Spherical Configuration of Interlocking Roundtables
Internet enhancement of global self-organization through patterns of dialogue
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This paper endeavours to interrelate some threads explored in earlier papers accessible on the web.
Specialized thematic dialogues
Many issues and remedial responses are articulated through specialized thematic conferences and dialogues, whether face-to-face or electronically. Such events may usefully be termed "roundtables" in this paper, for reasons that will become apparent. It is characteristic of such events that they tend to make little reference to roundtables on related or contrasting themes. In this sense the roundtables are thematically "local" (in a non-geographical sense) and beg the question as to how their insights are to be integrated within a thematically "global" (or conceptually comprehensive) context. Aspects of this local/global question have been articulated in a separate paper: Future generation through global conversation (1997).
This challenge was explored as an exercise for the Inter-Sectoral Dialogue on the occasion of the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992). The approach is summarized in a document on Strategic ecosystem: configuring strategic dilemmas in intersectoral dialogue (1992). It is explored elsewhere at greater length, with tables and diagrams (1992: more). There it was shown how the issues relating to sustainable development could be configured around a sphere projected onto a flat surface, that could then be folded back into spherical form. Zones on the surface of the sphere could then be understood as "local" dialogue arenas together encompassing the "global" concern.
There is an interesting question as to the degree to which relatively isolated dialogues are themselves "sustainable" and can effectively discuss "sustainability" in a strategically meaningful way. The challenge of dialogue sustainability is discussed in Sustainable dialogue as a necessary template for sustainable global community (1995). A related issue is the necessary Varieties of dialogue arenas and styles(1992). These can be usefully represented in tabular form.
The point to be stressed is that these conceptually "local" dialogues are part of the continuing "global" dynamic in responding to the challenges of society and the planet. Increasingly they are taking place electronically. How they are, or may come to be, interrelated substantively and cognitively is a different issue.
Widespread concern about the lack of adequate "global" vision, values, conceptual framework or strategy, is an indication that there is a felt need for something more comprehensive -- if only to handle discomfort with "disagreement" between activists or advocates of apparently incompatible, even mutually hostile, initiatives.
There are many responses to this need in the form of global plans, strategies, ethical systems or other frameworks based upon some notion of "common ground". Since these do not evoke universal support, they are clearly inadequate in some fundamental way. Many would be described as simplistic, reductionistic or reflective of a particular cultural or ideological bias as clarified in Dimensions of comprehension diversity.
It is too easily assumed that an "appropriate" strategy or set of values is readily comprehensible, as has been explored in Comprehension of appropriateness (1986). Related points have been discussed in In quest of uncommon ground: beyond impoverished metaphor and the impotence of words of power (1997) as well as in Insights evoked by intractable international differences (1993).
A "roundtable" may be understood as having as many "sides" as there are participants. The greater the number of participants, the closer the polygonal table approximates to a "round" table. Consider the possibility that the "local" roundtables are understood to be in some way interlocking with one another in practice. In mathematical terms, effectively the polygons then constitute a tiling pattern. Each participant (or role) in one roundtable may also then be involved in another.
Clearly this is in many ways already accepted since some people from one thematic arena may also participate in the dialogues of another. Documents from one may be considered in another. This is a characteristic of those who are on the "conference circuit", notably in the international community. Much valuable "cross-fertilization" is achieved in an unplanned manner in this way. Similarly, in an electronic environment, documents may be usefully copied from one conference to another -- the term "cross-posting" is used.
These processes might be termed "weak-bond" interlocking. The question is whether (and when) some more powerful form of "strong bond" interlocking is possible and appropriate -- in order to reflect the necessary feedback loops between different dialogue arenas. This is seen in its very simplest form when the report of one dialogue is formally transferred to another for consideration. However what "necessary" means in a global context remains to be discovered.
One attempt to clarify the need for attention to "strong-bond" interaction focuses on the dysfunctionalities and potentials of the "shadowy roundtable hidden within every meeting" and the need for a new kind of participant contract (Towards a new order of meeting participation, 1993). This endeavours to give modern operational significance to the interacting roles of the archetypal figures seated at an archetypal strategic roundtable (or "situation room") -- as with the Knights of Camelot. Another approach, in the form of an interactive demonstration, explores the explicit relationships between the distinct conditions articulated in the I Ching as the traditional Chinese guide to governance.
