From Information Highways
Songlines of the Noosphere
Global configuration of hypertext pathways
as a prerequisite for meaningful collective transformation
- / -
Subsequently published in Futures, 30, 1998, 2/3, pp
1. Metaphorical impoverishment ?
Highway and Web: As a means of understanding and explaining the
significance of the emerging information society, metaphor is currently
highly favoured in many different contexts. Information "highway" seems
to be preferred by those concerned with the development of the telecommunications
infrastructure. The most conceptually revolutionary feature of the Internet
is described as a world wide "web". Users are inclined to describe themselvses
as "surfing" the net, or possibly "cruising" the information highway.
It is worth asking whether the dimensions of the information society
will be adequately captured by such metaphors -- and whether there are
not other metaphors essential to the comprehension of features which may
be of greater significance to any desirable collective transformation of
society. There is a danger that the mental habits associated with "highways"
will simply be replicated in this new context without recognizing their
limitations. Lacking understanding of their fundamental implications for
society, it is worth remembering that automobiles were first referred to
as "horseless carriages" -- and "wireless" was long used for radio.
In a study by Stephen Talbott, the question is raised: "Will the 'information
highway' really bring us closer together, or will it perform the same function
as asphalt highways, encouraging us to seek the promise of better things
in the distance? Will the euphoria that now greets the Internet be replaced
in 20 or 30 years with the dismay that now surrounds the once-bright promise
of television?" (Talbott, p. xiv)
As with road construction, consortia are emerging which expect to make
considerable profit from the development of the new highway. Given the
questionable practices common in the state-supported construction industry,
it would be regrettable if their application to the information society
was facilitated for lack of more challenging metaphors. Similarly it is
worth asking whether "surfing" and "cruising" adequately capture the full
spectrum of ways of using the new facilities in a society in which there
are repeated calls for paradigm shifts in the face of conceptual blandness,
self-scattering and complacency. "Cruising" reflects little awareness of
excessive resource utilization.
What is implied by "web" -- primarily associated with spiders -- concerning
human ability to deal with complexity? Are there "spiders" on the Web --
and who or what might they be? Why are the behavioural characteristics
of rodents seen as appropriate metaphors for a number of search tools on
the Internet -- Gopher, Archie, Veronica (the last two being abbreviations
in which the R stands for rodent)?
As a metaphor, highway tends to be used in its most simplistic form.
Its richer implications would recognize the existence of a vast network
of roadways, developed to different degrees on different continents. Some
permit multi-lane traffic, and are characterized by complex junctions to
avoid interrupting the flow. Others are single lane, unsurfaced, and infrequently
travelled -- and may not be accessible to more sophisticated automated
vehicles. Some "freeways" are subject to toll charges. Some are private
or, when they cross frontiers, require a visa, for which a fee is usually
charged, if appropriate criteria are fulfilled. Some roads are controlled
by brigands and terrorists with a variety of intentions. Echoes of all
these features are already evident on the "information highway", including
the self-elected "highwayman" of the "Robin Hood" variety.
Navigating: More interesting is recognition of the challenge
of getting around the information society. The metaphor of "navigating"
is frequently used -- especially in relationship to the daunting task of
navigating complexity. This reflects a broadening of understanding of the
vehicle in which users may be travelling (Benking) -- with at least the
implication that complexity may not be characterized by a fixed and intricate
network of highways (a "World Wide Cobweb"), but rather may be experienced
like the challenges of navigating uncharted seas and outer space, where
reference points are not as unambiguous as signposts on roads. But the
ability to acquire a product defined as a "navigator" tool, such as the
justly famed Web browser, Netscape Navigator, can easily reinforce the
illusion that the challenge of navigating conceptual complexity is relatively
2. Challenge of comprehension
Differences: At this point the capacity of the user becomes an
issue. Skills are required to move around the information society. People
may have these skills to different degrees. Much has been made of Internet
snobbery in response to "newbies" and their clumsy attempts at orienting
themselves compared to the honed skills of hackers. But this is merely
one aspect of the challenges of a learning environment.
The information society must necessarily cater for many kinds of need,
many levels of sophistication, and many kinds of understanding -- to say
nothing of the many languages which have not yet been adequately represented
on the Internet. These will all tend to fragment the information society
into sub-cultures, which can usefully be understood through biological
metaphors as ecosystems and niches that may or may not be significantly
linked to each other in a manner necessary for sustainable global community.
How is the transition from simpler, or simplistic, forms of comprehension
to deeper, or richer, forms to be understood and represented to those characterized
by some particular level or pattern of insight? Some will favour metaphors
such as initiation, others will distinguish the equivalent of information
gurus and blackbelt information manipulators -- in contrast to the information
luddites who find reason to reject the "amazing" advantages of the information
society. For such people, those hooked on the Internet are usefully understood
as having launched themselves into an orbit of the privileged -- away from
the mundane issues and constraints of the earthbound, and of those "beyond
the last telephone pole".
Flat earth understanding: One of the difficulties with the highway
metaphor, is that any road is typically thought of as associated with a
more or less flat surface, whatever the topography separating origin and
destination. In fact, the higher the grade of highway, the flatter the
surface and the less the influence of any intervening topographical features.
