The secret to all victory lies in the organisation of the non-obvious: Marcus Aurelius
What is the connection between ambient music producer Brian Eno, and the tactics of ideologically motivated groups like Islamic State? And what exactly is the guy with the laptop at a trendy café actually doing? Is he running a company, working on his dissertation, or crowdsourcing a headline grabbing atrocity? In the course of my doctoral research I have identified and defined what I term "ambient practice" and proposed that a subtle and not well understood cultural influence has radically altered the ways society organises, communicates and instigates change and major paradigm shifts. This in turn has profound implications for how we think about and prosecute warfare.
When used as an adjective "ambient" denotes an approach that draws upon the peripheral and the ubiquitous, to influence us in ways that may not be particularly explicit or conscious. Brian Eno saw ambient music as being a bit like a tapestry – you can engage with it explicitly, you can walk past it and notice it, or you may hardly notice it at all. It is a "surrounding atmosphere….a tint…" as he put it. However on some level it registers. Terms like "ambient media", "ambient organisations", "ambient awareness" and even "ambient stress" have become common. It is my contention that they are elements of "ambient practice" and that this is a coherent methodology that has the power to usurp any paradigm.
For example "ambient organisations" eschew recognised structures and geographic locations and are often no more than people with laptops connected to the internet. They are highly mobile and adaptable. A good example is Islamic State, or ISIS. Whilst they have suffered vast setbacks on the real world battle field, in cyber space they have been extremely effective in challenging the dominant Western paradigm. Traditionally terrorist organisations recruited members, trained them in a particular location, obtained the required ordnance, made plans and then executed them. This approach made them vulnerable to detection and elimination prior to the successful completion of their mission. Islamic State's cyber approach avoids this pitfall by leveraging a very successful internet based tactic, essentially "crowdsourcing" terror. They provide impetus and some generalised guidelines, and then put it "out there" on the internet where marginalised people who may not have any explicit link to the organisation undertake ad hoc terrorist activities in their name. Islamic State also use seemingly counter intuitive "ambient media" tactics to target their audience. "Ambient media" is a marketing technique whereby something is placed in the ubiquitous and peripheral lived environments in such a way as to attract a non-usual interaction which may resonate on an emotional level quite differently to conventional advertising. Some Western analysts were baffled by pictures of cats placed next to scenes of extreme battlefield violence. Some suggested that this was an ironic take on the internet cat meme phenomenon. Islamic literature however indicates that Mohammed was definitely a cat man. A cat pictured in a context presented as Jihadist in its intent sends a message that resonates with an audience connected to a very primal iteration of Islam, which is exactly the target demographic for a successful Islamic State marketing campaign. The finest advertising minds in the West would struggle to deliver such an elegantly simple but effective "ambient media" outcome.
These simple but effective tactics have made Islamic State the most recognised, feared and "successful" terror "brand" on the planet, and underscore the power "ambient organisations" can leverage, and how difficult they are to counter. As an exercise in marketing it is the success story of our times.
The United Sates election provided another salient example of the power of "ambient practice" via the lateral use of "ambient media" by another "ambient organisation" – the 'Alt Right'. Dedicated "Alt Right" online activists not only challenged the dominant narrative, but successfully inserted their chosen terminology and narrative. They took great delight in spreading "fake news", and swamping the internet with provocative memes. Legacy news outlets were at times made to look ridiculous when they fell for "fake news" trolling, and struggled to understand the counter intuitive march of a fascist cartoon frog. The more the "normies" struggled with the meaning of it all the more it reinforced the Alt Right narrative that the mainstream was hopelessly out of touch. An "ambient organisation", most likely with comparatively few active members, had waylaid arguably the best funded and most professional campaign organisation in history. "Ambient media" succeeds by inserting something incongruous or counter intuitive into the ubiquitous lived environment that might create a particular emotional connection, and both Islamic State and the Alt Right have proven masters of such tactics.
So it is clear that "ambient practice" can be effectively used to achieve the goals of warfare, namely to erode an enemy's capability and challenge its power structures and societal narrative. These tactics are well suited to contrarians – those who niggle away at a dominant paradigm.
But how effective can they be in defending the dominant narrative, even when it has suffered considerable blows to its credibility? It turns out that it can be every bit as effective and the corporate world has led the way in leveraging its power. Whilst Western governments have found it difficult to counter emergent "ambient organisations", the corporate world has been more proactive in how it approaches the battle to control the ubiquitous information landscape, and therefore shape policy, defend and build its reputation and consumer trust, mould societal paradigms and boost profit margins.
The term "astro turfing" refers to the creation of a fake "grassroots" movement intended to give the impression of overarching support for something and make this support seem all pervasive and an unquestioned orthodoxy. It is a tactic intended to wrestle control of the ubiquitous information environment, and limit access to contrarian views. Given that some 95% of people never extend a web search beyond the first page of Google – the choke point of almost all information dissemination - it isn't quite as difficult as it might sound, but it does require a significant budget, and a multi-facetted approach. The pharmaceutical industry has embraced this and proven to be masters in using it to achieve marketing goals providing a strong precedent for how dominant paradigms can be defended or even strengthened using elements of "ambient practice".
To provide some context it is instructive to look at how bad the industry's record has been in some instances - something which would seem to be at odds with its astonishing record of profitability in recent times. Forbes magazine for example has suggested that 'Big Pharma' is "addicted to fraud", whilst many of the main pharmaceutical companies have received multi-million dollar fines in the last five years for everything from bribing officials to fabricating research data. Professor Peter Gotzsche one of the founders of the Cochrane Collaboration – arguably the 'gold standard' in independent medical research – has likened 'Big Pharma' to organised crime, and alleged that it is the third biggest killer of people in the West behind heart disease and cancer. Against this backdrop the industry should be in freefall, but in fact the opposite is true. Profits in the pharmaceutical sector are soaring. This bears testimony to the incredible success of their cutting edge approaches to marketing and their ability to influence audiences and mitigate the effect of contrarians.
So how have they done this?
The key is a multi-facetted approach that leverages and dominates the peripheral and ubiquitous information environments, and minimises the impact of contrarians. Medical professionals, policy makers, regulators and consumer advocate groups are usually intelligent people who can spot advertising when they see it. The success of "astro turfing" involves inserting a chosen narrative into the pervasive information environment until it becomes dominant and unquestioned. For example Dr Richard Horton, an editor of the Lancet has revealed that some clinical guidelines are being written by people linked to pharmaceutical companies, alleged that articles in medical journals are often 'ghost written', and data withheld if it doesn't support marketing goals. He suggests that much of the material in journals may be compromised. Some in the industry have worked hard to co-opt the medical literature that influences medical professionals. Lobbyists then draw upon this to influence policy makers, who almost by definition are multi taskers who don't have the time to delve into issues too deeply. Some media outlets allegedly have connections to pharmaceutical concerns and publish supportive material. But journalists point out that in an age where legacy news outlets are under increased constraints, in depth investigative journalism is a dying art, and this makes exposing "astro turfing" problematic. Multi award winning journalist Sharyl Atkisson believes this issue is the key challenge to journalism today, and suggests that the discipline of verification has never been so challenged.