Societal Learning and the Erosion of Collective Memory
a critique of the Club of Rome Report: No Limits to Learning
- / -
Introductory report of Panel III on Utilisation
of international documentation
of the Second World Symposium on International
Documentation (Brussels, 1980). Published in International Documents for the
80's: their role and use
(Unifo Publishers, 1982 in an incomplete version),
edited by Th. Dimitrov). Presented to the meeting of the Forms of Presentation
sub-project of the United Nations University project on Goals, Process and Indicators
of Development (Geneva, June 1980). Extracts published in Transnational Associations,
36, 1984, 2, pp. 83-93 with the sub-title: role of international organizations
in combatting global amnesia [PDF version
Given the current period of budgetary crisis in the international organisation
community and elsewhere, it may well be asked whether consideration of
"the utilisation of international documentation" at this time can lead
to significant conclusions. The report of the 1972 Symposium indicates
a range of user problems which remain valid (1). Budgets have however been
contracted rather than expanded since then. Further the hopes for major
inter-agency information exchanges, particularly at the computer level,
have been largely abandoned or focused on narrowly specialised domains.
Those who earlier expressed concern are now resigned to the fragmentation
of international documentation. Relations between potential collaborators
in any such exchanges have been eroded by priority attention to basic programme
concerns within each agency. In many cases where there has been a real
cross-system need this has been met by external services possibly established
by a commercial enterprise at the national level. Given this level of activity,
the recommendations of the 1972 Symposium still stand as a minimal adequate
On the other hand the period since 1972 has witnessed the advent of
the pocket computer which has changed peoples' perception of the credibility
of the "computer revolution". There have been many studies of the "information
society" now and to come. Computer terminals are creeping into offices
and the "paper-free office" is announced for the immediate future. In homes
such devices are used for education and amusement (attached to television).
International and national agencies are now experimenting with such devices-each
in their own way in support of their own system. The pressure to do so
is great because of the rapid spread of international satellite-linked
data networks and the multitude of data bases now available via them.
The boundless optimism of those associated with the information society
revolution is far from being matched by those concerned with the world
problematique. Crisis has been heaped on crisis and international agencies
are increasingly perceived as helpless observers of these worsening conditions.
Loss of confidence in them, as reflected in their budgets, is part of the
general loss of confidence in established institutions.
In this context it would seem to be shortsighted, if not simply foolish,
to attempt any conventional inward-looking evaluation of the problems of
"utilization of international documentation". The dramatic times in which
we live would seem to call for a new look at the context within which the
objectives of "international documentation" are defined and perceived by
the user, whether actual or potential. Not to do so would simply beg the
well-known management quip: "Having lost sight of their objectives, they
redoubled their efforts".
The danger in the emerging information society is that many traditional
library dreams of total computerisation and in-depth cataloguing may too
easily become a reality. The question is not whether this is worthwhile,
especially to the user. In this transition period a major concern should
be with whether such innovations are assessed within a broad enough framework
in the light of needs during social crisis and upheaval. The latter concern
is of course a special responsibility of international documentation services.
Are the right questions being asked -- are there better questions to ask?
It is the search for such a framework, to stimulate better questions about
utilisation, which is the prime thrust of this report.
B. Social learning and the world problematique
Given the continuing insistence of international agencies on the complexity
and urgency of the world crisis situation, it is unnecessary to summarise
this point here (2). In response to recognition of this world problematique
a new generation of perceptive studies is now emerging. What is surprising
is that they stress similar points which are relevant to the objectives
of any international documentation system.
As a first example, in 1978 Ambassador Soedjatmoko of Indonesia (Appointed
Rector of the UN University in 1980)stressed the importance of the "learning
capacity of nations":
"The capacity of a nation-- not just of its government, but of society
as a whole-- to adjust to rapidly changing techno-economic, socio-cultural
and political changes, on a scale which makes it possible to speak of social
transformation, very much depends on its collective capacity to generate,
to ingest, to reach out for, and to utilise a vast amount of new and relevant
information. This capacity for creative and innovative response to changing
conditions and new challenges I would like to call the learning capacity
of a nation. This capacity is obviously not limited to the cognitive level,
but includes the attitudinal, institutional and organisational levels of
society as well" (3).
These remarks are very much in sympathy with those in the Presidential
Address of Professor Helmut Arntz on the 80th Anniversary of the International
Federation for Documentation in 1975. He stressed that:
"... l'information... est le seul moyen de garder suffisament le control
de l'évolution pour que l'humanité... conserve toujours une
avance sur la menace qui peut mener à la catastrophe... la survie
de l'homme dépend de l'obtention et de l'utilisation de l'information..."
In 1979, the most recent report to the Club of Rome was published (5).
"Whoever chronicles the history of the 1970s will see clearly what
we perceive only dimly now. Not only is a critical element still missing
from most discussions on global problems, but the most striking analyses
of the world problematique are diverting attention from a fundamental issue.
What has been missing is the human element, and what is at issue is what
we call the human gap. The human gap is the distance between growing complexity
and our capacity to cope with it...
This report examines how learning can help to bridge the human gap.
Learning as we shall use the term, has to be understood in a broad sense
that goes beyond what conventional terms like education and schooling imply.
For us, learning means an approach, both to knowledge and to life, that
emphasises human initiative. It encompasses the acquisition and practice
of new methodologies, new skills, new attitudes, and new values necessary
to live in a world of change. Learning is the process of preparing to deal
with new situations.
Distinguishing this notion of learning from schooling does not mean
that this report will ignore education which is a fundamental way and a
formal means to enhance learning... Further, we shall contend that not
only individuals but also groups of people learn, that organisations learn,
and that even societies can be said to learn. The concept of "societal
learning" is relatively new and stirs some controversy. Some contend that
it is merely a metaphor that distorts the meaning of learning. Doubtless
the concept of societal learning has limits, but we nonetheless shall maintain
that societies can and do learn, and we shall not hesitate to cite evidence
of learning processes at work in societies.
The fact that inadequate contemporary learning contributes to the deteriorating
human condition and a widening of the human gap cannot be ignored. Learning
processes are lagging appallingly behind and are leaving both individuals
and societies unprepared to meet the challenges posed by global issues.
This failure of learning means that human preparedness remains underdeveloped
on a worldwide scale. Learning is in this sense far more than just another
global problem: its failure represents, in a fundamental way, the issue
of issues in that it limits our capacity to deal with every other issue
in the global problematique. These limitations are neither fixed nor absolute.
Human potential is being artificially constrained and vastly underutilised
-- so much so that for all practical purposes there appear to be virtually
no limits to learning." (5, pp. 6-9)
In 1980, Alvin Toffler (author of "Future Shock") produced a book (6) reviewing
the positive factors associated with the current period of crisis. In it
he stresses the importance of "social memory" and how it is being revolutionized
by the changes in the "info-sphere". (pp 192-193). He points out:
"Our remarkable ability to file and retrieve shared memories is the
secret of our species' evolutionary success. And anything that significantly
alters the way we construct, store, or use social memory therefore touches
on the wellsprings of destiny. Twice before in history humankind has revolutionised
its social memory. Today, in constructing a new info-sphere, we are poised
on the brink of another such transformation...
What makes the leap to a Third Wave info-sphere so historically exciting
is that it not only vastly expands social memory again, bur resurrects
it from the dead.
The computer, because it processes the data it stores, creates an historically
unprecedented situation: it makes social memory both extensive and active.
And this combination will prove to be propulsive". (6, pp. 192-193)
Unlike earlier hopes for a "world brain", a functioning information infrastructure
(7) is emerging very rapidly which will accomplish more than was desired
by those who first reflected on the future of information. (Recent years
have nevertheless seen the rebirth of a World Mind Group (8)).
But Toffler makes the point that:
"Unless we incinerate the planet and our social memory with it, we
shall before long have the closest thing to a civilisation with total recall"
(6, p 193).
This optimistic argument conceals a basic problem to which the Club of
Rome report (above) is more sensitive. For whilst technically it may well
be possible to recall any item of information, the problem lies with how
the user is to use such a facility given the limited processing capacity
of the brain.
And, more specifically, how is he to learn from it and to what extent
will it facilitate social learning in relation to the world problematique?
This basic constraint emerges more clearly in the Dakar Declaration
(1979) of Informatique pour le Tiers Monde (9):
"The key element of human communications -- the ordering and transmission
of information -- is tending to become a source of mix-communication. The
scientific and technological breakthroughs which have led to the informatics
revolution are way ahead of the learning process of human society. This
cultural lag is the most serious challenge to a comprehensive view of the
implications of informatics. It is a matter of values, of organisational
capacity and transformation in mental structures".
This statement, however, itself fails to distinguish between the collective
and the individual dimensions of the problem. These are explored in the
C. Information usage
1. User specialisation
It is unnecessary to comment here on the large amount of information
now available or on the rate at which this is increasing in every field
of knowledge -- including those of interest to international organisations.
It has long been an accepted truism that nobody can be expected to "master"
every field of knowledge, and few can be expected to master one unless
it is narrowly specialised. This does not raise major problems in the world
of documentation. Users are expected to have specific concerns and are
guided, more or less effectively to the information services and tools
best able to respond to those concerns.
If at the end of his search the user is faced with a selection of 65
documents (or more) corresponding to his concern, it is the user's problem
to decide on how to proceed. If he complains about the quantity, it is
considered appropriate that he should be asked to specify his requirements
more narrowly. He may even be assisted in this by allowing him to scan
abstracts. If finally he complains that he "does not have time" to scan
all the relevant abstracts or selected documents, this is not a matter
of concern to the documentation service, especially if he has been informed
of the documents as a subscriber to a selective dissemination of information
(SDI) system on the basis of his user profile.
2. Usage contexts
Expressed in this way, the user problems lie outside the information
service. But the nature of those problems is such as to raise questions
-in the light of the remarks of the previous section -- about the value
of the information systems now available and envisaged. In order to clarify
these problems it is necessary to be more precise about the "usage contexts"
with which information systems may be concerned. These may be ordered as
1. Automatic, namely information movement not requiring human decision,
as typified by computer controlled manufacturing processes -- the computer
is the "user"
2. Procedural, namely information selected and transformed under well-defined
procedures, as typified by computerized reservation systems and many aspects
of bibliographic control
3. Programme-oriented, namely selection of information governed by a
pre-definedset of criteria based on research or learning
programme, as typified by the major uses to which documentation systems
4. Open-ended exploration, namely dialogue with an information system
to determine more valid ways of formulat ing a research or learning programme,
as typified by the needs of those attempting to determine the thrust of
an as yet un-categorized policy concern.
The first two are of no concern here. Increasingly it is expected that
these should exist and that they should function satisfactorily. The third
is of major importance to international documentation services but its
user problems are largely covered by the 1972 Symposium report (1). Existing
and envisaged systems are satisfactory for users who are content with their
ability to specify their information requirement.