As a thought experiment, consider the concrete situation in which many roundtables are distributed throughout a large room. At each table a distinct theme is explored under rules -- perhaps elaborated by the participants interested in that theme. But a participant at one table may be free to leave it to join another. This may be done informally or formally -- in either case with the possible transfer of information. Such movement might be seen as one level of global self-organization at work -- possibly with an additional few provisions for suppressing thematic roundtables that fail to attract interest, creating new ones, or modifying topics. Although in the absence of such flexibility -- as is often the case -- the experiment then models various forms of imposed governance through imposed conceptual frameworks. The dynamics of such tables can be governed by time-sharing rules as described in Time-sharing in meetings: centralized planning vs free-market economy? (1994) and implemented on several occasions by Farah Lenser and Heiner Benking.
The very openness of such a context signals a degree of inadequacy in terms of the need for some global constraining factor -- which an officiating facilitator/consultant may endeavour to supply (as a "benign dictator"). Aside from the dimensions of the room, what is to prevent more and more tables from being added to hold greater diversity of preoccupations? This two-dimensional extension reflects the nature of the challenge of "global" and "globalization". Like the assumption that there will always be "more space", it suggests the absence of any need to deal with the very kind of constraint imposed by a finite planetary surface.
It should be stressed that the required constraint is not a physical one, as the experiment suggests, but rather a conceptual, cognitive or strategic one. How is the diversity to weave itself into a meaningful unity? What does global self-organization mean in psycho-social and conceptual terms?
The nature of such a global constraint has been variously discussed in: Territory construed as the map: in search of radical design innovations in the representation of human activities and their relationships (1982); Future of comprehension: conceptual birdcages and functional basket-weaving (1980) and Tensing associative networks to contain the fragmentation and erosion of collective memory (1980).
What are the possibilities of shifting from "weak-bonding" between the thematic dialogues at the individual roundtables to some form of "strong-bonding" -- if that is the right framing? The two-dimensional surface of the room is not very helpful in clarifying this challenge. It implies that the surface could be extended "if we had a bigger room". It does not challenge individual tables to work out a more functional relationship to other tables -- although processes advocated by some consultants may impose procedures for this in the light of some model. The roundtables do not have to find ways of dealing with dialogue themes that challenge their preferred methodology and style -- they can just "migrate" by moving their tables further apart or ignoring each other.
The tables "on the outside" are not forced to recognize that they too are "surrounded", namely that there are conceptual and functional constraints on their perspectives and operational conclusions. This might be different if the surface of the room was wrapped around a sphere. Ironically, as a physical exercise, this would only be possible in free-fall -- off the surface of the globe whose concerns have to be articulated and managed.
The electronic, global configuration of these roundtables around a sphere is designed to make global constraint meaningful in communication practice. An interesting challenge to the relevance and sustainability of any thematic roundtable in a global context is then to ask "foreign policy" questions such as the following:
What then is the nature, organization and perceived functionality of the communication with such "other" roundtables? If a roundtable feels unconstrained then it could be argued that it is inadequately (even irresponsibly) integrated into a global context. This might also be concluded of a roundtable that saw its appeal as universal. When are weak or strong bonding appropriate?
Another approach is however possible, especially since many thematic roundtables are not face-to-face but electronic -- whether as bulletin boards, newsgroups, listservers, or based on some form of interactive software. But the questions and challenges of the last paragraph still apply. In what way is the activity of one newsgroup or listserver sensititive to, or aware of, another -- and how is transfer of information between them ensured? As with nations, do electronic "roundtables" have a "foreign policy", a sense of "global" responsibility, or are they strictly inward looking? What formal arrangements are made to send/receive summaries/digests from one roundtable to another?
The question then becomes what are the rules and protocols ensuring, or enabling, communications between distinct "local" roundtables so as to articulate, or give form to, the "global" perspective. How could the dialogues of such roundtables interlock electronically to give form to a new pattern of global organization? How is this pattern to be visualized and by whom?
