Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
University of Earth


Documentation or knowledge?


- / -

Originally appeared in 1973 as part of Toward a Concept Inventory. Also published under the title "Texts or Concepts: Documentation or Knowledge?" in International Associations, 1974, pp. 205-208 and in a revised version as "Knowledge-Representation in a Computer-Supported Environment" in in International Classification. 4, 1977, No.2, pp. 76 - 81.

1. The Documentation Problem

It is the stated goal of the UNISIST World Science Information System to facilitate the "unimpeded exchange of published or publishable scientific information and data amongst scientists in all countries". Its concern is therefore with the extremely large number of documents and not with the relatively limited number of original conceptual entities formulated therein. Unfortunately, the UNISIST Study does not distinguish between documentation, information and knowledge (60).

Briefly, documents pose a physical handling, transfer and filing problem (which may be eased by reproduction at a distance). Information consists of signs which can be read, transferred, manipulated and filed electronically. They function as symbols of units of human knowledge, but only during the short-duration process of being read for meaning. Knowledge transfer depends on the ability of the momentary psychological system "sign and reader" to generate an unambiguous, coherent and consistent meaning in the mind of the reader, and conversely to convert a distinct meaning or concept into a suitable sign which can be interpreted with equal ease by another reader. Information, in the form of signs. can he read without resulting in the transfer of Knowledge and particularly of the knowledge intended (e.g. undecipherable hieroglyphic writing can be "read" without knowledge transf er) .

The Study does not recognize that the period covered b the proposed system is one in which increasingly, it is almost- impossible for the decision-maker or researcher to determine what information from which discipline is "relevant" .

" is a practitioner of any one discipline to know in a particular case if another discipline is better equipped to handle the problem than is he? It would be rare indeed if a representative of any one of these disciplines did not feel that his approach to a particular organizational problem would be very fruitful, if not the most fruitful..." (R.L. Ackoff, Systems, organizations, and interdisciplinary research.)

If he attempts to order all the relevant documents (or even subscribes to the appropriate abstracting service), the purchase or transport costs will be prohibitive (except to a small elite); if he waits for all the relevant information, it will be too late for him to make a useful decision (61); if he gets all the relevant information in the form it currently takes, he will have neither the time, the training, nor the inclina tion to read it all; and if he reads and comprehends it all, he will not have the time or the ability to convey his understanding to those whose support he must obtain to carry a vote on the matter or, ultimately, to the man in the street.

"Consider this dilemma: while our technological abilities to generate and disseminate potentially useful data have increased manyfold in the past few years, man's physical capacity to register and to process potentially informative data has probably increased very little, if indeed at all. The sheer volume of data that crosses the typical executive's desk today should serve to spotlight the inadequacies of the education and development of our acquisition strategies and practices. But no gain in ability could offset the widening gap between the exponentially-increasing quantity of data available for consumption and man's very limited capacity for acquiring and proces- sing useful informational) (62)

It is questionable, in view of present trends, whether knowledge transfer can continue to be effectively accomplished primarily via document transfer. The United Nations is potentially the most significant institution in existence and is at a vital nexus of multidisciplinary, international knowledge transfer - which it currently accomplishes via documents (63). And yet it has a documentation problem (which in a sense is equivalent to that of many, if not most, other large organizations and disciplines):

"This issue has been repeatedly recognized by the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the Joint Inspection Unit and nearly a dozen of other UN bodies as one which directly affects the functioning of the UN. Suffice it here to note that in 1970, the UN, both in New York and Geneva, produced nearly a million page documentation in all languages. The massive volume of documentation produced by the UN prompted a former President of the General Assembly, Mr Lester B. Pearson of Canada, to remark that "the United Nations is drowning in its own words and suffocating in its own documentation." The Joint Inspection Unit stated recently in its report submitted to the present General Assembly session that" the inspectors do not hesitate to say that the point of saturation has now been reached and indeed overstepped." (64)

The last quote in fact continues with the significant phrase "and that the law of diminishing returns is taking over...Beyond strictly financial considerations, therefore ... the future usefulness of the Organization may well hinge on its ability and determination to set once and for all, and strictly enforce a reasonable but drastically reduced ceiling to the volume of documentation its various bodies call for and its services produce" (65).