3. Maintenance/shock learning
The first three usage contexts correspond to the requirements of what
the Club of Rome report (5) calls "maintenance learning"
"Maintenance learning is the acquisition of fixed outlooks, methods,
and rules for dealing with known recurring situations. It enhances our
problem-solving ability for problems that are given. It is the type of
learning designed to maintain an existing system or an established way
of life. Maintenance learning is, and will continue to be, indispensable
to the functioning and stability of every society". (5, p.10)
Maintenance learning reinforces existing categories and paradigms, the
disciplines to which they give rise, and the professional and institutional
division of labour of which they are the basis. Funding for the associated
information systems is governed by maintenance priorities.
But, as the Club of Rome report points out:
"Traditionally societies and individuals have adopted a pattern of
continuous maintenance learning interrupted by short periods of innovation
stimulated largely by the shock of external events... Even up to the present
moment, humanity continues to wait for events and crises that would catalyze
or impose this primitive learning by shock. But the global problematique
introduces at least one new risk -- that the shock could be fatal. This
possibility, however remote, reveals most clearly the crisis of conventional
learning: primary reliance on maintenance learning not only is blocking
the emergence of innovative learning, but it renders humanity increasingly
vulnerable to shock; and under conditions of global uncertainty, learning
by shock is a formula for disaster". (5, p. 10)
It is shock learning that has established new programmes, new institutions,
and the need for new kinds of information services crossing previous categories
(e.g. the environment or energy crises). But the report stresses:
"The conventional pattern of maintenance/shock learning is inadequate
to cope with global complexity and is likely, if unchecked, to lead to
one or more of the following consequences:
(a) The loss of control over events and crises will lead to extremely
costly shocks, one of which could possibly be fatal
(b) The long lag times of maintenance learning virtually guarantee the
sacrificing of options needed to avert a whole series of recurring crises
(c) The reliance on expertise and short time periods intrinsic to learning
by shock will marginalize and alienate more and more people
(d) The incapacity quickly to reconcile value conflicts under crisis
conditions will lead to the loss of human dignity and of individual fulfillment".
(5, pp. 11-12)
4. Innovative learning
Having reached this conclusion the report asserts as its central thrust
that "innovative learning is a necessary means of preparing individuals
and societies to act in concert in situations, especially those that have
been, and continue to be, created by humanity itself". (5, p. 12) Conscious
anticipation is considered to be a primary feature of innovative
learning in contrast to the unconscious adaptation characteristic
of maintenance learning. Anticipation is conceived as necessarily tied
to participation as a second feature. For without it anticipation
becomes futile. And participation without anticipation can be counter-productive
or misguided, leading to paralysis or to counteraction. The report stresses
that it is not enough that only elites or decision-makers are anticipatory
when the resolution of global issues depends on the broad-based support
of groups of every kind. (5, pp. 13-14)
Clearly innovative learning corresponds to "open-ended exploration"
as the fourth usage context noted above. Given the importance attached
to it, it is clearly appropriate to ask to what extent international
documentation systems respond to the need for anticipatory learning as
a participative process.
D. User limitations: limits to learning
1. Specialized user
The previous section noted the widespread condition of user specialization.
This is characteristic of a programme-oriented usage context associated
with the adaptive processes of maintenance learning. In such a context
the user cannot really be said to have limitations because whenever any
limitations are encountered it is simply accepted that greater specialisation
is necessary. Through specialising, limitations in the user are
circumvented (in effect by imposing limitations on the user). Specialization
is here taken to include avoidance of any subject matter which is too complex.
In other words the user focuses on that material which he believes meets
his needs and abilities (whether as a schoolchild or a postgraduate).(Any
relative operational "incompetence" of a user-learner can be considered
as a limitation society effectively imposes on him; the educational level
of documentation he is capable of absorbing define a form of specialisation).
2. Limits to learning
The Club of Rome report optimistically concludes that: "Human potential
is being artificially constrained and vastly under-utilized -- so much
so that for all practical purposes there appear to be virtually no limits
to learning" (5, p. 9 - the added emphasis being the actual title of
the report). The subtitle of the report, "bridging the human gap", arises
from a recognition that "the human gap is the distance between growing
complexity and our capacity to cope with it". (5, p. 6)
This "gap", in the case of the individual user, appears in the form
of one or more limits. Only by considering the nature of these limits (listed
below) is it possible to determine the form of learning which is "unlimited".
(The report itself is necessarily vague, if not ambiguous, in the way in
which these limits are neglected in its more general focus on unlimited
a. Quantitative limit: As noted previously,
no user is expected to master the quantity of information in every domain
of knowledge. A user is limited in that he can only process a fraction
of that amount in any given period (even a lifetime). It may be argued
that a total access system gives him unlimited "finger-tip mastery" through
the ability to access any item of information. But it is important to distinguish
between his unlimited power of access and the limited number of accesses
he can usefully make in any given period of time. In this respect his learning
capacity is limited.
b. Limit to perception of connectedness: Learning
is not simply the commitment of isolated elements of information to memory.
These elements must be interlinked in a web of comprehended relationships.
Such relevance networks extend around every item of information. There
are clearly limits to the extent of any such network which an individual
can "bear in mind", or tolerate as relevant, particularly as a user of
an information system. Even if the task of remembering them is delegated
to the system (and there are budgetary limitations), there are limits to
the density of connectedness which the user can comprehend as a pattern.
Abandoning such comprehension in favour of a linear sequence of accesses
imposes a different limit. This is analogous to the case of a traveller
on an unmapped subway system who has only lists of stations as a
guide -- there is no limitation to his travels but, as in a maze, there
is a limit to the complexity of the pattern he could finally comprehend.
c. Limit to comprehension span:. A standard
response to the two previous limits is to encode information into some
category scheme which provides a better grasp for learning purposes. A
user-learner can only tolerate a relatively limited range of categories.
This may be as low as 3, or it may extend into the hundreds if only a low
degree of overall comprehension is demanded (10). This need for categorisation
is a user limitation which arbitrarily distorts his comprehension of the
continuum of knowledge.
d. Limit to comprehension depth:. The
previous limit necessitates the use of nested sub-categories in order that
at each level the number of categories should not exceed an acceptable
span. But the number of levels of any such nesting is limited by problems
of comprehension if it becomes too "deep". Hierarchical nestings seldom
have more than about 7 levels for the same reasons as above (10). The need
to restrict the number of levels actively borne in mind by the user is
another user limitation which affects his learning capacity in the face
e. Pre-logical limitations:. Learning
is strongly influenced by pre-logical (possibly culturally determined)
biases governing which kinds of information are preferred. A user will
unconsciously select information which is in sympathy with his position
on each of the following axes, for example: order/disorder, static/dynamic,
continuity/discreteness, spontaneity/process, etc. (II). Such preferences
impose a limit on the learning capacity of the user, concealing blindspots
and giving rise to irrational antipathies for certain forms of information
which are significant to others. The situation is further limited because
the biases may also determine the media (e.g. text, image, speech) through
which information is preferred and via which learning is facilitated. Some
information may only be communicable via certain media (e.g. music, space-structures).
f. Attention span limit: As noted above a user
is normally only prepared to devote a limited amount of time to any learning
process through an information system. The amount is frequently less than
the time required to access information from the system. But even if a
document is distributed to the user automatically, his available attention
time for absorbing the contents (through whatever medium) is often such
that the information is effectively rejected. A third aspect is that even
if he allocates the necessary time to the learning process, there are limits
to his power of concentration in the presence of whatever distractions
he accepts in his environment. Given that some phenomena require a significant
amount of attention before they can be comprehended (at least by a given
user), it is clear that users are limited in their ability to comprehend
those requiring more attention than they are prepared to give.
g. Memory limit: A number of the above limits
could be circumvented if user-learners were unlimited in their effective
memory capacity. This is clearly not the case. Poor or "patchy" memory
is a widespread phenomenon. In an information society this situation is
complicated as Toffler notes:
"On a personal level, we are all besieged and blitzed by fragments of
imagery, contradictory or unrelated, that shake up our old ideas and come
shooting at us in the form of broken or disembodied "blips". We live, in
fact, in a "blip culture"... Instead of receiving long, related "strings"
of ideas, organised or synthesised for us, we are increasingly exposed
to short, modular blips of information -- ads, commands, theories, shreds
of news, truncated bits and blobs that refuse to fit neatly into our pre-existing
mental files". (6, pp. 181-182)
Toffler argues that the "computer is one antidote to the blip culture"
"It can sift vast masses of data to find subtle patterns. It can help
assemble "blips" into larger, more meaningful wholes". (p. 190)
Whilst this may be a future possibility, most users are attempting more
or less unsuccessfully to navigate through a whirl of blips rapidly forced
into oblivion by the emergence of others. Computers have done little to
assist memory to organise them, even in sophisticated computer conferencing
data base-linked environments (7). And even if assistance was effective,
the computer dependence it created for the user could be construed as a
major limitation -- a handicap accentuated by the effectiveness of the
crutch. Such dependence, without critical renewal of categorisation, could
well lead to a computerized version of the "railway hammer civilisation".
This is illustrated by an anecdote cited in the Club of Rome report
(p. 22): "An old British story tells of an elderly railway man who, at
his retirement after thirty years of irreproachable service, asks his colleagues
gathered for the celebration, why it was that he had to hit the wheels
with a hammer each time the train was stationed. No one knew the answer.
Current sociology is now concerned with the possible emergence of a "railway
hammer civilisation" in which people are repeating patterns and forms of
behavior without any hint of the reasons, laws, and purposes behind them".
3. Integrative comprehension
It is possible that in arguing that there were "no limits to learning",
the Club of Rome report was really implying the lack of limitations on
a mass of people each pursuing overlapping or complementary concerns. The
question of the limits to societal learning will therefore be considered
in the next section.
Given the above constraints, however, it is important to recognise the
challenge to the individual user and to the information system serving
him. The report notes:
"While some societies have gingerly experimented with inter-disciplinary
and trans-disciplinary studies, the modern trend toward fragmentation continues...
Nowhere is the impact of over-specialization so keenly felt as in the context
of global issues. It is simply not possible to analyse and formulate policies
for global issues from any exclusive disciplinary perspective. The economic
approach, the legal approach, the social or political approach are each,
by themselves, insufficient for dealing with problems that require an integrated
and holistic understanding. Such specialisation virtually guarantees irrelevance".
(5. p. 70)
International information systems have been significantly weak in facilitating
interdisciplinary approaches. For example, an overview and extensive bibliography
of such approaches appears under the title "Integrative, Unitary and Transdisciplinary
Concepts" (Section K of ref. 2). The library of the intergovernmental agency
with ongoing programmes on interdisciplinarity, failed to register this
in its computerised system although it possessed the volume. (Possibly
because it only uses "interdisciplinarity" as a category for the few items
it processes on this approach). Little is known about how an individual
user-learner can build up an integrative understanding, as recommended
by the Club of Rome report (5, p. 98). Some suggestions concerning this
are made in separate papers (12,13).
