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Transformative Conferencing

re-enchantment of networking through conceptware

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Paper prepared for the 5th Conference of the Electronic Networking Association, San Francisco, May 1990


1. Introduction

Much has been written about the crises of our times and the urgency with which imaginative approaches must be identified and applied. Much has also been written about the inadequacies of the international systems with which attempts are made to engender and implement such approaches.

Before getting into the central concern of this paper it is appropriate to note the dimensions of the challenge. It is usual to point to the quantity of information generated each year. The associated problem of information overload is well-recognized, as is the problem created by hyper-specialization at a time when integrative conceptual approaches are in practice weak or non-existent. These conceptual weaknesses are matched within organizational systems.

The Union of International Associations (founded in Brussels in 1910) acts as a clearinghouse for information on some 27,000 international bodies. These are both governmental and nongovernmental and are active in every field of human activity. Although they include trade associations, they do not include multinational enterprises. There are some 65,000 links between these bodies and some 192,000 links from them to their national membership. Descriptive information on them is published annually in the 3-volume Yearbook of International Organizations. This is a standard reference work within the United Nations system and the international community. Information on the 5,500 planned meetings of these organizations is published quarterly in an International Congress Calendar.

As a complement to this information on the organizations themselves, information is collected on the 'world problems' which they recognize and on which they choose to act. These range from the most-publicized, such as poverty, through to minority concerns such as abduction by extra-terrestrials. Information is currently maintained on some 13,000 perceived world problems and on 60,000 relationships between them. It is published irregularly in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. The organizations and problems are grouped by some 3,000 subjects in a yellow-page format in an annual volume entitled Global Action Networks.

All this information is maintained as a Revelation text database held in a Novell environment on a local area network with some 20 workstations and 500 MB of disk storage.

These details are given to make the point that, despite the relative sophistication of the database, it is questionable whether it would be more than marginally useful to provide direct access to it at this time. And, despite the key role that the many international organizations play, it is clear that only a small proportion use computers at all and that an even smaller proportion make use of any form of electronic networking, other than fax or telex.

The remainder of this paper addresses the question of the inappropriateness of the form in which key information is held and circulated -- including that described above. Specifically the concern is why that form hinders social transformation.

2. Organizational handicaps

Much has been made in a variety of reports at the international level concerning the organizational inefficiencies of the international system of organizations. Most striking are the reports on the United Nations and its Specialized Agencies. Typically reference is made to duplication of effort, unnecessary quantities of information, inappropriate dissemination of information, unproductive rivalry between departments, mismanagement, and the general ineffectiveness of programmes. The problems of coordination within an organizational system such as the United Nations, or even within one of its Agencies, are quite depressing in the light of the challenge on which these bodies are mandated to focus.

The problems of coordination are considerably aggravated in the case of networks of independent organizations all endeavouring to respond to aspects of interdependent problem areas such as disaster relief, environmental issues or human rights. As at the national and local levels, rivalries, personalities and institutional empire building, when associated with evaluations of competence and experience, constantly undermine the emergence of a healthy response to the crises of our times. The situation is rendered even more difficult due to the added complexities of ideological,cultural and linguistic concerns.

Standard responses to this complexity include:

At the same time strong arguments are advanced for the mobilization of all organizational resources, stressing the importance of the participation of all, and the need to respond to the issues recognized by those who are marginalized.

It is relatively easy to lose sight of these handicaps in the complex dynamics of the life of the international community. Crisis management avoids the need to focus on 'abstract' organizational issues. But these issues are brought into much sharper focus in the organization of meetings.

International meetings, especially those involving a wide range of bodies, disciplines, cultures and languages, can be usefully considered as very sophisticated laboratory models of the organizational challenge at this time -- and the success of efforts to deal with them. Most of the problems noted above tend to be reflected in the meetings designed to articulate issues and to focus the efforts of constellations of organizations on them.

Despite the ease with which meetings are held, and the increasing number of such events, meetings are seldom as successful as those involved would claim. This is especially clear in the case of those meetings aiming to deal with aspects of the crisis of these times. Although extensive resources are mobilized, it is frequently the case for example, that many participants (often coming from distant continents) are not given the opportunity to participate, or only participate in a token or formalistic manner. Skilled factions typically devote their resources to manipulating the event in their own interests. Organizers use suspect criteria of importance and irrelevance to filter participants and issues. The agenda is manipulated to exclude discussion of minority interests -- often with well-rationalized pleas of shortage of time. People do not meet those with whom they could most fruitfully interact. As a result such events do not fulfil the expectations of participants or those whose future depends on their outcome.

