The Internet of Families – The Powerful and Intimate Future of Groupnets

 Global Groupnets

Global Groupnets

One of the coming developments I’ve been the most excited about in recent years are Groupnets (what I originally called “symbiont networks” in a 2004 article). Groupnets are tightly connected, sensor-equipped groups of individuals that automatically share rich and nearly 24/7 continous data (pictures, audio, video, data) about their lives to each other, allowing them to watch each other in realtime, review and relive recent events, and even speak words of encouragement into each other’s ears as appropriate. The group will be there for individuals when in they’re in need, and these folks will truly begin to see the world through each other’s eyes.

normalcurveBecause there are usually only a few people who are out on the far edges of the normal curve of emotions, thought, and behavior at any time, and a far larger number of others closer to the center of human feeling, thought, and behavior, this kind of tight connectivity always tends to keep folks out on the edge from engaging in too much extreme, dysfunctional, or destructive behavior, gently pulling them back toward the center of the group over time. When an extreme person talks in an emotionally open way to a normal person, they each engage their mirror neurons and related brain systems to internally represent other people’s feelings and thinking within their own heads. The more intimate and frequent social interaction becomes, the more the most adaptive ways of thinking (usually in the center, but occasionally on the edges of human thought and behavior) takes over, in the minds of any member of a cognitively diverse group. To increase the power of therapeutic social interactions, particularly dysfunctional people may need to be attached to particularly large but still intimate groups (for more on these claims, see the books below).

Over the next two decades, I’m convinced that Groupnets and the AI-enabled platforms they occur within will become the most powerful group-based emotional cognitive behavioral therapy we can use on a daily basis to continually improve our lives. They’ll be tremendously empowering for professional and self-improvement, for family and mental health therapy, addiction therapy, rehabilitation in prisons and during parole, any area where feeling, thought, and behavior change is particuarly difficult. Below is a brief 2008 video I did on the idea.

facebook-sucksAll the shared data of our groupnets will get autoarchived inside private social networks of highly emotionally and values-connected individuals, and autosummarized, like the way the AI behind Google Photos will now automatically find the most interesting moments in your uploaded video for sharing with others. These social networks will be our “Private Facebooks”, the Private Social Networks that many of us are still waiting to emerge, built to encourage sharing and strengthen the power of social bonds among our most intimate friends and family. That will be a social network that has all the core sharing capabilities we need,  whose interface we can extensively control and customize with evidence-based insights from social psychology, and whose owners aren’t focused on advertisers over users.

Just as with desktop computers, whose incremental new features no longer held much interest for us once they reached a certain level of functionality in the mid 2000’s, allowing us to turn away from them toward more intimate and portable laptops, then tablets, then our phones, I think we’ll soon tire of additional “features” in the Facebook of today. When we want to do deep personal sharing on social platforms, I expect many of us will turn increasingly away from ad-driven corporate media social networks to Private Social Networks and Groupnets built by companies that share our particular values. Once these deep social sharing capabilities get commoditized, just as with desktop computers, Facebook, at least the kind of Facebook that exists today, won’t be the coolest thing on the block anymore. It will increasingly be seen as just another kind of cable or network TV, radio and other ad-driven media property: something lowest common denominator and commercialized that we dip into only on occasion, and increasingly leave behind as we grow up.

What we really want to connect better on this precious planet right now are people, even more than gadgets. Think the Internet of Things is cool? Subscribe to @internetofshit for some hilarious tweets on how naively we think about all our silly gadgets today, and how much they make the marketers salivate. An Internet of Families and Close Friends will be way more helpful and meaningful to most of us today, in these final decades of weak AI, than an Internet of Things, though of course we want to keep growing both as fast as we can. The coming Internet of Families will be all the home, mobile, and wearable sensors and devices we’ll use to enrich and make realtime our intimate Private Social Networks, and increasingly turn them into Groupnets.

ScrumSutherland2014Being more intimately connected to key individuals, both family and work, in ways that are unobtrusive and asynchronous, like texting, with AI filtering and autosummarizing everyone’s data streams, and which allow us to make “bids” for synchronous communication with various people, at special places and times in the day that they or their groupnet have set aside to be interrupted, will allow us both to focus better when we work, turning off all our feeds except for emergency messages, and when we need a break and crave some social connection or ability to help, to immediately be more intimately connected to those that matters most to us. Read Jeff Sutherland’s excellent Scrum, 2014, to understand that an ideal way to get more and better things done in less time is to organize our days, and our weeks, into natural rhythms of uninterrupted sprints, working with small (9 or less) crossdisciplinary teams, punctuated by short, and social, recoveries, “hangouts” in physical and virtual space whose times and places we’d love to leave to software that organizes them for us. The best of the coming groupnets will have to help us find and protect our natural work/social cycles,  while greatly increasing the intimacy and the power of our networks.

For each of us, there are between one and one hundred and fifty very special people that we want much more realtime connection to, and far better archives on, and better tools for helping each other communicate, grow, and thrive. I’ve argued previously that a Groupnet with a Dunbar number (150 or less) of individuals that are deeply emotionally connected via digital systems, share common core values, yet are also both cognitively and skills diverse, will soon greatly outperform unconnected individuals (“solitaries”). All that’s needed are more people-centric platforms and more reliable and affordable rich digital connectivity. Both of those ingredients should be here soon.

collaborativeintelligencemarkovaFor more on why it is that cognitively diverse groups outcompete cognitively narrow ones when working on any of life’s “hard problems” (poorly structured, ambiguous, complex, competitive), see Scott Page’s, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, 2008, and Markova and McArthur’s Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking With People Who Think Differently, 2015. Both of these are excellent introductions to the future of collaboration. For an example of what life looks like when you don’t have cognitive diversity in your group, read Nick Carr’s The Shallows, 2011, or Eli Parisiner’s The Filter Bubble, 2012. If you don’t set your filters to include people and ideas that are valued by others who think differently from you, you’ve got a big hole in your world simulation, and others will cheerfully keep exploiting that hole to take away your cake, until you finally wise up and improve your world view.

periscope-screenshotI’ve been very excited to see live streaming apps like Periscope and Meerkat take off in recent months. These are a huge step toward Groupnets. Thanks Twitter for recognizing the incredible new intimacy, empathy, support, and emotional connectedness that live streaming offers. Let’s hope Google Fiber (wired), Project Fi (wireless), and other consumer-oriented initiatives continue to make progress against America’s anticompetitive telco and media oligopolies, which are building out their networks as slowly as they can, trying to delay the inevitable rise of peer to peer media, and all the empowering (and less financially controllable) new Little Guy business models that will allow.