One is not exposed to alternative hierarchies of conceptual nexuses linked directly or indirectly to more distant nexuses from which relevant knowledge may be obtained. (There are no "heights" in documentation systems - the general is filed with the particular, cf. the treatment of documents with an interdisciplinary emphasis.) The potential value of a knowledge-oriented information system as an active stimulus for creative social change and problem- solving may even be directly proportional to its ability to draw attention to the existence of established relationships of low probability (i.e. low entropy) between concept nexuses. This is not a criterion of document information systems where the emphasis is - for cost reasons - on facilitating access to those documents which are most probably relevant in terms of demand frequency.

Shuffling documents and signs might facilitate the transfer of meaning and knowledge between those who could identify the representative of the group whom a particular set of meanings could be consistently and unambiguously attached to the signs. But even within that group, advances in knowledge and reconceptualization have to be carefully related to the original set of meanings. However, making the documents and signs of that group available to other "outside" groups would only introduce "noise" and confusion. A knowledge-oriented information system would be needed to avoid such confusion and facilitate fruitful interaction between different schools of thought within the social sciences.

2. Knowledge Representation

The ideal "information" system in a given academic field has been sketched out by the U.S. National Academy of Science Committee on Information in the Behavioural Sciences (under the chairmanship of David Easton) as the "computer analogue of the available, intelligent, and informed colleague". There have been many reports on the improvement and integration of information systems and it would be futile and inappropriate to comment on them here. There seems, however, to have been little mention of what might be termed a "knowledge-representation" system.

In parallel columns below, an attempt is made to clarify the implications of this distinction by comparing the functioning of a hypothetical knowledgeoriented system, now technically feasible, with the current approach. The intention is not to imply that the former should replace the latter but rather that the former offers various means of avoiding some of the key problems faced by the latter - the two are however complementary. The distinction is basically between a synthesis or atomisation in the handling of information.

