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.