I've been working my way through The Wire for the past semester or so. For those who don't know, the Wire is a TV drama exploring the drug trade in Baltimore and its intersection with all the different systems that function in the city. The first season centers on a drug organization and the police unit investigating them, and the series telescopes outward from there, adding the docks, city hall, the education system, and the print media to its focus in subsequent seasons. The creator, a former cop and public school teacher in Baltimore, has a deep understanding of how all these systems interact with each other, and in particular, how the organizational dynamics of a system can impede that system's objectives. Watching the series should be worth graduate credit in both sociology and complex systems theory. (In fact, one academic journal has issued a call for papers on the series. Deadline is September!)
There are many different jumping-off points I could use from the series, but I'll focus today on a recurring pattern: Drug sellers run a highly complex organization. They switch stash-houses frequently, speak in code, and never let the top guys get anywhere near the actual drugs. Some within the police department realize this, and set up sophisticated surveillance operations to gather information about the drug sellers. But every now and then one of the "top brass" in the police department gets wind of this operation, and wonders why so much time and money are being spent to investigate a bunch of "thugs." They send down a command to send a boatload of units down to the drug area and start locking people up.
Needless to say, this works about as well as attacking a swarm of gnats with a sledgehammer. They catch a couple low-level dealers, but ruin all the intelligence they had on anyone higher up. So the investigation must start all over again.
In theoretical terms, the mistake here is attempting a blunt, simple solution to a nimble, complex problem. When you look for it, you can see this mistake in many places, from our pre-Petraeus anti-insurgency strategy in Iraq, to our federal education policy that mandates standardized tests. To truly solve a complex problem requires an approach as subtle and multifaceted as the problem itself.
A new kind of problem
16 hours ago in RRResearch