Discover more from Subconscious
Tools for thought in your OODA loop
The unreasonable effectiveness of getting oriented
How does a fighter pilot win a dogfight? If you’re the world’s best dogfighter, you do it like this:
Observe: sense your environment
Orient: make sense of your senses by constructing a world-model
Decide: translate your model into a plan
Act: do something to effect a change
…Your actions cause direct changes to your environment, and ripple effects too. This feeds back into observation. A loop.
There are other loops in this diagram, too. Your mental model—how you orient—effects what you observe, and how you act. Through Boyd’s lens, we begin to see a dogfight as a cybernetic system.
Boyd developed the OODA loop framework to explain how fighter pilots win in a conflict. He drew from many unexpected sources—cybernetics, eastern philosophy, cognitive science, game theory, physics. The resulting framework turns out to have broad applicability beyond conflict. It’s no accident, for example, that the OODA loop is almost identical to the sense-plan-act loop of the robotic paradigm.
What we’re looking at is a general model for how an organism dances within its environment. The OODA loop is a framework for agency.
For Boyd, the most important factor for survival is your sense-making system. This is the thing that keeps you oriented. There’s a reason that “orient” is the biggest circle on the OODA diagram. We survive by making sense.
Orientation is an ancient idea, embodied in the concept of mindfulness, but it is as modern as fighter pilots, who talk about maintaining “situation awareness.” What this emphasis on orientation does is make conflict into a learning contest to better maintain awareness of the world.
(Richards, 2012. “Boyd’s OODA Loop”)
When orientation breaks down—when you are disoriented—you lose your agency. Your model is wrong. You pay attention to the wrong things, your actions stop making sense, you flail.
In a dogfight, a pilot will try to disorient the adversary through “fast transients”, acting with unexpected tempo shifts, at faster timescales than the opponent.
Idea of fast transients suggests that, in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries—or, better yet, get inside adversary’s Observation–Orientation–Decision–Action time cycle or loop. Why? Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries—since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing as well as faster transient rhythm or patterns they are competing against.
(Boyd, 1981. Patterns of Conflict)
By maintaining better awareness, one can create opportunities to act in ways that opponents will see as highly irregular and disorienting. Boyd based much of his strategy on one of these, Sun Tzu’s “cheng ch’i”.
(Richards, 2012. “Boyd’s OODA Loop”)
The timescale at which you can make sense is the timescale in which you have agency. When something acts faster than you can make sense of it, it gets into your OODA loop. It unravels your ability to orient to what’s happening to you.
If it gets into your OODA loop, it’s game over. This insight goes way beyond player-vs-player conflict. Anything can get into your OODA loop. The environment can get into your OODA loop.
Remember the period immediately after 2016, The Great Weirding? That sense of dislocation was reality getting into the OODA loop of our institutions. All of us depend on institutions as part of our sense-making system, and so, to varying degrees, we all became disoriented. Remember the early stages of COVID, all those explanations of the human inability to intuit exponential processes? A virus got into civilization’s OODA loop.
To maintain agency, an organism must orient to the tempo of its environment.
The mystery of life isn't a problem to solve, but a reality to experience. A process that cannot be understood by stopping it. We must move with the flow of the process. We must join it.
The tempo of our environment has accelerated. We’ve hit an information scaling threshold, and the internet has gotten into everyone’s OODA loop.
From Thinking Together:
The internet has massively increased the complexity of our information environment, but hasn’t yet produced the tools to make sense of it. Old forms of social sensemaking—institutions, universities, democracy, tradition—all seem to be DDOS’d by the new information environment. They can’t keep up!
The cost of forking realities has dropped below the Coasean floor, and there’s little incentive to merge realities. We fractally fragment understandings, then algorithmically amplify the confusion to maximize engagement. The most effective coordination mechanisms left seem to be memes and conspiracy theories.
Philosopher Paul Tillich posits that when social sensemaking fails to keep up with reality, we experience it as a kind of mass neurosis. Everybody has a crisis of meaning at the same time. Life stops making sense.
To have agency in this new environment, we must construct sense-making systems that can orient at the speed of the network. We must move with the flow of the process.
It's the law of requisite variety, which says that if you want to make sense of a complex world, you've got to have an internal system that is equally complex.
(Weick, 1996, Complicate Yourself)
Tools for thought are tools for orientation. They’re the big circle in the OODA diagram. A tool for thought…
Expands your awareness. The more you sense, the broader your ability to orient in your environment.
Broadens the surface area for luck to strike, by collecting stepping stones that expand your adjacent possible.
Evolves the complexity of your world-model. The bigger the memes, the complex-er your thoughts.
There is too much complexity out there for one brain to handle. It’s time to build a second brain. Tools for thought give us the requisite variety for agency in complex environments.
Better yet, we can share our second brains, combine insights, expand our ability to orient together.
That’s what we’re building toward. Subconscious is a tool for thought. It’s enchanted with AI agents that help you orient, and powered by Noosphere, a worldwide decentralized knowledge graph. Share your thoughts, follow others. Every follow is a new synapse in your second brain.
Come join the Subconscious Discord community.