Envisaging the Art of Navigating Conceptual Complexity
in search of software combining artistic and conceptual insights
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Published in Knowledge Organization (22), 1995, 1, pp. 2-9. Selected for inclusion in the Festschrift for Ingetraut Dahlberg by the International Society for Knowledge Organization
A. IntroductionThis paper is concerned with approaches to the design and production of a range of software packages to demonstrate the feasibility of enhancing comprehension, and navigating complexity, using features uniquely dependent upon the richness and subtleties of artistic insight.
It is usual to distinguish conventional software strategies for navigating relational databases from software for purely artistic representation. Database navigation has already been enhanced by the use of spatial metaphors (windows, landscapes, etc). Multi-media features may be possible (video clips, sound, etc). Data can also be converted into graphic form (diagrams, pie charts, graphs, etc). Quite distinct from these approaches are the facilities offered by the increasingly sophisticated painting programs used by artists to manipulate colour and shape, notably with the purpose of creating "special effects" (as in video-clips) designed to capture the attention. Also distinct is visual (or experimental) mathematics, namely the experimental use of computer graphics by mathematicians sensitive to insights emerging from the aesthetic properties of the unusual forms they are able to generate. More suggestive are some of the features increasingly embodied in complex, multi-media computer games.
The concern here is with the design of a software package to demonstrate how the power of both "scientific" and "artistic" approaches may be integrated to enhance comprehension and navigation of complexity -- as well as offering new forms of creativity in response to complex policy conditions. Some operational web-based experiments by the author are discussed in the Implementation section below.
It is no longer widely believed that society has the collective ability to organize collaborative projects of a scope capable of making the breakthroughs called for by current challenges. There is a suspicion that the challenge calls for quite another approach that makes greater, and more imaginative, use of the information tools that our society has created in order to counteract the tendency for collaboration to become tokenistic and driven by narrow vested interests. Failing a new approach, projects now run the significant risk of being undermined by dynamics with which many are already all too familiar.
The general concern here is that of obtaining an integrative perspective on any complex of social issues and potential responses, bearing in mind the need to zoom between levels of complexity and effectively to pan between different ordering systems. Issues of learning are then integral to any software specifications. Flexibility in reordering is fundamental -- in contrast to many systems based on somebody's "good idea at the time" (which later proves very costly to change in the light of new insights). There is a marked tendency for the replication of this kind of inadequate thinking in electronic conferences. There is every indication that there should instead be a heavy investment in moving towards what might be termed "conceptual scaffolding" that can facilitate higher orders of consensus -- using differences rather than becoming vulnerable to emergent differences. The future will undoubtedly make as much of the need for sociodiversity, and its cognitive equivalents, as current fashions make of biodiversity.
A key question is whether valuable insights into complexity, vital to governance of social processes, may only be representable and comprehensible through presentations of an essentially artistic nature. It is then their aesthetic properties that have valuable ordering and integrative functions. Given the well-demonstrated weaknesses of current international policy-making, it would be unwise to assume that this is not the case. There is also merit in asking why such possibilities are repressed rather than explored. Even in those special meetings, or journal issues, where the bridge between science and art is the focus, there has been little ability to establish any relationship to new organizations of knowledge for policy purposes.
Interrelated modesBriefly the requirement appears to be that users should be offered the possibility of:
Open environmentThe package envisaged is not intended as a closed or over-defined environment. Rather it is a tool that grows and adapts according to the development of the user's artistic and conceptual skills over the years. In a sense the artistic representations are selected and crafted by the user into a personalized knowledge display in order to embody the full range of issues with which he or she is dealing. Aesthetic priorities would be used to configure together apparently incommensurable insights, where any conventional classification would be unable to provide such integration.
Recent innovations in providing an "active desktop" on PCs are an important step in providing the basis for what is proposed. However these serve most to focus attention on the less well-recognized challenges for the user of how to embody aesthetic elements into the design so as to augment possibilities of higher, or richer, levels of insight.
Clearly those with less artistic competence may draw on libraries of complex artistic figures (or have them specially crafted by a new kind of knowledge specialist). These may be used as such or modified at will (as in many standard packages). Information may however be "fed" into (or onto) them by the user (possibly with the assistance of a consultant specialist -- a future role in the knowledge ordering sciences).
Over time the user would effectively be equipped with a highly personalized interface to the complex of data elements with which he or she deals -- effectively a personal "insight mirror". Personal preferences and challenges would govern whether this interface, like the decoration of a room or house, changed frequently or seldom. The package would not confine the user to a single representation. The same data might be hung onto one or more alternate artistic representations, each with their own advantages.
