The Future of Comprehension
conceptual birdcages and functional basket-weaving
- / -
Paper written on the occasion of the First Global Conference
on the Future, Toronto, 1980. (Theme: Thinking Globally/Acting Locally) Printed
in Transnational Associations, 1982, 6, pp
Beyond the uni-modal
Pathology of collective memory
Abstract: The existing range of conceptual, organizational, information
and other structures have demonstrated their inability to generate effective
remedies to the current deteriorating condition of society. Risks can therefore
be usefully taken in directing attention, beyond the simplistic modes of comprehension
which facilitate such failure, towards the range of comprehensible patterns
which offer new modes of conceptual and group organization to harness the vast
resources of unutilized human potential. The nature and operational design
of the associated 'conceptual gearboxes' is considered in the light
of R Buckminster Fuller's work on synergetics and concept 'packing'.
The necessarily spherical nested patterns between which flexible transformations
are required ('changing gear') act as the attention focusing containers
('birdcages') basic to appropriate synthesis and synergy. An equivalent
'woven' pattern of counter-balancing functional elements is required
'tensegrity organizations' then possible
The patterns discussed are direct challenges to individual and collective
comprehension. For them to be communicable and collectively memorable as stable
patterns, it seems necessary to employ symbol sets at least partly energized
by the unconscious. Using traditional sets could bypass valid local resistance
to the alienating artificial category schemes of global thinking.
This paper is a direct response to the conference theme: 'Thinking
globally: acting locally'. It takes for granted the multiplicity and complex
interrelatedness of the current problems of society, whether global or local (1). The
inability of the increasingly large number of organizations (2) to contain their problems
will also not be examined. This is confirmed by the track record of organizations, whether
governmental or otherwise, acting singly, in groups, or as networks - and their decreasing
credibility, despite occasional apparent successes (3). Aside from the inability to
initiate effective collective action. the associated failure in providing an ,information
system matching the complexity of the problem and organization networks will also be
considered as contextual to this paper (4), as will the lack of consensus on values (5).
As Margaret Mead is reported to have declared on a memorable occasion 'We know all
we need to know'. The problem is that 'we' do not know how to fit it
together into a meaningfully communicable pattern which could catalyze appropriate action.
In fact there is no 'we' with a shared awareness permitting coherent action (3).
But as is noted on the cover of The (Updated) Last Whole Earth Catalog (1974):
'We can't put it together; it is together'.
So therefore we could usefully focus attention on our difficulty in seeing things as
parts of a whole. Or, maybe at one level of our awareness we do see the whole, but we are
unable to re-member or communicate this experience (as will be explored below). Or, maybe
we each see it individually, but are unable to match our perceptions. In any case the
consequence is that the more society increases in complexity (whether 'really'
or only 'apparently'), the more we can only act by focusing on simpler issues
for a shorter time span.
Beyond the 1 st order, reactive responses, there have been a variety of 'higher
order' responses to this situation which can be grouped as follows (6):
- 2nd order: interdisciplinarity, world modelling, situation rooms, information
- 3rd order: think-tank networks, networks of the wise, information networks, action
None of these can be said to be offering any possibility of breakthrough as the reality
of the arms race would seem to confirm. At best they enable us to just scrape through the
existing crises. At worst they create the illusion that they would be adequate to any
(provided of course that the appropriate funds were forthcoming and everyone could be
marshalled into desired patterns of behaviour).
Is it not time we explored beyond such self-perpetuating myths and illusions ?
Our act is falling apart and the diversity of views on how it can be got together is
symptomatic of our condition. It is no longer a case of 'You either have to be part
of the solution, or you're going to be part of the problem' (Eldridge Cleaver), but
rather 'If you do not understand how you are part of the problem, you cannot
understand the nature of the solution required'.
What might be a 'point of entry' into this complex situation:
- more research/analysis ?
- more surveys/data ?
- destruction of existing structures ?
- more communication (technology) ?
- more public sensitisation campaigns ?
