Guy's Welcome and Philosophical Introduction to the MOOS

Guy M. Burgess

Heidi Burgess

March, 2017



This is Guy's video introduction to the MOOS project that explains its history and the philosophy behind it, as well as a little bit about how to use it.  It is a companion video to Heidi's "Nuts and Bolts" Introduction, which explains how the MOOS works, and both of those are supplemented by a third video on  Using the MOOS.

Full Transcript

Hi this is Guy Burgess. I'd like to welcome you to the Moving Beyond Intractability Massive Open Online seminar series.  Heidi and I have been working over the last couple of years to put this together and Heidi has a separate video with her welcome to this effort.

More About This Seminar

What I want to do here is try to give you an overview of the rationale behind the project, as well as kind of a quick preview of what to expect.

First of all, this is an outgrowth of the 30-year effort at the Conflict Information Consortium here the University of Colorado to explore intractable conflict.  To give you some sense of what we mean by this, you can go back to a simple idea—that put forward in Getting to Yes – particularly interest-based bargaining and win-win solutions.

We decided years ago to focus on conflicts that resist the best agreement-based dispute resolution processes. That is, what we wanted to focus on were conflicts that were inevitably zero-sum, inevitably win-lose conflicts for which there were no win-win solutions. We also decided we wanted to focus on very large-scale conflicts -- not the sort of three-person triad situations with party A, party B, and a mediator.  We were much more interested in the kind of conflicts that involve a large city with 3 million people, or small countries with 30 million people, etc.  You can see from this chart that this is like six orders of magnitude bigger than your standard mediation triad. Just by comparison, conventional weapons are only four orders of magnitude smaller than nuclear weapons. So six orders of magnitude is a big difference!

We also wanted to look at psychological complexity.  There's a notion that a lot of the original conflict resolution theory was based on which was the rational model of human decision-making. The assumption was that if you can prove that the benefits of an agreement are better than the cost of the conflict, then people will agree to resolve the conflict.  But it turns out that the way people think is far more complex. We are just starting to understand this from current advances in neuroscience and related fields.  One of the things we want to look at with these seminars is the real psychological complexity of the way people think and try to come up with some strategies for dealing with conflict that reflect that.

There is also social complexity. The thing about society that makes it so difficult is that are literally millions of independent actors each making their own decisions through these complex psychological mechanisms to pursue their own self-interest however they chose to define it.  Now, traditionally there has been this illusion in the world of policymaking and diplomacy that if you get come up with the right strategy--it is a bit like the perfect pool shot-- that if you could just do it just right--all the balls would land in the pocket just the way that you want.  But the thing about social complexity is that it's like a game with a zillion pool balls and a lot of people striking their cue balls at the same time! So as you're trying to change something, everything else is changing as well. So what we need and what the focus of these seminars is going to be is on strategies for more constructively handling these kinds of situations.

The other thing I should be clear about is that this is a United States-based project. And while there lots of good ideas embodied in the materials that we plan to present, we realize that there's a lot that we don't know. We are also uncomfortable, and I've always been a bit uncomfortable, about folks from the United States going around the world telling the world how to solve its conflict problems when, as is becoming increasingly clear, we are pretty bad at solving our own problems! So we offer this seminar in the spirit of collaborative learning and cross-fertilization and a fair amount of humility.

We are going to start by focusing on the problems of increasing polarization in the United States and look at problems in our own backyard and see where that takes us. So for example in this chart, which is the kind of thing were going to be presenting over the course of the semester, you can see that the United States has been sliding in ever increasing polarization. And with the election of Donald Trump, that polarization has gone even further, and that's getting to be really scary.  On the one hand you have Trump supporters -- folks who felt that they were left behind by the old order, by the cosmopolitan elites and they like to be on the winning side for once, and maybe not be forgotten.   But on the left, you've got these enormous anti-Trump resistance movements that in some way parallels the Tea Party which was an anti-Obama resistance movement. The conflict between these groups is escalating in a way that's pretty scary.

But the other thing to keep in mind is that this isn't just a conflict between progressive and conservative positions on very public policy issues. We are getting to the point where we are really starting to look at the potential for catastrophic, perfect-storm conflicts. The “neoliberal world order” that defined the last half century seems to be breaking down and there are some pretty scary scenarios that would get us closer to a kind of 1984 dystopia updated to 2024 technology! And there are also some very scary scenarios about major superpower confrontations with China and Russia that we think we really need to address.