It is within this integrative perspective that the problem of innovative
learning (discussed earlier) must be raised again. How are international
information systems with heavy financial, intellectual and personal commitments
to fixed category thesauri to respond to the integrative needs of future
"Innovative learning is problem formulating and clustering. Its main
attributes are integration, synthesis, and the broadening of horizons.
It operates in open situations or open systems. Its meaning derives from
dissonance among contexts [On this point see ref. 14]. It leads to critical
questioning of conventional assumptions behind traditional thoughts and
actions, focusing on necessary changes. Its values are not constant, but
rather shifting. Innovative learning advances our thinking by reconstructing
wholes, not by fragmenting reality".
Is the international documentation system relevant to the challenge of
innovative learning? Or is its progressive computerisation the object of
criticism such as the following:
"It is lamentable that innovative technologies introduced into maintenance
learning structures have been diverted to performing maintenance tasks,
such as rapid presentation of fixed facts that was characteristic of early
attempts at programmed instruction". (5, p. 32)
The question is how to help the user-learner reformulate the category scheme
he is using into one which is more innovatively relevant.
"But even if all items in the total body of literature were identifiable
and available at low cost (which is the aim of those who favour this approach),
there still remains the problem of how to improve the relevance of the
questions asked to the problem complex faced by the policy-making process.
Retrieval is not the problem, it is merely aggravated by this more fundamental
problem. Retrieval systems focus queries in the light of the user's
existing knowledge and biases. They do not orient the policy-oriented
user to knowledge and issues with which he should also be concerned in
relation to his current preoccupations (in the light of qualified or alternative
opinions). They do not bring to his attention where his preoccupation
may fit in relation to other preoccupations. He is given no sense of
scale, proportion or orientation -- he merely gets what he asked for however
much difficulty he has in formulating his question in appropriate words".
The quotation above was made in a report to the Commonwealth Secretariat
on the possibility of using mapping techniques to provide users with a
better sense of context
than is provided by the arbitrary category
divisions of thesauri insensitive to the functional relationships between
the phenomena categorised. (Nature and society are no more subdivided on
the basis of such categories than they are on the basis of university faculties).
"We submit that many of the difficulties of learning today stem from
the neglect of contexts... Innovative learning cannot be the mere digestion
of an input, resulting in an output; nor can it be a simple additive process
of connecting values to things. In order to enhance the human capacity
to act in new situations and to deal with unfamiliar events, innovative
learning requires the absorption of vast collections of contexts. When
contexts are restricted, the probability of shock learning increases, for
shock may be conceived as a sudden event that occurs outside the known
contexts. Hence one task of innovative learning is to enhance the individual's
ability to find, absorb, and create new contexts - in short, to enrich
the supply of contexts. If the existing supply cannot offer the required
analogy to deal with new or unexpected events, then we must develop the
capacity to construct suitable alternative mental frameworks". (5, pp. 23-24)
This brings the argument back to a point made by the Rector-select of the
UN University. Ambassador Soedjatmoko:
"Part of our incapacity to comprehend fully what is happening to us
in the changing conditions of the world, despite the plethora of available
information, lies in the operational inadequacies of present conceptual
frameworks. We almost need a new language and we certainly need new concepts
which will enable us to select, synthesise and conceptualise the full implications
and the human significance of the challenges we face, of the changes we
are going through, and of the means we will choose to meet these problems".
Hence his concern with the learning capacity of nations.
E. Fragmentation and erosion of collective memory
1. Nature of collective memory
Learning implies memory, whether in the case of the individual or of
"That experiences influence subsequent behaviour is evidence of an
obvious but nevertheless remarkable activity called remembering. Learning
could not occur without the function popularly called memory... So-called
intelligent behaviour demands memory, remembering being prerequisite to
reasoning. The ability to solve any problem or even to recognize that a
problem exists depends on memory" (17).
What then is societal memory? How is it related to the international documentation
In the past, as Toffler notes (6, p. 192), "social memory" was
stored in the minds of individuals as "history, myth, lore and legend and
transmitted... to their children through speech, song, chant and example...
all the accumulated experience of the group was stored in the neurons and
glia and synapses of human beings". This is still the case in many countries
and sectors of society. But anthropologists do not appear to have studied
"folk memory" or "cultural memory" as such. They focus on
traditions as "values, beliefs, rules, and behavior patterns that
are shared by a group and passed on from generation to generation as part
of the socialisation process" (16). This verbal tradition has largely been
replaced by one based on texts.
Biologists on the other hand have tentatively recognised a "noosphere".
The age of ecological enlightenment has brought with it a new term, the
ecosphere, which implies a responsible stewardship of Earth. Beyond and
superimposed on these spheres lies another dimensional sphere, the noosphere,
a figurative envelope of conceptual thought, or reflective impulses produced
by the human intellect..."It is not scientifically measurable, of course,
but its presence is strongly felt and its influence is all-pervading" (17).
The concept was first formulated by Vladimir Verdansky and elaborated by
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. This approach has not focused on memory. As
one biologist remarks, however:
"Although we are by all odds the most social of all social animals
- more interdependent, more attached to each other, more inseparable in
our behaviour than bees - we do not often feel our conjoined intelligence.
Perhaps, however, we are linked in circuits for the storage, processing,
and retrieval of information since this appears to be the most basic and
universal of all human enterprises". (17a, p. 14)
Classical Greek philosophy developed a concept of the world soul
which was related to memory. Little attention has however been given
to recent philosophical investigations of social minds, as "syntheses of
individual minds into wholes with new minds" (18). This is also the case
for the group mind
as applied to national mind and character
(19). Psychologists may refer to "culturally shared knowledge... though...
This is merely an idealisation... not to be confused with reality". (60,
p. 9). Scientists may, however, refer to "the store of human knowledge...
achieves a corporate, collective power that is far greater than one individual
can exert". (20)
The concept of group mind was examined and discarded by sociologists
in connection with public opinion.. This is a collection of
individual opinions on an issue of public interest. It is considered to
have characteristics that make it something more than the sum of individual
opinions on an issue. Its function as social memory does not appear to
have been explored. The concept of collective consciousness was
developed by Emile Durkheim as a derivative of Rousseau's general will
and Comte's consensus. But again there is little concern with
memory, although Jung's concept of archetypes of the collective unconsciousness
is closely related to it. The distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness
may not be important in relation to memory.
Claude Levi-Strauss (Structural Anthropology. Allen Lane, 1968.)
"A structural model may be conscious or unconscious without this difference
affecting its nature. It can only be said that when the structure of a
certain type of phenomena does not lie at a great depth, it is more likely
that some kind of model, standing as a screen to hide it, will exist in
the collective consciousness. For conscious models, which are usually known
as "germs" are by definition very poor ones, since they are not intended
to explain phenomena but to perpetuate them".
Educators, at least in the light of the Encyclopedia of Education (20)
do not appear to have any interest in social memory, or even social learning
as such. Programmes in support of international understanding
as Unesco's, do not clarify any aspect of social memory even if they ensure
the dissemination of cultural traditions. The new Unesco programme on
also has no explicit concern with memory.
Recent use of the term planetary consciousness
by many alternative
groups (29) is not related to any memory function.
It is to be expected that a social memory concern would emerge more
explicitly in the development of the classification of knowledge
from Aristotle through Juan Huarte, Francis Bacon, Diderot, to Dewey and
Otlet and their successors (22, 23). But whilst such initiatives are effectively
attempts to impose some organisation on social memory, their proponents
do not appear to be concerned with its nature. Thus although there is a
study of classifications in their social context (24), there is little
to be found on the social impact of classification schemes. A discipline
such as the history of ideas is not concerned with the nature of collective
memory. The power of such impacts, is, however, illustrated by Jacques
Attali in terms of styles of music as coding systems reflecting
social structures and presaging new structures (25). But he does not consider
any memory function.
Clearly social memory is an elusive and poorly explored phenomenon.
Instead of attempting to clarify its nature as a psycho-social phenomenon,
the search can be switched to the repositories of social memories.
This switch necessarily abandons the preoccupation with how societies internalise
recorded knowledge and focuses instead on how knowledge can be physically recorded and disseminated. Societal learning is not, however, achieved
by simply recording and disseminating knowledge. It must be "absorbed"
by society. How societal learning (or group learning) takes place remains
unclear, as the Club of Rome report stresses.
Before commenting on modern systems it is important to note the role
of encyclopaedias as repositories. Initially these were often conceived
as "mirrors" of the knowledge of mankind -- which reinforces the distinction
noted above. Even in recent years national or ethnic encyclopaedias have
been deliberately created to orient social consciousness. Deliberate efforts
have also been made to move beyond the traditionally passive role of the
library and museum,as with Paul Otlet's Mundaneum which assembled
17 million items (26). The social significance of such initiatives was
given its most eloquent form in the H.G. Wells proposal for a "world
brain" (27). With the advent of computers, the concept has been refined
under the stimulus of information scientists such as Manfred Kochen (28),
Harry Schwarzlander (29) and D. Soergel (30), who are linked through the
World Mind Group (8).
The reality today is however represented by a multiplicity of information
systems, whether national or international, specialised or general, computerized
or not, and whatever the degree of interlinkage via data networks (31,
32). In this context the above concern with social memory is reduced to
a preoccupation with computer memory and processing power.
2. Nature of societal learning: the
Emphasizing societal learning raises the important point of a "collective
user" whose requirements are clearly somewhat different from the individual
user-learner. How does such a user learn? This relates to the problem of
the "learning capacity of nations" (3) and to learning by international
agencies, possibly via their international documentation systems.
Although it was not possible to clarify in the previous section how
knowledge was internalised by society, the Club of Rome report gives further
precision to this process.
"Our continued survival is testimony that humanity indeed learns...
So we have to reconsider what is meant by the statement "humanity learns".
Does the statement imply -indeed demand -- that learning occur at the right
time and on a scale sufficiently large not only to avoid disasters but
also to conclude a century, so much traumatised by suc cessive follies,
with a gain in peace,dignity, and happiness?" (5, p. 118).
The report notes:
"The conventional, often unarticulated, conception of how societies
learn usually starts with one or more canters of concentrated competence
as the emanators of new discoveries, theories, beliefs, and solutions.
These new ideas are then disseminated to larger circles of people and to
the public at large. This model of societal learning distinguishes two
separate steps: one of distinct discovery and another of less distinct
dissemination. The roles people play in this process are likewise differentiated:
some invent and others assimilate. The role of society at large is reduced
to adjusting to and consuming the discoveries and knowledge produced in
canters of expertise. It is easy to see that this conception entails more
teaching than learning.
