Avoiding Doomsday: Untying the Gordian Knot

Legend has it that in 333 BC Alexander the Great marched his army into the Phrygian capital of Gordium in modern-day Turkey. As he entered the city, he came across an ancient wagon with its yoke tied with what historians have described as a knot so complex that it was impossible for it to be undone. It is reported that an oracle had declared that anyone who could untie the knot would become the ruler of all Asia.

Cutting the Gordian Knot

Today in modern-day usage the idea of a Gordian Knot is of a problem that is hard to solve – an intractable or intricate obstacle that is hard to overcome. The term “cutting the Gordian Knot” has entered the lexicon the of the English language describing when a novel solution has been found to what appears to be an insurmountable problem.

That problems abound today is not hard to grasp. We are challenged in so many ways. Rather than seek solutions to what are many interlinked and complex problems, the preference is to blame the problem on something. A favourite target is social media.

Any debate among the generation born in the period from 1950 to 1970 will often conclude that all the ills of society are based on social media. Fake news, horrific sexual material, unfounded rumours and an ability to fixate and recruit young people to causes are all cited as being examples of problems that are caused by social media. Notwithstanding those issues criminals also patrol social media and seek to exploit the vulnerable.

In many ways some of these criticisms are valid. From purely a psychological viewpoint, children that fixate on how many ‘likes’ they obtain or who has blocked them at a moment in time cannot be good for their mental health. The mask of social media, removing the need for what are often face-to-face means of resolving issues, is inherently bad. Its remoteness also offers the potential for others, sometimes also deeply flawed psychologically, to express opinions on a topic. Situations that can often be resolved easily can often descend into something that is very messy.

But is this a general point about social media? Is it all bad? Or might it be adapted and become an important part of the solution of some of societies ills? Could it become part of the development of a more resilient society? One that can start to address many of the problems that currently seem to be at the heart of the Gordian Knot we face.

The answer to that question is a qualified yes. With the advent of fifth generation mobile technologies there should be no technical issues that are insurmountable. The problem lies elsewhere. There is a need to re-establish trust between those in government, and their obvious recent failings in dealing with the challenges of Covid-19, and the ordinary members of the public, many of which have lost faith in the ways we prepare for, and handle, major emergencies.

Lacking Preparedness

For many of them the last 18 months have been a series of monumental failures that have resulted in many, quite unnecessary, deaths. There is a sneaking suspicion that some of the outcomes might have been mitigated if we had been better prepared.

This feeling of preparedness links to the subject we at Fire Knowledge have at the heart of our thinking: becoming a more resilient society. Using the emergency services and other local government and voluntary sector participants to their best to push back against chaos when the unexpected occurs.

At the heart of this distrust is the government’s obvious attempts to kick any form of inquiry into the handling of Covid-19 into the long grass, where its impact can be mitigated. This is foolish and short-sighted. We need, as argued in the first part of my analysis (see pg 47), to be learning the lessons now, not at some point in the future. It is always an unedifying sight when the Prime Minister tries to suggest “now is not the right time to learn the lessons from the pandemic”. This viewpoint is short-sighted and nonsensical.

This is especially true when recent reporting has revealed that the report into the lessons learnt from the 2003 SARS epidemic – that was tightly controlled and did not run amok across the world – was somehow “lost” and forgotten. An outcome made even worse by a total institutional failure to grasp important insights from an exercise run in 2016 that simulated a pandemic. It appears that the maxim that we never learn lessons still applies. One must ask, is this a systemic institutional problem or one that appears due to political expediency?

Any objective assessment of the government’s response to the pandemic would conclude that despite the rather effective and simplistic nature of the main narrative that was developed – based as it was on three words – a theme that was continued, problems arose in the communication (from different ministries) that “clarified” the rules under which we entered lockdown. It is a point that several parts of the media revelled in highlighting.