But the enhanced freedom of the electronic environment also creates another trap -- everything can potentially be related to everything, seemingly without need for constraint or order. Potentially everybody can message everybody in a global democracy. Major issues of communication overload are one indicator of the nature of this trap. However, the "surfing" mentality may even deny that this is a problem, since the intent of surfers tends to be sampling ("tasting" or "tire-kicking") rather than "coming to grips" in operational terms (and "biting the bullet").
The tendency to block out potentially valuable communications (through automatic filters) is indicative of another trap -- groupthink or "conceptual incest". Typically contrary views are "designed out" or "excluded" from an electronic exchange. People unsubscribe when their views are not valued. They seek other participative arenas. When is this counterproductive? When is it vital to protect a dialogue from disruptive interventions? How can legitimate arguments for exclusivity be misused and his is such misuse to be determined?
The above-mentioned inter-sectoral dialogue experiment does however point to the possibility of discovering a global architecture that configures the thematic discourses in particular ways. The challenge of such experiments (like the proprietary models of particular group dynamic consultants) is that they are readily seen as the imposition of a particular conceptual model or design -- denying the very self-organizing process dynamic that may be essential to the form of complex global organization that may be required (in terms of Ashby's Law, etc).
The issue then is whether one (or more) software environments can be designed to provide conceptual and communication "scaffolding" for a variety of compatible understandings of the global configuration of interlocked electronic roundtables. Aspects of this question are discussed in Transformative conferencing: re-enchantment of networking through conceptware (1990).
One basic function would be to ensure that communication between particular roundtables is "forbidden" in some cases, "inhibited" in others, "facilitated" in others, and "required" in others. This interlocking function would compensate for tendencies to "conceptual spamming" (global broadcasting) and "conceptual incest". It is a response to the "foreign policy" questions raised earlier.
This might be achieved by software recognition of the need for conceptual "highways" and (needed) peaceful "byeways" -- in the light of the architectural geometry of the global configuration.
Another vital function of the software would be to facilitate a range of understandings of the global pattern. Rather than lock the global configuration into a single spherical pattern, it should be possible to reconfigure any visualization of that pattern -- and maintain the relationship between alternative visualizations. Of special importance would be a facility to complexify the pattern to explicitly hold a finer network of more detailed thematic roundtables. But equally there would be a need to decomplexify the pattern to allow the global pattern to be represented by a relatively limited number of more general thematic roundtables. Spherically this process is modelled to some degree by cell division -- often illustrated on film. The reverse process appears not to be studied.
The challenge is already met in contrasting approaches to mapping and visualizing the physical globe (in which zooming in and out of detail is of vital importance, as well as switching from geological, to thermal, to agricultural, to sociological representations as required).
What appears to be emerging is the possibility of enabling, through communication software, the "local" thematic roundtables to effectively reconfigure "globally" in some way in response to different needs, tolerances of complexity, and levels of understanding.
It would be important to work out how shifting between alternative mappings and representations affected the transfer of information between roundtables. If the global configuration is to be understood as based on the interlocking of say eight basic roundtables (or the 30 Chapters of Agenda 21), how would the information be transferred between these arenas? What e-mail filters would then be required by (or imposed on) the sender and recipient?
Possibly this could only be done by filtering out information relating to detailed discussions implicitly associated with the more specialized roundtables within any one of the eight. Conversely, if the number of globally interlocked roundtables is several thousand, then it would be important to ensure that information relating to more general discussions, contextual to a given specific roundtable, were filtered out. Some existing visualizations responding to aspects of this challenge are to be seen in electrical grid and telecommunications management, as well as in the analysis of financial transfers. Note that users are free to zoom to a more general or a more specific perspective.
Aspects of this question are explored in Towards a web framework for synthesis in dialogue: insight capture from the flow of conference interventions (1996).