"The unavoidable consequence of this view of societal learning is elitism,
technocracy, and paternalism. What is omitted is the fact that meaning
and values -- decisive for learning -- are products of society at large,
not of specialised canters. Despite all their technical advantages, the
bodies of knowledge, technologies, knowhow, and theories produced by such
centers contain inherent shortcomings -- they are too often divorced from
the social context. They tend to reproduce themselves according to their
own internal logic. This autonomous and self-reproducing development accounts
in large part for the fact that so much of societal learning is maintenance
"Innovative societal learning seeks to restore active learning to those
in society conventionally confined to a passive role of assimilation. Key
to this goal is participation that goes beyond mere invitations to accept
given products. To encourage innovative societal learning, true participation
must enable people to open and inspect the "black-boxes" of knowledge,
to question their relevance and meaning, and to re-design, re-combine,
and re-order them where necessary. Effective participation therefore does
not mean paying lip service to those who in the past have been deemed to
count less than others, but rather ensuring a real contribution of the
entire society". (5, pp. 80-81)
Elsewhere in the report a distinction is however made between the need
and possibilities for accelerating learning processes of decision-makers
at all levels of institutional learning, on the one hand, and the equally
urgent necessity but greater difficulty of enhancing the more general and
slower processes of societal or "public" learning,
on the other
(5, p. 127). In considering the use of international documentation systems,
it would of course be convenient to focus only on the first. The report
makes it clear, however, that the two must advance hand-in-hand or the
decision-makers will be unable to communicate effectively with the public.
The phrasing of the previous paragraph easily leads to the error of
assuming that in either case it is still only a problem of individual learning.
In commenting approvingly on the Club of Rome exercise (5, pp. 138-139),
for example, the Deputy Director General of Unesco cites Unesco's concept
of the "learning society",which appears to mean life-long education for
the individual (33, pp. 160-164, 182, 263). But the Club of Rome report
is quite explicit that collective/societal learning ("macro-learning")
is to be contrasted with individual learning ("micro-learning").
"Much research has been done on individual learning processes; hardly any
research is done on organisational or group or societal learning. This
is clearly a new research area". (5,p.137)
Given the urgent tone of the report, and the absence of further information,
those responsible for international documentation systems are placed in
an embarrassing position. They clearly have a key role in a vital process
about which little is known. Furthermore, from the above comments it would
appear that they are likely to be contributing mainly to maintenance learning
because of the manner in which their function is currently conceived and
Given the time lag before the appropriate research is done, what can
be done now to clarify the obstacles to societal learning in order to identify
the role of such documentation systems?
3. Limits to societal learning
It is now appropriate to return to the question of whether there are
"no limits to learning". Some definite limits were identified above for
the individual learner-user. It may be argued that these focus on the learner's
limited relationship to the body of knowledge, whereas the learner is unlimited
(except by death) in his ability to continue to engage in the learning
process, i.e. however, slowly he learns or relearns, he can always
learn something more. It is easier to argue that society's learning capacity
is unlimited, especially if it is assumed that the component individuals
each focus on overlapping portions of the body of knowledge. Presumably
the slogan does not simply refer to the trivial notion that society can
always learn something more.
There is a danger in such optimistic slogans that they divert attention
from the nature of the obstacles to societal learning -- obstacles which
have prevented society from responding with greater maturity and insight
to the crises with which it is now faced. The Club of Rome report cites
the case of increasing worldwide illiteracy as an example of wasted
human learning potential. In 1980, 820 million, namely 20% of the world
population, are illiterate following several decades of Unesco literacy
programmes. This indicates a very practical limitation on
any theoretical possibility of unlimited learning. It is important
to explore such limits before launching new learning programmes (34, 35).
Understanding the limits helps to redefine the kind of learning which is
vital at this time and for which the support of international documentation
systems is required.
a. Quantitative limit: Just as no individual
can absorb all information, so it is not feasible for any group to do so
even by sharing the load amongst its members. In fact it is only practical
to devote a limited proportion of time and resources to absorbing or disseminating
information. Furthermore much is destroyed after a certain period. Multinational
enterprise deliberately destroys most records after several years, for
example In an important sense we live in a forgetting society. Much
information quickly becomes irrelevant, especially in rapidly evolving
disciplines. There have been complaints that the original observations
(facts) on which most scientific papers are based are destroyed.
"In speculating about the evolution of memory, it is helpful to consider
what would happen if memories failed to fade. Forgetting clearly aids orientation
in time; since old memories weaken and the new tend to be vivid, clues
are provided for inferring duration. Without forgetting, adaptive ability
would suffer; for example, learned behaviour that might have been correct
a decade ago may no longer be... Thus, forgetting seems to serve the survival
of the individual and the species". (17)
Groups, like individuals, can suffer from information overload
There is no way that some countries or institutions can absorb
amount of information considered relevant by their better endowed counterparts.
This is an aspect of the problem of transfer of know-how. Such groups are
"unlimited" in their capacity to continue to learn, but there is a "limit"
on the rate at which they can do so.
Another fruitful aspect of this question emerges from comparison of
the rate of increase in knowledge production with the rate of increase
in population. Each advance in knowledge increases awareness of what remains
unknown. "Compared to the pond of knowledge, our ignorance remains atlantic.
Indeed the horizon of the unknown recedes as we approach it". (The Encyclopeadia
of Ignorance. 1977, p. IX).
"For example, when one acquires a bit of new information, there are
many new questions that are generated by it, and each new piece of information
breeds five or ten new questions. The questions pile up at a much faster
rate than does the accumulated information. The more one knows, therefore,
the greater his level of ignorance" (Itzhak Bentov. Stalking the Wild Pendulum,
1977, p. 1)
But, perhaps more significantly, each "unit of knowledge" produced becomes
increasingly difficult to disseminate through the learning process, because
of the increasing "competition" (for attention time) from other units to
be learnt. Under such conditions each "unit of knowledge" produced can
usefully be seen as increasing the ignorance of those who are unable to
absorb it (for whatever reason). The production of new knowledge for some
is therefore matched by the reduction of others into greater ignorance.
And the amount of ignorance so "produced" increases much faster than knowledge
production because of the effects of population growth. Each ("significant")
document entering the international system increases the ignorance of those
who fail to absorb it.
The question is when the ratio of ignorance to knowledge in society
will be such as to render knowledgeable decision-making unimplementable
because of ignorance on the part of those who are needed to support the
decision in a democratic progress. And given the prevalence of ignorance
(and the impossibility of eliminating it) would it not be more creative
to investigate it in the hope of discovering properties which would enable
it to be viewed and used as a resource.
"If all knowledge were within a man, and ignorance were wholly absent,
the man would be consumed and cease to be. So ignorance is desirable, inasmuch
as by that means he continues to exist..." (Jalaluddi Rumi. Discourses)
For example, given its inherent "boundedness", it could presumably provide
insights into the structuring of society into "information cells" of many
types, linked by a variety of information networks. Then the question becomes
how groups and individuals can learn to benefit from their state of ignorance.
As Keats states:
"... and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement,
especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously
-- I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being
in uncertainties, mysterie, doubts, without any irritable reaching after
fact and reason". (John Keats. Letter. 21 December 1817)
"The aim of this article has been to show that our most successful theories
in physics are those that explicitly leave room for the unknown, while
confining this room sufficiently to make the theory empirically disprovable'
b Limit to connectedness:
. Assuming that
the task of societal learning can be shared amongst the appropriate sectors
of society, the question is whether these "learning units" can be appropriately
connected so that such learning is available to guide decisions of the
If it is assumed that learning can be effectively projected into documents then this merely becomes a question of ensuring that
the document systems used by the learning units are interconnected. This
is a problem of physical connection (e.g. through data networks) and of
the logical and functional connection among the documents and their contents.
Considerable progress is being made on this front. But it is fairly evident
that this is a long way from matching the requirement of collective learning
-- even, and especially, in the case of the intergovernmental agencies
within the UN family. And the failure in the latter case indicates the
presence of a definite limit which should be borne in mind.
If, however, it is assumed that learning cannot be projected into
documents (but is only usable or "activated" once it has been
effectively "absorbed" by one or more individuals), then the problem becomes
one of ensuring that such "primed" individuals (or groups) are appropriately
interconnected, possibly backed up by documentary information stored in
data bases. Here again progress is being made through the rapid emergence
of computer conferencing systems (7, 36, 37). Yet despite their success,
these systems merely serve to clarify the presence of a limit in the ability
to establish functional connections between knowledge units (12, 38) and
between those so connected (39). In addition such systems are, even more
so than the telephone, only available to the privileged. However much they
spread in industrialised countries, access to them in developing countries
will be very limited. If it is argued that such a degree of on-line interconnectedness
is not a necessity for all, there is dynamic discontinuity with those who
can only be contacted by post (or unilaterally via the mass media). This
"disconnection" is perceived as a serious gap by those on each side of
it and immediately affects the dynamism of the learning process and of
c. Limit to collective comprehension span. Again assuming that the task of societal learning can be shared amongst
the "appropriately connected" sectors of society, the question is whether
the span of collective comprehension of whatever group is empowered to
act on such learning corresponds to the range of elements relevant to the
act. As in the case of the individual, there is a limit to the number of
domains of knowledge (however "pre-digested") which a group can handle
conceptually as a comprehensible whole. Most groups have developed, whether
consciously or unconsciously, remarkable skills at "sweeping awkward factors
under any convenient conceptual carpet" in order to create the impression
that they are in control of a situation. Presumably society could reach
a condition in which more inconvenient items of knowledge are being repressed
in this way than are effectively dealt with. As noted earlier, the Club
of Rome report stresses the complete inadequacy of current integrative
skills. Why is this? that are the obstacles to conceptual integration?
Only by facing up to the nature of this limit can information systems be
designed which compensate for the effects of the "repressive instinct".
One aspect of this design problem is the total dedication of information
systems to the presentation to the user-learner of information structured
linearly (e.g. lists of terms). This leads to linear conceptualisation
of problem situations (e.g. agenda items). Comprehension of complex domains
demands non-linear presentation of information (15). Consider the relative
value, as a decision tool, of a list of subway stations versus a
map of the subway network. Both are useful, but the list is almost useless
without the map. The non-linear presentation may include structured images,
although the Club of Rome report strongly advocates the use of images in
"No less important as an element of learning, images have been under-emphasized
by societies and sciences bent on rational speculations and inferences
deriving from operational laws... But we cannot underestimate the advantages
images have for global perception and instant access... That is, images
generate operations at the core of our intelligence by which we produce
a general proposition on the basis of a limited number of particular ones.
Images also generate insight... The fact that collective images exist --
and that perceptions can be shared -- links societal to individual learning.