Conceptual keystonesMany documents of fundamental importance to patterns of collaboration within societies, organizations and groups (or even to an individual's creative processes) are based on sets of principles, values, qualities, policies, initiatives or other points (eg declarations, charters, manifestos, action plans). These are usually listed out as a numbered sequence, possibly with nested sub-points. The conventional method of producing such documents favours (and reinforces) linear thinking at a time when non-linear, contextually- oriented approaches are often believed to be more appropriate to ensure higher levels of integration amongst the elements of the set.
The software required would aim to facilitate the ability to envisage viable configurations of functions based on structures more complex than those reinforced by hierarchical organization charts and the like. It responds to the need for potential collaborators to design "conceptual keystones" essential to the coherence and viability of unforeseen coalition possibilities in difficult situations of governance as exemplified by the Balkans and Jerusalem. This contrasts with the functions of hypertext which in no way aspire to offering integrative insights into the map of hypertext relations, even if this can be displayed.
The assumption made is that aesthetic representations may prove to have considerable advantages over conventional approaches to organization of knowledge in offering understanding of such keystones. But the relationship to such conventional representations needs to be preserved. New significance might even be given to the notion of an "artifact", without needing to coin an ugly neologism such as "artyfact".
Conceptual scaffoldingThe key feature sought from this package might be described by phrases such as "conceptual scaffolding" and "insight capture". The progressively refined artistic representation would serve as a form of scaffolding for an evolving pattern of insight. The artistic dimensions provide a form of order through many patterns of associations which may be of a most tentative and even playful quality -- compensating for the mechanistic connotations of scaffolding. Understanding and creativity are supported and challenged by the relation between the representation and the data held by it.
As with the construction of any building, there is a basic need for "scaffolding" to hold the conceptual and organizational elements in place, especially during the early phases of "imaginative, interdisciplinary" interconnection. It may be argued that it is the lack of this scaffolding feature which prevents many potentially useful initiatives from "getting off the ground" -- and "staying up". And the more complex the psycho-social structure, and the more communication space it spans, the greater the need for more complex scaffolding.
A typical function of scaffolding in a conference is to provide a framework within which complementary perspectives can be articulated, especially when there is a major tension between them. For example, when Concept A is formulated, the scaffolding holds a space for Concept B to counter-balance it. Such scaffolding is even more essential when more than two concepts have to be held in balance. As with buildings, the scaffolding provides a protection against disruptive forces in the conference process. A typical disruptive force in a contemporary conference might focus narrowly on "industry is exploitative", when the larger issue is to provide a sustainable framework in which to balance the exploitative characteristics of industry against the socio- economic benefits that it provides in the light of environmental constraints. The more complex the balance, the more vulnerable is the conference to disruptive forces.
The challenge is how to allow different category structures, and the groups advocating them, to mesh or meld before their incompatibilities tear each other apart. This is a major issue when dealing with the strong, creative, and often idiosyncratic, personalities (and groups) whose collaboration is ideally required. It is seen in its most dramatic form in the Middle East peace process and in negotiations among the warring parties in Bosnia. The apparently disproportionate importance attached to "table layout" in any negotiation procedure is a physical indication of the nature of the conceptual challenge. This argument implies that the challenge is both mathematical and aesthetic.
Failure to respond to this issue leads to project outputs whose only real integrative feature is the physical binding of a document containing unrelateable "integrative" contributions -- however skilfully worded the introduction may be (In German: Buchbindersynthese!).
The scaffolding required not only has implications for elaboration of new structures. It also supports the learning processes through which others subsequently come to grasp the scope of such structures as viable alternatives to the simpler conventional patterns that have proven so inadequate to the challenges of the times.
Providing means for higher and subtler degrees of order to be carried by aesthetically organized displays, allows otherwise incommensurable positions in conferences to be related in ways renered impossible by the present hierarchical and legalistical approaches to order. This is also true for any emergent agreements and communication protocols. Ironically this recalls some of the underlying functions of heraldic devices and seals that still carry significance in secret societies.
Whether for a coalition of forces or for an individual, the computer-held aesthetic display could become as fundamental an asset as intellectual property. It is potentially of greater value than patents or copyright because it is effectively the generative aesthetic (or template) that holds the pattern of insights through which products of lower order are created.
Where different coalitions represent their respective ordering through contrasting aesthetic displays, many opportunities then attach to the significance of the transformational pathways between them (eg through morphing). This is of special relevance to any negotiation process.