- allocation of more resources ?
- more appropriate education ?
- more consciousness raising ?
- 'basics first', ?
These, and others, are favoured modes whose track records merely show success bought at
the cost of insensitivity to problems in domains which they are happy to ignore.
Enthusiasts of one mode cannot legitimate within it the allocation of attention to other
modes. At best they can tolerate it.
Why are we trapped by this limitation ? How can we move beyond our uni-modal approach ?
Why has 'interdisciplinarity' never got off the ground ? Bearing in mind the
dangers of a uni-modal approach. I believe that it is time that we switched some
- from our (vain) efforts to patch things together with various conceptual,
organizational, legal, communication, or other devices, each conceived by its
resource-hungry advocates to be the priority.
- to the implications of the process we individually or collectively engage in when we
effectively 'cut-up' a conceptual or functional 'cake' by
distinguishing priorities in the creative decision which then determine subsequent
actions, their organization, and how they are conceived as being interrelated
Beyond the uni-modal
As an indication, consider briefly the following range of decision processes (7,8):
- Uni-modal: focus on the problem, the value, the method, the objective -
vital as a process which both establishes the viability and coherence of concern and
encompasses whatever is relevant to it.
- Bi-modal: polarized perspective: we/they, right/wrong, superior/inferior -vital
as a process which delimits problems or perspectives, and in so doing energizes the
relationship and engenders the motivation and force to act (typical of pro/con arguments
in legal, scholarly or parliamentary debate).
- Tri-modal: mediated perspective (e.g. workers/management/arbitrators) which
balances the relationship between two foci of concern - vital as a means of channelling
the energies released at the bi-modal level, and benefitting from their complementarily.
- Quadri-modal: counteracting activities constructively stabilized into a minimal
system by cross-balancing polarities - vital as providing a stable action pattern which
can be built with, or upon. (This is typical of the conceptual balance in the minimal 2 x
2 matrix, which can also be represented by a tetrahedron (5) ).
- N-modal, etc.
Philosophers and others have repeatedly remarked that we have problems in moving beyond
three (7). Yet from the limited amount of investigation of these and higher modes
(reviewed in 7, and partly documented in 8), it was for example tentatively indicated that
current concerns such as: resource renewal, organizational systems, worker individuality
and personal development, environmental processes, and social innovation and creativity,
call for 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10-mode thinking respectively (7, note 71).
Future investigation will clarify the above possibilities, but it would seem to be
worthwhile considering the nature of the 'conceptual gearbox', which we seem to
have at our disposal. We can see that certain 'gears' would be necessary under
certain conditions - whether acting individually or collectively. (For example, the
'first' gear would seem to be necessary to start any process). And maybe many of
our troubles come because our individual or collective engines are being
'revved' above the r.p.m. which the favoured first and second gears can handle.
Maybe we are going too fast and do not know how to get into the appropriate conceptual
It is of course true that it is possible to drive anywhere in first or second gear, but
this would so slow the traffic that we would have jams everywhere and waste energy --
which, metaphorically speaking, is exactly what we have in society. So how can we
'shift' into higher gears -- especially since the transmission is far from being
as automatic as we would like to assume ? And, having shifted 'up', can we be
sure we can shift 'down' whenever appropriate ?
But the 'gearbox' as a metaphor is one thing, designing something of
operational significance is quite another- and it is highly probable that one modelled on
the principle of revolving circular gear wheels would be inadequate.
Suppose however that we switch from the 2-dimenstional circle as the traditional model
of a whole (Venn diagrams, mandala, etc.) to a 3-dimensional sphere - an intuitively
acceptable step ('One Earth', 'Whole Earth', etc.), whatever the
complications it makes evident. So instead of talking about cutting up a 2-D circular
'cake' into sub-category portions, we now want to explore the parts into which a
sphere can be meaningfully fragmented, or through which it can be reconstituted, or
through which it can be seen as a preexistent whole.
