re-enchantment of networking through conceptware
- / -
Paper prepared for the 5th Conference of the Electronic Networking
Association, San Francisco, May 1990
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
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
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
Standard responses to this complexity include:
- efforts to simplify the organizational network by imposing criteria of effectiveness, or
importance, and ignoring other bodies as irrelevant;
- efforts to simplify the network of issues by attempting to identify priorities and then
ignoring other issues as irrelevant.
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:
- those aspects of electronic networking concerned with messaging, which partially
duplicate the functions of telex, fax and courier services, and the postal dissemination
- those aspects of electronic networking permitting joint editorial elaboration of a text
by distant parties, joint task management and task scheduling in general;
- those aspects of electronic networking facilitating the articulation and organization of
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
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
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:
- Concept representation: In most networking environments concepts are represented
by 'message item numbers'. The message may have a 'title'. To this may
be attached a questionable selection of 'keywords'. There is no question of
representation by an infinite variety of 'symbols'. In fact the graphic
dimension is totally lacking.
- Concept organization: In most networking environments concepts are organized as
messages by 'conference' and/or clustered by 'keyword'. Within any
message there may be a reference to an earlier message which can then be accessed, but it
may be more difficult (if not impossible) to locate any subsequent message referring to
it. In a highly organized conference, the theme may be structured into 'agenda
points'. The addition and removal of agenda points is resisted in order to give
stability to the conference. Just as the addition and removal of conferences may be
resisted to isolate zones of stability -- although there may be other constraints.
- Concept access: In most networking environments permitting message keywording,
the thesaurus structure through which to explore the pattern of keywords is poorly
developed. As in many library systems, it is hierarchical and simplistic. Keywords are
used too broadly or in such unusual ways that they are unreliable as a retrieval method.
They do not provide a meaningful conceptual overview.
It should be quickly said that the existing software is obviously satisfactory to many
users of electronic networking. Distinctions can usefully be made between:
- 'Focused networking' in which the focus is provided by
- information exchange (including schedule matching) in which the content at any one time
is what provides the focus.
- the interaction process itself, namely the bonding process with particular participants
with whom dialogue is experienced as fruitful;
- 'Unfocused networking' in which the commitment of participants is to
discover and articulate a shared domain of concern, amongst a network of participants, for
which a network of concepts can be articulated and brought into focus.
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:
- Conceptual amnesia: The tendency for a network of participants to forget, or
repress, points made in earlier time frames. Participants become addicted to novelty and
devalue concepts articulated earlier. The ability to build a complex conceptual structure
over time is therefore constantly undermined. Such amnesia is in effect a process of
conceptual resource destruction.
- Conceptual fade out: The tendency for a complex conceptual structure to fade at
the edges, so that the scope of any emerging conceptual structure is constantly being
eroded by limitations of conceptual span, whether for an individual or for the network of
participants collectively. Just as there is a need for screen refreshment, so there is a
need for systematic concept refreshment.
- Conceptual burial: The tendency for concepts to be buried in a mass of text,
whether explanatory, anecdotal or otherwise. Littleeffort is made to distinguish concepts
from contextual material which may not be essential to their subsequent use in
articulating a complex conceptual network. Many environments are designed to bury concepts
almost as quickly as they are generated. The conditions ensure a high conceptual mortality
- Conceptual haze: The tendency for a multiplicity of concepts to be simultaneously
present in a diffuse haze through which participants wander (or blunder) with little more
than a confused sense of orientation. Everything is relevant to everything, but little can
be effectively distinguished. People enter and leave the conference environment confused.
- Conceptual swamping: The well-documented phenomenon of information overload. The
amount of information inhibits creativity.
- Conceptual mouse-trapping: The tendency of a conference to premature conceptual
closure. Given the conceptual confusion which tends to prevail, any ordering which emerges
tends to be seized upon and used to impose order before alternative perspectives acquire
sufficient weight to call for their integration in a more complex conceptual structure.
This is associated with conceptual big-game hunting, namely the tendency to focus on the
most obvious and dominant concepts and to ignore other aspects of the conceptual ecology
represented within the conference.