Document/Information System Knowledge-representation System
1 Index tends to be based on simple hierarchy or alphabetic listing of subject, author and title, which can be handled on catalogue cards. "Index" constitutes a complex network giving a representation of entities and relationships and the dynamics of any points under debate, which can only be handled by multidimensional computer programming techniques.
2 Users want documents; the index is a temporary inconvenience to gain access to the document. Users want access to the "network index" which represents the needed items of knowledge and their relationships; documents are a temporary inconvenience only used if it is necessary to re-examine data and detailed arguments justifying the entities and relationships incorporated. (Document access is a secondary problem for which a documentation system may be used.)
3 Access to knowledge via documents means multiple reproduction and transfer of documents to a variety of libraries where they may or may not be used. Access to knowledge is direct and does not require reproduction and
on transfer of documents. (Only one copy of the document justifying the amendment need exist on microfiche so that copies need only be prepared when the data and arguments must be re-examined in detail.)
4 Documentation system is embarrassed when faced with obtaining "ephemeral" or "phantom" material which has not been made commercially available through the few standard channels. See 3.
5 Out-o f-date, rejected. low quality, false, old documents are retained in the system and indexed with no index indication of their status. Out-of-date, rejected, false, etc. entities or relationships may be eliminated from the system by listing them on paper (or other "documents") with the bibliographical source from which they were obtained (i.e. they are available if required but do not clog the system)
6 Only the knowledge held in the documents physically available is accessible. The index only notes the documents held in the documentation centre in question. All knowledge is on-line, although the supporting documents may not be physically accessible.
7 Alternative concepts or contradictory evidence can be conveniently ignored in a document or textbook without too much risk - particularly where the counter argument comes from another discipline (or a school of thought publishing in a different language). .Alternative concepts, relationships or contradicting evidence are immediately forced on one's attention even in the case of relationships linking to other disciplines.
8 Interdisciplinary links are ignored if the author has no interest in
Interdisciplinary links are already held in position whether the author wants to ignore them or not.
9 Different styles of documents are produced on the same topic for research, education, public information, program management, policy making, etc., purposes. The same material is repeated, with some extensions and some omissions, for each audience. This leads to a "spastic" or "aphasic" response to new situations, by different portions of society.
The entities and relationships entered on the basis of research insights are also used for other purposes. Instead of producing different documents and reprocessing the insights, different "filters" are used in presenting or displaying the entities and relationships to different audiences. In this way, each new research insight is immediately incorporated into each other form of knowledge-representation each portion of society works from the same data base. (Problems registered by non-research bodies are immediately evident as a challenge to research.)
In this way if an element of knowledge represented cannot be understood, the user merely calls for a new method of representation (of the same knowledge) possibly using isomorphs (or even analogies) from a domain with which he is familiar. (At any point he can move into a programmed learning mode and work from simple representations.)
10 The documentation system does not permit panoramic summary of any permanent representation of knowledge in a particular domain. Each verbal summary extant at a particular moment is under criticism and subject to reserve from different schools of thought within the discipline. In this important respect a document arising from a single group of authors can never contain the totality of views in a domain of knowledge. Only the non-concretized interaction between a succession of documents approximates to it. These invisible qualifiers on any document are a feature of the "collective mentality" of the members of the discipline. The knowledge of the discipline at any moment is very much in (and between) the minds of its members rather than on paper or in a row of books.
The forum of academic debate is concretized as a scattering of journals and other documents. There is little interaction between the journals but the debate is somewhat summarized in a scattering of abstracts in which the contents index gives some indication of the interventions on related topics
Each entity, link and qualification is indicated in the knowledge representation system. In effect one "layer" of the "collective mentality" of a discipline is rendered visible. Each modification to knowledge in the domain can be entered on an hour-by-hour basis.
The knowledge representation system constitutes a thinking forum in which the juxtaposition of relevant ideas from all sources is maximized. The researcher is exposed to a pattern of theoretical formulations in the process of being continually improved, and to which he can contribute. A dozen or more specialists in a particular field (the "invisible college" for that topic) can contribute simultaneously to work on ideas being written on one memo pad via electronic dialogue support systems which help them to respond to each other's ideas (even if they are a continent apart) with a rapidity that allows each of them to maintain thinking momentum. Even in such a rapid debate the paternity of each emerging formulation is identified and registered. (This mode of operation should be compared with some discussions between academics interested in the same topic in which progress is frustrated because if someone thinks of a good idea he wants to "publish" it (to gain credit) before contributing to the thinking momentum of his colleagues - this may take months.)
11 Thinking momentum is constantly inter rupted when access to new documents is required. (Long delays, 2- 3 months, are normal; 50 months or more from initiation of research to appearance in abstracts). Thinking momentum is maintained since the essence of any new domains of knowledge is always accessible -- all the links and entities are there (delays are measured in seconds).
12 Research is conducted primarily using 12. documents as a stimulus to creativity. Research is conducted primarily using the knowledge-representation structure (i.e. the graphical representation) as a stimulus to creativity.
13 Author has "published" when document 13. is in circulation and "available"; index entries of little significance to author. Author has "published" when the appropriate knowledge structure in the "index" has been modified; incorporation in "index" (through a terminal) is of highest priority for the author.
14 Author's status, credibility, pride and interest are associated with visible documents on library shelves. The documentation problem is aggravated by the "publish or perish" code which governs much of academic life. Unless an academic produces a document he is "invisible" and loses status. Author's status, credibility, pride and interest are associated with the visible entities and links in the graphic representation accessible to all. By switching emphasis to the specific entities and relationships which the academic has formulated, successfully, confirmed or criticized - his status is determined by the bonds and entities with which he is associated. Each of his contributions is "visible" until it is superseded and is not subject to the vagaries of the documentation system.
15 Each new document must carry a lot of verbal packaging to provide a context within which innovative elements are introduced. There is
no guarantee that the rephrasing (necessary for status and copyright
reasons) of earlier arguments will constitute an improvement.
The author need only enter the specific entities of relationships which constitute his innovation. (Since the academic's status is bound up with his specific modifications to the knowledge structure and not the verbalizations held in a document, the problem of adequate verbalization may be handled separately. Hopefully a limited number of skilled verbal presentations, from a minimum number of different perspectives and literary styles, could be constantly updated by professional writers using the best verbal arguments by any appropriate academics where appropriate.)
16 The direction of research is governed 16. in part by shifting patterns of credi bility and status. These are merely evident in print but are controlled by an ongoing informal dialogue centred upon the elders of the dis cipline who legitimate consideration of particular entities and relation ships. It is quite evident which issues are currently under debate and the manner in which the demise of a set of entities and relationships will weaken the status of a whole set of dependent elements. Ideally the system would also act as a continually updated voting board for each element, providing an opportunity for members of the profession to indicate their approval.
17 The key figures in a discipline and the relationship between their spheres of influence are unclear. The "luminaries" in a particular discipline are all visible together with the relationship between their spheres of influence.
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