Situational Awareness and Shared Awareness
  (January 5, 2011)

Our circumstances are precarious because our situational and shared awareness are both dangerously low.

It's important to grasp the distinction between situational awareness and shared awareness. Situational awareness is observing and understanding the implications of what's going on around you. Street criminals rely on their victim's low situational awareness: for instance, when three young men approach you late at night and one circles around you, they are not preparing to ask you for the time.

Cyber criminals rely on our poor situational awareness of vulnerabilities in our systems and practices.

In general, people with low situational awareness are sitting ducks.

Fellow author/blogger Chris Sullins recently made this observation in an email:

I dropped by the neighbors yesterday for the first time in quite awhile and they had all their family visiting. Other than the head couple who answered the door and talked with me, no one else even looked up from their laptops in the living room. The control of situational awareness via the internet is more than TV ever had on the world.

Meanwhile, TV as a controller of situational awareness is no slouch: TV Viewing Continues to Edge Up (NY Times)

Historians may someday note with wonder that by the end of 2010, at least six cable television shows were about auctioneers and pawnbrokers. And all were considered successes by their respective channels.

Americans watched more television than ever in 2010, according to the Nielsen Company. Total viewing of broadcast networks and basic cable channels rose about 1 percent for the year, to an average of 34 hours per person per week.

The History Channel was helped by "Pawn Stars" and "American Pickers," trash-into-treasure reality shows that spawned imitators on other channels.

TLC now has "Pawn Queens," Discovery now has "Auction Kings," Spike now has "Auction Hunters," and A&E now has "Storage Wars."

What is the collective effect of TV, iPods, cell phones, Blackberries and the Web/Internet on our situational awareness? There is a great irony here, of course; much of what passes over the airwaves and Internet backbone is loosely regarded as "information" or "news," yet the act of absorbing this flood collectively distracts us and ends up lowering our situational awareness.

Situational awareness includes our financial circumstances. One of our good friends works in an industry undergoing contraction/ruthless efficiencies (workers compensation). The threat isn't globalization, it's employers closing down and the number of employees being covered by Workers Comp dropping. The system 's blood supply (money paid for policies) is being sharply reduced.

The department where our friend works is in danger of being closed down, and jobs in the industry are scarce. Yet she just went to Macy's to buy one of her daughters a $200 coat, and recently declared that she was taking her two teens to Spain this year "even if we can't afford it."

This is a household with no real savings (maybe $1,000 per teen in a "college fund" and the parent's 401K) and no assets (a 12-year old auto). Our friend earns almost double the average household income in the U.S. ($49,777 per year, according to the Census Bureau).

Her situational awareness of the precariousness of her income and lifestyle appears to be near-zero. She is a sitting duck, financially. Is it denial, or a profound lack of situational awareness? Perhaps both, with a large serving of distraction.

We as a nation appear to have near-zero situational awareness. Our friend is a household analog to the entire nation: ignoring the precariousness of our situation, blind to the negative consequences, basking in whatever state is opposite to paranoia (complacency? Denial?)

If as former Intel chief Andy Grove famously declared, only the paranoid survive, then our friend and the U.S. alike are sitting ducks.

There is a higher level of collective awareness, what Clay Shirky terms shared awareness: the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too. (Shirky's essay in Foreign Affairs discusses the political consequences of this: The Political Power of Social Media.)

Shirky's main point is that social media (twitter, Facebook, texting, email, weblogs, etc.) has the potential to increase shared awareness: the understanding that our situational awareness is shared by others, who are also aware they are not alone in their situational awareness.

Political change flows from shared awareness. If one million people have acute situational awareness but remain isolated in their insight, then nothing happens on a political scale. When those same one million people become aware that a million others share their situational awareness and the understanding that the other million people are also aware of each other being on board, then a political movement is possible.

The stock market is an interesting example of this phenomenon. Small investors (so-called retail investors) have been exiting the U.S. stock market for 34 straight weeks, pulling almost $100 billion out of the market. They are voting with their feet based on their situational awareness that the game is rigged, and that the rigging alone greatly increases the risks of another meltdown.

Yet nothing happens to change the market manipulation and fraud because the small investors lack shared awareness.

The two political parties are already dead, zombies without agendas other than borrowing and squandering $2 trillion a year to prop up their fiefdoms, maintain the monopoly cartels which fund them and distribute bread and theatrics to keep their respective audiences idle and distracted in between "get out the vote" campaigns to whip up the Coliseum spectators' Monster Id.

Neither party has an agenda based on a situational awareness of the precariousness of the nation's finances, energy, electrical grid, food supply, etc. etc. etc. The political class (the "leadership") claims a situational awareness which is a simulacrum of the real thing, a PR front that they really do "get it" that borrowing $2 trillion a year ($1.75 trillion Federal, $250 billion more in off-balance sheet borrowing, muni and local government debt) has consequences down the road.

But their responses ("we're going to trim $40 billion from the $3.7 trillion Federal budget, you just watch!") reveal that their state of awareness is near-zero, their level of paranoia is also near-zero, and their level of distraction as they pursue their all-consuming need to retain power, at all costs and by any means necessary--is near-infinite.

As Karl Denninger and others have ceaselessly explained, a true situational awareness requires a much different set of responses: a Federal budget which is slashed by $1.5 trillion, not $15 billion, a mortgage/banking industry which is cleaned up and set on solid ground via bankrupties and hundreds of indictments, a policy of sound money as opposed to manipulation to further the pathological needs of the Power Elites to retain every ounce of wealth and power, and so on.

Some citizens have the situational awareness that the two political parties are intellectually and ethically bankrupt; they have nothing left to offer the citizenry except more of the same old failed policies which have brought us to the edge of the cliff.

In January 2011, the shared awareness of the two parties' zombie status is near-zero. That may change in the years ahead.

New recipes on What's for Dinner at Your House?--Elsewhere Cafe Muffins, and Louisa's Vegetarian Baked Beans

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