- Conceptual collapse: The reductionist tendency to blur subtle distinctions,
collapsing them into a simpler concept. The complexity of a soap bubble would thus be
reduced to that of a blob of water on a two-dimensional surface. Unusual,
counter-intuitive or paradoxical structures are thus not adequately protected in the
normal conference environment.
- Conceptual stasis: The tendency to define concepts in static terms, when a
dynamic definition might be more appropriate in response to an evolving, turbulent social
environment. The concepts needed at this time may only be representable in dynamic terms
(as with resonance hybrids in chemistry).
- Conceptual consensus-mania (or disagreement-phobia): The tendency of a conference
to avoid disagreement and seek consensus, when more realistic conceptual articulations
might be based on appropriate configurations of complementary, but opposing perspectives.
Within a network this tends to result in the effective exclusion of those who disagree --
leading to a form of conceptual incest or inbreeding. The conference environment is not
designed for conceptual variety, unless variants are screened off in their own
- Conceptual contraception: The tendency for conferences to be designed in a
sanitized, 'safe-sex' mode to avoid conception and the collective creation of
viable new conceptual configurations. There is a strong emphasis on conceptual foreplay
and titillation,with success being associated with a form of conceptual orgasm, hopefully
to be repeated on subsequent occasions. But conceptual progeny are as unwelcome as the
risk of being infected by dangerous ideas.
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.
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:
- an outline facility would structure lengthy communications so that users could explore
them to different depths using an onion-skin approach. Of particular interest would be to
code such levels to indicate their relevance to the core message (e.g. background or
context, argument or justification, precedents, counter-arguments, action implications,
explanatory or learning mode material, anecdotal illustrations, etc). Archiving could then
be done selectively, gradually reducing to the core concept only.
- a hypertext facility would obviously empower users in new and interesting ways.
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
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
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:
- mind mapping, whereby concepts are indicated as interlinked nodes on a network. Some
existing packages permit users to do this as an individual exercise. One variant of this
is the use of arrow diagrams in certain areas of documentation.
- social network mapping, whereby the relationship between participants, in the light of
their profiles or patterns of communication, can be viewed when this is considered
desirable. One variant of this can be seen in the citation analysis graphs.
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
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:
- Why is it that participants in a conference have experienced no need to represent the
conceptual structure which they are collectively attempting to articulate ?
- Is it that participants are satisfied with the schematic representation in an agenda or
programme ? Or is it that they prefer a discursive mode in which the structure is implied
or left ambiguous ?
- Why is it that in the academic analysis of social networks almost no attention has been
devoted to the graphical problems of representing complex networks -- despite the
extensive manipulation of data on them.
- Why is it that in the current enthusiasm with hypertext, no effort is made to provide
the user with a map of the hypertext pathways between the set of frames ? It is almost as
though a hypertext stack was designed like a rat maze, which the user has to explore like
the rat, without any sense of perspective. Learning is the process whereby the rat builds
up its own mental model. The map of the relations in a relational database is not
considered as valuable information to orient new forms of inquiry or modification of the
pattern of relations. It can be argued that it is that map which constitutes knowledge, in
contrast to information.
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 whole issue of what might be called 'conceptual
scaffolding'. In the process of constructing a building scaffolding is necessary,
especially to hold structures in position until appropriate permanent building elements
can be inserted to lock them into place. Much can be learnt from architecture in
considering the challenges of developing more powerful and appropriate forms of conceptual
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
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
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. 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.
Four forms of scaffolding are especially interesting:
Symmetrical structures: Geometry supplies a vast repertoire of geometrical
patterns which can be used to interrelate concepts. Of special interest are the
symmetrical polygons in 2-dimensions and polyhedra in 3-dimensions. Symmetry has the merit
of being in some way associated with global or integrative comprehensibility. To the
extent that opposing perspectives can be mapped onto such structures, there is greater
possibility of collective recognition of the distinct functions they perform in relation
to one another. It is also possible that the more complex the structure, the greater its
stability. Eastern religions have made extensive use of such conceptual patterns in the
form of mandalas. These hold thecomplex relationship between a multiplicity of
complementary insights, whilst maintaining an integrative focus on the whole. The software
issue here is how to massage an associative network of concepts into the pattern (or a
range of alternative patterns) which can give the most appropriate overall order to it.