It is the down-playing of images in maintenance learning that tends to
blur these interconnections". (5, pp. 41-42)
It is appropriate to note that within the United Nations University's Human
and Social Development Programme there is a sub-project on alternative
"forms of presentation" to conventional text.
The considerable intellectual and financial investment in the hardware
and software of non-image oriented information systems makes it unlikely
that any useful link to image manipulating systems (including map-generating
devices (15)) can be established. Parallel systems may well be developed
which fragment what should be an integrated approach. (Note how the photographic
libraries are totally separated conceptually from the "more serious" documentary
information systems of international agencies). The situation is aggravated
by a related limit (discussed below) governing biases against different
forms of information.
Another aspect of the design problem is that it is now recognised as
misguided to elaborate information systems independently from the groups
and institutions that they must serve. The man/machine interface has become
such a critical factor that it is now vital to consider "groupware" design
as a necessary complement to hardware and software design. Group comprehension
of complex problems may well require that a user group "reconfigure" to
grasp the pattern of information available (12, 38). Information systems
should facilitate this process but as yet no such flexibility is envisaged.
The gravity of the situation is particularly evident in the difficulty
large conferences experience in organising themselves as groups marshalling
the (documentary) information at their disposal to focus on problem complexes
d. Limit to depth of collective comprehension:
There are two conventional responses to the previous limit. At one extreme
is the effort to achieve an "overview" of a problem situation by sacrificing
any focus on detail. At the other extreme is the much favoured tendency
to concentrate on some highly specific "practical" question, ignoring the
context, in order to make "concrete progress" and "achieve results". Information
systems have not yet been designed to stabilise the shift of groupware
focus between these different levels -- even though they supposedly correspond
to the hierarchy of subject categories by which documents are organised.
As in the case of the individual, it is difficult for a group focusing
on a given level to bear in mind more than the next broader level and the
next narrower level. Where there are many relevant levels, much must remain
out of focus. And in the dynamics of practical programmes and policy-making,
levels acquire an independence from one another especially since they lend
themselves to the establishment of groupware fiefdoms. There may well give
rise to their own information systems by which that independence is justified
and reinforced. Needless to say such divisions constitute a severe limit
on innovative learning.
A slightly different emphasis may be given to the term "depth", namely
that associated with the largely neglected concept of "maturity" or "wisdom".
It is not at all clear what restricts the manifestation of collective wisdom.
It is however very clear that its manifestation is very limited. The question
is whether information systems can be designed and used to enhance such
manifestation, respecting the limits to comprehension inherent in wisdom
of different depth (12).
e. Pre-logical limitations:. It is a
convenient myth that international document systems are designed to serve
a rational decision-making process. For example Harold Lasswell
makes the point:
"Why do we put so much emphasis on audio-visual means of portraying
goal, trend, condition, projection, and alternative? Partly because so
many valuable participants in decision-making have dramatising imaginations..
They are not enamoured of numbers or of analytic abstractions. They are
at their best in deliberations that encourage contextuality by a varied
repertory of means, and where an immediate sense of time, space and figure
is retained". (41)
This stress on dramatisation is, however, probably only an indication of
the "tip of the iceberg". On the one hand, many use items from the international
documentation system to support pre-logical positions which are completely
undermined by other documents (which are not cited, even if they have been
consulted). This is part of the "drama" of the political arena and is accepted
as such. Many are responsive only to the immediacy of verbal presentations,
or to "scientifically-backed" arguments, or to arguments of a delegation
with a strong power-base. Others are affected, or unaffected, by the style
of presentation, whether it stresses order/disorder, static/dynamic, continuity/
discreteness, spontaneity/process, etc. (11).
On the other hand, and more important, many (at every level of education)
are totally indifferent to the whole process which the international documentation
system is designed to serve. For them, those documents contain no meaningful
information. A major group is that for whom the international community
is defined by the stars of popular music and song. And yet, perhaps ironically,
it is their preference for rhythm, melody and harmony which provides valuable
clues to a less "monotonous" approach to alternative futures for the world.
(14) It is they who are totally unaffected by efforts to "generate a political
will to change through the "mobilisation of public opinion"(51). No wonder
that the UN Secretary General remarks:
"It would probably be unfair to conclude that a sudden callousness
had overcome public opinion in the developed countries. It is more like
a closing of the gates to a pattern of generalisations perceived as outworn
by overuse" (52)
Perhaps the concept of an "information diet" is relevant. Individuals and
groups do not flourish on information of one type only. A "balanced" diet
is required. This could also apply to users of an international documentation
(?) system. The usefulness of such analogies is illustrated by one relevant
to the assimilation of information which is used in the Club of Rome report:
"Values can be said to be the enzymes of any innovative learning process".
Although little is known about this pre-logical limit as it affects
information, the receptivity to some forms of information only means that
there is a limit to the extent which an individual or group can learn from
information in other styles and modes. It is not simply a question of "multi-media
presentations" but of the pre-logical orientations inherent in any given
form of information. The question is how these orientations complement
one another and what this limit implies for information systems designed
for communication of insights between users of every orientation.
f. Collective attention span limit: It is a
well-known characteristic of society that it is unable to focus its collective
attention on any situation for any length of time. Even the most dramatic
events tend to be only "nine-day wonders" before falling into oblivion.
Clearly "nine-days" is more characteristic of attention focused through
the mass media. But "issues" brought to the attention of international
conferences may only remain active for a period of weeks or months -- although
"hot" issues, providing ammunition in a dramatic debate, may even be expended
within a period of hours. Of perhaps greater significance are issues that
survive the government election cycle (e.g. 4 years) and are given a permanent
focal point through institutionalization -- possibly with the creation
of special documents and a specialised information system. A special difficulty
for the international documentation system in this context (and, subsequently,
for users) is the period over which a category is forced (for a period)
to carry the significance of concepts already abandoned, then later becomes
denatured, and finally "wears out". Perhaps it is appropriate to consider
the "half-life" of "active" concepts, by analogy with that of radio-active
This process is well-illustrated by Johan Galtung's disillusioned analysis
of "concept careers" within the UN system, meaning both how concepts undergo
a career of stages or phases, a life-cycle in other words, and how concepts
may move from one organisation to another. Thus, as to the life-cycle aspect:
"...a fresh concept is co-opted into the system from the outside (almost
never from the inside because the inside is not creative enough for the
reasons mentioned). The concept is broad, unspecified, full of promises
because of its (as yet) virgin character, capable of instilling some enthusiasm
in people who do not suffer too much from a feeling of deja-vu having been
through a number of concept life cycles already. Examples: basic needs,
self-reliance, new international economic order, appropriate technology,
health for all, community participation, primary health care, inner/outer
limits, common heritage of mankind..[In view of Unesco's favourable response
to the Club of Rome report, presumably "learning" is now launched upon
"the organisation receives the concept and it is built into preambles of
resolutions; drafters and secretaries get dexterity in handling it. The
demand then arises to make it more precise so that it can reappear in the
operational part of a resolution. A number of studies are commissioned,
very carefully avoiding too close contact with people and groups behind
the more original formulations as "they do not need to be convinced".
The concept thus moves from birth via adolescence to maturity, meaning that it has been changed sufficiently to become structure and
culture compatible (it will not threaten states except states singled out
by the majority to be threatened); the idiom will be that of the saxonic
intellectual style, rich in documentation and poor in theory and insight;
very precise but limited in connotations and emotive overtones; "politically
adequate" meaning that it can be used to build consensus or dissent, depending
on what is wanted where and when.
From maturity to senescence and death is but a short step: the concept
thus emasculated can no longer serve the purpose of renewal as what was
new has largely been taken away and what was old has been added in its
place -- except, possibly, the term itself. Even the word will then, after
a period of grace, tend to disappear, those who believe in it now no longer
identify with it; those who did not get tired of saying 'we knew it would
not work, it did not stand the test of reality'. In this phase outside
originators of the concept may be called in for last ditch efforts of resuscitation,
usually in vain. There is no official funeral ceremony as the concept will
linger on in some resolutions, but there will be a feeling of a void, of
bereavement. Consequently, the search will be on, by concept scouts, for
new concepts to kindle frustrated and sluggish consciences. And as a result....
a fresh concept is co-opted into the system from the outside, e.g. one
that has already been through its life cycle in another part of the UN
system. For the rest read the story once more.
Nevertheless, each concept leaves some trace behind, more than its denigrators
would like to believe, less than the protagonists might have hoped for.
If this were not the case the cognitive framework for the system would
have undergone no change during the 35 years of its existence". (53)
The special feature of this limit is its dynamic nature. In one
sense it is perhaps to be deplored that collective attention cannot be
focused long enough to give rise to effective action (40). But in another
sense attention shifts once the issue no longer serves the poorly understood
needs for dynamism within the international community (issues are 'consumed'
to fuel the dynamics). And, to the extent that the attention shift takes
place in search of innovative renewal, this is to be welcomed -- particularly
since this brings alternative and complementary factors into focus. But,
given these extremes, not enough is known to indicate when a shift is premature
(in terms of action requirements) and when it is necessary (in terms of
the healthy dynamics of world society). Clearly a complex world problematique
demands both sustained attention to comprehend the dimension of the problem
and shifts in attention to respond to complementary needs.
A more subtle constraint associated with attention lies in the assumption
that the process of attention can be completely 'insulated' from the matter
to which the attention is directed. This convenient distinction between
observer and observed, traditional to the classification sciences, is now
shown to be questionable even within that discipline (56, 57). Not only
is attention time limited but the process can (and possibly should in a
learning situation) change the observer and what is observed. In this sense
learning does not result in conceptually "grasping" some fixed "thing",
but rather in an elusive, evolving conceptual "dance" in which both partners
are modified by the process. The very lack of limitation limits the social
relevance of such learning.
Clearly the international information systems should have a major role
to play in focusing collective attention, maintaining that focus and shifting
without hiatus to alternative issues - recognising of course that many
alternative issues must be focused upon simultaneously, in the light of
the previous limits, and that the different attention spans of users must
be appropriately catered for and somehow "phased" together. In this sense
the problem may be defined as the "management" of humanity's most valuable
resource, namely attention-time, especially collective focused attention-time.
Use of the term "focus" suggests the possible value of investigating optical
systems as providing useful analogies to describe the problems and possibilities
(see 40). It would be a useful exercise to develop a theory of societal
development and control in terms of "attention absorption".
g. Collective memory limit: In an earlier section
some clues to the nature of collective memory were explored. It is clear
that there has been very little study of this. As a device to stimulate
further discussion of the matter, this section will make use of studies
of individual memory by assuming that there is some degree of equivalence
between individual and societal memory.
In the study of individual memory much has been learnt from its malfunction.