Path-Social-NetworkRemember Path? It is a Private Social Network that launched in 2010. Path allows up to 150 users to do intimate photo and message sharing with close friends and family. Its functionality has always been very limited (they didn’t do too much development with that $75M in VC money, apparently). Nevertheless it’s user base has grown, particularly outside the US (for example, 4 million Indonesian users by 2014) perhaps in places where customers were less picky about what was available. In 2014 Path got acquired by a South Korean internet company, Daum Kakao. South Korea’s bandwidth is two to three times better than ours, so with luck we may see Path do some interesting things as a Private Social Network in the next few years. Or not. We shall see.

South Korea, Japan, and a handful of other countries now rolling out 5G networks are places where you could build a first gen Groupnet platform today. They have better government guidance, less corporate lobbying slowing down the emergence of real internet competition, greater population densities, and other factors that combine to keep them beating the US at the critical public good of a dependable, cheap, blazing fast internet, the backbone for our digital life. Launch your Groupnet apps there first, and you could achieve First Mover Advantage.

tinybeanslogoandslugTinybeans is another deep sharing Private Social Network startup. It started in 2014, and doesn’t have very much funding yet ($1.75M on Crunchbase). But it’s management is taking a very clever approach. They are focusing the platform on sharing of children’s photos, among families. Targeting children’s photos, videos, and accomplishments seems a smart way to build a passionate Early Adopter core for a deep Private Social Network. Most of us are particularly sensitive about sharing children’s photos, so we don’t share many on Facebook, which has low user control and trust. As long as Tinybeans can navigate the legal issues with storing data on underage users, provide good functionality and prioritize security, privacy and control, they should grow nicely.

There are other examples of rich sharing private networks, like SmugMug for professional photography. But I don’t know of any other Private Social Network platforms that are designed for deep sharing among small groups, with features that promote social bonding, intimacy, group transparency, and human development.  Please let me know if you do.

iOSNextdoorMobilePageNextDoor has the potential to become this kind of social network, for a subset of their members. At first, I could see them helping folks to put more webcams on their front lawns, making our neighborhoods more transparent and secure — an easy sell to security-minded folks. Next they could help an internet of families, with its sensor packages and online archives, to emerge between those neighborhood homes that want greater intimacy between the children and adults in their various families. That’s a much more exciting and socializing development. But to do that, they’d have to make it easier for families that want to make friends with other local families to build out deeper profiles, and more easily find each other by interests, skills, projects, heritage, religion, political beliefs, age of children, and other search options, and set up easy ways for people to interact (dinners, hangouts) with each other in friendbuilding activities on their network.

I think if Facebook was serious about improving social interaction, they’d buy or build something like NextDoor. They’d also buy or build something like Neighborgoods, a platform that allows local families to list things they’re willing to share, a good way to get people out of the solitary, consumption economy. Google could build out these local family tools in G+, and gain a few more points of market share growth (5% of over the next 5 years?) against Facebook. But will they? Even LinkedIn could build something powerful and personal to support local small businesses.

Big social network platforms seem lukewarm about building out stronger local communities. They also aren’t really in the business of helping people to connect more intimately, or supporting their psychological development. Perhaps this is because such efforts aren’t easily monetizable beyond goodwill, and can get messy, political, and controversial. So it will probably fall to the entrepreneurs to keep moving us toward this future.

But I think any good survey would show a substantial fraction of people want much better and richer connections with family and friends. Someone’s going to take seriously this deep common desire for greater intimacy, and build us an Internet of Family and a rich-featured deep sharing Private Social Network, starting with some Early Adopter families and their closest friends. It will grow rapidly from there. While writing this post I searched “Internet of Family” and see that others have come to the same conclusion. For example, see “The Internet of Family and Friends Will Rule the Future“, CMO, 7.21.15, by Tim Joyce of The Cambridge Group. These amazing advances in human connectedness and empowerment are coming. We want them, so it’s just a matter of time. I hope you’ll let us know in the comments wherever you see deep sharing Private Social Networks and an Internet of Family emerging, and what we can do to make them both come faster. One last thing.

Our Global Family, Biological and Adopted


Domestic Adopt A Family Program (

Once the Internet of Family and rich Private Social Networks exist, it’s easy to see we’ll not only be able to stay deeply connected to our own biological family and friends around the globe, we’ll be able to easily reach out to families that we don’t know. It’s exciting to realize that among the those tens of millions of priviliged folk who have a strong desire for social justice, a good deal of that digital reaching out will be to the most at-risk families who really need our help. These new networks will help us to find and help others in very personal, one-to-one ways. By befriending and supporting a small group of others through them, we’ll also greatly help ourselves grow in personal effectiveness and wisdom.

I think Family Adoption, being encouraged to adopt a family that is in great need, not just for an isolated encounter over the holidays, as happens commonly today, but for the years of childraising of the children involved,  will become a major new phenomenon on these platforms. Family adoption recommendation systems will be built into all the better Private Social Networks and Groupnets, and the Internet of Family will make that adoption feel like we are bringing those individuals into our own homes. The death of distance that comes from affordable broadband and wireless and great sensors will give us the ability to really help, one on one, those folks anywhere in the world who need our help when they need it the most, the way we try to do within our own families today., whose CEO and co-founder is my friend Rose Broome,  runs a fantastic new charitable giving platform that offers direct ways to improve the lives of our homeless neighbors and other low-income local residents. Individuals are verified as needy by various community and homeless services groups around the country. At their Help Someone tab, you have the ability to directly help local people in need, and search their database by first name, neighborhood, or basic needs. 100% of your donation goes to your selected members needs. This is a fantastic way to give directly to those in need. In coming years, I look forward to seeing more intimate and realtime ways of connecting to any of the individuals in this database who might want such contact from their community of supportive “fans.”