Maybe there is a place for marrying networking concepts to those of sacred geometry.
Tensegrity structures: A feature missing from such geometrical structures is any
explicit recognition of the dynamics between the elements and of how they contribute to
the dynamic integrity of the whole. Again architecture points to the importance of
appropriately interrelating tensional and comprehension elements. In conferences the art
is to creatively interrelate perspectives that are in sympathy and in opposition to each
other. Buckminster Fuller pointed to the existence of a whole family of tensegrity
structures which underlie the structure of his well-known geodesic domes. Tensegrity (or
tensional integrity) has many suggestive implications for more effective conferencing:
- such structures make explicit the value of having discontinuous (antagonistic) relations
between concepts (or their advocates) embedded in a continuous (mutually supportive)
network of relationships. Both have a role to play.
- such structures make clear how an appropriate combination of appropriately positioned
elements can give rise to a totally unsuspected structure of unsuspected stability. Whilst
it is relatively easy to comprehend the logic of such a structure in 3- dimensions, the
process of constructing it is much less clear. This suggests that the conceptual elements
and dynamics characteristic of today's conferences could lend themselves to structural
patterning of a totally new kind.
- such structures make clear that facilitating communication between all parties (all to
all) is not the only way forward, even if it were feasible in practice. They suggest that
much may be accomplished by ensuring a supportive relationship with neighbouring nodes,
provided that position is 'challenged' by an appropriate opposing node. This is
a step beyond all the work done on social networks. It implies that software could be used
to configure communication pathways (opening some, closing others) to bring about much
more healthy (non-flabby) networking.
- of special interest is that such structures have empty centres so that every point is
visible from every other. The centre is a virtual one rather than being occupied by some
dominant individual or concept.
- as will be seen below, such structures also imply a range of global transformations
through which the conference can grow to encompass greater variety.
It is clear that only with the use of appropriate software could tensegrity-based
conferences be explored. The scaffolding problem is an ideal computer challenge. It opens
the door to a totally new way of representing agendas non-hierarchically.
Resonance hybrids: There is a certain class of chemical molecules whose
structure cannot be meaningfully defined by a single pattern of atoms. Thus the benzene
ring, present in most organic compounds, is best understood as oscillating between 5
distinct patterns of bonds between its constituent atoms. The resulting resonance hybrid
is much more stable than any of the 5 individual patterns -- even though that stability is
dynamic. This suggests the possibility that there may be conceptual and organizational
structures which can only come into existence by allowing them to alternate between
essentially unstable (or unsustainable) extremes. The challenge of an appropriate response
to the issues of sustainable development may depend on the ability to discover such
structures. Computer conferencing may be absolutely essential in providing the conceptual
scaffolding through which they can emerge. It is even possible that the legal and
accounting structures to maintain institutions based on them could only be managed through
some such environment. (Just as the newest aircraft can only be flown with computer
assistance, it is possible that the most advanced organizations need to be conceived in
the same light.)
Embedding data in images: It has long been recognized that some of the most
complex problems of process control, call for a totally new way of presenting hard data to
the human brain. Instead of a multiplicity of dials and graphs, use is made of the full
range of visual images (landscapes, animals, imaginary objects) as vehicles onto which to
project or hang complex patterns of data so that they can be more readily comprehended.
