Thursday, January 25, 2007


No, I'm not just trying to be clever. Okay, I am trying to be clever, but there's a real point to the title. It's the insider nickname for the Army War College. What's it mean? Well, I'm sure that you'll all be surprised to discover that VUCA is an acronym (what is it with the Army and its fondness for acronyms, anyway?). VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. The AWC (damn, now I'm doing it, too) uses this as a model, developed by some very smart social scientists, for viewing the world. As you might expect, the Army sees VUCA as something of a bad thing; the central mission of the War College, then, is to teach senior officers how to reduce VUCA, how to strive for stability, certainty, simplicity, and clarity.

Now I know that I'm sometimes critical of the Army's attempts to shoehorn hugely complex issues into a nice, easy-to-remember acronym and then pretend as if everything is all solved. But in this case, VUCA strikes me as a pretty decent rule-of-thumb. Indeed, it seems to me that pretty much any sufficiently large entity (a state, a military, the market, a large business, a big university) will be fundamentally characterized by VUCA. And most of us do, in fact, spend our lives trying to find some way to reduce VUCA. What, after all, does a mutual fund manager do if not try to find some way to see through the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the market so as to find the best investments?

There is, however, a drawback to this sort of quest. It's possible to be blinded by one's certainty, to be lulled by a false, over-simplified sort of clarity, to long for a stability that is ultimately crippling. Religious fundamentalism is one such example. Communist totalitarianism is another. Ethnic cleansing is a third. And no, in offering these examples together, I'm not trying to say that all are equivalent wrongs. My point is merely that each is driven by the same sort of over-reaction to VUCA.

There is, however, another option, and it is, at first blush, pretty counter-intuitive. That option requires accepting that, in civil society, there is much that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, and designing institutions that reflect that sort of uncertainty and complexity and ambiguity. It's very difficult to know, for instance, whether too much violence on TV really does harm children, whether abortion really is murder, whether homosexuality is a good thing or a bad thing on balance, or whether smoking pot is better or worse for you than eating a bacon double cheeseburger. People genuinely disagree about such things. Worse still, in some cases, there isn't any way to empirically demonstrate a conclusive answer. (How, for instance, could one ever answer that last question comparing pot to the bacon double cheeseburger? The answer will entirely depend upon what kinds of things we think actually count as making something worse. And that isn't the sort of question about which we can get an empirical answer.)

So what do we do in the face of genuine, possibly irreducible VUCA? We could retreat to an artificial certainty (Marx says this is true and those who don't agree are just blinded by their bourgeois capitalist worldview). Or, and this is a harder option, we could simply agree to disagree. We could have states that remain neutral on questions about which there is genuine VUCA.

That's an option that doesn't appeal much to some people. At least one (in)famous study shows a correlation between liberalism and a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. (Idle speculation warning: Could this be why Army officers tend to be far more conservative than a the civilian population? If the Army stresses overcoming VUCA, then people who are inclined toward political conservatism will likely find the Army far more hospitable.)

There's obviously far more to be said here. Liberals can (and often do) complain that conservatives are insensitive to the extent to which some ambiguity and uncertainty can't (and perhaps shouldn't) be reduced. Conservatives can (and often do) complain that liberals fail to understand that some ambiguity and uncertainty can (and perhaps should) be reduced. Conservatives who rail against equal rights for homosexuals are guilty of oversimplifying the world. Liberals who excuse terrorism are guilty of undersimplifying it.

I'm not really sure what to make of this. Just some random observations here. Maybe I'll think more about what they mean in a later post. Unless I get distracted by something shiny.


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