Now imagine a service like Handup, launched today by a social entrepreneur in the slums next to any major emerging nations metropolitan area, like Lagos, Nigeria or Rio de Janiero, Brazil. It would offer us a searchable adoption needs database with thousands of families in need, and encourage each of us to adopt at least one of these families for a minimum period of time (five years?), and ideally stay intimately connected to them for a lifetime, or at least for the entire childhood of the children (theirs and ours), in a Private Social Network with an Internet of Family connecting us. Services to help our children learn each other’s languages and culture would be part of the platform, as well as a host of contract services to help the families in need.  Visitors to the site would be encouraged to donate to help volunteers build the adoption needs database in countries and cities not yet represented. How many families do you think this service might help? Are there any such platforms today? If so, how can best we help them get greater visibility?

Consider the following disturbing fact from a 2013 Lancet series on Maternal and Child Nutrition: Roughly 3 million children (5 years and younger) die a year, one every ten seconds, 8,000 a day, as a result of lack of adequate food for the mother or child, via diseases induced by undernutrition or via outright starvation. Half of these child deaths occur in one planetary location of greatest need: Sub-Saharan Africa. Globally, undernutrition accounts for 45% of child deaths. Over 165 million living children today are both stunted and immunocompromised because of lack of adequate nutrition in their childhood. Eradicating extreme hunger, reducing child mortality, and improving maternal health are #1, #4, and #5 of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals.

How soon will it be before some social entrepreneur or human development NGO develops an Internet of Families sensor package and Private Social Network for adopting an at-risk family and improving their lives, beginning with things like better nutrition, housing, sanitation, and security? Would you adopt an at-risk family in Sub-Saharan Africa or some other place of great need if you could participate in their lives even more easily than if they were your physical neighbors? I certainly would. Let’s get it done!

We need a platform that NGOs and families everywhere can use to nominate and monitor the most at-risk moms, dads, and kids globally. If we can stick chips in our fancy household appliances, we can network and sensor-equip our adopted at-risk families in Mali, Chad, Pakistan, and everywhere else on the planet. I would love to be able to see webcams of what my adopted family is doing right now and has been doing this week, with video, audio, images and data all auto-summarized on a Private Social Network. So would many others who want to give aid and develop lifetime personal relationships where they can matter most, in at-risk children and their parents, with minimal interference by NGOs between us and the people in need.

I’d love my baby to grow up talking and live streaming with her adopted sisters and brothers in another country. Sure, there are legal issues to work out. And security and political issues. Perhaps these social concerns are why so many of the global aid platforms, like, give us no way of directly contacting or supporting the families that we give our microloans to (lame, lame, lame!). Don’t tell me the problem can’t be solved. If one adoption platform company is shut down by some corrupt political agency, another can spring up again tomorrow with a similar solution and different name. You can’t stop cellphones and sensors and networks from penetrating illiberal countries. The network just keeps routing around the damage, as they say.

It’s time for a better solution to the terrible pain and misery that the world’s most at-risk families face every day. You can be sure some global entrepreneurs could create both formal and informal at-risk family adoption processes that scale with exponential speed, and put our formal adoption agencies to shame.

Here’s a Vision

adoptingafamilyImagine that 20 million of the most at-risk families around the world are identified by trusted high-reputation individuals and NGOs and paired directly with one of the 440 million households of the thirty-four OECD member countries, on an Internet of Families and Private Social Network platform that nudges them into regular intimate and rich media communication with and financial, educational, emotional, and other support of their adopted family. That’s an NGO mission, and a call to shared responsibility and transparency, that would be a worthy channel for some of our global humanitarian impulses.

Imagine next that, over ten years of scaling, one out of twenty of these 440 million households (5% of the world’s privileged) decides to sponsor an at-risk family via this Internet of Families, either from another country or from among the homeless, disadvantaged, and poor of their own country, or county. That Early Adopter group would cover 22 million of the most needy families in the world. It would probably be the most satisfying philanthropy those sponsor families ever did in their lives, and it would also promote global interdependence in ways we can’t really imagine today.

A good Global Family Adoption platform will be evidence-based in its recommendations of support, maximizing quality-adjusted life years for the at-risk family by getting us most privileged folks to focus our donations and interactions on help with maternal and child nutrition, maternal, paternal and child education, reproductive choice counseling, and a host of other issues. Video snips of our adopted family and all their sensor data will be uploaded daily to the web, to record any violence or corruption or misfortune happening to them. Then we’ll start figuring out how to fight and stop that violence and corruption via mass action. When problems happen to your family, it becomes personal. We stop bitching about it and get out there and fix the problem.

Did you know that from 2011 to 2014 Malaysia gave out 1.5 million netbooks to their children and established thousands of village wi-fi hubs in their National Broadband Initiative? More of that kind of boldness is happening around the world every year now. There’s no reason some visionary entrepreneurs and funders can’t roll out a first generation Global Family Adoption platform with an Internet of Families and a rich Private Social Network today. Millions of us privileged families are ready to donate money to establish this kind of regular intimacy with those who need it most. There’s no reason we can’t use our technology now in this incredibly empowering way.

Edits? Additions? Changes? Comments always appreciated, thanks for reading.

Brain Preservation: Why Bother? Getting to the Zen of Life

Chemical Brain Preservation: You, turned into a Perfect Plastic Fossil. Yep, the Universe is Strange alright.

Chemical Brain Preservation: You, Turned into a Perfect Plastic Fossil, Waiting Patiently to Be Released From It in the Future. Yep, the Universe is Strange alright.

I’ve given a new talk at BIL2014, about Brain Preservation (video at bottom of this article), and written an essay on it for Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon‘s forthcoming book, World Transformed: The Abridged Edition, a spinoff of their excellent World Transformed podcast and blog. An excerpt from the essay is below.

This talk explores the “Why Bother?” or Zen of Mortality perspective, which I think is the main reason that most folks, and even most secular-agnostic folks (who are at most 20% of the world’s population at present), don’t yet find brain preservation a desirable idea for themselves or their loved ones. While I acknowledge the validity and great value of the Zen of Mortality perspective, and I used to hold it myself, I think there’s an even more exciting and valuable perspective, the Zen of Life, waiting patiently for all of us who are ready to embrace it. Read on, or watch the talk, and let me know if you agree or disagree.