There is a glib transition to "global" information highway by which the
world is transformed into a "global village" -- again implying some form
of easy (line of sight) communication or a "flattening" of the globe .
There is a dangerous metaphoric trap in such usage. With increasing
globality, if the metaphoric implication is retained. Horizon effects necessarily
render line of sight communication impossible. Such horizon effects signal
important barriers to comprehension and communication. The facile assumption
of globality, based on linearity without curvature, obscures this. It leads
to what amounts to a "flat earth" understanding of "global" communications.
This may appear to be viable if there is no need to comprehend the issues
of different cultures, disciplines or value systems -- just as it is usually
adequate to treat the map of a city or a country as flat. But it leads
to severe navigational difficulties if there is a need to travel to other
continents and to understand "where they are" and in "which direction they
lie", or to adequately reflect experience that others act on radically
different assumptions. This is as true of the conceptual world as it is
of the physical world -- curvature implies differences in orientation and
planes of reference as well as fundamental differences in perspective (although
these may not be readily apparent).
Curvature: Introducing curvature into maps of knowledge is just
as highly inconvenient as with physical maps. Hence the use by geographers
of projections to represent curvature on a flat surface by allowing selected
types of distortion. In this sense, to preserve the simplicity implied
by linearity, people (if they are aware of the issue) may choose to effectively
"live on a projection". It is over this flat projection that the information
highway is currently understood to run -- especially by its constructors
and "power users". The nature of any "edge" and the challenges of "circum-naviagation"
are not considered.
As yet there is little sensitivity to the severe conceptual distortions
that this introduces. Symptoms of this (and its denial) are the complaints
of non-English cultures concerning the dominance of English on the Internet
and concerns about cultural imperialism. Less obvious perhaps is the false
conceptual proximity implied by listing competing schools of thought together
on a single Web document. Ease of electronic access to them does not necessarily
imply conceptual proximity amongst those concerned -- or that the menu
ordering them in any way addresses the challenges of moving from one perspective
to another. A telephone directory does not mean a community exists -- it
takes no account of who cannot call whom, and who is unable to dialogue
with whom. There is every likelihood that conceptual niches are created
by the breakdown of line of sight communication.
3. Grid systems and beyond
The complexity of the global information highway is already such that
it would be difficult to represent it on a grid. Like the physical highway,
it is a a complex network of telecommunication pathways along which data
packets may travel by a variety of alternative routes including satellite
links. With the emphasis on terabytes of information per second, there
is clearly little concern for the global significance of what is carried
-- except possibly by intelligence agencies and hackers.
Internet enthusiasts reject any reservations about its positive implications,
as voiced by Talbott (1995), Roszak (1994), Silicon (**). For some idealists,
it is intimately associated with a real manifestation of global consciousness.
Ken Wilber responds to this view as follows:
"The Net is simply the exterior social structure...But what goes
through the Net -- well, that involves interior consciousness and
morals and values, and none of that is even vaguely addressed by those
who simply maintain the Net is global consciousness....What computer technology
(and the Information Age) means is that the techno-base can support
a worldcentric perspectivism, a global consciousness, but does not in
any way guarantee it. As we have seen, cognitive advances are necessary
but not sufficient for moral advances, and the cognitive means usually
run way ahead of the willingness to climb that ladder of expanding awareness...You
focus on the exterior grid and ignore the interiors that are running through
that grid. The flatland idea is that the Internet is global, so the consciousness
using it must be global. Not even close. And so once again, the flatland
paradigm can't even spot the problem, let alone cure it....Neither a global
holistic map, nor a global Internet, will in itself foster interior transformation,
and often just the opposite, contributing to arrest or even regression.
When worldcentric means are presented to less-than-worldcentric individuals,
those means are simply used (and abused) to further the agenda of the less-than-worldcentric
individual. The Nazis would have loved the Net." (Wilber, pp. 309-310)
A high degree of information overload is now experienced by many --
and especially by the most informed. The position of this paper is that
there is a case for focusing on how significance is distributed, organized
and comprehended "globally" (signifying as a whole) rather than on the
technicalities of how bits are packaged and distributed "globally" (signifying
around the planet). The geographical connotation may be used for the cognitive
connotation but should not be confused with it. The challenge lies increasingly
with the nature of the emergent global pattern of significance, and its
collective comprehension, rather than with the global production and distribution
of information, however this may be reframed as the "dissemination of knowledge".
4. Knowledge representation for the future
Academic papers and policy studies: In a world characterized
by innovation and change in many fields, it is strange that there is no
thought given to the implications for the future of academic papers or
of policy documents. Even the activities of scientists in the far-distant
future, as frequently explored by science fiction, continue to be framed
in terms of conventional "papers" -- whatever the electronic medium in
which they are recorded and communicated. The question is whether there
is anything that suggests that the whole notion of any such paper as a
knowledge construct should not be completely reviewed -- especially with
the prospect of even greater information overload. Will it continue to
be appropriate to produce such lengthy papers? What exactly are the functions
of such a document in providing: historical context, current challenges,
presentation of hypotheses, methodology, experimental data, implications
for future research, educational implications, etc ?