Now the 'omnidirectional spheric experience' has been R. Buckminster Fuller's
area of creative inspiration in Synergetics (9), a work whose significance remains to be
fully appreciated. I am interested in how one can adapt his insights to the context
outlined above. It is basic to Fuller's argument that:
- a) all systems are (modelled by) polyhedra of which the more significant are regular,
symmetric, and approximations to a sphere
- b) polyhedra cannot be constructed in 3 dimensions unless all faces are triangulated -
since the alternative of rigid jointing has inherent material limitations.
- c) richer structural patterns of greater economy and elegance are achieved by rendering
explicit the patterns of compression and tension and ensuring that they are
- d) threshold values of the number of structural elements must be reached before new
structural patterns can emerge.
It is my belief that despite the apparent 'material design' orientation,
Fuller's explorations indicate a fruitful path with fairly immediate payoffs for
organization and concept structure design which, as such, are therefore of only borderline
interest to those primarily associated with his school of thinking. (But if 'domes
blow peoples minds', what might 'tensegrity oroanizations' do ?)
The point is that:
- on the one hand, he offers a range of non-hierachical patterns melding together
'system' and 'network' with extremely valuable indications as to how
the patterns are related one to the other, namely the transformation pathways between
- on the other hand, we are faced within ourselves individually, or as distinct groups,
with a jumble of partially structured preoccupations which we have vainly tried to
energize as 'systems' (for the establishment-oriented) or 'networks'
(in the case of the alternatively oriented), and with only the possibility of portraying
them as alienating flat system charts or operationally useless 'networky
But what is the link between Fuller's 'abstract" patterns and such 'real,
downto-earth' preoccupational jumbles ? For without the link we are still far from a
practical design for the 'gearbox'. A clue lies in the famous small-group
communication net experiments on which sociologists (starting with Bavelas in 1948) and
their students have spent thousands of hours of research time. Conventional organization
theory is based on the mind-set associated with these investigations, and yet (10):
- they have only focused on groups of 3 to 5 persons, whereas Fuller shows that the
threshold for 3-dimensional patterns is 6 elements, or preferably 12 or 30 for more
- they have only worked in terms of 2-dimensional structures (triangle, square, star,
etc.) whereas Fuller shows that it is only when several of these are combined that
3-dimensional structures emerge (of which the minimum system is the tetrahedron, i.e. 4
- they have rarely considered distinctions between elements (e.g. role differentiation)
when it is precisely the 'compression' or 'tension' between distinct
functions which ensures the integrity of 3-dimensional structures.
It would seem that these experiments have concealed the possibility of a breakthrough
into a new kind of organization - whether of individuals, groups, or of concepts (11). The
(bi-modal) fashionable rejection of 'systems' in favour of 'networks'
has not led to the hoped for breakthroughs - but, by interrelating the two (i.e. a
tri-modal approach) on the basis of self-balancing, de-centralized, nonhierarchical
patterns, a whole new field opens up. We cannot develop further through networks,
currently characterized by 'flabbiness' - we need 'tensed networks'
(12) to counter the many 'networking diseases' (13). Fuller shows us the
possibilities for viable patterns.
So now we have an indication of the design possibilities for a particular spherical
'gear'. What we need to know more about is the degree of functional (or role)
differentiation associated with a particular pattern. How many distinct functions or roles
of what kind are required, or are likely to emerge? A viable pattern of functions bears a
strong resemblance to a viable basket-weave pattern with its counter-balancing properties
integral to the structure - hence the notion of 'functional basket-weaving' (14)
But despite the possible attractiveness of any particular pattern, we would lose all
the advantages of the 'gearbox' flexibility if we allowed ourselves to be
mesmerized by its properties. It would seem that the 'gearbox' consists of
spherical basket patterns nested one within the other and capable of 'moving'
independently of each other. An elegant model of this is the traditional Chinese set of
ivory spherical shells nested within one another (decoratively carved from a single ivory
ball). Fuller has explored some transformation pathways which are what is required to
'change gear' between spherical shells or patterns. Another helpful analogy is
the ability of an American football team to switch between plays, each play being denoted
by a number. What we need are non-hierarchical organizations capable of changing their
fundamental operational pattern according to circumstances, rather than organizations
stuck in a, usually hierarchical, pattern which can only be modified superficially, if at
We have plunged into the future of comprehension in terms of the new functional
patterns for which there seems to be a desperate need. But this action-oriented approach
must necessarily be complemented and sustained by a matching conceptual (or consciousness)
development. And this in turn should be reflected in the organization of information
systems (or personal thought patterns, for that matter).