It is important to recognize that there is an extensive set of global patterns that can be explored as the basis for templates for alternative representations of the global configuration. A good overview of these may be obtained from websites on polyhedra (notably the 160 at http://www.math.technion.ac.il/~rl/kaleido/). Some of these sites enable the structures to be manipulated in 3D using standard virtual reality browser plug-ins. They vary in complexity from 4 arenas, through tens and hundreds, to thousands. Each implies a particular pattern of interlocking. Of potentially greater interest is that there are geometric transformations between many of these structures that can be used to avoid conceptual discontinuity in the event of any complexification or decomplexification in the number of thematic dialogues.
A question to be explored is how exactly to associate communication protocols with such geometric patterns of edges, nodes and faces -- and the "duals" of such structures (in which apex becomes face, and face becomes apex). It is useful to recall that many of the standard small-group communication patterns (star, Y, chain, loop, etc), that have been so extensively studied, are in effect easily mapped onto portions (but only portions) of such structures.
Some early experiments in using virtual reality structures to hold relationships between organizations, or world problems, can be viewed via sound
Although the emphasis here is placed on interlocking some roundtables, much to be valued is ensuring the separation of those rountables between which direct communication is not fruitful. This renders explicit the need for communication mediation. The "language" and style of a particular roundtable may be too different for effective communication with a conceptually distant thematic dialogue. However one or more intermediary dialogues (roundtables) may ensure the transfer and re-interpretation of the concerns of such distant dialogues. Within the global configuration, the appropriate intermediaries would become evident -- just as would the dialogues that could not fruitfully be interrelated directly. This point is explored in Sustaining the coherence of dialogue through apartness; patterns of systematic configuration of entities through hypertext (1997).
The conceptual challenges of working with differences, rather than seeking to eliminate or reconcile them, are explored in Living differences as a basis for sustainable community (1998).
There is increasing expression of concern with regard to the conceptual implications of the future of the web -- notably in relation to information overload and the loss of any sense of "global" significance. This challenge is explored in a paper on From information highways to songlines of the noosphere (1996). The further possibility of perceiving the global organization of communuication on the web, and of the the web as a whole, is explored in the light of the mnemonic properties of sacred geometry in Sacralization of hyperlink geometry (1997).
The web evokes many proposals for "global democracy". Despite a number of ongoing experiments there is as yet little idea of how the telecommunication potential of allowing everbody to communicate with everybody is to be reconciled with the limited capacity of any one individual to process more than a very limited number of communications in any meaningful way. This problem is especially dramatic in the case of decision-makers on the receiving end of a disproportionate number of such communications -- each ideally requiring an individualized, sensitive response. The, as yet unrecognized, potential for government and other agencies to bombard citizens with myriad electronic questionnaires as part of a "democratic consultative process" is another aspect of this -- a terrible vengeance on advocates of global democracy.
In one sense, it may be argued that global democracy already exists through the thousands of newsgroups and listservers. However clearly these processes are not organized in any meaningful way -- other than in the sense of chaotic self-organization separately meaningful to each part. How this is to be translated into coherent action remains to be discovered -- if that is indeed the appropriate way to frame the challenge.
The concept of interlocking roundtables, globally configured and subject to reconfiguration from the perspective of any participant, suggests new lines of exploration. These lend themselves both to extensive simulation and to real-time experiment with interested electronic conferences.
Aspects of these questions, relevant to international organizations, are discussed in Future operation of international organizations within an electronic environment: framework for reflection on intra- and inter-organizational issues of relevance to both intergovernmental organizations and NGOs (1997).
There are many large, complex organizations, whether intergovernmental organizations or mutinational corporations -- or their national equivalents. Many not-for-profit organizations are increasingly complex. Such complexity takes the form of numerous specialized units. The challenge is to ensure that they work together in a coherent, meaningful manner -- however that comes to be understood. Increasingly the communications of such organizations are electronically based. The question is how the communications between the parts are organized.
The "weak-bonding" approach may ensure some valued, but haphazard, communication between specialized units -- although this is often subject to suspicious hierarchical controls or abuse. Some forms of groupware provide a form of strong-bonding (commitment checking, etc). But again it may be useful to explore the above notion of interlocking rountables as the basis for the emergence of new forms of non-hierarchical organization that may be vital to sustainable community. It might prove to be the case that the sustainability of a community results from appropriate global configuration -- interlocking the diversity of community dialogue arenas.
