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1997

Globalization of Knowledge and Insight

Envisaging a paradigm-shifting software package

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Introduction

The concern here is the possibility that, with relatively little cost and effort, a software package could be designed and disseminated that would make a major difference to the way in which individuals and groups organize the knowledge of concern to them.

The specific concern here is to highlight 'global' dimensions in the organization of knowledge. Global is taken here to mean integrative in ways beyond those currently achieved by setting up knowledge hierarchies and checklists of topics. Global is not taken to mean world-wide in the geographical sense that is now characteristic of most discussion of 'globalization'. Rather global is conceived as integratively meaningful to a person or a group. It is also to be understood as holding together the concerns of a policy-maker faced with the full messy array of societal issues. The challenge of interrelating diverse perspectives, including those from a variety of cultural perspectives, is also inherent in this proposed understanding of global.

The approach taken here is necessarily relatively simple, if not simplistic. However the software framework envisaged is designed to be developed and to encourage further development by users and those with software skills. It is not a closed and completed system. This paper builds on arguments developed in earlier papers by the author on this theme (Judge, 1994-1997).

Principal themes: a point of departure

There is no lack of software to handle nested hierarchies of topics. There is very little that addresses the challenge of how the principal themes are organized in relation to one another -- other than as checklists of general topics (agriculture, sport, etc). But the agonizing challenges of society, especially for policy-makers, concern precisely how the most general themes relate to each other. It is at this level that the need for distinct government ministries is decided. It is at this level that the necessary communications between such agencies become apparent. This is also true in relation to local government departments. It is also true for the individual in allocating resources between disparate activities (leisure, food, transportation, religion, etc).

The first difficulty is that there seems to be relatively little understanding of what are the principal themes most closely related to any particular theme. For example, if 'sport' is taken as a principal theme, what are the most closely related or relevant principal themes -- where the meaning of such proximity remains to be more precisely defined? In identify such proximates, there is also the need to clarify whether they are the 2 closest, the 3 closest, or the N closest. The resulting picture might be:

  1. Sport
  2. Health, Leisure / Leisure, Media / Leisure, Education / …
  3. Health, Leisure, Media / Leisure, Media, Education / …
  4. Health, Leisure, Media, Education / …

In this case, at Level-2, three sets of 2 proximates have been provisionally identified. At Level-4, for example, only one set of 4 proximates is presented above. Clearly views will differ on what are the principal themes (tops of hierarchies). It should be up to the user to extend the choices at each level and to give preference to choices at any one level -- and indeed to prefer a particular level (such as the single choice presented at Level-4). The software could hold a library of possible choices for proximates for principal themes. The user could add to this library, or could save preferred choices.

The next concern would be the number of principal themes to be explored in this way.

Past work in classification by Ingetraut Dahlberg identified 100 themes presented in her International Coding Classification (1982). This was considerably adapted by the present author (Judge, 1983) as the basis for the classification system used by the Union of International Associations in both its Yearbook of International Organizations and its Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. The number of principal themes remains 100 (as illustrated in the web demonstration of this approach at http://www.uia.org/topics/aaintmat.htm). Although covering very different spreads of subjects, the number of ministries in any one national government seldom exceeds 100.

The concrete example of government ministries illustrates the fact that 'principal themes' do not need to be single word themes. For example, in the case of a Ministry of Education and Culture, the principal theme might be 'education and culture'. The question of why they are so closely associated and whether they are distinguishable would need to be reviewed by the government concerned. If however, within that ministry, there were two major departments, 'education' and 'culture', there would be a case for treating these independently in the framework outlined above. The software package is designed to respond to the perceptions of the user, not as an imposition of a predetermined set of categories.

The result of the exercise would therefore be a database with some 100 or more records -- one for each principal theme as perceived by the user. There is no restriction on the number. A user would be free to include many more such themes, or far fewer. The user would be free to accept (amend, or reject) any 'standard', or recommended, set of themes emerging from the information science community.

There is also merit in offering the user the possibility of forcing in (or excluding) an open category 'Unforeseen', which could serve as a kind of 'joker' in the set. Including this would recognize the possibility of surprises and emergent themes. Excluding this would signal an assumption that the system of themes was considered complete and closed.

Pattern library

There are many symmetric and asymmetric patterns -- many known only to those with mathematical interests. With the emphasis of this package on 'globalization of knowledge', the following discussion relates primarily to centro-symmetric patterns in three dimensions. The case of two dimensional tiling patterns is excluded, although it merits exploration as an option in this context. Interesting forms like the torus are also not explored.

Essentially the focus here is on the tiling patterns possible on the surface of a sphere -- as the simplest representation of globality in three dimensions. The concern is how to 'fit' together tiles, where each tile represents a principal theme defined by the above database -- and given that each record in the database indicates what are the preferred neighbouring tiles according to the user's perception.

The assumption here is that some form of paradigm shift occurs when knowledge can be successfully represented globally by patterning it over the surface of a sphere. In contrast with conventional checklists of subjects, presentation in this new way amounts to a form of 'globalization of knowledge'. Just how this might be more than a gimmick, will be explored later.

The software therefore needs access to a library of patterns. These patterns could be indexed by the number of their faces, edges and apices. These are the conventional attributes of centro-symmetric polyhedra.

Pattern matching

Consider a case where a user had defined 72 principal themes. The software needs to access a pattern with 72 faces. There may be several possibilities.

Having accessed an appropriate pattern, the software then needs to use the information in each database record to endeavour to attribute each theme to a particular face -- such that it is contiguous with other faces representing themes perceived as proximates in that database record. Each face thus represents a thematic area.