UsersA package of this kind would be most attractive to those who have a broad range of interrelated interests. Typically it would respond to the needs of those who are ill-served by normal filing systems and classifications -- and find themselves constantly striving for some more significant pattern to order the complexity with which they are dealing. It would offer few advantages to those whose tasks are already well- defined by sets of files and conventional relational databases.
From an "arts" perspective the package would be most appreciated by those experimenting with new forms with which they seek to challenge conventional approaches to organization. It would provide an arena or bridge that would explicitly establish the relevance of the arts to the organization and comprehension of knowledge. But clearly it would be of very limited interest to those who are well- satisfied by more conventional software packages for artists. However it would incidentally allow those more concerned with providing commentary on details of specific works of art (eg symbolism) to attach text comments to any portions of a picture for later user interrogation.
Diversity of user preferencesIt should not be expected that users would unanimously favour one particular art form. For the package to be of value it would have to respond to the needs of users with quite different artistic tastes -- including individuals who might alternate between different forms. Five extremes might be considered as examples:
Related frames of referenceThe envisaged package may be seen as combining initiatives already explored and justified in other contexts:
Range of applicationsThe major emphasis in each of the following cases is to enable the user to articulate a complex pattern whilst maintaining a sense of coherence and ensuring a configuration of functional checks and balances.
C. Structural outlinerThe package as described might usefully be associated with another feature. "Text outliner" is a term used in word- processing packages to describe the ability to organize complex documents into nested hierarchies of chapters, sections, paragraphs and sub-elements. These hierarchies may be optionally "collapsed" to allow the user to focus on those levels of interest and to navigate around a complex document. Text may be added at any level, but kept from view until requested. An index to the whole may be prepared from the outline down to whatever level of detail is required.
The proposed package in many ways functions as a structural equivalent to the text outliner. Hence the expression "structural outliner". Users are free to zoom between levels of structural complexity (as in CAD applications) -- each with text or other information associated with their structural features.
The package envisaged suggests the need for a computer- based structural "outliner" to facilitate a non-linear approach to the creative production of such "conceptual keystones". The need for a more integrative approach may be seen in the occasional efforts to group conceptual elements, basic to a strategy, into a table, a pie-chart, a diagram, or even into a form of mandala. Although currently simplistic, the structure provides an integrative perspective that links a variety of disparate, but complementary, elements that together ensure the viability of the larger pattern.
The required package therefore focuses initially on the design of computer software (possibly adapting an existing package) for which an appropriate database is then developed in collaboration with a number of bodies. The intention is then to use these tools to provide a "catalytic context" from which new patterns of group and institutional action could emerge. The principal output would not therefore be any form of "report" but rather a piece of software (possibly a prototype). It is the dissemination of this software, ultimately through commercial channels, which would enable many people to explore the tool as a "collaboration enhancing" device. In this sense the real objective of the package is new forms of collaboration. In subsequent use the database would be receptive to user- enhancement, notably to patterns of concepts from non- western cultures.
It is envisaged that such a PC-based structural outliner would be used in a manner somewhat similar to the conventional text outliners and mind mapping aids. However the software would offer many ways of configuring the evolving set of elements within a variety of non-linear structural frameworks, whether in two or three dimensions. The geometric and symmetric properties of these would be used to suggest levels of coherence and integration absent from conventional presentations.
Its claim to originality would lie in its ability to open up (and mid-wife) new and alternative patterns of collaboration -- especially across discipline and faction boundaries. In creating this device, the purpose of inter- institutional collaboration would be to enrich its scope (as represented by the database) and explore opportunities it opened up (specifically in relation to institutional arrangements for sustainable development).
In the light of a number of collaborative international exercises (and notably the design of a collaborative process culminating in the Inter-Sectoral Dialogue in Rio de Janeiro on the occasion of the Earth Summit), it is legitimate to consider whether there is not a strategically more appropriate approach to encourage imaginative, interdisciplinary work of relevance to the policy
Scaffolding possibilitiesMany of the geometric operations basic to fruitful exploration of such a structural outliner are detailed in a classic study by Robert Williams: The Geometrical Foundation of Natural Structure; a source book of design (Dover, 1979). Part 3 of that work details 10 principal methods through which polygons and polyhedra can be generated or have identity changes. These include: vertex motion, fold, reciprocation, truncation, rotation- translation, augmentation-deletion, fistulation, distortion, dissection, symmetry integration. It is such operations which are required to explore transformations between structures whose features are used to carry the conceptual (and even symbolic) significance basic to any new patterns of collaboration.