Aspects of these issues have been discussed in: Groupware configurations of challenge and harmony: an alternative approach to "alternative organization"(1981) and Transcending duality through tensional integrity: a lesson in organization from building design (1978), and more recently in Living differences as a basis for sustainable community(1998)
The widely acknowledged fragmentation of knowledge has not evoked responses capable of ensuring appropriate integration of diverse perspectives -- especially in terms of focused practical action sustained by any form of genuine "consensus". So-called "integrative", "interdisciplinary", "unitary", or even "global" approaches tend to be far more significant for the challenges they avoid than what they actually achieve. Whilst these challenges have long been apparent in conventional organizations and information systems, they are now being rapidly replicated in electronic environments. The challenge for international information systems of erosion of collective memory has been explored in Societal learning and the erosion of collective memory: a critique of the Club of Rome report: "No Limits to Learning" (1980).
By considering that specialized thematic arenas can be interlocked, as argued above, a new approach to flexible global knowledge organization becomes apparent. It is in the global configuration, and the pattern of interlocking, that the operational communication between thematic areans is ensured. However this coherence is not achieved in the same "plane" as the thematic concerns. It is achieved by configuring those planes to create a new "global" form -- itself a necessary challenge to comprehension. It is in this context that meaningful discussion of the nature of a "global brain" (see http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/GBRAIN-L.html) can be explored. The electronic opportunity has been argued in Development beyond "science" to "wisdom": facilitating the emergence of configurative understanding in "Councils of the Wise" through computer conferencing dialogue(1979).
These points have been explored at greater length in Metaphors as transdisciplinary vehicles of the future (1993), notably in relation to decision-making in Guiding metaphors and configuring choices (1991), as well as in Globalization of knowledge and insight: envisaging a paradigm-shifting software package (1997). These points all relate to the challenge of Envisaging the art of navigating conceptual complexity (1995).
The articulation of sets of values and principles is perceived as offering a window of opporunity towards providing a common value framework for collaborative action. Values out of sympathy with this approach are perceived to be part of the problem rather than as a challenge to discover a more fundamental approach.
The approach presented here offers the possibility of associating specific values with "roundtables" where these are understood as dialogue environments, each focused on, or guided by, a specific value. The number of values recognized explicitly, whether 8 or 1,000, would then depend on the preferred global configuration. It is the possibility of reconfiguring the global pattern, increasing or decreasing its complexity, that enables different configurations to be held and interrelated through the transformation process between patterns. This is more sensitive to the range of possible values and to preferences for their organization. The "universality" lies in the integrity of the process of transformation between patterns rather than in the rigidity of any one pattern that some might hope to impose.
Aspects of this argument have been presented at greater length in: Implementing principles by balancing configurations of functions: a tensegrity organization approach (1979); Needs communication: viable needs patterns and their identification (1980); Human values as strange attractors: coevolution of classes of governance principles (1993); as well as in the commentary on the Human Values Project (1994) and its associated data (Values).
Whilst the above arguments have focused exclusively on the "externalities" of either social organization or the organization of knowledge (and values), the approach also has interesting "internal" implications for how an individual may distinguish between his/her "specialized" concerns and their integration into a "global" personal framework -- namely the process of psychological integration or individuation.
The "roundtables" would then be understood rather like the "sub-personalities" of certain schools of psychotherapy -- each with its own discourse (me as a citizen, as a parent, as an employee, as an activist, as a singer, as a friend, etc). The challenge for the individual is to achieve some form of integration between them. By configuring them as suggested, and exploring the possible alternative visual representations of such global organization (spherical mandalas, etc), new self-images may become meaningful and sustainable.
"Global self-organization" then takes on a very particular meaning. This understanding may then enrich the more external forms.
The challenge of interrelating the many contrasting understandings of human development and the associated modes of awareness is presented in the commentary on the Human Development Project (1994) and its associated data (Human Development).