Is there not a striking parallel between the many attempts by the UN Secretary
General to communicate to world society the urgency of our present situation
and the following fictional account of an analogous situation with an individual
(see also Annex 1)?
"To say that he understood what went on was true. To say that he did
not understand -- was true. I would sit and explain, over and over again.
He listened, his eyes fixed on my face, his lips moving as he repeated
to himself what I was saying. He would nod: yes, he had grasped it. But
a few minutes later, when I might be saying something of the same kind,
he was uncomfortable, threatened. Why was I saying that? and that? his
troubled eyes asked of my face: What did I mean? His questions at such
moments were as if I had never taught him anything at all. He was like
one drugged or in shock. Yet it seemed that he did absorb information for
sometimes he would talk as if from a basis of shared knowledge: it was
as if a part of him knew and remembered all I told him, but other parts
had not heard a word. I have never before or since had so strongly that
experience of being with a person and knowing that all the time there was
certainly a part of that person in contact with you, something real and
alive and listening -- and yet most of the time what one said did not reach
that silent and invisible being, and what he said was not often said by
the real part of him. It was as if someone stood there bound and gagged
while an inferior impersonator spoke for him". (Doris Lessing. Re: Colonised
Planet 5 - Shikasta, London, 1979, pp. 56-57).
The collective inadequacy of society in the face of information on the
world problematique suggests that such aberrations should be reviewed carefully.
Collective memory would seem to be exposed to processes leading to its
very rapid erosion. Psychiatrist Ronald Laing has given an account which
can be interpreted as dramatising the problem of institutional and inter-institutional
learning (see Annex 1
). These quotations suggest
that understanding the present constraints on societal learning could benefit
from a systematic review of the pathology of individual memory. Some pointers
are given in Annex 2
The paragraphs above focus on memory as that which is actively shared
in collective consciousness. This was shown to be an elusive phenomenon.
The alternative (as before) is to focus on the international information
systems on which such collective consciousness is supposedly based (5).
Their most striking feature is their fragmentation, whether as systems
almost completely independent of each other, or individually in their isolation
of subject categories from each other.
As to the first, there are of course many initiatives to interlink such
systems via data networks. But for each such initiative successfully achieved,
many new specialised independent information systems are created. A distinction
must also be made between linkages between such systems (presumably
resolving the fragmentation problem for the user), and linkages to such
systems from a given user via data networks (which relegate to the user
the problem of resolving the fragmentation). In his own review Toffler
(6) in discussing the "intelligent environment" makes it clear that the
era of the large central computer is largely past. Society is now faced
with the "distribution" or de-centralization of computing power to the
point that individual offices in an agency could well develop and maintain
local memory which they may share with other parts of the organisation
or of the system to which it belongs. In the face of the widespread spectre
of "Big Brother" manipulation of information systems, it is unlikely that
much effort will be made to facilitate such sharing beyond a certain point.
This will severely limit collective learning ability.
As to the second, there are of course many attempts to improve and standardise
the classification of subjects. But the more fundamental problem is that
any such classification scheme is imposed as a relatively rigid logical
abstraction on a dynamic subject continuum. The limiting assumption of
the observer/observed distinction (56, 57) has already been discussed.
But there remains a tremendous functional gap between the logical subject
hierarchies and the network of operational realities.
It is as though society depended upon subject categories organized in
memory in a manner analogous to the rigid protocol of 16th century battle
order when the problematique demands a flexible organisation of memory
corresponding to the shifting patterns of modern guerilla warfare and changing
Environmental information provides an admirable example. Plant and animal
species are interrelated in food webs (networks). There is considerable
controversy about the "logic" of the systematic (hierarchical) grouping
into species although these are used as categories in information systems.
Pollutants travel through food webs to points which society chooses to
perceive as "problems" and only as problems may the species be included
in the systems. But the information systems are organized in terms of the
"logical" categories of pollutants and species (if both are in the same
system) without any attempt to record the food webs via which the
categories are linked in ecosystems and through which a continuing pattern
of problems will emerge. (Point made by the author at the UNEP 2nd Infoterra
Network Management Meeting, Moscow, 1979).
It may be that the incompatible demands of "hierarchical" and "network"
memory organisation cannot be met within present information systems and
that this limitation calls for a paradoxical shift in perspective (59).
Another limiting factor in collective memory is the widespread practice
of restricting or "classifying" documents as "secret". Information is treated
in this way when it is assessed as having the potential to trigger change
which the possessor of the information wishes to control, prevent, or use
to his advantage. The possibility that some military or industrial classified
information might lead to widespread benefits if released need not be discussed
here (5, p. 54). Much more serious is restriction of information ("liable
to cause public panic") concerning the world problematique or institutional
incapacity when it is only such information that can provoke rapid innovative
societal learning and galvanise "the political will to change". In such
a context, no one can prove that there is not, for example, solid
classified evidence for any number of present and future phenomena which
would put the world problematique in a totally different light. It is merely
a frail assumption that open information systems supply documents
of more than trivial significance. In the case of an individual, this problem
of hidden pockets of information "charged with significance" is of course
well-known to psychoanalysts.
Perhaps, however, the ultimate limit to societal learning lies in the
consequences of unrestricted societal over-commitment to learning. As enthusiastically
described by Unesco (33) and the Club of Rome (5), learning is not limited
by its relationship to other social pressures. As an extreme example, this
leads via the "eternal student" to a society dedicated to the consumption
of information and totally unable to focus that learning for action on
the world problematique, for example. This raises the question as what
extent information systems do, or should, empower users to act.
4. Future approaches to collective memory
a. Patterns of subjects: It is ironic, in the
light of the word-list orientation of the previous section that investigations
of individual memory in the 1950s and 1960s focused almost exclusively
on the recall of word lists. "At present, we have reached the point where
lists of sentences are being substituted for word lists in studies of recall
and recognition. Hopefully this will not be the end-point of this development,
and we shall soon see psychologists handle effectively the problems posed
by the analysis of connected texts". (60, p. 2). But the same author continues:
"Most of the experimental research concerning memory has never really
dealt with problems of the acquisition and retention of knowledge, but
with episodic memory (storage of experiences) which is not at all the problem
of interest in education. Simply replacing the words with sentences in
our experiment will make the research no more relevant to education than
it was before... In contrast to short-term memory, there are only a few
reasonably formal and specific models of organisation and long-term memory
processes... The experimental study of memory for prose, comprehension,
inferential processes, and semantic memory is just beginning. Thus, memory
theorists have shown an unfortunate tendency to rely solely on list-learning
data, to neglect other problems, and finally to construct not models of
memory but models of memory for word lists". (60, pp. 4, 74 and 79).
Is this not the problem with current storage and retrieval systems? What
are needed for learning are patterns
of subject information, not
"It is one of the most salient facts about memory that organised material
is easier to remember than unorganised material, and that subjects actively
strive to detect how to-be-learned material is organised, and impose their
own subjective organisation if no other can be found... Storage organisation,
and retrieval processes in memory all involve the operation of pattern
completion". (60, pp. 74 and 83).
Furthermore, new learning presupposes the availability of such patterns
in memory to which the new information can be connected. Learning does
not consist in the passive recording of new information (60, p. 4). Moreover,
these patterns may be made up of generative rules
rather than simple
"When one talks about the structure of memory, one tends to think about
it as something given, something fixed, erected inside the brain in all
its complexity, like a Gothic cathedral sitting in a town square. Alternatively,
one may think of structure not as something existing physically but as
a potential to be generated upon demand on the basis of implicit information
and according to certain rules". (60, p. 23)
b. Modeling the international documentation system:
Despite its greater visibility, it may well be asked whether there exists
any adequate model
of the international documentation system with
all its various subsystems. If not, why not? Surely this is a valuable
way to investigate user-learner problems. It should be much easier to simulate
than individual memory (as is done in artificial intelligence investigations).
As a useful guide Nico Frijda has listed the structural properties which
must eventually be incorporated in a model of memory. Such a model must
(minimally) encompass the coding of single items (cognitive units), classes,
relations (inferences, functions), higher order systems. In addition, any
adequate model must deal with methods for transferring data, assimilating
new information into the data base and deriving implications which influence
future action. But, as Frijda concludes:
"It is one thing to give a formal representation of this complexity,
and quite another to envisage learning processes that construct the necessary
categories as well as the specific structures. It seems to us that the
study of learning processes which can account for knowledge acquisition,
has hardly begun". (61, p. 159)
The current literature on individual memory postulates a rich array of
storage systems; temporary way stations along the route taken by information
in the process of assimilation. Memory overlaps with perceptual and decision
processes not as a unitary system but as a synthesis of diverse cognitive
activity. The explanatory progression has been away from registration of
experience etched upon a suitably receptive surface towards a selective
process in which information is encoded, stored and retrieved following
the operation of processing strategies which may vary with both task and
material requirements. (62, p. XIII)
On this last point work is now being done in which:
"The end product can be described by a directed graph whose organisation
reflects the organisation of the information in the user. What we would
like to do is find experimental procedures which will readily reveal at
least the major part of these structures". (63, p. 91)
The author then indicates the classification problem which is highly relevant
to use of international documentation systems with rigid classification:
"Another problem is that the internal schemes organisation is likely
to be different for different groups of people. Thus, in a hospital, nurses
will be likely to classify patients with tonsilitis and appendicitis together
in contrast to throat cancer and prostate operations since the former need
little nursing and the latter pair more intensive nursing. For medical
staff, on the other hand, it would be more natural to classify the tonsillectomy
and the throat cancer patients together and the prostate and appendix patients
together on the basis of the parts of the body concerned". (63, p. 91)
c. Associative networks:
More generally this suggests
a major lack in user sensitivity
of international documentation
systems using logical category schemes. Some work on individual memory
is now focusing on associative or relevance networks:
"Relevance simply tells us 'what goes with what'. This aspect of belongingness
is to be found both in the world itself, in the sense of causal, spatial
and temporal connections and structure, and also in the representation
of the world in our minds, commonly referred to as our 'knowledge of the
world'. The author maintains the view that one very important aspect of
this knowledge of the world is simply knowing these 'what goes with what'
connections. This kind of knowledge is clearly not all that we need. In
addition to knowing that chair goes with table, we also need to know a
great deal of information about the relational (logical) nature of the
connection. Considering, however, the extremely large amount of relational
information that we all carry around with us in our memory, efficient retrieval
of parts of this information demands that we should have the means for
quick, global evaluation of what alternative possibilities need to be considered
in a situation... My interpretation of word associations is that they are
direct indicators of degrees of relevance between the concepts for which
the words are labels through their word senses". (64, p. 108)
Such associative networks, crossing conventional categories, could highlight
and facilitate possibilities for the integrative approaches recommended
by the Club of Rome report.