Structurally an agenda or a conference programme, even a multi-track program, is rather simple -- even simplistic -- especially when considered in relation to the complex ecology of problems and organizations which are supposedly to be interrelated effectively through it. Is it any wonder that conferences are relatively ineffective at coming to grips with complex issues? What is being attempted is in defiance of Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety.
The issue is therefore how to enable users to collectively design more complex forms of conceptual scaffolding to hold in place embryonic or unstable concepts until other concepts can be fitted into the pattern to lock them into place. Ideally, of course, it is the conferencing software which should provide such scaffolding. And, like the scaffolding for buildings, it should be adjustable to different structural configurations as the building grows.
Four forms of scaffolding are especially interesting: symmetrical structures; tensegrity structures; resonance hybrids; embedding data in images.
Dynamic scaffolding and structural transformationThe need for conceptual scaffolding is clear given the kinds of complexity with which society has to work. The challenge of making the more complex structures comprehensible is also clear -- those most appropriate to the challenge of sustainable development may be beyond the ability of any single human mind to grasp. But any form of development implies structural transformation. Whilst transforming simplistic structures like conference agendas and organization charts may pose little challenge, the transformation of the complex structures described earlier are quite another matter.
The process of conceptual or social transformation appears to call for a form of dynamic scaffolding which provides some form of continuity -- from stage to stage -- through the transformation process. What we are looking for is a form of scaffolding onto which the conference's insights can be mapped at Stage I. The relationships in this mapping would then be stretched or changed in the transformation to Stage II, which might be some very different kind of structure -- suggesting new kinds of relationships between the concepts so bound (and between their proponents in the conference).
There are few examples of this kind of structure: image transformation or "morphing"; vector equilibrium.
"Structural outliner" libraryOf greater potential interest is the possibility of building up and maintaining a structural library of concepts organized into sets. Whether in cultural or spiritual traditions, or in the theories of the natural and social sciences, there are a multitude of clearly defined sets of concepts. These range from religion (eg 3-fold trinity, 8- fold way), psychology (eg 4-fold Jungian types), to chemistry (8-group periodic table), and the principles of many international programmes of action.
The user would be able to draw upon a library of such structural templates based on symmetric or aesthetically balanced designs whether: tables (matrices) in 2D and 3D; polygons; polyhedra; or tensegrities; traditional forms (mandalas, etc).
In each case there is merit for a user to be able to scan through a library on the basis of:
An associated thesaurus would be designed to provide facilities beyond those usually provided by such a function in a word-processing environment:
Restructuring(by rules, by library, or by indications)
Many features could be developed in the light of existing packages to restructure displays, maintaining the relationships to data. They might include:
D. Implementation and practicalitiesIt is clearly possible to design and produce such a package without reference to existing packages. This could prove to be expensive and inappropriate, especially for a demonstration package.
Given the number of features common to other existing applications, there could be considerable merit in adapting or "piggy-backing" on such initiatives.
There is also merit in reflecting on the possibility of specifically designing the package as an interface to other packages. In the simplest case it might be of immediate value as an interface through which to order a complex set of word-processing documents that would normally be held in a nested hierarchy of sub-directories.
A number of experiments, embodying some of the features noted above, have been implemented by the author in 1999 as alternative interfaces for web-based access to some databases of the Union of International Associations ( see). These include:
Evolution of the web environment has created a situation in which websites are effectively in savage competition for limited user attention. This has been a major force towards multi-media web facilities even amongst the most text-oriented institutions. This new situation can be usefully understood through a botanical metaphor. In effect each website can be compared to a species of flower. Flowers have had to acquire comparative aesthetic advantages over each other to attract their potential "users" in order to survive. Webmasters anxiously monitor the "hits" their site receives, like spiders attentive to flies hitting their web. As with flowers, some websites are designed to "capture" users -- rather than assist them onwards to other locations.
The larger question is then how complementary species of attention attractors
are to be understood as globally organized (in the integrative, non-geographical
sense). What is the knowledge ecosystem and how is its integrative (namely global)
organization to be comprehened? There may be a case for using the aesthetics
of topography, and of the various ecosystems and habitats, to hold knowledge
for meaningful navigation. This would be a somewhat ironic return to the classical
approach reviewed by Frances Yates -- but in a computer-enhanced aesthetic context.
There wouild then be an elegant cognitive isomorphism to the policy challenges
of responding appropriately to the natural environment.
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