[Read more…]

How the US Should Have Won the Vietnam War – The Mekong Delta State Solution (Series on Leadership, Foresight, and Security)

Want more retrospective foresight stories? See my Lost Progress Opportunities (LPO) Collection in Chapter 11 of The Foresight Guide (2018).

john-and-bobby-kennedyAs we approach the 50-year anniversary of John F Kennedy’s death this Nov 22nd, and the 45th-anniversary of Robert F Kennedy’s death this June, there have VirtualHistoryFerguson1997been a number of great new books and films that give us perspective on their life and legacy. I’d like to make my own small contribution to that reflection literature here. Posts like this are called counterfactuals (alternative histories). If you’d like to read more in this foresight-oriented genre, try both historian Niall Ferguson’s Virtual History, 2000, and historian Robert Cowley’s The Collected What If?, 2006. Counterfactuals can be quite varied in quality, but I find the best to be far more interesting than fiction. They illuminate what, with better vision and action, might have been our own history.

vietnam-mapThe Vietnam War, 1955-75, was arguably the most heartbreaking episode of US history since our Civil War. It is the only major war we’ve ever lost, at a cost of 58,000 American lives, between two and three million human lives lost in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, thousands of square miles of living space and ecosystems laid waste, and over $120 billion in Then-Year dollars ($800 billion today) in US war expenses.

Our counterfactual begins with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, serving from 1933 until his death in 1945, who was pushing the great powers to end colonialism, as is well demonstrated in the Atlantic Charter. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam’s Viet Minh independence movement since 1941, was more nationalist than he was communist. His key objective was independence for his people from France, and he was willing to side with whoever helped that aim. Ho was an ally of the US in WWII against the Japanese, who occupied Vietnam. There is a good chance, I’d give it 60% or more, that had Roosevelt lived, he would have had the foresight to support Ho’s bid for Vietnamese autonomy, and prevented France’s attempt to take back their former colony, established in the late 1800s and lost in WWII to Japan. That unsuccessful attempt by France to take back Vietnam is called the Indochina War (1946-54). Negotiating in 1946 between Ho and one of the leaders of the Provisional Government in France, Roosevelt might have gained any or all of such capitalist concessions from Vietnam as a trade pact, a leased military base, and even a Hong Kong-style free economic zone in a coastal city, and a limited arms and defense agreement for the new country. Any of this would have been playing the long game to flip Vietnam from their opportunistic communism back into capitalism. Sadly, none of this happened.

President Truman set the stage for the Vietnam War with his Truman Doctrine (1947) of active global Soviet containment. Truman also committed us to the Korean War (1950-53). The Korean War was widely regarded by the West as a just war, and it created perhaps greatest natural demonstration, in the states of North Korea (DPRK) and South Korea, of the long-term fitness for humanity of these two globe-spanning, antithetical systems of government. In this Korean War context, Truman chose to ignore Roosevelt’s anticolonialist views, permitted France to start the Indochina War in 1946, and financially aided the French from 1950-53 as they tried to take back their former colony. While Truman would have had great leverage to gain capitalist concessions from Ho for France and America, in return for supporting Vietnamese autonomy, Truman was also far less likely to choose that course of action, given the more binary, black or white nature of his political views and alliances vs Roosevelt, and given the hotness of the Cold War by 1950. So again, sadly, none of this happened.

The French recolonization plan was unsustainable from the start. They were facing highly motivated communist and nationalist revolutionaries, fighting a war for independence under Ho and his Viet Minh in the North. The French were decisively defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and the country was arbitrarily divided into North and South near the 17th parallel in the Geneva Accords, pending elections, which never happened.

At this point, incoming President Eisenhower and his Sec of State John Foster Dulles tried nation-building, backing the capitalist autocrat Ngo Dihn Diem as President of the new nation of South Vietnam in 1955. But South Vietnam as it had been sloppily partitioned in Geneva included many nationalists and communists as well as capitalists, so the new state was deeply unstable from the start. Ho, greatly popular throughout Vietnam, soon formed the communist National Liberation Front (aka the “Viet Cong” or VC) in the South to reunite the country by force. By the end of Ike’s second term in 1960 we had 900 U.S. military advisors in South Vietnam, and he advised the incoming President Kennedy “I think you’re going to have to send troops” as he left office.

During the Kennedy administration (1961-63), South Vietnam’s security steadily deteriorated. Viet Cong tactics were brutal, surgical, and effective. In 1961 alone, Viet Cong in South Vietnam killed 4,000 of Diem’s leadership and key supporters via assassination. Diem became increasingly repressive and ineffective, Kennedy ramped our involvement up to 12,000 US special forces soldiers and security advisors, but none of this worked. In 1963, some of Diem’s generals secretly told our State department they were going to mount a coup to replace him. We assented, the coup happened November 1, Diem was murdered, and three weeks later JFK was assassinated in Dallas. South Vietnam’s new leadership proved even less able to defend itself, and by 1964 it became clear to President Johnson that the US would either have to commit combat troops or we would lose the country to the North.

We never got to see what JFK would have done in Vietnam once we made the troop commitment decision, which many historians say was essentially inevitable, as we were then at the height of the cold war

Some have argued that JFK would have managed to keep America out of this conflict. A particularly good case is made by director Koji Masutani, in his alternative history documentary, Virtual JFK, 2008. (Film Website, YouTube Trailer). The film presents evidence and archival footage for the claim that JFK managed to avoid or prevent war six times in his tenure. It also imagines the many positive consequences if he had done so. I am not so sure that we could have avoided troop commitment, but I do believe that JFK’s team might have implemented the winning strategy described below.

Sending combat troops made us the de facto security leaders, with new responsibilities and strategic latitude we’d never had before. We know well what happened under President Johnson, SecDef Robert McNamara, and General William Westmoreland. There was broad public support for both the war and the draft in 1965. By 1967, half a million American troops were in Vietnam, heeding JFK’s 1961 inaugural call to do what they could for their country. Yet despite total domination and firepower in the air and at sea, and an additional 700,000 South Vietnamese soldiers working with us, we couldn’t stop, find or even identify the 250,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army recruits who ran circles around us on land. None of our strategies worked for long. We couldn’t even secure Saigon.