In both cases what must be borne in mind is the significance of the transition beyond
the 2-dimensional representation of organizations (charts) or information systems
(thesauri and list structures). It is this vital de-centralizing step into the third
dimension which provides an 'energy receptacle' appropriate to the complexity
with which we are faced. Only by achieving this transition is the much needed synergy to
Hence the term 'conceptual birdcages' - only by interweaving concepts in a
special kind of non-linear way can we construct an environment which is habitable. If it
is not habitable the 'bird' will escape or die (remember the canary used by coal
miners), and any dependence on a taxidermist to portray a semblance of life merely becomes
one symptom of the underlying problem. The essential living quality, symbolized here by
the bird, cannot be 'captured alive' by the gross concepts so widely employed to
devitalise the activities of others - although, typically, in using them we are seldom
able to apply them consistently to ourselves.
This living quality is alienated (crushed, or torn apart) by the flat matrix structures
by which we attempt to organize our perceptions of the world and our actions therein (5).
They do not provide the fundamentally significant 'curvature' to bound the
necessary emptiness of an appropriate 'container' (7, 11) - even one to contain
the flutterings of our directed attention for any length of time. And the mystics would
suggest that we misunderstand the problem by inverting it (15). For them, it is not a
question of providing a framework to keep the 'bird' where we want it. Rather it
is a question of designing a conceptual 'cage' which will enable us to relate to
the integrity of the living quality it enables us to perceive wherever we then direct our
attention. The 'cage' should then function as a kind of 'aerial' for a
perception of life grounded in the world of practical operational considerations. Any such
grounding should not be disdained, since it is presumably the 'life force'
(whatever that may mean) which is the ultimate driving force of our society and life on
Further clarification of the complementarity between the 'bloodless
categories' and the livingness they endeavour to encompass, could prove fruitful. But
even without it, it would appear that from investigating the design of such
'birdcages' could emerge the kind of conceptual synergy which has been vainly
sought in 'interdisciplinarity', and which is essential to the file designs of
the information systems we now need for a complex living society (10).
To return to the gearbox metaphor, it is not a single cage-weave pattern which is
adequate to maintain our relationship to the flow and immediacy of the livingness to which
we could respond. We need to be able to transfer between patterns, as appropriate, without
destroying the connectedness and continuity of awareness which is the vital under-pinning
of synergy and synthesis. Again it is Fuller's indications which are valuable, and these
may be adapted to the three kinds of transformation we meet:
- in response to cyclic or accidental changes in the environment (operational changes)
- through growth according to a particular pattern (or set of patterns)
- through evolution into a new pattern (or set of patterns).