With the breakthrough initiated at CERN, to facilitate communication
among physicists through hypertext documents, the question is whether the
structure of such Web documents suggests radical changes in the future
of knowledge representation -- especially as they affect the reader. How
much of an academic paper represents new knowledge? How much has to be
read to identify that new knowledge? Freed of its wasteful packaging, what
form does this new knowledge take? Is the conventional approach to an abstract
an appropriate means of isolating the essence of a paper? And, possibly
most daunting, how would any alternative affect economic and career concerns
in a "publish or perish" community?
"Papers" of the future: Consider a paper of the future based
on modules of information -- or even on memes or holons. Some of these
modules might effectively be common to other papers, as in the case of
the historical context of current work on a topic. Rather than repeat such
information (tediously reworded to avoid copyright issues), a hyperlink
could simply be provided to other documents devoted to this material. Explanatory
padding would be placed (or referenced) elsewhere, to be perused only if
the reader wished. In this way the art of writing a paper might become
one of writing the absolute minimum within a skeletal framework of hypertext
links crafted aesthetically for comprehensibility .
Papers of the future might thus be reduced to a single Web page in the
form of a highly structured abstract or clickable image. Authors would
be recognized and rewarded primarily for the innovative integrative perspective
offered -- perhaps based on an analaysis of hyperlinks. Readers could explore
that page in a multiplicity of ways, looping out through chains of other
documents (or images, etc) wherever appropriate, then returning to the
skeletal framework for the remainder of the argument. Current developments
in the design of Web pages could therefore lead to new requirements for
authors of academic papers or of any policy document produced by the international
community. Recent developments in multi-media based encyclopedias illustrate
some of the possibilities. It is to be expected that future authoring tools
will scan a document and insert hyperlinks to other documents specified
as potentially associated. Other tools may extract blocks of text into
a hyperlinked pattern of separate documents, reducing the original to a
CVs, bio's, and even visiting cards (in electronic form), could be affected
by such representation of knowledge. Colleagues would exchange CDs of their
hyperlinked documents. Home page design is already exploring some possibilities.
But how might a life of the mind come to be meaningfully represented, especially
when the "non dit" may be as important (to some cultures) as what
is explicitly stated? Ironically, the pharohs were already responding to
this challenge in their life-long concern with tomb decoration.
Knowledge representation and learning: These changes, which are
already effectively in process of implementation, will reframe the whole
approach to knowledge representation. Readers will find themselves in a
complex web of pointers, linking modules of information by many different
authors. It will become a moot point as to whether the knowledge is associated
with the modules or with the links between them. It will become questionable
whether a linear reading of a text is possible or meaningful.
In such a context, what is comprehension in contrast with "edutainment"?
What is integrative understanding and emergent insight in contrast with
the ephemera of conceptual tourism? How are patterns of knowledge to be
appreciated as a whole in contrast to information acquired through guided
tours of their parts?
Insights from poetry: Poetry appears to offer some important
insights on these questions -- hence the reliance on metaphor. Implicit
in any poem is a complex pattern of associations. The art of poetry might
even be said to be the expression of the richest of patterns with the minimum
of words. What opportunities might be offered to poets and their readers
on the Web?
The least interesting possibility would be to provide hyperlinks from
any points in the poem which called for critical comment -- replacing what
is at present done by commentators with the aid of superscripts and footnotes.
More interesting for the poet and the reader is to provide hyperlinks between
different parts of a complex poem, such as rhyming words or thematic associations,
or even to the metaphoric substrates in image in audio form. The associative
structure of the poem is thus reinforced by hyperlinks allowing the reader
to move rapidly about the poem in a non-linear manner consistent with the
poem as a gestalt or a set of gestalts.
Beyond that are a range of possibilities through which the poet could
link together several poems into a complex meta-construct with a variety
of sub-themes. The challenge for the poet as a creative artist would be
to endeavour to give form to complex insights, perhaps tantalizingly beyond
any immediate ability to grasp as a whole -- if grasping is the appropriate
term. For both poet and reader, it is then only by repeated exploration
of the labyrinth of associative highways and byeways of such a meta-poem
that its significance as a larger whole can finally be sensed and anchored
Patterns of resonance: Hyperlink pathways could also be used
to map out patterns of resonance between the points of significance in
a poetic construct. For it is possible, as with certain chemical molecules
(resonance hybrids), that certain configurations of insight could only
acquire stability as a gestalt by resonance of their parts between quite
distinct alternative structures -- the dynamics of resonance providing
the basis for stability rather than any one of the particular structural
configuration of pathways (all of which might be unstable).
Yi-Fu Tuan says of resonance in an aesthetic context: "Experience, unless
it carries resonance, is shallow and transient. Resonance is the result
of the exension of one field of meaning to another -- a change and enlargement
of context so that a phenomenon is more than how it first appears. What
makes resonance possible is the human capacity for metaphorical perception
and thought." (p. 30)
Overarching patterns of knowledge: The implications for comprehension
of a poem as a gestalt clarify the challenge of knowledge and learning
in the future. As in a poem, pieces of information may indeed be provided.
They may well be structured into a pattern that can be defined as knowledge.
For the uninitiated this pattern may be misunderstood superficially, or
may appear so complex that repeated explorations may be required to gain
insight into the pattern as a whole. Patterns with the property of globality
- - possibly to be understood as wisdom -- may be so complex, however,
they do not lend themselves to ready presentation in any conventional linear
form. Such a pattern has to be built up in the mind, possibly even as a
resonance hybrid between constituent unstable structural alternatives.