Johnson had just three years to find a winning strategy. Vietnam was our first television war, so its impotence, futility and tragedies came into US homes every evening. Meanwhile the civil rights and counterculture revolutions were growing fast at home, further shortening his window. By the VC’s Tet Offensive in Jan-Feb 1968, public opinion had swung greatly against the war. That year was likley his very last chance to find a win. He could not, and by March 1968, Johnson told America he would not run for reelection.

I believe America could have easily won the Vietnam War, without large losses of US troops or civilian deaths, and avoided this major tragedy in human history. But we would have needed sufficient foresight to find an appropriate strategy as early as possible, foresight the Johnson administration did not have at the time, and which we never developed, over ten long bloody years of war, 1965-1975. Many have argued the Vietnam War was unwinnable as long as we were unwilling to send ground troops into the North, and risk another ground war with China. See for example this 2002 book, or this well-written brief argument. But I believe it was winnable in several ways without taking that risk, and below is just the best way I can presently imagine. It is a great unknown whether JFK and his brother Bobby Kennedy, who both showed increasing foresight and flexibility as JFK’s term progressed, would have figured out a winning strategy.

I first imagined this strategy as a naïve college student.* Now, as a more mature student of life, and not able to find it in a simple web search, I decided to sketch it out in the hope that our future political and defense leaders, citizens, and the world might learn something from it.

The more we appreciate the great value of foresight, the more our leaders will be compelled to seek it, wherever they can.

I. Counterfactual: How We Should Have Won the Vietnam War:

  1. Between 1955-1965, Ike, Kennedy or Johnson realize that just a minority of the 19 million South Vietnamese, perhaps 20%-40% (4-8 million) truly want a capitalist nation, and it is to these Vietnamese that we are committed. Containment isn’t about land, it’s about people, and building defensible states for those people, where possible. Most South Vietnamese identified strongly with Ho Chi Minh’s liberation victories against the French, and saw us as potential new colonialists, not liberators. Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs that he believed Ho Chi Minh would have won 80% of the vote had elections been held in 1956. But at various points over the ten years prior to our overt engagement of combat troops, based on my readings to date, I would guess that anywhere from 20-40% of South Vietnamese, if offered the choice, would have voted for leaders guaranteeing the rights to private ownership of land and capital and the freedom to keep and sell their own production. These individuals would have also been committed to a bill of individual rights, including freedom of speech and press, and the right to vote out their leaders on a regular basis. These are the folks who needed our help. They were “the difference” we were there for. Losing sight of this was perhaps our most basic mistake.
  2. As part of our troop commitment planning, we recognize that we may not be able to defend the entire country without unacceptable levels of casualties, and as tactical pragmatists, we explore how we might create a defensible “island nation” of New South Vietnam for the Vietnamese capitalists, if South Vietnam turns out to be indefensible by land, as it did. This would not have been a new idea. Recall that Chiang Kai-Shek had fled China to Taiwan in 1949, by 1958 we had Nike missiles on the island, and by 1960 Taiwan was the second fastest growing capitalist Asian nation (see the Taiwan Miracle) after Japan. New South Vietnam, with a US defense pact and a comparable size, resources, and population, could have taken a similar course if given the opportunity.
  3. We notice the Mekong River, the fourth largest river in the world by volume, creates a set of naturally defensible 200-mile long northern borders for a New South Vietnam (the rivers bisecting the south end of the country in the picture above and below). We see New South Vietnam will still be over 15,000 square miles. It will be larger than Taiwan (14,000 sq. miles and 12 million people in 1965), thirty-five times larger than Hong Kong, fifty times larger than Singapore. The delta is also the breadbasket of South Vietnam, and already contains 40% (8 million) of the state’s current population.
  4. We next notice that New South Vietnam’s border with Cambodia has just 60 riverless miles that will need to be closed with trenches, walls, and buffer zone (the blue 93 km road in the map below). The final 40 miles of border that isn’t ocean is the Giang Thanh river at the western tip of the country and two lakes in Cambodia, each as securable against ground and naval forces as the Mekong, and all without great cost.  We now realize we have a sound contingency plan for a defensible capitalist state in the Mekong Delta, which we will use if necessary.
  5. We allow our conventional war strategists to try for the big win: securing all of South Vietnam. But since we now have a winnable fall back plan for the Delta, its advocates are pitted against conventional war advocates from the start. As soon as our conventional war starts losing too many precious lives (1965? 1966?) the Delta State plan advocates will gain the high ground.

    New South Vietnam - South of the Mekong River

    New South Vietnam – South of the Mekong River – A Defensible Home for Millions Who Wanted Our Way of Life in 1965

  6. At some point, maximum acceptable losses in the conventional war are exceeded, we admit our inability to secure all of South Vietnam, we remove the advocates of that plan from leadership (all leadership must have accountability to work well), and we shift to the second plan. After taking up defensive positions on our new 300-mile border, we land four divisions (80,000 soldiers) in four locations on the lower Delta and march them up toward our borders, shoulder to shoulder, ten miles a day. Two weeks later we’ve flushed northward across the Mekong almost every VC who actively resists us. We take many prisoners of war in this first surprise march, for later peace negotiations.
  7. We defend our well-chosen border, building artillery positions every two thousand feet (900 of them) on the south side of the rivers, jeep and helicopter bases every five miles (60 of them), burn, clear, and farm the banks on the far side, and declare our new border at a ridgeline patrol trail on the far side of the rivers. Beyond that we declare a 2.5 mile wide demilitarized buffer and no-fly zone, the same width as the Korean DMZ created in 1953. We patrol our border by air and land, and we control all water traffic on the Mekong with our riverine navy. We help New South Vietnam declare its existence to the UN, and begin major immigration, refugee, and emigration operations.
  8. We dismantle parts of Saigon’s infrastructure, ferrying it 50 miles south, with any residents who wish to come along. We give Ho a less developed city on our own timetable, a year or two later, in peace negotiations. We immediately begin building a New Saigon, to compete with the old one (now Ho Chi Minh City).
  9. We broadly arm and train New South Vietnamese citizens, empowering them to respond to Viet Cong assassins in their midst with US frontier security, and hire and train lots of NSV citizens for transitional law enforcement roles. We bring Israelis over to teach them security culture. Our international allies on the ground, including Australia, South Korea, Thailand, New Zealand, Khmer Republic, Laos, and our supporting allies stay focused on building out portions of NSV’s evolving security infrastructure and development projects.
  10. We give New South Vietnam a great new port, a US military base and a Marshall Plan, grow their industrial, trade, and political relations with the US, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and watch them beat the North every year forward at the development game. In the very unlikely event that warfare for unification still continued for years afterward, we could then have negotiated a peace settlement similar to Britain’s 99-year lease of Hong Kong (1899-1999). Even a lease would still have been a great win for capitalism and containment, in the eyes of the world and for the people who cared.

