Closed world vs. situational awareness (Suchman, 2022)

In military thinking, Lucy Suchman criticizes presumptions of intelligence based on a closed world, as compared to situational awareness.

The through line from the closed world of the Cold War to the current technopolitical imaginary is the figure of objective knowledge that can resolve interpretive flexibility, this time through data analytics at scale. The premise is that the analytic apparatus can transform the contingencies and ambiguities of relations on the ground into noise from which, through statistical techniques operating over large data sets, a stable and unambiguous signal can be abstracted. This premise rests upon the conflation of signals with information, through erasure of the situated knowledges through which information is produced. The technopolitical imaginary of containment is further sustained by an unreconstructed objectivist conception of situational awareness, modeled as a cognitive system (exemplified by the OODA loop), which renders the openness of sites of operation, including military actors’ own effects on those sites, either as ‘input’ to the system or as outside the system’s boundaries. In the current moment increasing datafication, as the infrastructure for situational awareness, produces new needs for ever more complex connectivity and analytical tools, which in turn exacerbate the very complexity that they aspire to tame.21

I have suggested that the most powerful alternative to closed-world knowledge making is investigative journalism and other modes of on-the-ground research and reporting.22 These accounts convey the radical openness of war, foregrounding its associated injuries, challenging the military’s attempt to make clean demarcations where there are none to be made, and demonstrating knowledge-producing practices that do not fit the military’s imaginaries of omniscience. The ‘fog of war’ on this analysis takes on a different aspect, not as a naturally occurring atmospheric condition, or even the effect of deliberate obfuscation directed by one set of combatants at another, but as the routine manipulation of information by relevant governments to effectively keep their publics in the dark, and in that way to control the situational awareness of those in whose names the conflict is fought. At the same time, the irremediable uncertainty of war fighting, in its refusal to be contained, holds open the spaces of resistance to closed-world logics and makes evident the urgent need for demilitarization and reinvestment in more just pathways to our collective security.

Lucy Suchman, “Imaginaries of omniscience: Automating intelligence in the US Department of Defense”, Social Studies of Science, 2022,