This brings to mind the Sanskrit dictum: Neti, Neti (not this, not
that), as well as the poet Keats notion of negative capability (the capacity
to be in uncertainty, mystery and doubt, without any irritable reaching
after fact and reason). This may be the challenge offered by Zen koans,
or by the "mega-insights" that can only be carried in lengthy rituals or
dramatic presentations (such as the Mahabarata).
In this light, an even greater challenge emerges with respect to collective
learning and social transformation. This is the prime concern of this paper.
The increasing fragmentation of knowledge is widely acknowledged. Any subtle
overarching patterns of knowledge are by definition not the province of
any particular discipline. Each discipline may hold elements of the pattern
but would necessarily have no mandate or competence to weave them together
with those from other disciplines. Transdisciplinarity can have no disciplinary
legitimation. And yet there is the strong suspicion that it is just such
overarching patterns of knowledge -- implying wisdom -- that are required
to articulate appropriate policy initiatives for the future.
5. Reflecting the nature of an overarching pattern: a pattern that
At present a user of the Web, endeavouring to take account of the disparate
features sensed as integral to any overarching pattern, would tend to make
use of bookmark facilities offered by web browsers. These can be used to
access pages reflecting different elements of the pattern. However the
user is usually only free to keep the bookmarks as a crude list, possibly
with some facilities for hierarchical clustering and nesting. With more
skill and adequate software facilities, the user could embody the bookmarks
into one or more clickable images that provided a map of the user's current
understanding of the pattern. But such facilities are cumbersome and inadequate
if the purpose is to indicate a journey along a succession of pathways,
away from the starting point, and with some aspiration to "circum-navigating"
the globe of knowledge.
Beyond knowledge grids: For the systematic, the most convenient
clickable image on the Web might take a tabular form -- even a kind of
Mendelev Periodic Table in which the relationships between the essential
features were embodied in periodic properties of the table. But there remains
the suspicion that the subtlest patterns would be based on essentially
incommensurable elements which would not lend themselves to such "pigeon-
holing" treatment. This approach, typical of western males (currently the
majority of Web users), tends to ignore the cognitive styles of other cultures.
The appropriate question may then be: when should the required "grid"
not be a grid? The answer could well be: when it is essentially based on
a pattern of aesthetic associations (of which the conventional grid is
the most simplistic). Such a pattern, to be of relevance to society as
a whole, would have to embody quite incommensurable aesthetic styles and
preferences. This would necessarily be beyond the capacity of any individual
or group to elaborate or understand, other than partially and in the constraining
light of their own biases.
Incommensurability: What form might this incommensurability appear
to take? At the simplest level it is reflected in phenomena whose explanations
cannot be reconciled within simplistic frameworks. More complex frameworks
are required. In mathematical terms, more dimensions may be required to
demonstrate their compatibility and to formulate transforms between them.
But in some cases (especially in the absence of any adequate or comprehensible
mathematical insight), it may only be possible to formulate any reconciliation
in the form of paradox. Zen practitioners relish the koans which can lead
to the appropriate levels of understanding.
This suggests that knowledge, as formulated by each discipline, corresponds
to a zone of coherence. These zones are necessarily separated by "no-go"
areas in which the methodologies of neighbouring disciplines no longer
adequately apply -- and in which they may have no interest anyway. Those
who have to call on insights from a range of disciplines in their daily
life are however obliged to provide themselves with a framework enabling
them to traverse and encompass such no-go areas and to embody the incommensurabilities
into their own cognitive style. The challenge of integration for the individual
thus mirrors that for society.
This is the challenge for any practitioner or leader continually obliged
to make use of conflicting or incomplete advice. They have to give themselves
models of the knowledge terrain, at whatever level of conceptual sophistication
they are able or choose to operate. Such a perspective in no way denies
that subtler insight might provide patterns that weave together what appear,
from a more reductionistic perspective, to be incompatible knowledge domains.
But for many such insights may in practice be beyond immediate comprehension.
6. Keeping the grid "up"
In the light of the earlier points concerning the value of understanding
in terms of a spherical grid, this simple model can be used as a means
of discussing the challenge for practitioners obliged to draw on knowledge
from different disciplinary domains around the Web. The insights of any
one discipline provide an essentially "flat earth" understanding of knowledge
as a whole -- whose essential globality may be for the user to discover.
Beyond any such discipline's horizon, all is irrelevant, if not effectively
Tents and domes: A practioner has to function a bit like someone
putting up a tent. Each support or anchor must be held in a kind of grid
pattern of contervailing supports or anchors. By getting the balance right,
the tent can be gotten up and stabilized to define and encompass a new
cognitive space. So it is with the countervailing insights offered by different
More ambitious than a humble tent, are the space-enclosing domes used
for major exhibitions. Again there is a logistic challenge in getting the
grid of a multitude of elements in place so that the whole can be got up
and kept up under adverse environmental conditions. Getting a continent-wide
power grid up and running presents similar challenges, as does an inter-continental
telephone grid or the Internet itself. But although these metaphors are
suggestive, the implications for a knowledge grid remain elusive -- and
perhaps necessarily so.