"Word association norms, and particularly the associative Thesaurus
network, are thus fairly direct mappings of this aspect of structure of
the organisation in our minds. Not only do they tell us what the elements
are which we need to think about in contiguity with each other, but they
also indicate the degree of cohesion existing between them. The detailed
study of this kind of organisation is what the Associative Thesaurus makes
possible for the first time on a large scale". (64, p. 108-109)
Such networks as data bases also permit a whole new range of analyses of
value to the user. This was a determining factor, for example, in the organization
of the experimental Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential
Although the production of relevance maps would be a major aid to international
document users (15), the challenging requirements for comprehension and
innovative learning already make such an advance inadequate. The problem
is that such maps are too complex and disorganised to facilitate contextual
memorability and comprehension, as opposed to detailed consultation.
As noted before, this is the price of moving away from a conventional hierarchical
scheme of categories, whatever its disadvantages. Again the use of subway
maps provides a good example. They can be used, but are difficult to memorize
as a whole.
d. Packing complex patterns of information:
The problem is how to "pack" complex patterns of information in order to
facilitate representation, communication and comprehension whilst retaining
contextual memorability (10). Certain encoding schemes -- the use of imagery,
the method of loci, and the mnemonic pegword system are only the most familiar
examples -- have long been employed by mnemonists to assure the memorability
of events (65). But it is not the curious abilities of memory prodigies
that are of interest, rather it is the severe memory challenge to users
posed by the world problematique. The optimistic proponents of total
"finger-tip" access are quick to relegate all memory problems to any computerized
information system. This could ultimately imply a user defined as a "memory-less
decider" between computer supplied options, namely a human "switching device"
without any sense of context. This is totally inadequate for innovative
As argued elsewhere (10, 13), new approaches are required. It is interesting
that these make use of structured images, linking to the strong case made
for images by the Club of Rome report (5, pp. 37-42) for different reasons.
"Recent studies of imagery have firmly established the fact that imagery
variables are highly effective in a variety of memory tasks. Indeed, they
are the most potent mnemonic variables ever discovered... The information
in images appears to be structured and integrated in a figural, spatial,
or synchronous manner so that the components of the image are simultaneously
available for retrieval.. The verbal system, however, organises information
sequentially, that is, it concatenates discrete linguistic units into higher-order
sequential structures... But none of the available information satisfactorily
explains why image-mediated memories often seem to be more resistant to
forgetting than 'pure' verbal memories..." (66, pp. 57, 77, 81)
How then can information systems augment their value to users by using
"structured imagery"? The difficulty is that the provision of imagery is
seen as the intellectually disreputable task of the public information
divisions of international agencies. As such the images have an extremely
distorted "glossy" relationship to "soberly ordered" documents. This gap
should be bridged if documented issues are to become memorable and if public
information imagery is to have more than a superficial impact. Hence the
use of the term "structured images" which should combine visual appeal
with usable information content intimately related to information system
concept schemes. Much remains to be investigated in this area (10, 13).
It would however be a mistake to be content with structured images in
general. It could be that the really significant breakthroughs in the world
problematique will only be possible with the development of focused
structured images of it (40). Images are too easily lost in the "blip
culture" mentioned by Toffler (6). The question is whether new kinds of
more powerful image can be developed which can focus and guide user access
strategies. Such developments lie at the frontier with the elaboration
of a new symbolism. It is symbols which as "meta-patterns" provide
the most powerful level of integration in relation to the user and thus empower users to act (10). The question is how to find ways
of linking the elaboration of operationally significant symbols with the
pattern of a user's access strategies to relevant concepts in an information
e. Shared symbols: Ideally what is required
-- to counteract the fragmentation of collective memory -- are shared
symbols rather than simply user-specific symbols. The challenge in
user terms is to elaborate some symbol which could be the information system
analogue to the earth-globe-- with equivalent significance for the world
community. Such a symbol would orient users in terms of the "functional
roundness" of the world problematique rather than the present "flat
earth" classification of societal functions as subject categories. Whether
or not such shared general symbols can be developed to interrelate detailed
access maps, users should be able to work in terms of alternative user-specific
symbols, constrained by their particular horizon and interrelated by the
controlled manner in which they can be generated for users from a data
base. Ultimately the pressure for (and constraints of) collective comprehension
may lead to efforts to map such symbols back onto the integrated phenomena
of the natural environment from which they have been "extracted" -- and
with which they remain dramatically associated in many cultures whose participation
in the societal learning process would be valuable (68).
It is the web of such alternative symbols, tensed by apparent incompatibilities
into the form of an unbounded spherical tensegrity network, which could
contain the expanding societal "emptiness" of ever-increasing ignorance
(10, 59, 69, 70).
The notion of incompatibilities in a tension relationship is in accordance
with points in the Club of Rome report. Thus "it is the tension created
by the pressure to select from among multiple values that catalyses innovative
learning" (5, p. 40). But "society... is inherently conflictual and hence
global issues are not "resolvable" in some final sense but need to be seen
conflictual" (5, p. 129). Global issues cannot be resolved by innovative
social learning but perhaps they can be contained by some new kind
of comprehension structure (13).
F. Relevance of international documentation system to innovative
1. Maintenance versus innovation
The previous sections have emphasised the new problems which individual
and collective users face in benefitting from internationally available
information. The basic assumption of this paper has been that the
"international documentation system" could respond to these
user problems and gear itself to a participative approach to innovative
societal learning. The question is whether it should do so.
To what extent should the international documentation system be perceived
as part of any societal "learning" process, for that matter? This
paper assumes that this is a major function and that those responsible
for such systems would perceive this to be the case.
Whilst stressing the vital importance of the new innovative learning
approach, the Club of Rome report recognises that maintenance learning
will itself continue to play a vital role. The two roles must be recognised
as complementary.. Does this mean, however, that they are
incompatible within the same information environment? Given the
already onerous task of document information systems (and the ever-present
budget restrictions), to what extent can they respond to user requirements
for innovative learning?
Then there is the question of whether international documentation systems
have until now concentrated exclusively on users' maintenance learning
requirements (as is argued here). The Club of Rome report clarifies the
distinction as follows:
"This type of learning consists in assimilating as quickly as possible
time-honored procedures developed slowly but surely for given and recurrent
"problems". The response to any such problem starts by making simplifications
-- the process is to define, select, and isolate a situation from a larger
maze of interrelationships. This is the classical approach of science.
It is also a description of maintenance learning which is a process of
problem solving based on bounded plans and agreed-upon procedures, with
well-defined goals and tasks.
Maintenance learning is essential, but insufficient. It is indispensable
in closed situations where assumptions remain fixed. The meaning derived
from such learning easily assumes an inner coherence. The values underlying
it are given and granted. It is primarily analytical and rule-based. But
it falters in "border situations". For example, when driving a car, maintenance
learning teaches what to do when the traffic light turns red or green.
It falters, however, when a power shortage blacks out the light altogether.
Innovative learning is problem formulating and clustering. Its main
attributes are integration, synthesis, and the broadening of horizons.
It operates in open situations or open systems. Its meaning derives from
dissonance among contexts. It leads to critical questioning of conventional
assumptions behind traditional thoughts and actions, focusing on necessary
changes. Its values are not constant, but rather shifting. Innovative learning
advances our thinking by reconstructing wholes, not by fragmenting reality...
Another difference of approach between maintenance and innovative learning
is more subtle but no less important. Maintenance learning typically creates
solutions whose validity is ascertained by the scientific or administrative
authority which originated them. Adoption comes first, public understanding,
assimilation and acceptance come afterwards. A key premise for innovative
learning is that proposed solutions are judged prior to their adoption...
Thus a key aim of innovative learning is to enlarge the range of options
within sufficient time for sound decision-making processes". (5, pp. 42-44).
In this sense user innovative
learning demands more than information
systems have been able to supply. So the fundamental question is whether
they should respond to these additional requirements, or whether these
should be met by other parallel systems
As stated in the introduction, if they do not consider
it appropriate to respond to these new conditions then the report of the
1972 Symposium (1) is an adequate guideline. The following sections assume,
however, that they do wish to respond to the problems of innovative
G. Review of issues raised in panel papers
1. Continuing problems
Given the purpose of this report, as described in the introduction,
continuing problems should be recognised but should not obscure the more
fundamental challenge to international documentation systems. It is important
to be realistic in that such issues will continue to exist despite debates
and recommendations, such as those of 1972 (1), especially when "too few
of the recommendations have been implemented" (71, p. 4 and 20). Constant
pressure should be applied to remedy them -- although major breakthroughs
should not be expected and there is little hope for recommendations
requiring any degree of coordination. In addition, many new issues will
emerge as a natural accompaniment to the fragmented evolution of an under-budgeted
international community in which documentation is conceived as a budgetary
embarrassment to those producing it and a constant source of bewilderment
to those facilitating its use (71, pp. 10-11). Robert Schaaf's paper (71)
admirably summarises the situation with regard to many of them and his
remarks on possible future action (71, pp. 20-24) need not be repeated
here. Elaborating upon some of his chapter headings, they can perhaps be
grouped as follows:
Quantity of documentation in terms of acquisition, processing, organisation,
storage, and use
Bibliographic control problems, standards, and agency indexes
Diversity of materials, print, non-print, and electronic
Delays in rendering new materials accessible to users
Documentation complexity for librarians and users
Library personnel and training problems
Restrictive and fragmented agency distribution policies
Closed archives and classified (confidential) material
Status of user guides to documentation
Automated information systems: scope, access, integration,
Microform status and related user problems
Statistics on documents, translations, and usage.
Note that many of these are problems which affect users but whose solutions
should really be discussed within other panels. The utilisation dimensions
of some of these problems were reviewed in my own paper for the 1972 Symposium
(as rapporteur for the panel on acquisition and organisation of international
documentation), to the extent that "acquisition" may be viewed as a problem
for the ultimate user, rather than any intermediary.
In general those depository libraries who replied to Professor Arntz's
lists of questions answered descriptively in terms of the above headings
and their points may be said to have been covered by the 1972 Symposium
(1) as updated by Robert Schaaf (71).
2. User problems and innovative learning
Given the earlier sections of this report, it is significant that few
of the papers focused directly on user problems. Most of the agency papers
of necessity discuss the problems of producing and distributing documents.
Most of the depository library papers of necessity discuss the problem
of acquiring and controlling the flood of material, and in some cases the
question of tools for users. But libraries are only intermediate users,
if that. They are obviously not the ultimate users. It is significant that
Professor Arntz's questions concerning users gave rise to few answers
or answers which were clearly not based on any kind of survey. The questions
Is the material used, and if so, satisfactorily used?
Which are the obstacles felt by the users?
Do users express themselves, and in which sense, about the accessibility/value/usefulness
of the material?
Does it seem to be too rich (an information avalanche), or have they detected
gaps; are fields missing where there is an information need?
Are there linguistic or terminological barriers?