To summarize, the Vietnam War was both a failure of security and of nation-building. We Americans seem biased to underestimate how good security must be in some geopolitical environments before democracy can flourish. For a reminder of what is sometimes needed, think of Israel. We are also too timid about fiddling with national borders to improve security. For an alternative, again look at Israel and its buffer zones. We also are far, far too reluctant to condone or advocate the subdivision of a country into smaller self-governing states, whenever civil violence exceeds some well-publicized red line.

Do you remember the Gelb/Biden proposal in 2006 to partition Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish semi-autonomous states? Enforced subdivision and the removal of leadership on all sides of the conflict, once a certain threshold of civil violence (“red line”) has been crossed has never been advocated by any US leader as a punitive consequence for the failure of any government to provide security to its citizens. A forcibly subdivided state could also be given the opportunity to reunify democratically later, but only after a decade or two of punitive division.

Such a Global Security Doctrine could have been advocated by a number of US presidents, perhaps as early as the Vietnam War, and most definitely by the time of the First Gulf War. Such a doctrine could be applied to any failing state potentially under US strategic influence. Even if our red line started as high as 100,000 deaths, such a policy would have greatly reduced the body counts in both 1990s Balkan and Rwandan Wars. We could also reduce the threshold conditions that trigger our military involvement every four years or so, as America’s defense forces inevitably become ever more robotic and artificially intelligent. This doctrine could also be clearly communicated to the UN as our new policy.They would not have to agree in any of these cases, as global security still isn’t primarily a UN responsibility at present–it’s ours.

Again, this kind of approach is easy for all leaders to grasp, and would greatly motivate state leaders of autocratic and failing states to limit the loss of life within their own countries. It would put a lot of responsibility on our special forces, who would have to track and extract the failing leaders (on all sides) and bring them to justice, but our special forces have been fully able to accomplish this task since the 1990s. Opposition leaders in any failing state would then be incentivized to solve their problems without our help, and without violence, because if they don’t, they stand to lose their personal freedom, their state, and any benefits of their union. This security policy has very old roots, as it is a modern and much more civilized version of the ancient Divide and Rule strategy of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, no President has yet had the vision or courage to make such a doctrine their own.

Could the Johnson administration have found the Mekong Delta State solution?

Johnson sorely wanted something like this. He was excellent at domestic affairs, and was hell bent on getting in and out of Vietnam quickly, of getting a “war on the cheap” as his intelligence staffer George A. Carver described it later. Some might say we couldn’t have taken such overt control over politics in South Vietnam, but we never needed such control. We became the security leaders when we committed combat troops. We could have focused our combat security efforts, and all our troop stationing, on the Delta and that short stretch of Cambodian border, and refused to provide anything but advice and technology anywhere else. As the increasingly overwhelmed South Vietnamese government’s political and security situation kept deteriorating, our defensible “island” below the Mekong would be the only safe place left to run.

Apparently the closest we and our South Vietnamese allies ever got to the plan above was something called the Strategic Hamlet Program, a disastrous early policy to relocate and secure villages, thus creating imprisoning refugee camps of uprooted villagers,  but not removing Vietcong from the regions around the camps, a strategy doomed to failure from the start.

One of the most effective strategies America employed in Vietnam was our secret Phoenix Program, an operation led by our CIA, special forces, and US Army Intelligence that identified and assassinated or captured between 40-80,000 Viet Cong leaders between 1965 and 1972. Phoenix was a direct counter to the Viet Cong’s own highly effective assassination strategy against Diem’s administration. We used it to eliminate most of the southern VC leaders, and that in turn forced them into a conventional conflict, the Tet Offensive in 1968. That strategy was doomed to fail for them in the short run, but Tet was also a turning point in American public opinion, as it demonstrated to the American public that the war wasn’t being won as we’d been told. Thus it was a sacrifice that paid off for them in the long run, as it showed Americans the level of their resolve.

Now consider how much more effective Phoenix would have been if we had created a New South Vietnam (NSV) for all those who wanted our way of life, and had better supported those willing to fight for it. Many NVA soldiers would have been willing to take the risk of being a Viet Cong infiltrator and assassin if they knew their families would be safe in NSV, and their families would be rewarded for their (potential) altruistic sacrifice. Such missions would have been a noble cause, for them and in reality. That level of commitment is how we’d match the Viet Cong resolve.

Perhaps the last time that Johnson could have found this solution was in early 1969, immediately after Tet. Clark Clifford, a Johnson loyalist, replaced Robert McNamara in March 1968. McNamara had been urging disengagement. Clifford told the Senate his main objective was to guarantee the South Vietnamese the right to self-determination. But Clifford switched positions after Tet, and recommended against General Westmoreland’s ask for 206,000 more troops, beyond the 510,000 Americans in country. If any of these leaders had recognized that they already had more than enough troops to defend a small NSV, and that they still had the capacity and legal authority to do so, we could have pulled this rabbit from the hat in 1969. It would have required admitting that we’d been wrong in our initial strategy, and had ignored the reality that most South Vietnamese wanted independence, not capitalism.

Former CIA director William Colby, in Lost Victory, 1989, proposes other ways better strategy and leadership could have won the war. Unfortunately, none of these paths were taken. We did charitably immigrate 500,000 Vietnamese refugees to the US as the war wound down, but everyone else was abandoned. At least two million Vietnamese “boat people” left their country by any means they could between 1975 and 1995.