It's also clear that our problems dealing with intractable conflict are paralyzing our ability to deal with other problems-- climate change or infectious disease or a whole range of other things. So, our sense is that the intractable conflict problem is what we call a climate change-class problem.  That is, it is an initially largely unrecognized problem that poses grave threats to humanity that will take decades of sustained high-level effort to address. That's what the IPC --the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got a Nobel Prize for –for drawing people's attention to the climate change issue. We need somebody to do the same sort of thing for conflict and this is just our own humble little effort to try to push things along in that direction.

I've always like the quote from Apollo 13 that “failure is not an option.” When we think about these dystopian super-storm situations that I just mentioned—well, we really don't want that kind of thing to happen! So we have to take this very seriously!  Eldridge Cleaver’s line applies well here too: “if you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem.”

But it's not enough to fight harder. We have to also fight smarter.  That means we need to beware of the “primal scream syndrome” where we just scream “I don't like this! It's unjust!”  You have to come up with other ideas--ideas that work. But there are no quick and easy solutions. It is time for some very serious thinking.

That's why we structured this as a seminar that will play out over a series of months and hopefully we will get a lot of people thinking about this--not because there's a simple solution that were trying to convey--but rather a set of ideas and tough problems.

So this is a time for peacebuilders who have been spending a lot of time over the last several decades telling folks in other countries how they can deal with their deeply- divided societies to start applying what they know to the United States. It's also a time to address the concerns of the peacebuilding and conflict resolution field’s skeptics and cynics. The sort of simple “Kumbaya-love-each-other” naïve utopian vision just doesn't stand up.  We have to be ready to really address the hard problems.

The good news is that there are lots of efforts going on to advance the frontier of the conflict field. For example, the Alliance for Peacebuilding's been working through a series of reports entitled “Peacebuilding 2.0, and 3.0… There have been lots of efforts to deal with scale, complexity, and what is called in a lot of circles “wicked problems,” and that’s really what they are!

And as we do this we need to be careful not to focus on just reinventing the wheel again and again and again. There is a lot that we know about how to deal with conflict and we have to build on that. So instead of just reinventing the wheel--we can follow this metaphor a bit—we can start inventing maglev trains and that sort of thing!  

In order to be able to do that, we need to build a “learning curve accelerator” because the speed with which people learn more constructive approaches to conflict over the course of their lives just isn't fast enough to deal with today's tough problems. So somehow or another we need a new learning paradigm, one that will speed our understanding of these kinds of problems. 

What we're trying to do with this project is to extend the reach of massive open online courses—which freely make educational opportunities available to huge numbers of people worldwide.  But instead of having to be of course, with a fixed body of knowledge where students take a test and get a certificate, we want it to be a seminar with very in-depth consideration and discussion of frontier-of-the-field issues that we think that the problem really demands. 

As we do this, we want to take into account the fact that everybody is very, very busy. We really generally don't have time to participate in semester-long seminars.  So we are trying to figure out how we can squeeze this kind of learning into everyday life.  And the trick that were going to try to do is to integrate this into the social-networking framework.  So we are going produce a lot of short posts--several a day--that might take 10 minutes or may be a little more, often a lot less, to raise some interesting ideas.  Then we are going to distribute them on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. You can get them on the Beyond Intractability website--and there will be an option for getting a weekly digest by email as well.

The ideas that we plan to present in the seminars come from the knowledge-base projects and our reflections on those projects. They also come from the teaching that we've been doing over the years at the George Mason University, the University of Colorado and some at the University of Denver. The thing that's different about the way that we've approach teaching from a lot of other instructors is that we haven't taken an academic focus, but instead, what we are trying to do is to present a series of very complex ideas in ways that are generally understandable by broad audiences, including introductory college students, for example.  But our information is also very practically useful.  So it is not academics for the sake of academics--it always has a practical component to it. We are big fans of Kurt Lewin's famous line, “there's nothing so practical, or for that matter, so widely adaptable as a good theory.” We are not going to be talking about a cookbook of “do this, do this, do that,” but rather, we will try to help people understand a series of general principles that they can follow and adapt to their particular conflict situations. We think this is vastly more useful!

We are also structuring this to serve a lot of different audiences. One audience we hope to serve are students.  They are at the stage of their lives were they get to spend years focusing on some tough problems—and they are likely never going to get a chance to do that again! We hope that many students will take the time to participate.

But this is also designed to provide information for citizens--and especially activists and advocates on one side or the other and folks who work as conflict resolution practitioners--intermediaries in one way or another.

We also would like to extend an invitation to people who have some real in-depth understanding of some aspect of the problem we’ll be discussing to work with us in this framework to try to advance the frontier of the field a little more.  At any rate, you are ALL invited to join us. There's more information on the website. There lots of different ways to participate and we hope you find it helpful and let us know any ideas you have for improving it.  Thanks!

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