you have taken your knowledge from those who die ,while we have taken it from that who never die

    That’s a very interesting saying.

    The universe is programmed on the pull and push of thoughts.

    We would say here, the drawn and the driven. The drawn feel a sense of appointment or calling — a sense of destiny. The driven only feel the devil’s lash on their backs. Rosenstock-Huessy once wrote that one of the errors of early modernity was to place God in the past as prime mover, architect, clockmaker, etc. On the contrary, he said, God is an appointment we have with the future, not the past. God is what is waiting for us at the end of time (which is eternity). This is the difference between those who feel the “pull” or the “push”, or the drawn and the driven. Love draws, guilt drives.

  3. amothman says :

    Beautiful interpretation.

    • amothman says :

      Those who instinctly and rationaly driven and those whe spiritually drawn.

      • Scott Preston says :

        As he is nakeding himself he is nakeding the environment around him.What a horrifying scene!!

        The English word you might be looking for is “denuding” (or perhaps de-vastating or “making waste”) and yes… quite right. The outward circumstance (which some call “environment”) reflects and mirrors the inward condition or predilection, which inward condition or predilection some call “soul”. The linkage between this outward mirroring and the inward predilection is the dynamic called “intent” or “intentionality”. This dynamic is not quite the same as what we call “will”. Will is only, itself, a manifestation of intent, which is not personal (ie, not “volitional”). Intentionality is largely an unconscious “an – othering” in the sense that intentionality is the act by which consciousness constructs its own object of consciousness or constitutes something as an “it” or “other”. This is the root of dualistic thinking, which is illusory. There is no “it” per se. Everything is a transaction within the unitary field of consciousness or awareness itself, including dualistic thinking, which divides Being against itself in two modes of subjective and objective. This is what I’ve called “wounded Being” – dualistic thinking produces a radical incision — a vivisection — into the unity of life and at the same time divides itself between “mind” and “body” or “self” and “other” or “man” and “nature” and so on. It produces a radical antagonism and competition between elements that are actually complementary. This wound in the body of Being, produced by dualistic thinking, is called “dukkha” in Buddhist throught — suffering or dis-ease.

  4. Scott says :

    As an addendum to the article, you might want to read this intro to the recent TomDispatch, which provides some indication, I think, of the heightened irrational anxiety and paranoia that Assange has aroused — the very thing he actually anticipated (and quite possibly intended) as the response of conspiracy to the rupture of the communication channels of conspiracy (or groupthink) itself.

    I’m impressed by some of the material I’ve read by Tom Engelhardt and others on TomDispatch. I’m going to link to it on the “blogroll” on the homepage.

  5. amothman says :

    No wonder the first islamic doctrine is oneness,that is to be aware of oneness. Once you loose this unitary field,you get lost in diversity.I like the way you express yourself, you have been given, as the sufis say ,the revelatory expressive faculty.I read about the hysterical phobia of those who have lost their unitary vision, I am not surprised,it is expected, liars always horrify themselves.Yes the word i am looking is denuding, killing trees is exactly like killing people ,those who have deforested the Earth are of the same mold of those who are calling for killing Assange.

    • Scott says :

      I think there is also something here of what Jean Gebser identified as the breakdown of perspective perception or “deficient rationality”, which continues to be unrecognised especially by those who are breaking down, as it were. This is why I think Tom Engelhardt’s introductory essay (in the link I posted to in the comment above) is interesting. He’s not the only one to have noted the peculiar Stalinist (out of sight, out of mind) or autocratic response of the late modern state to contemporary events (particulary, now, the Assange Affair). This indicates, to me, a confirmation of Gebser’s analysis — the breakdown of perspective consciousness (or, optionally, perspectivising perception). This is also, I think, connected with David Ehrenfeld’s essay on “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology”, which also seems to point to the breakdown of perspective perception, with a concomitant rise in mass anxiety and paranoia as the old horizons of meaning established through perspective perception fade away (Nietzsche once talked about how our horizons were being sponged away).

      This breakdown is ambiguous, as all crisis is ambiguous being both peril and opportunity. The old must pass away so the new can be born. And so this crisis of our time can be understood as a decisive confrontation between past and future, old and new. And nothing presently exemplifies this better than Wikileaks and Julian Assange versus “the international community”, so-called, the response to which has become nearly hysterical.

      We might say, in McLuhanesque terms, that this clash between the old and new is the confrontation between “Typographical Man” (Gebser’s mental-rational or perspectivising structure of consciousness now in “deficient mode”) and Digital Man — or between the narrow nationalistic or partisan soul and the global soul, or between the decayed residuaa of the mental-rational consciousness and the incipient and emergent integral consciousness. But by whatever terms we use to describe it, it is basically an incipient clash between past and future, or old consciousness and new consciousness. But since consciousness is unitary and one, as being is unitary and one, this clash is actually a transformation or mutation in the total field of awareness itself. This is why Gebser uses the term “irruption” to describe the emergence of the new integralist or aperspectival structure of consciousness in our time.

      You can see much of this old perspectivating consciousness and perception still at work in the media commentaries on Assange. Is he a left wing anarchist? Is he right-wing libertarian? The new type is a mystery and a near imponderable to the old thinking — a kind of Rorschach inkblot into which and upon which they project all the old familiar landmarks and so attempt to bring that one into their familiar horizons and cognitive maps. But this is something different, which is why it has aroused the utmost nervousness and anxieties to the point of pathological paranoia.

      What comes together in Assange — still incompletely and imperfectly, but incipiently — is our future, for which reason he has become a lightning rod for the conflicts of the present, such as “culture war”.

  6. Scott says :

    By the way, for those that might be interested, Alex Carey’s book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy is available on google books, with an introduction by Noam Chomsky.

    Carey was an Australian, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Assange was familiar with this book in particular. In any event, it provides some background to what Assange probably understands by “authoritarian conspiracy”. Although I’ve heard much of Alex Carey, I’ve never gotten around to reading his book until now. You might find it useful to peruse Chomsky’s introduction and a few of Carey’s essays here to get a better sense for Assange’s concerns.

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