It is strange that the problem of comprehension is seldom considered as basic to
whatever quantum change is required to move society into a more successful mode. What we
have is various elites maintaining their beliefs in the priority value of their respective
mind-sets and the conviction that 'others' need to be educated, propagandised,
or even brainwashed, into that viewpoint - and then 'all will be well' in their
brave new world. This uses bi-modal thinking to ensure, by eliminating variety, a world
characterised by uni-modal thinking. And yet is it not the generation of variety which
exemplifies humanity and constitutes the ultimate challenge to comprehension ? But the
more different things and processes are, the more difficult it is to comprehend both their
interrelatedness and the need to ensure the viability of niches within which
'species' can evolve without becoming victims of their particular weakness or
Part of the optimism associated with the ongoing evolution of mass communication
technology is due to the belief in the increasing power of choice which will be offered to
the individual - especially in the case of sophisticated devices such as computer
conferencing. This avoids the problem of the exponential increase in available information
and the fact that man remains a slave to the linearity of information input and output
(even as a speed reader). Given such constraints, it would be more beneficial to see the
foreseeable future as effectively engendering increasing ignorance - daily each of us is
effectively ignorant of more and more (to the extent that it is now appropriate to
investigate creatively whether 'ignorance' has any characteristics to enable it
to de used as a social resource - one of the very few which is increasing). Comprehending
what to request is the more fundamental problem, not the process of retrieval from any
information system, nor comprehending the response (4). The systems envisaged do not
penetrate my comprehension barrier to the 'better' questions I
'should' be asking. They merely respond to the questions I can now formulate,
thus reinforcing my contextual ignorance and the fragmentation of my awareness.
Current optimism also happily ignores the memorability of knowledge in the expectation
that anything forgotten can be retrieved - but what if the pattern which made the item
significant is itself forgotten ? Where and how are such patterns to be stored and how are
they to be ordered for comprehension ?
Ultimately this is a question of 'concept packing' which presumably is
closely related to Fuller's concern with closestpacking and the symmetry effects to which
it can give rise under the most economic packing configurations (7).
It is these symmetry effects, emerging from the patterned juxtaposition of elements,
which ensure memory reinforcement and ultimately the synergistic properties of the
pattern. This relates back to the considerations of the 'conceptual birdcages'
of the previous section, which must necessarily be of optimum memorability. The
comprehension barrier is then associated with the (in)ability to transfer between nested
patterns, particularly into the more complex.
It is ironic, in the light of the 'knowledge explosion', that a central force
of the mass communications industry, namely advertising, has as an axiom that only one
message at a time about a product should be fired at the target audience. Considerable
ingenuity is devoted to compacting the essence of a concept into a simple communicable
form. Such is the 'compacting pressure' and the need to energize the concepts in
the eyes of the target receiver, that it is this industry of the 'superficial'
which relies most on the esoteric fundamentals of symbolism.
The challenge for the individual is not to depend upon being 'hit' by
appropriate uni-modal messages, but rather to find a means of grasping semi-permanently,
within memory, multi-element configurations characterised by high variety and complex
relationship patterns. Abstract coding schemes are inadequate because, as those skilled in
mnemotechniques have shown, they leave little with which the necessary imaginative power
can work (16). Hence the importance of symbols whose energy is constantly renewed by the
unconscious. The challenge is then to find sets of such symbols which can be used to
encode complex relationship patterns (7,8). Even more desirable are symbol patterns in
nested layers, or with layers of significance, between which the possible transformation
pathways are themsalve.q unended
Pathology of collective memory
Whilst individual memory skills may be considered unimportant, there is the strong
possibility that we are witnessing the rapid erosion of collective memory skills through
dependence on information systems which reinforce uni-rnodal thinking. In these terms, it
is possible that the 'learning capacitv of nations' is effectively decreasing
(17). The more complex the pattern we need to comprehend in response to social conditions,
the more difficult it is to make it communicable. If the pattern cannot be collectively
comprehended, then we cannot use it as a basis for new patterns of collective organization
and, in terms of Ashby's Law, we must then necessarily fail. What memorable sets of
symbols do cultures share, if any ?
Is their encoding power being eroded, and with what other diseases of collective memory
is this associated ? (Is it perhaps not a form of dyslexia which prevents us from
collectively comprehending the `` writing on the wall' ?) Can new symbol sets be
generated with the required charactersitics?