We could have created a defensible country for those millions of Vietnamese who wanted our way of life at the time, and developed the heck out of it, but we did not do so. As a result, we failed the South Vietnamese, we failed our own troops, and we failed to show the world why our particular political and defense system is the best yet-devised for freedom and prosperity.

There are many lessons our political, security, and development leaders can learn from this for our future, I think. I’ll try to explore a few of them in the rest of this post, and I hope others will find this of value.

II. Alternative History: If the Johnson Administration Had Won the Vietnam War This Way in the 1960’s, Besides the Saving of Millions of Lives and Hundreds of Billions of Dollars of Lost Resources, How Else Might America and the World Be Different Today?

  • Lyndon-Johnson-and-the-Great-Society-9781566631853Would President Johnson have run for a second term and would the US have avoided a Nixon presidency altogether?
  • Would the US have had a much more hopeful, confident, prosperous, and progressive 1970’s?
  • Would Johnson’s Great Society initiatives in a second term have better improved the lot of our poor and decreased racial injustice?
  • Would our inner cities have fallen less far in the 1970’s and 1980’s before they started reforming themselves in the 1990’s?
  • If eight million South Vietnamese had begun being capitalists in 1966, instead of in 1986 (when Vietnam finally started market reforms, after decades as one of the poorest countries on Earth) how many more new scientific advances, and useful products and services would the world’s people have today?
  • Would a booming New South Vietnam in the 1970’s-1980’s have flipped other Asian countries into capitalism several years to a couple of decades sooner?
  • If South Vietnam hadn’t fallen to the communist North in 1974, would Cambodia’s government have entered a security alliance with NSV, and thus not fallen to the Khmer Rouge communists in 1975, averting Pol Pot’s genocide of 2 million Cambodians?
  • How much closer connected would all the ASEAN countries be by now?
  • Would North Korea even exist today, or would its reunification have already happened?
  • Once we taught New South Vietnamese citizens to arm and defend themselves in a modern form of Wild West frontier security, as would have been inevitable to counter North Vietnamese assassins, even with secure borders (see John Robb’s Resilient Communities writings for more on this), would we have taken this proven distributed security strategy into our subsequent wars?
  • Would our interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa have borne far better fruit if we’d been growing citizen defense from the start, instead of keeping them weak and dependent on our might and armor?
  • Would our homeland security programs since 9/11 be more decentralized, citizen-based, and resilient than they are today, with a more engaged and civic-minded citizenry?

Any or all of these proposals may be wrong, but this isn’t idle speculation. Our choices always have consequences, and losing the Vietnam War had many incredibly negative consequences on our nation’s youth, culture, and psyche for decades afterward. It’s good to periodically take measure of our past decisions, as imperfect as that measure always is, and see what we might learn for the future. I hope you’ve found this thought experiment as useful as I have, and that it stimulates you to seek as much foresight as you can get with a reasonable investment of time and effort, in all the important decisions of your life.

III. After Action Review: Who Is To Blame For The Fact That A Winning Strategy Was Not Seen, Or If Seen, Not Taken?

This may be the toughest question of all. Many who know much more about such issues than I would place a good deal of blame on SecDef Robert McNamara, the prime architect of our Vietnam strategy. He was widely considered arrogant and aloof, and took a technocratic, quantitative approach to the war. According to Bui Diem in one of the film accounts below, he would swoop in with his yellow notepad and flurry of pointed questions seeking data for his reports, but had very little interest in the opinions of, or in feedback from, both the Vietnamese generals and indigenous strategists.

thedifferencescottpagethe-fog-of-war-movie-poster-2003-1020478537I have also read that he led in a similar way with his team at the DoD. Such a top-down and overly procedural management style, along with insufficient cognitive diversity in the executive team, would be one sure prescription for his poor performance. See Scott Page’s The Difference for lots of data on superior performance of cognitive diversity in top leadership, critical feedback, and evidenced-based decisionmaking when dealing with hard problems. As I’ve said in my post on the Titanic disaster, there are often several good solutions possible when faced with terrible, complex problems, but we may have to quickly and calmly use good foresight process, with a sufficiently diverse crowd, to find them.

Whatever the reasons, McNamara’s team failed to materialize a winning strategy, and he failed to convince Johnson to pull out of Vietnam and admit defeat, something Johnson, perhaps rightly, considered a nonsolution. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, 2003 (YouTube upload here). It’s a penetrating view into the mind and penitance of Robert McNamara, a great intellect, but also, in my opinion, a recognition-driven fence-sitter when we instead needed someone able to motivate others to find a solution, and with sufficient humility to recognize he was unlikely to do so himself.

IV. The Future of Security: Some Lessons for Modern Defense Leaders

noendinsightWith the benefit of hindsight, we can see how greatly our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have also been failures of security leadership. There are a number of good books on this. I would start with Thomas Rick’s excellent account of the Iraq 2003-2005, Fiasco, 2007. Charles Ferguson’s excellent video, No End in Sight, 2007, and his followup book, No End in Sight, 2009, are perhaps the best brief accounts of our serious failures to provide security, and in particular, urban security, a critical precondition to the next necessary step in any intervention, aggressive development.

We didn’t foresee the security implications of actions like failing to lock down Baghdad to prevent looting, or of the mass firing of the Iraqi military and thus jump-starting the Iraqi insurgency. We also never held our massive army of private contractors to competitive standards or rigorous oversight in their development work, and they had to provide their own security, as our military leadership wasn’t able to do so. We never gave citizens large financial incentives (gun buybacks, etc.) for disarming and improving the cities, and in particular kept out the nonlethal weapons, ballistic shields, cellphones, and training that would allow them to provide their own frontier security. Tom Rick’s book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, 2012, hones in on the lack of serious consequences for poorly performing military leadership today, versus the 1940’s. Without proper accountability and feedback, our human systems deteriorate, even as our technical ones grow in ability every year.