Further insights can be obtained by exploring the implications of tensegrity
structures as progressive spherical approximations (Judge, ****), notably
in the recent initiative of Stafford Beer (1994) in the design of communication
structures with associated electronic protocols.
Requisite variety and necessary differences: In the domain of
knowledge, what might be understood as effectively "keeping a grid up"?
The tent metaphor suggests that it would involve some kind of balance between
those forms of knowledge that pull together -- reinforcing each other ---
and those forms which oppose each other as incompatible -- being somehow
mutually exclusive. In this sense both forms are necessary to sustain a
diverse pattern of knowledge. Efforts to focus only on the first kind,
and to systematically exclude the second, lead to naive forms of universalism
which are unsustainable in practice -- however attractive they may appear
as an ideal in which everything is positively complementary.
This approach draws attention to the value of differences and notably
those which appear intractable and irreconcilable. Society is currently
tortured by various forms of polarization which many hope to avoid by emphasizing
one pole and denying the other. Policy-making is inhibitied and undermined
by value dilemmas. And there are calls from realists to manage differences
between parties rather than to strive to eliminate them. This suggests
that, as in the tent metaphor, opposition could, and should, be used to
"keep the grid up", namely to sustain the whole pattern of knowledge.
Collapsing distinctions: It is strange how differences have become
an anathema in society. Valuable distinctions are avoided in the hopes
that somehow knowledge can be "collapsed" into universal harmony and synthesis.
Unesco, as the mandated intergovernmental guardian of science, culture
and education (and transdisciplinarity), has as one of its key principles
"the elimination of discrimination in all its forms". Although conceived
to address racial and similar forms of discrimination, by emphasizing "in
all its forms" (therefore including those synonymous with discernment),
this principle effectively precludes any meaningful discrimination between
different forms of knowledge, methodology or belief. And yet it is precisely
by distinguishing such differences that requisite variety (in cybernetic
terms) is ensured in any global pattern of knowledge. Failure to discriminate
collapses the grid.
Competing forces: It is vital to recognize the many competing
tendencies in the emerging information society. The much publicized push
towards globalization, with all it implies in terms of homogenization and
impersonal generalities, is matched or opposed by a pull towards localization
in the form of regional, national and sub-national cultural expressions.
Asia is resisting imposition of western understandings of human rights
(curiously indistinguishable from universal rights). Individuals in all
cultures are resisting top-down imposition of ethical and other patterns
of knowledge which could be seen as a new form of totalitarianism.
Inability to discriminate makes it impossible to articulate universal
patterns which are distinct from totalitarian patterns. But this said,
it is also useful to recognize the contribution of globalization in opposing
the fragmentation and balkanization of society, knowledge and understanding.
In this case, as in other examples of polarization, both tendencies are
vital to a healthy society -- and to "keeping the grid up".
7. Grasping for identity and the challenge of integrative knowledge
Property: Globalization is drawing attention to other necessary
tensions in the information society, namely those associated with intellectual
property rights as opposed to the need to disseminate knowledge to those
in desperate need of it. Aside from any natural incompatibility between
disciplines, concern about property rights is also fragmenting systems
of knowledge through commercial secrecy and systems of restricting access
to "classified" knowledge "in the national interest". National intelligence
networks are being redeployed to ensure national competitive advantage
in trade. The future may see the current zero cost access to the libraries
of the world via the Internet as a naive honeymoon period.
Competition: Globalization, through the tremendous pressures
it creates to compete, is highlighting the pressures towards articulating
collective identity. The effort by countries to grasp market share is intimately
related to their effort to grasp, maintain and develop collective identity.
As presently configured, this is a desperate race with few possible "winners"
and a multitude of "losers" for whom any sympathy is at best tokenistic.
The explosive question of whether there will be enough "market share" to
share amongst those who aspire to participate in this race to sustainability
is carefully not addressed. Countries, like people, may become unemployed
Monopolization: Globalization processes have to date been closely
associated with "consolidation" of economic interests into monopolies and
cartels, however carefully disguised by creative labelling. The impact
on knowledge is seen in the tendency to lock users into particular products,
notably in the case of software and other proprietary knowledge-ware (as
marketed by consultants). Basically if it can be commercialized then it
has already lost its integrative function -- it has become a product rather
than a "contextulizer". But analogous efforts are made to lock people into
particular ideologies and belief systems -- a practice long-cultivated
by the religions of the world. Academic schools of thought are also assiduous
in deliberately training students to carry on a particular tradition and
to oppose, even by dubious means, the explorations of alternative schools.
It is in this environment that the frenzied global competition for Nobel
Prizes in various domains of knowledge takes place. Clearly it is not within
this framework that there can be any hope for a meaningful global competition
for Noble Prizes in Wisdom.
Conflated understanding of "universal": The challenge seems to
lie in disentangling conflated levels of understanding. Dealing with daily
reality seems to demand increasingly specialized and fragmented domains
of knowledge -- and increasingly engenders dependence on those with the
necessary expertise. At the same time, the crises resulting from inability
to coordinate and integrate such fragmented knowledge in response to complex
crises provokes anguished calls for both "universal" theories and languages,
as well as "global" strategies, programmes, and ethical systems.