Things are not going well. There are few signs of cumulative improvement, and there are
few signs of widespread awareness of the gravity of the situation. And there are even
fewer indications as to how we might usefully act in future, given the track records of
conventional approaches. Collectively we accept childish risks (arms race, etc.) and fail
to consider the nature and necessity of the risks of maturity. We hope naively for
rejuvenation in a unconstrained 'eternal summer time', and fail to recognise the
ecological significance of death and 'winter' as processes (5). Our collective
comprehension is in total disarray as a guide to local action. There is a 'flat
earth' quality to our thinking about specialised functions in 'global'
society. We have yet to render communicable its 'functional roundness' and all
that follows from that in terms of communication and map-making (1,3). Conceptually, we
should be moving out of the Age of the Wheel, into the Age of the Sphere. (Beyond a
non-contextual focus on projects (projectiles, objects, subjects, rejects etc.) into an
awareness that for every 'plus-ject' a counterbalancing 'minus-ject'
necessarily emerges to maintain the integrity of the non-dualistic whole within which we
'Global thinking' today results in a linear list of action priorities (e.g. a
development strategy) with little collective comprehension as to how such projects ought
to be interrelated or the consequences for organization and information systems design.
(Ironically, 'global thinking' could be interpreted in French as meaning
'wholistic thinking'). We do not know how to represent and comprehend the
complex patterns we need to communicate. Consequently 'local action' stimulated
by 'global thinking' suffers from the simplistic defects of the latter and is
hindered, rather than assisted, in the search for viable new patterns of action. Global
thinking blocks local action by the devitalizing ersatz category patterns which are
employed - to which the vitality of initiative and risk taking are most vulnerable.
This paper suggests that breakthroughs to new modes are possible if we recognize that
the barriers are those to the comprehension of increasingly complex patterns. Families of
inter-transformable patterns, useful as conceptual 'containers' can be
indicated. The succession of comprehension barriers that stand as an individual and
collective challenge to us can begin to be indicated.
And, by using appropriate symbol sets, they and the possible transformation pathways
could be encoded in a memorable, communicable form. Such sets could stimulate 'local
action' initiatives, especially if traditional local symbols can be harnessed as
vehicles for memory. They could provide a sense of how to shift into an appropriately
'higher' or 'lower' conceptual gear to mesh with wider contexts. And,
above all, they could catalyze the local emergence of organization patterns appropriate to
the vast unutilized human potential at the grass-roots level. A major possibility is that
such patterns could facilitate risk-taking initiatives by unemployed individuals -
especially the young - to form themselves into new kinds of organization and thus create
employment for themselves.
Man, in his expressions and behaviour, uses a partially ordered lattice of
complementary descriptive languages (18). This was first pointed out in connection with
the context-sensitive logic of quantum mechanics (19). It may prove to be the case that
the nested patterns discussed here are each isomorphic representations of a particular
lattice of sub-linguistic systems which could characterize a particular pattern of
functionally differentiated organization. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these
perceptions have proved relevant to studies of the most successful communication vehicle
(at least timewise), namely the 4000-year-old Hindu songs of the Rg Veda, whose
organization and symbolism seem to model the comprehension problem we face (8): `` When
language is grounded on a tone system, as in the Rg Veda, then the immediate result is a
plurality of systems; that is a language which we can only speak through sub-linguistic
systems... Language, in the above sense, is only to be reached as a viewpoint gained
through the activity of contrasting perspectives... Rg Vedic man... cherished the
multitude of possibilities open to him too much to freeze himself into one dogmatic
posture... Any perspective (tone) must be 'sacrificed' for a new one to come
into being; the song is a radical activity which requires innovation while maintaining
continuity, and the world ~ is the creation of the singer, who shares its dimensions
with the song... Man is at the centre of his own activity, creating and recreating himself
in relation to how efficiently he climbs or descends the cnntexhlAl multiplicity within
which he constantly operates... In a language ruled by the criteria of sound,
perspectives, the change of perspectives and vision, stand for what musicologists call
'modulation'. (18, p 31, 57,182,187,192).
Maybe 'we' should be thinking less about how an action button (including the
button) gets pushed, and more in terms of the kinds of patterns which can guide the use of
modulating buttons on a musical synthesizer. Such patterns are readily accessible to
comprehension, unlike patterns developed linearly in papers of this kind.
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