As noted earlier, there are many attempts to define and implement global strategies. It is questionable whether their degree of success is adequate to the challenge. This is especially the case when those involved in the implementation are far less readily constrained than in hierarchical governmental and business initiatives. Also challenging is the extent to which the many strategies have in no way been conceived as interrelated -- and may well have been designed to undermine those based on an opposing perspective.
It is in response to this that proposals are occasionally made to design a "global" strategy that would provide a coherent framework for the many disparate initiatives. Agenda 21 may be seen in this light. Unfortunately, it is characteristic of such efforts that the process of achieving consensus on the whole tends to involve severe reduction in the appropriate relationships between the parts. Some related comments are given in Collective learning from calls for global action (1981).
In the approach advocated here the "roundtables" may also be understood as strategic arenas. Indeed that was the focus of the report on Inter-Sectoral Dialogue mentioned at the beginning of this paper. The global configuration is an effort to give structural recognition to the nature of the strategic dilemmas that are the basis of the incompatibilities between many opposing strategies. The global design, to reflect reality, must therefore endeavour to incorporate such discontinuities as design elements into the global configuration. In the 3D configurations discussed it is the fact that the different strategic roundtables do not lie in the same plane that reflects the necessary incompatibility between them required by their mutually complementary roles. Conventional approaches to "global" strategy do not reflect this strategic challenge.
In order to respond to the challenge of communicating these somewhat counter-intuitive perspectives, related arguments have been presented in terms of the need for new metaphors for global governance, notably: Through metaphor to a sustainable ecology of development policies (1990) and Metaphor as an unexplored catalytic language for global governance (1993). Such arguments have been focused more specifically around strategy configuration in the commentary on the Global Strategies Project (1995) and its associated data (Strategies).
Throughout the above argument there is the implicit assumption that the the resultant emergent global organization would be necessarily beneficial in some obvious sense -- despite the conceptual challenges of "appropriateness" referenced earlier. It is however important not to fail to recognize the manner in which such an approach can be adapted to the ends of those who would seek to act "globally" to exploit, manipulate and abuse "locally" in a more effective and harmful way -- whilst becoming even more invisible from any local perspective. Precisely because "global", as identified here, transcends the roundtable planes of what is "local" and therefore reasonably comprehensible, it is a challenge to comprehension and is therefore also a context in which some can disguise the nature of their agendas.
The point has been made that organized crime has been extremely efficient and creative in adapting its global operations to the electronic environment. Those seeking to curtail these "global" tendencies have been slow to recognize how their initiatives and resources continue to be out-maneuvered. In March 1998, the head of Interpol acknowledged the major dimensions of the threat of organized crime to European society and the inadequacy of the material resources deployed to contain it. Of the quality and nature of the requisite conceptual resources little is said.
It would be wise to assume that organized crime, and its counterparts, are successfully making use of the best intellectual resources long before such opportunities are recognized by the international community. It is therefore worth reflecting attentively on the manner in which such "negative" agendas (and the even more dubious ones disinterested in purely material reward) would benefit from the approach outlined above.
Even in the case of legal multinational corporations, it is noteworthy that the nature of their existence as "global" entities is often heavily disguised in a deliberately intricate network of holding companies. Their visible national affiliates, appropriately incorporated in their respective legal systems, are thus effectively configured together into a global entity whose nature is understood by only a few -- even though they may be widely recognized as household names.
Furthermore, if the emergent organization is to be "global" in a truly comprehensive sense, it is important to distinguish between a more limited "positive" sense of global, and one that transcends the dualism between simplistic understandings of "positive" versus "negative". Many of the tough strategic decisions that need to be introduced as global constraints will not appear to be obviously "positive". The IMF's requirement for "structural adjustment" has for example been experienced as extremely painful by many.
The ultimate challenge for the organization of global society, as it is for the individual, is to find some more fundamental creative reconciliation between the current simplistic understandings of "positive" and "negative" agendas. This is best exemplified by the need for apparently "unpleasant" constraint on the "positive" understandings of population increase ("having children") and use of resources ("improved lifestyle"). The "negative" understanding of constraint has to evolve -- failing which constraints will be evoked by system collapse and the activities of the "Four Horsemen". Global warming is a somewhat innocuous indicator of what be emerging.
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