Respecting the user's specifications, there may not be a neat solution. The software should then consider and propose alternatives. This could be done with more or less input from the user:

  1. Software initiated solutions: The software could for example propose a pattern with more faces, some of which were unattributed, in order to fit all the themes appropriately onto the surface.
  2. User initiated solutions: The user could tag the database records with harder and softer preferences. This would then signal the software where the user absolutely required a fit, and where the software could override the user's selection. For example, the user could indicate for sport that the Level-4 pattern was a 65% preference, but that the Level-3 pattern was an 85% preference. In this case the software would seek solutions with the Level-4 preference, but would fall back on the Level-3 preference if these could not be found.

After endeavouring a match, the software could indicate where changes of preference would enable a better match to be made.

Presentation of the pattern

Once a solution has been produced by the previous process, the pattern could be used with the thematic labels to generate a three dimensional structure using the virtual reality markup language (VRML). The faces could be appropriately coloured and labelled. Hyperlinks could be attached to each faces so that when the user clicked on them, this would result in access to a distinct web page -- or to another VRML structure.

Using a virtual reality browser (now available free of charge), the user then has, literally under finger tip control, a global representation of the pattern of knowledge implicit in the original database. This display can be rotated, and explored by zooming -- with access at any point to underlying information. The spherical representation is a globalization of the user's knowledge world -- previously only accessible through checklists, or possibly mind-maps. An illustration of some of these possibilities is available from the web page: http://www.uia.org/uiademo/vrml/vrmldemo.htm)

Further possibilities

Changing assumptions: Initially it is to be expected that the prime function of such a display would be to raise questions as to its adequacy -- notably with respect to the user's assumptions in the database from which it was generated. It would lead the user to experiment with alternatives, possibly by changing the weightings attached to items at different levels for a given theme. It might also lead to the splitting or merging of different themes.

Incompletion: The user might be especially interested in patterns with 'incomplete' solutions, namely those in which specified contiguity could only be achieved by having one or more unattributed faces -- 'oceans' separating 'continents' of contiguous 'countries', possibly with 'peninsulas'. 'Islands' might also reflect the user's reality in some cases. Alternatively each separate 'continent' could be generated as a distinct global representation. The user's knowledge system could then take the form of separate 'planets' revolving around the user's central point of reference.

Sub-themes: The user might also want to explore the sub-themes within any given theme. In the case of a given government ministry, for example, it would be composed of many departments with particular thematic responsibilities. A separate database could be set up, with one record for each such sub-theme -- along the same lines as the initial database. The pattern matching procedure could then be repeated, resulting in the generation of a sub-theme global representation. Using the hyperlink facility, clicking on a thematic face of the original representation could transfer the user to the corresponding sub-theme representation. In this way virtual reality techniques can be used to hold many levels of knowledge. These sub-worlds could also be held as 'moons' around the parent world, although this can clutter and confuse the overview.

Imagery: Virtual reality techniques also permit (coloured) images to be attached to each of the faces, instead of (or in addition to) simple text labels. The user could then specify mnemonically significant images (as image filenames) in the original database for use by the software in building the final global representation. It would be expected that the user would continue to tinker with such colour and image attributes. In the case of the United Nations system, for example, the images might be the logos of the various specialized agencies.

Directory listings: Clearly the global representation serves, at the highest level, as an integrative substitute for such tools as the 'explorer' or 'file manager' in Windows software. Ideally it could also enable the user to access subdirectory structures in the conventional manner.

Functional significance

Global patterning: Beyond the facilities indicated above, there remain the possibility that the pattern of faces may be used to carry other levels of information. Typically, for example, clusters of faces on the surface of a centro-symmetric polyhedra themselves form sub-patterns. Sequences of edges form circular routes around the sphere -- whether around the sphere as a whole, or around regions of it..

Significant relationships: These patterns merit considerable attention. They suggest the possibility of significant, or preferential, lines of communication between certain thematic areas. In the case of government ministries, they raise the question of who might usefully be communicating with whom. They may suggest useful feedback loops that merit attention.

Relating incompatible perspectives: Possibly of greater interest are those thematic areas that are effectively distant from each other. Manipulating the global representation using a virtual reality browser, these are the areas which may not even be visible simultaneously -- it may be necessary to rotate the structure to bring a distant surface into view. This operation reinforces understanding that a global representation of knowledge may only be possible if certain perspectives are effectively invisible to each other -- possibly reflecting quite incompatible perspectives in practice. They are beyond each other's 'horizon'. The global representation is then effectively a coherent framework that 'holds' such incompatible perspectives.

Emptiness: This whole approach suggests that the 'globalization of knowledge' may only be possible around what amounts to a central, unoccupied 'emptiness'. It is structuring with respect to this emptiness that allows the disparate themes to be meaningfully ordered. The integrative dimension is intimately associated with the structural role of the unoccupied area in the representation.

Conclusion

As a software project, what is proposed is feasible with limited resources. In its basic form it would allow many users to offer themselves an overview of the knowledge context within which they work. It has the merit of allowing users to adapt it to their own needs and to experiment with it in unforeseen ways.

In the process of producing the package, refinements should quickly become apparent with the assistance of mathematicians. These should make it easier to ensure that projects are 'globalized' rather than undertaken as 'flatland' initiatives. For example, 'universal declarations' might usefully position the themes of their principal clauses as faces on such a global representation. This should highlight the complementarities between different principles as the basis for a coherent whole. It should prove helpful in designing lines of communication appropriate to any explicit pattern of checks and balances in an institutional or community system.


References

Ingetraut Dahlberg. ICC -- Information Coding Classification: principles, structure and application possibilities. International Classification, 9, 1982, 2, pp 87-93

Anthony Judge:

Union of International Associations. Yearbook of International Organizations. Munich, Saur, 34th ed, 1997/98,

Union of International Associations. Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. Munich, Saur, 4th ed, 1994-5 [commentary]

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