Thus when the wind agitates a tree on a landscape image, a particular control action is
called for. Very large amounts of data can be compressed into such images. Recalling
Douglas Engelbart's vision, this suggests the need to explore how conference participants
can embed their insights into comprehensible images. In particular it suggests the
possibility that the collective task of a conference might also be perceived in terms of
sculpting such an image -- with every conceptual contribution leading to a modification or
articulation of it. This calls for a very special marriage between conceptual
contributions and image processing. Of special interest is the possibility that the
insights of some conferences could only be effectively carried by dynamic imagery, and
especially by imagery governed by other rules than those of the physical world (as is the
case with some computer generated imagery). It is clear that computer image manipulation
skills are well developed, but much needs to be done to determine how to hang data on them
such that changes to the data modify the image, and changes to the image modify the data./
8. Conceptual transformation
The need for conceptual scaffolding is clear given the kinds of complexity with which
society has to work. The challenge of makingthe 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: The skills of image-transformation on computer suggest many
possibilities. The challenge is to find ways of relating real-world issues and challenges
to such images so as to benefit from this facility. Of special interest is the way in
which development is to be understood or encoded in such image transformation. If the many
details of the global problematique could be encoded onto one (or more) archetypal
animals, suitably animated, this would be of major conceptual and symbolic significance --
especially when the animation can be used to represent a transformation process. The media
advantages are obvious.
- Vector equilibrium: Buckminster Fuller drew attention to a very unusual
symmetrical polyhedron, the vector equilibrium (normally known as the cuboctahedron) as
the common denominator of the tetrahedron, octahedron and cube. It is unusual in that it
lies on a transformational pathway to a variety of other structures. An appropriately
jointed model can be transformed into an icosahedron and from there to an octahedron and
on to a tetrahedron. The merit of this model, aside from the many claims made by Fuller
himself, is that it provides a way of understanding the structural transformation process.
The challenge in a conferencing environment is not to focus on this particular structure,
but rather to use it as an example to persuade topologists to locate other
transformational systems of this kind so as to build up a library of possibilities on
which to draw.
Presumably it will only be through such explorations that conferences can anchor their
transformative insights so that people can recognize and have confidence in the structural
continuity of appropriate change, rather than being threatened by change of any kind --
and therefore resistant to it.
9. Metaphors of transformation
This paper has stressed the special need for software capable of facilitating more
complex forms of conceptual communication in a conferencing environment. This argument is
based on the assumption that just as aircraft were faced with the technological challenge
of the sound barrier, software faces the challenge of the imagination barrier. The
sub-sonic conferencing problems have been largely solved. But we do not yet know how to
ensuring the stability and integrity of conferences functioning at a high imaginative
level. The conventional organizational and conceptual structures tend to get shaken apart.
There would seem to be a number of fruitful steps that can be taken, as pointed out
above. When it is recognized what strategic advantage they offer to the networks that use
them, it is probable that resources will be devoted to their development. It is very
probable that such software will be restricted to those major corporations for whom
strategic advantage is a vital consideration. It is also probable that versions of such
software will be developed by certain alternative groups. It seems less likely that the
core of the electronic networking and conferencing constituencies will have access to such
facilities or perceive the need to do so. Unfortunately this is also likely to be the case
with users in the international community of organizations.
The difficulty is that it is always possible to argue that concrete, short-term, simple
procedures are sufficient in a crisis-management environment. Much of what passes for
international projects and programmes is in effect reactive, crisis management. Upbeat
reporting of their successes is always possible. But in strategic terms it is rather like
a chess novice playing a grand master. The novice can be allowed to delude himself by many
short-term gains as he progressively sinks into a more and more disadvantageous strategic
situation from which recovery is hopeless. This is the dilemma of sustainable development.
The real challenge for conferencing in relation to the crises of our times is to
provide people with tools to counter the imaginal deficiency from which we collectively
suffer when dealing with complexity. The texty, linear-environment of messaging and
documents has a poor track record. Eminent experts, with suitable budgetary encouragement,
can now be found to negate the importance of any problem, whether over-population, acid
rain, low-level radiation exposure, or smoking. Their 'facts' are no longer a
reliable basis for action.
