One of our blog visitors, Nate Wright, posted an interesting response to my recent review of Sherry Turkle’s Book, Simulation and its Discontents. I’ll quote it at length, since it really bears thinking about:
It seems to me that you’ve left out the most important problem with “social simulation”: the relationship between those who construct the simulation and those who are represented within it. You’ve pointed out some of the general problems of simulation: that the abstraction hides complexity, that it can produce a reliance on simulation-based expectations, that it reflects the assumptions of the creator. But this last problem — the assumptions of the creator – is much more serious in the case of “social simulation”, and it can not be mediated by debriefing or pointing out the failures of the simulation.
It’s the problem of the invisible subject, which is what the simulation is intended to make visible all along. It is precisely the problem that simulation never encounters which undermines it, because to do so would be to undermine its very raison d’être. But establishing knowledge always seeks a certain compliance as well, an ordering. Of course, I’m not suggesting we forgo knowledge. The now ubiquitous maxim that knowledge is power is not, in the end, a call to abandon knowledge. But it is a call to examine those assumptions which underpin our knowledge.
I realize that you’re a fan of simulation (I am at your blog, after all). I’m not suggesting that simulation is all bad. But I don’t think there’s any getting around the core component of mastery that any simulation entails. To run the simulation — whether “human-moderated” or not (computer programs are still human-designed) — necessarily requires the position of a master who can set the rules and determine the outcomes. And this is what frightens me.
If we take this sense of mastery and place it into the relationships between those constructing the simulation and those being represented in the simulation, I think we end up relying on the existence of some kind of complete, internally coherent system. Conflict situations, however, usually involve the collapse of this kind of common or public institutional consistency. Lacking that central component of our form of knowledge, will we go about trying to impose it upon the situation, seeking order where we only see disorder, stable coherent actors where there are only porous networks?
And given that simulation is primarily a practice of the wealthy — whether militaries or NGOs — shouldn’t we be more concerned about developing a sense of mastery over the relationships we develop with those we’re trying to help? I guess I’m asking whether simulation risks turning “peace-building” into an objective-driven system of pacification.
I think Nate is correctly pointing to two potential (and interrelated) dangers of simulation in the peacebuilding and development world. First, might not such a training mechanism engender a false sense of confidence, a belief that one understands the (post-conflict) system well enough to engage in effective social engineering? Second, might not that belief encourage outsiders—states, aid agencies, multilaterals, NGOs—from assuming a hegemonic position, a donor-knows-best attitude that overpowers the wishes, hopes, and local knowledge of the actual citizens and government of the country concerned?
I’m not sure that simulation-based training is ever such a large part of training and education for current or potential professionals in this field that it is ever a major contributing factor to this. However, it might exacerbate such tendencies to the extent that they are already built in to our theories, standard operating procedures, and conventional wisdoms. Universities have been justly accused of ivory towerism, while donors, the IFIs, the UN specialized agencies, and others have often been rightly criticized for a somewhat imperial attitude they sometimes bring to their work. The iconic image for this, of course, is that shiny fleet of new white Toyota land cruisers that always descends on a disaster- or conflicted-affected country when the international community decides to get engaged.
That having been said, I think there is a potentially very valuable role for simulation-based training to play not as an inculcator of false pride, confidence, and certainty, but rather in providing an appreciation for how damn complicated and messy all of this is. I know in my own classroom, I use simulations precisely to break down the sense (so easily acquired from readings and course texts) that we really deeply understand how to resolve conflicts and achieve sustainable development in fragile and conflicted-affected states. A simulation provides an opportunity to highlight the incomplete information, the difficult moral and technical choices, the many (sometimes hidden) agendas, and the fog-of-war (and peace). To borrow Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s famous comment on war, no development plan plan survives first contact with reality—which doesn’t obviate the need for good planning, but also requires a healthy skepticism about how much you can actually plan for. I would much prefer that students come away with a sense that the process is much more akin to white-water kayaking down an unknown river a dysfunctional canoe (that is, badly equipped and with colleagues sometimes rowing in different directions) than it is to, say, chess.
Or, to go back to the iconic image, an international aid system that is often rather more like this:
Thoughts from others, perhaps?