Thursday, October 14, 2010

Strategic Questions in a Tactical World

by Carl Hunt
My adviser in graduate school, Dr. David Schum, used to tell me it was rare that someone would “ask the right questions” in critically important situations. Dave, both a George Mason University School of Law professor and School of Information Technology and Engineering professor, knows what he’s talking about. I have always admired Dave’s position on inquiry and evidence, his specialties as a law professor, epistemologist and as true philosopher. I particularly like his emphasis on asking better questions about the world(s) around us. So have several important government agencies, but that’s a story for Dave to tell.
It’s the questions, not the answers, which most guide us in strategic thinking and understanding, Dave would point out. And equally important, it is the order in which you ask questions and experience discovery through responses to those questions that help you form strategies.
From the strategies we develop, we form tactical solutions to the opportunities and dilemmas the strategies pose and learn about exploiting insights the strategies and tactics make available to us. We make strategic plans, but execute tactics. To use the soccer and hockey sports metaphors, we try not to run or skate to where the ball or puck is now, but to where it will be – that’s where strategies and tactics converge.
Such an approach to discovery and learning is perhaps what best separates man from other species. Not only do we learn, but we also learn how to learn through inquiry, strategy and tactical responses based on strategies, as we make and test predictions. Our human essence drives us to be interested in learning and discovery, nurturing our intellectual livelihoods.
Dave Schum taught me that you may not ever formulate “the right questions” but you can learn how to ask strategically important questions, and set them up to maximize discovery and learning. Hence, I’ll pose some strategically important questions that SENDS and the Science of Cyberspace seek to ask. If we get it right, these questions will “set us up” for maximum learning.
Since the SENDS Pilot has four basic tasks, I’ll use those tasks as the organizing construct for posing the inquiries. I’ll only cover the first task in today’s blog but will present the remaining three tasks at the end to help us think about questions to pose when we come back around to those tasks in future blogs.
The first of the four SENDS Pilot tasks is roughly labeled: Build and utilize advanced Models and Simulations in network defense problems. I pose the strategically important question that is at the root of this task as follows: Given the hypothesized magnitude of cyberspace, what are viable ways to visualize and leverage what takes place in this environment?
This suggests several supporting questions of course, but in the interest of space I propose that this question is effective in shaping strategy because it focuses on the challenge of visualizing and thus better understanding what takes place in the cyberspace environment, most specifically network defense problems. It suggests that it’s important to visually interact with the mechanisms of cyberspace, which we have previously discussed as exchange, self-organization and emergence (discussed here and here). It also suggests that we leverage or apply what we learn.
As posed, this question prejudices us in thinking that cyberspace is a world of great size, but that’s an observation we now accept as valid after many years of experiencing its growth. We have also learned through experience that the magnitude of cyberspace, along with its underlying complexity, compounds the challenges related to defense and security of the environment.
The deep complexity of cyberspace recommends why we propose a science-based approach to understanding cyberspace and cyberspace security. It also compounds the challenge of orienting ourselves, e.g., visualizing, what goes on in cyberspace and what we do with what we learn. Since we ask about “viable” ways to visualize cyberspace, we are not presupposing there is one “best” way. Enough on the analysis of the question…
The initial response to this “strategically important” question is: use advanced models and simulations, the root of the first SENDS task. It forms the strategic level approach and sets the condition for the proposed tactical level responses: designing agent-based models and simulations that incorporate evolution and optimization, called SENDSim in previous blogs.
Visualizing exchange, self-organization and emergence through the laboratory lens of SENDSim that Craig Harm suggested in the last blog offers us an effective way to not only address the strategically important question we raise here, but to discover other important questions the response to which drive new discovery and learning. SENDSim, as described in these blogs, offers us a lab in which we can validate and tune questions, as well as form new hypotheses about the environment of cyberspace. It also offers a highly visual medium in which to observe what takes place.
Through SENDSim, we will build a modest but reasonably faithful representation of the complexity of cyberspace (admittedly on a small scale). This model will include significant social and technical interactions that take place within several of the domains that compose cyberspace. Using an iterative design and construction process, we’ll ask questions about the interactions we simulate and discover new, perhaps more strategically important questions to ask.
This process of visually informing an evolving inquiry process will enlighten us and subsequent users of SENDSim about even better questions. We may not know the “best” or “right” questions to ask of the SENDSim tool to start with, but we will learn not only about the modeled environment but also discover better questions to ask. This is at the root of the inquiry-driven science that drives SENDS, and in fact will drive all of the SENDS Pilot tasks.
The remaining three SENDS Pilot tasks are: Prototype a Center for the Science of Cyberspace; Review and Recommend Academic Curricula; and Expand and Enhance the SENDS Consortium. We’ve discussed a bit about all but the last task already (here, here and here), but will take up those tasks in future blogs as part of the process of asking the “strategically important questions.” Stay tuned for more!

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