The mainstream media did itself few favours by trying to hold a patently inept government and for that matter its so-called opposition to account. Rather than cut them (political leaders across the spectrum) some slack, it went for the jugular. It is an approach in a national emergency that is hardly helpful. This simply undermines the resilience of society and defeats the objective of trying to manage the situation. If anything, the mainstream media made the problem of untying the Gordian Knot even more difficult.

Utilising Social Media

So, what of social media? Tainted by its inability to get on top of the propagation of obvious lies and mistruths, it can hardly be said to have had a good pandemic. But that does not mean it cannot get better. On these pages we have already been in the forefront of advocating the use of social media to help the emergency services respond better to surprise events, such as terrorist attacks.

When it comes to so-called “rising tide” events the Environmental Agency (EA) has shown its ability to harness social media to get messages out to communities at risk. So social media does have a role, but it is based upon a trust relationship. The EA is one of the few parts of government that is (relatively speaking) trusted.

Sadly, this is not the case for the police. Events in Manchester in the aftermath of the attack at the arena have dealt a blow to the credibility of the ambulance and fire and rescue services. Whilst their pitiful response does have its explanations, had lessons from past exercises been learnt the debacle that unfolded would have looked more polished.

At the heart of the problem of untying the Gordian Knot is the issue of transparency. What the government needs to do now is to show that it is seriously preparing for future catastrophes; that it is prepared to think the unthinkable; that it is learning the lessons from the pandemic and willing to take criticisms of scaremongering on the chin. After all, who, having watched the recent coverage on television of forest fires, heat waves and stories of Arctic and Antarctic, remains a climate change denier?

Building a Resilient Society

The upcoming climate change conference in Glasgow provides the perfect setting for such a new transparent approach. It is one where the government shows it can anticipate events rather than react poorly to them and harnessed the lessons learnt from recent events.

Of course, that will mean that the mainstream media must ask questions of how any initiatives will be paid for and probe the extent to which any strategy is sound. But that is all part of what should happen in the process of being better prepared for events in what is an increasingly chaotic world. It is a situation that is going to get worse not better.

Perhaps, like Alexander the Great, instead of trying to find a way of untying the knot we should take out our notional sword and cut through the detritus of contemporary societies, ruled by so many competing and inconsistent demands and understand what matters when disaster strikes.

Debates about the direction of societies and its liberal or illiberal position are all well and good and a part of a vibrant and healthy democracy. But they serve no one, least of all the public, when they create restrictions and rules that prevent individual initiative when the going gets tough.

That said, the idea of creating an autocratic society where the government is in complete control is not a model many would adjudge to be a solution. Total control over social media by the state, as practised in Russia and China, is not a model that is compatible with democracy. A balance must be struck. It is one that our ability to be reactive to the unexpected depends upon. Resilience in the face of adversity is a challenge. It is an example of the Gordian Knot that can tie us all in a morass of administrative detail, uncertainty, inconsistency and narratives that simply do not make sense to the ordinary member of the public.

To loosen the grip of the Gordian Knot and hopefully untie it government must learn to trust the people and those who seek to protect our society and help them learn and embed the lessons from the past. Mislaying reports, failing to learn obvious and immediate lessons from relevant past experiences and an inability to define exercises that really test our resilience must become things of the past. We can no longer hide behind setting exam questions we know we can pass. Failure is an option and not a career ending situation.

In amongst this government also has its role to play. Without tending to the autocratic, government must seek to use social media as a vehicle for it to get its narrative across about societal resilience. Its recent initiative to conduct consultations with anyone who feels they have something to contribute is a good first step. As those consultations continue government must not try and shoehorn any conclusions into what it is already doing. In must admit to its limitations and be transparent in its acceptance of good ideas. Innovation does not always mean more money.

We at Fire Knowledge stand ready to make our contribution to this public debate. We are keen to see society become more resilient to the unexpected and when crisis strikes we are ready to help create the conditions where the Gordian Knot can be untied.

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