Such universal frameworks are then promoted as relatively simple without
recognizing the challenges to understanding that they represent -- even
if they could be meaningfully articulated amongst the best and the brightest.
For they would have to be more complex than the behaviours they are expected
to regulate (in the light of the cybernetic Law of Requisite Variety) and
as such are a major challenge to both individual and collective comprehension.
The need for a different order of understanding is not recognized. Its
nature is confused with simplistic understandings of universal and global.
8. Imagination and aesthetics as vital resources
Living myth: Paul Wildman (1996) notes that "Civilizations that
have lost a system of living myth seek to hold themselves together by means
of rational planning, contrived programs and projects, and organization."
In criticizing the limitations of such modern strategic planning as blinkering
creativity and imagination, he argues that: "Today we use information to
feed the emptiness created by the absence of imagination. The information
myth is that we need information to improve our lives." He cites T S Eliotþs
words: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge
we have lost in information?"
Symbolic space: Yi-Fu Tuan explores the way in which symbolic
space is integrated into a larger and more complex whole, namely the state.
Symbolic space is viewed as one of the systems of symbols, in this case
territorially organized, without which society cannot function. The state
is seen as an aesthetic-moral construction on a grand scale. Viewed as
a serious effort to articulate excellence for society, politics is itself
a moral-aesthetic aspiration, and its achievements are properly deemed
artworks. (p. 182). But he demonstrates that modern democracy is antithetical
to the aesthetic "because it is -- or can seem to be -- nebulous, protean,
egalitarian, partial to the average and hostile to the exceptional. But
although it may be disposed towards these attributes, it is not confined
to them." (p. 209) Such considerations might usefully be extended to the
structure of the information society and the nature of the aesthetic which
Aesthetic configuration: How might continuing future reflection
on what seems to be required be assisted by the configuration of hypertext
pathways on the Web? What might this mean -- or is the question only
relevant to "spiders"? It is intriguing that "thread" is an important metaphor
used to identify a particular sequence of comments in a discussion -- which
may also contain other discussions. This may be restricted to a thematic
thread, or its meaning may be broader. How threads get interwoven, and
by whom, is another matter. Where are the Internet spiders to make the
Any such "higher" order of understanding must necessarily be carried
by structures and patterns which do not lend themselves to proprietary
exploitation in the interests of the few. Preoccupation of vested interests
may well be with how spheres of influence are carved out of the information
society in imitation of the past. But for it to serve any function as the
"pattern which connects", any new order of understanding must necessarily
provide bridges between incommensurable and proprietary domains of knowledge
-- whether of schools of thought, corporations, or individuals. As formulated
by Lao Tse ********. For environmental architect Christopher Alexander
(1979), it is the central "quality without a name".
The question is whether such insights can be embodied into any configuration
of hypertext pathways on the Web. What these quotes seem to imply is that
what is of greatest importance cannot be effectively articulated. It can
however be partially articulated and tangentially approximated -- and creative
exploration of the unknown in every domain will continue to be drawn to
do just that. Configuring such tangents therefore offers a window of opportunity
through which operational significance can be given to the larger pattern
9. Spherical knowledge grid: discontinuity and emptiness
One approach to configuring tangents is to focus on spherical geometry
and the nature of a spherical grid -- since these are at least accessible
to the imagination (even though other forms of greater complexity may be
more appropriate in mathematical terms). Unlike use of latitude and longitude,
in this case the emphasis is on the user's choice of preferred grid pattern
-- unless some standard pattern is acceptable. There are many ways to carve
up a spherical surface and the user can effectively "delink" from efforts
to impose universally accepted patterns. People do not need to resonate
to the frenetic urgencies and rhythmns of "power users" for whom month-old
information is already long obsolete? Future privacy may lie in other orderings
of space and time.
Laying down a grid: But to be commensurate with the challenge
to comprehension, it is beneficial to recognize the limitations of the
rational ("urban planning") mentality associated with "laying down a grid",
even on a sphere. The use of a rational pattern is indeed possible and
may be preferred by many. It however precludes many possibilities of holding
insights into incommensurable features -- other than through the horizon
effect mentioned above.
A choice of reference points must be made around the sphere by the user
-- although it is effectively this choice which defines the sphere. The
user is not obliged to do this through a geometric metaphor. The reference
points could even be a palette of colours or a pantheon of gods. It is
the fundamental act of distinction and separation that is important (***)
-- and the configuration of those distinctions into a pattern on a sphere
(although other surfaces with such finite but unbounded properties could
Embodying discontinuity: The links between the points so chosen
could indeed be represented by continuous lines. But this would fail to
capture the conceptual discontinuity that characterizes the relationships
between domains of knowledge. The lines might be better understood as discontinuous
or broken by "operators" such as are found on a circuit board (condensers,
resistances, etc). It might also be useful to allow the lines to periodically
switch polarity to reflect the ways in which initiative or priority can
switch from one domain of knowledge to another in response to changing
circumstances. Web pages could be designed with such properties.