In this context, there is a most intriguing unexplored resource. That is the use of
metaphor as a guide to the elaboration of more complex conceptual frameworks and
organizational structures. In effect the arguments already made with respect to
tensegrity, resonance hybrids and imagery rely to some extent on the power of metaphor,
especially visual metaphor. Metaphor is renowned as a keyto creative thinking and
innovation. Information systems have traditionally been ruthless in eliminating the
ambiguity of metaphor from the communications they support. But the classical triangle of
text, data and graphics processing is only 2-dimensional. Imaginative insight can be
usefully placed at the apex of the (tetrahedral) pyramid based on that triangle. Metaphor
is the prime vehicle for such insight.
How then can we marry metaphor processing into conferencing environments as a way of
breaking through the imaginative barrier ? This paper suggests ways of doing so with
computer assistance. But it seems doubtful that advances will be made fast enough on these
fronts. However one great advantage of metaphor is that, like rumour and humour, it
travels rapidly through any network, whether computer- assisted or not.
Consider the fashionable focus for the international community at this time, namely
sustainable development. How is this complex notion to be carried and addressed in the
imagination, and especially in the media. Metaphor can be used to highlight our collective
difficulty in developing strategies to bring it about. Metaphors such as 'global
village' or 'gaia' do not give focus to the strategic dilemma and the
operational opportunities. Due to our imaginal deficiency, sustainable development is best
understood at this time through the metaphor 'having our cake and eating it
too'. This corresponds to the corporate interpretation of 'sustainable
competitive advantage'. Both are tragic examples of poverty of imagination in a
Imagine a conferencing environment in which text (including speech), data and graphics
were treated as infrastructure 'plumbing' and the conceptual centre of gravity
shifted to an imaginative level sustained and disciplined by the computer-assisted use of
metaphor. A major concern in the conference would be to ensure the circulation of meaning
through metaphor. Complex notions would be expressed briefly by metaphor. The challenge
would not be who could dominate the discussion in quantitative air-time terms or
resolutions passed. Rather it would be a question of who could produce the most seductive
metaphor to capture the strategic complexities and the opportunities for the formation of
hitherto impossible coalitions of bodies.
Moving beyond the limitations of competing metaphors, the complexity to be dealt with
probable calls for sets of complementary metaphors to articulate facets of the challenge
and the different modes of response to it. Examples of such metaphors have been given in
the Encyclopedia of World Problems and
Human Potential (1986). An interesting example is that of crop rotation.
Computer could do much to assist the management of such creative environments.
Essentially they have three tasks. Firstly to render a repertoire of metaphors
appropriately accessible, in the light of their structural and patterning characteristics.
Secondly, to provide a disciplined communication framework to channel forceshindering the
emergence of imaginative new patterns, and providing a protective framework (a
'matrix') for such patterns in their embryonic stages. Thirdly, to give
stability to the stages between the imaginative level and the organizational and
operational implications (a sort of 'Jacob's ladder' or 'gearing down'
facility), which need to be articulated at the 'plumbing' level.
There is a dearth of imaginative ideas to respond to the challenge of sustainable
development in this period of crisis and crisis-management thinking. An immediate
challenge for the West is how to respond to the radical transformation in the Eastern
European countries. Given the scarcity of resources, what can they be given to catalyze
the fruitful reorganization of their societies ? And even more challenging, how can
advantage be taken of the very high level of education achieved by a high proportion of
the younger generation ?
Rather than thinking in terms of how such societies can make use of various Western
styles of organization, which have resulted in many significant failures in other
societies to which they have been exported, is there an alternative ? Is it possible to
provide some communication package, to run on standalones or small networks, which could
provide them with the conceptual scaffolding that would enhance their ability to apply
their own imaginative insight to their own problems ?
The challenge of the Eastern bloc is in effect a metaphor of the challenge that the
world as a whole faces with respect to sustainable development. The economists will
continue to be given every opportunity to apply their unimaginative insights to the task,
whatever suffering their austerity measures imply. This will not change. And the degree of
alienation of the population, and especially the young, will continue to increase. But in
the many creative interstices, there is a receptive audience for devices which open up
opportunities for more complex, and more fruitful, modes of thinking and organizing. With
appropriate imagination, limited resources can be applied in new ways. Computers can
provide an environment to assist that process./
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