Every US political leader’s influence decays steadily from the moment they take office, and America’s influence in a foreign military intervention decays steadily from the moment we enter the country. At some point the savior becomes the occupier. For this natural psychological reason all our interventions must accomplish their changes in a race against time. It is always best to leave an intervention with most of the populace wanting more, rather than wanting us out. There are a number of good books on democratic and capitalist nationbuilding (see America’s Role in Nation-Building, Dobbins & Lal, 2003, or State-Building, Fukuyama, 2004) but the truth is America doesn’t have anywhere near the funds, patience, or competence in the Executive, State Dept, DoD, or in our private contractors to do this at the present time. What we can and should do, is a rapid series of security and development upgrades, centered almost entirely on a few key cities, in a very time-limited intervention. These need to be planned out and scheduled with surgical precision before we enter, a kind of “Shock and Awe” for urban security and development. That’s a winnable intervention scenario, and will leave the country’s populace (if not its leaders) hoping for another such intervention in the future.

TriumphOfTheCityBookWhen the cities in the nations that we are defending are working, they demonstrate every day the rising benefits of economic, technological, and cultural connectedness to the West. When they are not, everything rapidly falls apart. Cities are the future, and we might as well recognize it. Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, 2012, is a great source for more on this perspective.

If we were to pick and order a Critical Set of urban priorities for our interventions, they might be:

   1. Security, Connectedness & IT
   2. Food, Water & Shelter
   3. Jobs
   4. Power and Sanitation
   5. Transportation

Unfortunately, America’s political and defense leaders never recognized the key role that IT development plays in both securing key cities and buying critical time in the intervention before we are viewed as occupiers, not aides. In Afghanistan and Iraq, urban citizens never got inexpensive government-subsidized cellphones. We never leveraged the vast numbers of law abiding folks willing to anonymously report scofflaws and problems. We never helped them to stay connected 24/7 to their families and friends, a cornerstone of technological development. We can of course monitor all traffic and users movements via such networks, and revoke privileges with granularity, down to the individual user. Citizens can be induced to photograph, share, and report problems for bounties. Law enforcement and civil defense personnel can be required to wear body cameras, capturing the entire day’s events, and reducing their corruption.  We never sold ultracheap CCTV systems, camera traps, GPS loggers, and other tools for private personal property protection and sousveillance, both empowering individuals and making public spaces into a security fishbowl. We never delivered sufficiently compelling entertainment, sporting, and cultural events, through both network and public access television, and digital citizen journalism, to keep large fractions of the youth engaged in cultural vs. insurgency activities. We never released prisoners on good behavior from prisons with electronic monitoring systems, though they allow far more granular and humane use of incarceration, and we use them routinely at home. So many of the enduring benefits that come from participation with the West can be delivered through the staged and strategic deployment of IT during a military intervention, the only one of our security and development domains that accelerates in its capacities and performance per dollar every year. I’ve written on IT and nanotechnologies as the great drivers of accelerating change elsewhere on this blog (See “The Race to Inner Space,” 2011). We have yet to realize how strategically different they are, and how much more they shape the future, than everything else we humans do.

intheshadowofgreatnessWe could go on down this list of priorities and talk also about our failure to provide sufficient jobs via massive and temporary urban law enforcement and civil work projects for the unemployed. Or to provide decentralized power via inexpensive generators, and good sanitation. We could discuss the brutality and corruption in the jails. Or our failure to introduce subsidized motor scooters and cheap gasoline to quickly ease transportation problems even in gridlocked cities with terrible roads – just look at modern Vietnam.

We have had many excellent examples of leadership in these wars. Read In the Shadow of Greatness, 2012, for just one inspiring account. But in both Iraq and Afghanistan we never got our top security or development strategies right. While neither wars have been failures on the scale of Vietnam, neither will be the successes they could have been even though one of them, Iraq, began under false pretenses. These are fundamental areas where better leadership, foresight and strategy are needed. We can do better and I’m confident that eventually, we will.

V. Further Learning: A Few Great Films and Books on the Vietnam War

coldwarseriesIf you have time for just one 46 minute video on the war over dinner sometime, let me recommend Vietnam, 1954-68, Episode 11 of the 24 episode series, Cold War, which beautifully covers the dramatic forty-six year era of US-Soviet political, military, scientific, technical, economic, and cultural competition and conflict from 1945-1991. Cold War was conceived and financed by Ted Turner. His iconoclastic, speak-truth-to-power perspective is present in the series, which is crisply and smartly narrated by a young Kenneth Branagh. This series is of the same caliber as People’s Century, the BBC documentary series that covers our entire 20th century in 26 breathtaking episodes. I’ve previously reviewed two episodes of that here and here.

vietnamhistorykarnowFor a single documentary, I’d recommend the academy award-winning Hearts and Minds, 1974. A close runner-up is the Oscar-nominated In the Year of the Pig, 1968, which came out early in the war and does a great job exploring its backdrop and some of the flaws in our strategy. If you’d like a deeper account, you can’t beat the 11 episode series Vietnam: A Television History, The American Experience/PBS. Each of these films are quite harrowing viewing in parts, but they offer great insights into the nature and limits of our human understanding of each other, the world, and our possible and probable futures, and often tragic consequences of those limits.

One of the most extensive and even-handed books on the subject is Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, 1997, written to accompany the PBS films. Unfortunately, nowhere in it can I find an account of the Mekong Delta State solution, or anything like it. If anyone can tell me whether such an idea was ever discussed, and where I can find more details on that discussion, I’d be very glad to hear it, along with any other winning strategies you might have in mind, and any other feedback on this post.

2017 Update: Ken Burns and Lynn Novik have produced a new 10-part PBS series, The Vietnam War, which is a brilliant work, and must-see viewing. I wish they’d mentioned the Mekong Delta State as a missed strategy in any of their first five episodes. Episode 5: This Is What We Do, on Johnson’s last big plans in 1967, was arguably the last clear time the Mekong Delta State could have been realized and started by his administration. Early 1968, after Tet, may have been the very last time. I wish it had been, because I think it would have changed history greatly for the better.

*I nearly came to this strategy in high school. Chadwick School was both rigorous and unconventional. Richard Geldard, our exceptional history and classics teacher, conducted an eye-opening alternative history (foresight) exercise. We were each asked “How would you have conducted the Vietnam War?” and formed teams. I proposed evacuation of Vietnamese capitalists to either a defensible US island (Guam) or a US state (Florida or Texas). Revisiting this issue in World History as a UCLA undergraduate, I looked at a map and realized we could have made the Mekong Delta into a defensible island. All we needed was the foresight to see it and the leadership to do it.

Thanks for reading.

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