Travelling from one domain of knowledge to another around the sphere
thus becomes as fraught with uncertainty as in any adventure game. It is
essentially a learning exercise, a journey in the personal development
sense, or even a process of initiation. There are conditions to be met
-- puzzles and paradoxes to be mastered, doors to be unlocked -- as partly
reflected in transiting through password-controlled databases. Unless this
is done, any movement around the sphere is purely formal and of minimal
significance. Electronic access to a document, or possessing it, does not
indicate comprehension of its content or its significance in a wider pattern.
This approach offers the possibity of reflecting the ways in which the
parts are effectively protected from the whole, and the whole from the
parts. Simplistic globalization is a reductionist illusion whatever it
is hyped up to be by vested interests and enthusiasts. Ultimately the reality
of what can be meaningfully expressed becomes a matter of the moment --
as acknowledged in various mystical traditions.
Honouring emptiness: A danger of grid systems is the implied
enclosure of the domain of knowledge. From any longer term perspective,
this can only be premature and presumptuous. It suggests a colonization
of the future against which the next generation must necessarily revolt
-- and a "generation" on the Web may be a matter of months. It denies any
sense of mystery by giving no place to the unknown or the possibly unknowable.
The advantage of any centro-symmetric system (Judge ***), especially a
sphere, is that the grid runs on the surface leaving the centre empty,
both as an unreified point of reference, around which current understandings
and explorations can be configured as tangents, and as a form of openness.
Such features respect future creativity and any sense of implicate order
from which new patterns emerge. They reflect the cited concern of Lao Tse.
10. Sustaining aesthetics: songlines, leylines and dragon lines
According to Yi-Fu Tuan: "The power of the human senses to organize
the world takes diverse forms, shaped by the larger cultures in which they
operate....Yet all possess an aesthetic-moral aspect -- as revealed by
their drive toward significance and form -- and all demonstrate the power
of the imagination to transcend group values held at a certain time by
incorporating values from another group and thereby grow." (p. 121)
Given the well-hyped emphasis on the multi-media features of the Web
and the competition for attractive home pages, what might be described
as the sustaining aesthetic of the Internet at this time? Much is implicit
in "surfing" and "cruising" (cf Easy Rider). For some the aesthetic
has elements of a vastly complex set of "monkey bars" in the ultimate playground.
In opting for a "global" representation of knowledge, there is a strong
case for exploring the aesthetics of the landscape around that globe (Schama,
Landscape and Memory, 1995). Why buy into crude attempts to develop
and cover it metaphorically with human artefacts? And, without committing
the opposite error of romantics, why not develop insights from a variety
of traditions that honour the globe in other ways?
The coherence of the Australian Aboriginal world derives from the centrality
of belief in a dreamtime during which powerful beings walk the earth, establishing
topographic features, calling the natural species into life, and instituting
the rules of group and individual behaviour. They "wrapped the whole world
in a web of song" (Bruce Chatwin, 1988, p. 82). Creation occurs by means
of song. It is therefore as though the landscape is a musical score, and
the traditional tracks are what have been termed songlines. These are themselves
a powerful memory aid to navigation over the earth and to the location
of essential resources, as well as providing a continuing rehearsal of
cultural history. A songline is therefore "a succession of sites" along
a track, "vibrant with incident, power and meaning" allowing for a dramatic
and aesthetic participation in the environment. (Yi-Fu Tuan, 1993, pp. 125-7).
"Music is a memory bank for finding one's way about the world" (Chatwin,
"Pathway" is already used as a basic metaphor in the exploration of
hypertext. To what extent could a sequence of pathways be usefully understood
as having some of the qualities of a songline? In Chinese culture, very
great importance continues to be given to "dragon lines" from the perspective
of feng shui and geomancy. Western traditional cultures attach importance
to leylines linking "sacred sites" -- which are increasingly a focus of
tourism. Again "site" is part of the basic Web terminology -- and with
the arrival of the Vatican on the Web, maybe some of them might even be
considered "sacred". Leylines are understood as covering the globe in a
triangulated gridwork whose form is of considerable interest to those concerned
with sacred geometry. Traditional pilgrimage pathways to sacred sites are
commonly associated with leylines. Internet magazines typically offer monthly
recommendations that users visit selected sites labelled "hot" or "cool"
-- perhaps a modern equivalent of what is sacred for some. But "hitting"
sites is far from the aesthetic associated with the laborious learning
journeys of a pilgrimage or the sensitivity to landscape implied by leylines
11. Songlines of the noosphere
Songlines have suggestive features. A song, for the Aborigine, is both
a map and a direction finder. Knowing the song, enables a person to move
across country, from sacred site to sacred site, on seemingly unmapped
territory, through language-barriers, regardless of tribe or frontier.
Those encountered on the songline nevertheless share the traveller's worldview
(Dreaming). The traveller also has the responsibility to maintain the landscape
by singing it into existence -- a fundamental act of creative aesthetics.
Essentially the land first exists as a concept in the mind and is given
form through the singing (Chatwin, pp. 15- 17).
Given the network orientation of the Web, it is also intriguing that
individuals only inherit a limited number of contiguous stretches on a
songline. Their limit is marked by a "stop" -- at which responsibility
for stewardship of the songline passes to someone else, and where other
songlines might intersect. As with any network, however, stops cannot be
meaningfully linked "horizontally" to denote a conventional political frontier.
