Those damn unconnected dots again (rough draft)

An article in the Times, under the headline “Obama Says Plot Could Have Been Disrupted,” reprises the metaphor of “connecting the dots” to describe different pieces of information having been in different heads, but never getting put together in one head that could make sense of them.

It is reassuring that Obama’s speaking bluntly about organizational performance rather than riding roughshod over the constitution, but, as argued in an earlier piece (“Mind the Gap“), the idea that it’s a simple problem of dot connecting is a basic misconception.

How do you hear “connect the dots”?  One version is reminiscent of a detective show or Agatha Christie novel; the challenge is to assemble hints — pieces of information that, alone, are not conclusive proof of anything — in such a way that the “answer” emerges as a sort of logical necessity.  The “logic” is in the mind of the beholder, but that’s all.

A different version is reminiscent of the we draw lines between stars and come up with “constellations.”  Two things are important.  One, the stars are not really next to one another — the viewer is the one who sees them as points on a plane and interpolates and extrapolates the other vertices of the figure.  Two, there’s no there there — the crab in cancer or the warrior in Orion has to be brought to the observation by us.

The first requires us to have all the pieces on the table and be open to what they “tell us” when seen together.  The challenge for intelligence agencies is to put the information from various sources onto the same table.

The second requires us to decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore (left), how to connect and not connect (middle), and what to add that’s not there (right).

If we increase the degree of information sharing we fill up our field of view with more and more points and the dots get harder and harder to connect.

On the other hand, if we ask the different agencies to filter the information then we are back in hot water because none of them know what they are looking for.

The president was furious about the failure of the system to see “the red flags” and intelligence agencies are reported to have said that the information they had was “vague but available.”  The problem is that flags are not, in general, a priori red.  Presumably, some smart people are thinking about how systems see and things like that; hopefully, they don’t just think of it as “connect the dots.”

We observe with some irony that the actual policy response to the problem — at least the response that’s been announced — is in fact to gather more information via increased screening.

Oh, and if we look up “connect the dots” in Wikipedia you get a short article about a children’s game. It bears a Wiki-warning: “This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards.”

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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