This leads to the conclusion that, where social transformation is a concern, current meeting procedures themselves constitute a principal obstacle to social change. In a very real sense meetings model collective inability to act and the ineffectiveness of the action they enable. A new conceptual framework is required with which to perceive meeting processes, to highlight specific obstacles and to clarify hidden opportunities./

3. Networking vision

Since the 1970s, networking, and specifically electronic networking, has been seen as offering a way out of the organizational morass described above.

In what follows, it is useful to distinguish between:

The 1980s have seen an explosion of messaging facilities, with the fax being seen as a viable alternative to electronic networking or viewed as an integrated adjunct of it. Electronic networking has been successfully integrated with joint task management primarily within well-defined constituencies. Typically this would be most successful in a network of geographically dispersed corporate affiliates, or university departments with a very specific shared concern.

The argument here is that electronic networking has been most successful in facilitating communication tasks which would otherwise have been carried by less sophisticated technologies -- or not done at all. It has considerably speeded up operations which were previously done in a more cumbersome manner. In this sense it has reinforced existing modes of organization, even though patterns of work may have been modified. But although technically feasible, the original vision of distance working has not emerged as feasible for more than a few.

Despite the apparently ideal facilities it offers to the international community, the use of electronic conferencing outside the multinational business community remains relatively marginal. Obvious explanations include cost, technical problems in developing countries, political and security issues concerning the location of the files and control of the system, and problems relating to accented languages and scripts. The incompatibility between rival systems has not helped. In addition the responsible government authorities in many countries have been more concerned to protect lucrative monopolies than to facilitate the development of a technology which might facilitate alternative modes of social organization.

These issues are far from being resolved -- especially that of the increasing gap between those with access to such facilities and those marginalized by lack of such access.

Whatever the reservations about such uses of electronic networking, of much greater concern is that even in the most ideal settings where resources and other complicating factors are not the issue, all is not well. It must be asked whether the facilities offered respond to the needs for new ways of articulating conceptual and organizational structures -- appropriate to the challenges of the times./

4. Conceptual challenge

The original excitement of the conceptual implications of computers in the early 1970s was inspired by statements such as the following:

'Concepts can be viewed as manifolds in the multidimensional variate space spanned by the parameters describing the situation. If a correspondence is established that represents our incomplete knowledge by altitude functions, we can seek the terrae incognitae, plateaus, enclaves of knowledge, cusps, peaks, and saddles by a conceptual photogrammetry. Exploring the face of a new concept would be comparable to exploring the topography of the back of the moon. Commonly heard remarks such as 'Now I'm beginning to get the picture' are perhaps an indication that these processes already play an unsuspected role in conceptualization...' (Dean Brown and Joan Lewis)

'Unfortunately, my abstract model tends to fade out when I get a circuit that is a little bit too complex. I can't remember what is happening in one place long enough to see what is going to happen somewhere else. My model evaporates. If I could somehow represent that abstract model in the computer to see a circuit in animation, my abstraction wouldn't evaporate. I could take the vague notion that 'fades out at the edges' and solidify it. I could analyze bigger circuits. In all fields there are such abstractions.' (Ivan Sutherland)

'Concepts seem to be structurable, in that a new concept can be composed of an organization of established concepts... A given structure of concepts can be represented by any of an infinite number of different symbol structures, some of which would be much better than others for enabling the human perceptual and cognitive apparatus to search out and comprehend the conceptual matter of significance...Besides the forms of symbol structures that can be constructed and portrayed, we are very much concerned with the speed and flexibility with which one form can be transformed into another, and with which new material can be located and portrayed...With a computer manipulating our symbols and generating their portrayals to us on a display, we no longer need think of our looking at the symbol structure which is stored as we think of looking at the structures stored in notebooks, memos and books...In fact, this structuring has immensely greater potential for accurately mapping a complex concept structure than does a structure an individual would find it practical to construct or useon paper. \The computer can transform back and forth between the two-dimensional portrayal on the screen, of some limited view of the total structure, and the aspect of the n- dimensional internal image that represents this 'view'.' (Douglas Engelbart)

It will be possible to use computer devices as a sort of 'electronic vehicle with which one could drive around with extraordinary freedom through the information domain. Imagine driving a car through a landscape which instead of buildings, roads and trees, had groves of facts, structures of ideas, and so on, relevant to your professional interests. But this information landscape is a remarkably organized one; not only can you drive around a grove of certain arranged facts and look at it from many aspects, you have the capability of totally reorganizing that grove almost instantaneously.' (Nilo Lundgren)

Re-reading these early texts in the light of the achievements of 20 years, it is possible to argue that we have access to these features if they are understood simplistically. Much manipulation is indeed possible. A user can indeed 'drive around' an electronic network, dipping into and out of conferences and examining arrays of ideas.