Each songline is sustained by a different melody. In effect, as with birds,
territorial boundaries are defined by song (Chatwin, pp. 66).
Given the major concerns about intellectual property on the Internet,
the Aboriginal view is intriguing. For them, trade routes are songlines
because songs are the principal medium of exchange, rather than "things".
Individuals inherit stretches of the songline, with their "verses" constituting
title deeds to the territory. These could be lent or borrowed (enabling
extension of the individual's song map), but not given or sold away (Chatwin,
pp 64-65). Users on the Web are already at the point of trading site information
as a valued commodity. What is missing is any sense of the "melody" which
defines a succession of pathways, namely a line of sites through many different
domains. It is the melody which is the heuristic. For the Aborigines, and
despite their many languages: "Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic
contour of the song described the nature of the land over which the song
passes" (Chatwin, p. 120). In learning terms, this is the defining quality
of a particular cultural Grand Tour -- or in global terms, a great circle
route around the body of knowledge. In this light, the key to thriving
on the Web may eventually prove to be sensitivity to a melody or metaphor
which guides passage across incommensurable domains. Without it, a user
governed by the "hitting" metaphor, like a traveller lost in the desert,
may be effectively trapped in a search domain -- condemned to walk in relatively
small circles within it.
Consider the possibility that global configuration of hypertext pathways
could be the result of interlocking great circle routes of learning journeys.
The pattern of intersections would effectively position, and significantly
separate, different domains of knowledge. But although apparently a spherical
grid, it would above all be characterized by the challenges to comprehension
along the different journeys and the responsibility for the stewardship
of parts of those journeys -- maintaining the melody. For, given that any
hyperlink is to another location offering multiple links onward, the choice
of link at any location to continue the journey needs to be governed by
a subtle rule (more sophisticated than any left-brain indication to "always
take the third" hyperlink or menu choice). What is the heuristic "melody"
governing consistency of choice that ensures movement along the learning
pathway around any of the great circle routes? How are encounters to be
handled with information offering subtle enticements onto some alternative
route -- onto a different melody? As at a hub airport, or a station at
the intersection of a variety of transport lines, "changing lines" may
involve a major reorientation. Effectively it involves a change of metaphoric
framework or vehicle.
12. Globality of the noosphere
Beyond recognition of the ability to circumnavigate the globe along
such great circle routes, lies the larger challenge of gaining some understanding
of globality in relation to the noosphere. The challenge can be described
"mechanically" in geometric terms but, as argued earlier, it is probably
only in "aesthetic" and metaphoric terms that any such comprehension can
be acquired and sustained.
One approach might be to explore the possibility of some form of "resonance"
between elements of the different great circle songlines -- resonance pathways
around the globe. The aim would then be to seek ways to comprehend how
the globe of knowledge can be made to "ring like a bell". Physically this
was explored by Nikola Tesla as a standing wave effect of 7.5 cycles /
sec through which he endeavoured to distribute power around the globe and
more recently in some curiously unpublicized weaponry. A mandala may be
understood as a point on the globe surrounded by a pattern of three, or
more, different great circle elements. It is the fact of their status as
part of great circles which is the challenge to understanding of their
In poetic terms, as an exercise in poesis, there are intriguing challenges
in the poetry of spherical associations enabled by metaphor -- corresponding
to the resonance effects noted above. In both cases, the challenge is to
reinforce significance through resonance. As in a magnetic bottle (to enable
nuclear fusion by containing the plasma), the challenge is to avoid "quenching"
by contact with the container. On a learning journey, around a cycle of
hyperlinked documents, it is similarly necessary to maintain onward momentum
and prevent the learner from either being trapped and "enthralled" by the
significance of a particular document, or distracted and "scattered" onto
unrelated experiences which do not reinforce the greater cycles or their
interlocking -- thus inhibiting any possibility of their transcendence.
But, as in a particle accelerator, any such "bouncing" around a great circle
involves a discipline quite different from "hitting" a random array of
sites in the surfing metaphor -- or is this always the case? Ultimately
it is only the individual who can determine the adequacy of any such container
to the alchemical processes of learning and transformation.
Both music and poetry, in their reliance on resonance, suggest the possibility
of "higher" harmonics and resonance effects which could prove capable of
carrying other orders of significance. Metaphorically this possibility
is fundamental to the significance of the interference effects of Tibetan
bells and overtone chanting.
Comprehending the spherical structure of the body of knowledge through
tensegrity approximations, based on configurations of polar elements sustaining
continuous great circle pathways, suggests the possibility of "twanging"
such polarities to engender resonance effects. The body of knowledge may
in this way be comprehended as being "played" like a wind harp by the many
polarized discussions that inhibit comprehension of the global pattern
which they effectively sustain. Pythagoreans would delight in noting the
proportions required for chords of particular harmonic significance.
It is ironic that Isaac Newton leaned heavily on human insight into
gravitas (then understood as the human experience of heaviness) as a metaphor
to enable comprehension of gravity -- thus establishing the basis of modern
physics. Perhaps this creative misuse -- gaining new meaning by using words
to state suggestive falsehoods (Talbott, pp. 300-301) -- should now be reversed,
using understanding of gravity to enable comprehension of the forces acting
on the individual psyche, travelling the noosphere, by a global configuration
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