But it is also possible to view current electronic networking as quite disappointing in the light of those early aspirations. Consider the following:

It should be quickly said that the existing software is obviously satisfactory to many users of electronic networking. Distinctions can usefully be made between:

It would seem to be the case that user satisfaction is due to the predominance of focused networking. Where users work within specific conferences or maintain contact with specific people, the question of conceptual organization is implicit in the text of the messages exchanged. But in the case of unfocused networking, the question is whether the networking environment responds to the conceptual challenge of the focusing process, namely interrelating complex networks of organizations and problems, articulating agendas, identifying conference participants. The view taken here is that the broader conceptual challenge is to provide an electronic networking system which facilitates the emergence and articulation of conceptual clusters as a prelude to focused networking, if required./

5. Conferencing weaknesses

It is useful to consider the following conceptual weaknesses in both electronic networking and in conventional face-to-face conferences:

In response to such assessments, it is usually argued that these difficulties can be avoided if the conference is appropriately organized with a 'strong chairperson' or 'moderator' to 'keep things in focus'. This is in effect a betrayal of the original non- hierarchical inspiration of networking. The further suggestion that the conference should have a 'clear agenda' tends to imply that the agenda is decided in advance, thus inhibiting the creative, self- organizing process whereby responsible people redesign the framework through which they interact in response to new insights emerging from that interaction. Most of the burning international issues call for conference environments in which the agenda is constantly redesigned as an evolving conceptual framework. A frozen agenda precludes creativity and implies a frozen, still-borne outcome. The formation of only the most probable coalitions is possible at a time when only the less probable are appropriate to the task. The emergence of more imaginative coalitions is not facilitated.

Is there no way that responsible individuals can get there act together without a 'police person' or a conceptual straitjacket ? It can be argued that much more could be done with networking software to facilitate conceptual activity.

6. Possibilities

One way to explore future possibilities for conferencing is to consider the implications of various possible marriages between modes of information:

Text and Data: The classic separation between text processing and data processing has severely impeded the evolution of conferencing. A fruitful marriage would allow users their current freedom of expression but would also enable them to navigate more effectively through the maze of messages. Various approaches could be taken:

The issue in both cases is how to code levels of the text and embedhypertext links in the text as part of the message generation process. This is an extension of the classic problem of how to motivate authors to provide abstracts. The long-term solution is to shift the focus of attention from the text to the representation of the knowledge implied by the text . A transitional solution is to develop what might be called a 'text compressor' or 'concept processor' based on artificial intelligence procedures.

As has been repeatedly noted, the desk-top publishing revolution and its conferencing parallel will more than overwhelm a saturated readership. Desk-top readers do not accomplish what we would like their name to imply. They do not help us to filter and comprehend the content. Some form of text analysis and restructuring by a concept processor is required to mine the conceptual ore from what needs to be dumped or filed at a lower priority level. The most practical approach would to provide users with a minimum facility which they could adapt and tune to their personal idiosyncrasies. Users could of course view and edit the structured product generated from their own outgoing communications. Such a processor might usefully be related to the need for machine-assisted translation.

Data and Graphics: Much has been accomplished with respect to this marriage in the form of representing data in graphical form (business graphics, statistical graph plotting). But this quantitative challenge for conferencing is possibly of much less interest than the non- quantitative one of how to represent graphically the concept networks being articulated within a conference. Possibilities include:

There are two challenges here: (i) enabling a group of users to address the emerging articulation on a shared map (possibly with personal overlays, etc); (ii) escaping the conceptual straitjacket of packages based on a directed graph or tree structure in order to use an associative structure (on which alternative tree structures can be temporarily imposed).

It is worth noting that a heroic attempt was made to do just this by Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask at the first international conference of the Society for General Systems Research (London, 1979) before the PC era. Both concept maps and participant network maps were produced and used to orient discussion. Such experiments would be infinitely easier now and many refinements could be incorporated.

The absence of such tools is an indication of the priorities of conferencing at this time. Questions such as the following need to be asked:

There is every possibility that users have different preferred cognitive modes (possibly under different circumstances) and that it remains important to cater flexibly for those who feel constrained by explicit structures.

One possible reason for the relative lack of interest in conferencing systems in the international community is that in the present form they do not reflect the dynamics of factional interaction. The action is perceived as being elsewhere. Even the texts produced can be viewed as conceptual shells discarded by a dynamic beast that has moved elsewhere. The consensus-mania pervading explicit conferences forces the real, tension-filled, business of factional wheeling and dealing into other arenas -- if only the corridors and bars outside meeting rooms or in one-to-one messaging. This clearly suggests the need for handling the public-private interface more flexibly, veiling and unveiling explicit structure when appropriate. The conferencing of the future may yet prove to be a conceptual dance of the seven veils !

7. Conceptual scaffolding

The above possibilities point to quite concrete possibilities which could provide a major new facility for conferences, whether electronic or otherwise. These possibilities are basicallyconcerned with the w