Have users other sources of information which could replace the material
from governmental organisations?
To some extent at least, these questions will be discussed now (together
with any communications received relevant to them) within the following
section which will endeavour to give a practical direction to the contextual
remarks of the previous sections.
H. Implications and recommendations
This section will not discuss the continuing problems listed in the
previous section but rather the underlying problems relating to utilisation
in terms of individual and collective user needs in conditions requiring
innovative societal learning. Given the financial and other handicaps of
the international community, it will be assumed that the continuing problems
will continue and that any recommendations must recognise the constraint
they represent and look for ways to bypass them if any breakthrough is
to be achieved.
1.1 Active attitude: What is the "international
documentation system"? There is little point in indulging in definitional
games, but perhaps it is appropriate to distinguish four components:
producers (agencies, etc.)
intermediaries (libraries, abstracting services, etc.)
ultimate users (social, change agents)
individuals and communities (from whom producers derive their mandate)
Now a narrow definition would give priority only to the first, on the assumption
that the others would respond appropriately to document production. A broader
definition, characteristic of "average" librarianship perhaps would include
the second on the assumption that it was responding to the needs of the
third. "Enlightened" librarianship would include the third in the system,
on the assumption that they were an adequate interface with the community.
The problem is that societal learning requires the integrated evolution
of all four components.
A basic question for intermediaries therefore is the extent to which
international documentation should be treated as a continuous outpouring
which ought to be passively conveyed, to the extent possible,
to "accessible" users. The intermediaries respond actively only to the
extent of pursuing priority user requests and by limiting responsibility
to that priority portion of the total outpouring which can be handled with
available resources. Is this enough?
A strategy open to intermediaries is to adopt a (low-budget) active
role whereby both producers and users are challenged to redefine their
action in the light of new patterns of information supplied
by the intermediaries. Possibilities will be discussed below, but the point
here is to stress a more active attitude toward producers and users.
It is a question of a different "posture" than the traditional one of librarianship.
1.2 Producer-user participation network:. Schaaf states that "use of international documents in libraries is
primarily subject-oriented" (71, p. 9). But he restricts his attention
to intergovernmental organisations (71, p. 1), possibly because these are
his professional responsibility. By so doing, however, such papers neglect
the production of the several thousand international non-governmental organisations,
including the FID publications in which these symposiums papers appear,
and the Club of Rome report cited above, which states (5, p. 80):
"Looking at the three spheres of governments, intergovernmental agencies,
and non-governmental organisations (the NGOs), it is the NGOs that appear
to have the longer term, flexible, interdisciplinary perspectives and where
both anticipation and participation are emerging. Not every NGO, of course,
could be considered a source of innovative learning. Yet the number and
importance of those which are innovative is growing with astonishing rapidity.
Many provide the forums where new ideas and creative alternatives can be
explored and simulated without the constraints of the existing economic,
social, cultural, military, or political obstacles"
If users are subject-oriented and NGOs contribute so significantly to innovative
learning, then it is a disservice to the concept of international documentation
to exclude them as producers. This point would be trivial were it not for:
the effect such an attitude has when it governs the scope of the service
offered to users
the importance in society today of involving all organizational resources
in the process of societal learning.
This point is argued by the Club of Rome report:
"Groups of every definition are asserting themselves around the world
and rejecting a marginal position or subordinated status with respect to
power centres... Without participation, for instance, anticipation often
becomes futile... Probably no area is so essential to innovative learning
as participation, and at the same time probably no greater need exists
than to learn how to participate effectively... And from a global view,
the potential for innovative learning in the world system as a whole hinges
on the extent of participation at international as well as national and
local levels" (5, pp. 14, 29 and 30).
The fact of the matter is that new issues are likely to emerge first in
nongovernmental organisation literature. If this is effectively excluded,
then the essential anticipatory element disappears from the "international
documentation system" which is then truly a maintenance learning system
only. It is therefore deplorable that the organisation of "international"
documents by intermediaries focuses the attention of users (including researchers)
on a small fraction of the organisational resources of world society (71,
For maximum learning effectiveness, producers and users need to be woven
into a well-integrated network -- especially since most collective users
are also producers, and vice versa. This "ganglionic" network is already
a major feature of world society, although there is little information
on it (see, however, ref. 2). Clearly a key feature is its decentralisation,
which is one reason why centralised bibliographic control is virtually
impossible. Under these conditions each producer/user functions as a kind
of "active guardian" of specific portions of the collective memory. Intermediaries
have a responsibility for making that network evident to all concerned.
In local communities libraries often have a "community networking" function
-- why not internationally?
1.3 Active memory:. The amount of information
is so great that it is useful to think of the tendency to push it into
"inactive" memory through the following overlapping stages:
in individual memory: current active preoccupation
in individual memory: remembered if triggered
documents on desk (or personal cardfile)
documents on office bookshelf (or filing cabinet)
documents in section library (or file room)
documents in agency library stacks (or archives)
These stages are important in recognising to what extent a user is able
to recall something to be able to frame an appropriate question. When Schaaf
speaks of "networking" to serve users (71, p. 6), who is able to contribute
actively to such a network?
Societal learning occurs through the accumulation of information in
active memory. (A form of "instinctive" learning may be said to
occur when knowledge is integrated into operational procedures). But it
is difficult to consider forgotten information in forgotten documents as
usable knowledge when the key whereby it may be retrieved has itself been
forgotten, if only temporarily.
New tools are required to move more information towards a condition
of being actively remembered. Intermediaries should actively create such
tools or at least encourage their creation
1.4 Subject 1acunae:. At present intermediaries
respond passively to the emergence of new topics by creating new categories
if old ones appear inadequate. Given the pattern of subject categories
"managed" by such intermediaries, who should signal the fact that information
is available in documents for "Housing, Africa", "Housing, Asia",
etc. but not for "Housing, Pacific"?
Who should be concerned with obvious gaps in the pattern of information
available? -- particularly when searching for gaps could be increasingly
automated. In contrast with what Gyorgy Rozsa states concerning the lack
of distortion in international documentation, at one stage the series of
country statistical codes omitted "Taiwan" and "Rhodesia", thus apparently
distorting any world trade study because trade with those countries was
not supposed to exist. Such silly approaches to data would be extremely
serious if they were used for infectious diseases or pollution data. But
who should signal the gap?
Should producers not be actively confronted with such gaps by intermediaries?
-- not simply as a search for missing documents but specially as a means
of identifying programming blindspots. A similar argument could be given
for information just "beyond" the frontier of a producer agency's subject
mandate. Who assists the agency to determine what information is relevant
and should be "imported" (or exported) across this frontier? To what extent
can it be done by automated "massaging" of the subject category data base?
If not, why not, and who else should have this responsibility?
2. Challenging producers and users
2.1 User questions: It is typical of maintenance
learning for intermediaries to respond passively to a user request with
the goal of giving him "exactly what he asked for ". Is enough known about
how a user frames his questions -- particularly when intimidated by library
procedures or the bewilderment of librarians? (71, p. 11). How can the
quality of questions be improved? The plethora of studies on the UN system
(71, p. 10), which seem to have very little cumulative value, suggests
that it is studied to a large extent "because it is there" and there is
a lot of documentation to peruse. An example is voting patterns. What does
"improvement" mean in an innovative learning context?
Given the user-recognized importance of subject orientation, why is
it that the user guides reviewed by Schaaf (71, pp. 13-16) are producer
Would it not be appropriate to develop a guide which challenged the
way the user thought it best to frame his question? This could be relatively
short, possibly even with an abridged office wall-chart (or hand-out) form,
structured in the manner of programmed learning manuals. Its functions
would include preventing the user from being "locked into":
an agency oriented perspective
a too-narrow subject orientation when related subjects are highly relevant
a too-broad subject orientation an uncritical acceptance of the available
It should "empower" or "enable" the user as a catalyst to release his own
creativity and assist him to re-define his whole stance in relation to
the categories within which he initially supposed his preoccupation to
be confined. At every stage he should be confronted with "Are you sure
that this is what you really think is the critical issue"? It should encourage
him to think "laterally" (73) and face him with the challenge of integration
Such a document should not be agency focused and would therefore
need to be produced with the guidance of an organisation such as the Association
of International Libraries.
2.2 Producer problems:. When the "producer"
agency is also a user, the document mentioned above is also relevant. As
noted earlier, tools are required to orient the policy-formulating user
in terms of knowledge and issues impacting on his stated area of preoccupation.
He needs to be given a sense of overview and context as noted in the Club
of Rome report (5, pp. 19-24). The reverse is also true. Exaggerating considerably,
it is almost as though a user should formulate "a knowledge-base impact
statement" (analogous to an environmental impact statement) to clarify
the consequences of "activating" and developing knowledge and action in
a particular area to the exclusion of action in response to areas to which
it is related.
2.3 Reconfiguration of category schemes: The very large investment of funds, intellect and personal commitment
in category schemes must be accepted with all its implications for lack
of flexibility in experimenting with alternatives at that level.
However, with very little investment users could be confronted with the
possibility of experimenting with alternative patterns of categories which
reflected their own priorities and preferences. Clearly this could best
be done as an on-line exercise, but batch versions might be preferred by
some. This would allow users to manipulate a large set of subject categories
into new patterns without affecting the existing categorisation
of the bibliographic data to which it could be linked. A user might even
consult an on-line system via such a "personalised" pattern used as an
interface into the standard system. If printed out, such a pattern could
well take the form of a map (see below), rather than a list. The process
whereby the user prepared "his" map might be usefully linked to an on-line
version of the programmed learning procedure described above (point 2.1).
A major advantage of this is that users would be able to incorporate
relevant categories not yet "recognised" by their agency information system
or only present in systems of other agencies. They could subdivide, combine
or link categories according to notions unacceptable to those responsible
for the agency's information system. A user could develop several such
patterns for different policy orientations (e.g. long-term, emergency action,
etc.). A selection of such patterns could be offered to new users.
3. Unconventional information tools
It is vital not to forget the implications of the vast amount of information
generated, even within the UN system. Much of substantive value escapes
bibliographic control or is otherwise inaccessible. Much that is under
control is of almost no long-term value. In a sense the reference guides
to what is under control conceal the extent of what is not. Who could produce
a guide to what is not, and who would "dare" to do so? Given the urgency
and nature of innovative societal learning, consideration should be given
to the benefits from the minimal investment requirements of information
aids such as the following.
3.1 Question collections: In the face
of rising ignorance and inability to act, ineffectual action ("for action's
sake") may often be avoided by asking better questions. Many good questions
are "buried" in international documents. Many documents are the result
of bad questions. Many good questions never get into accessible (including
declassified) documents, even though they do not need to be confidential.
Is it not possible to define criteria for a "question collection", focused
mainly on supposedly unanswered questions. The amount of information would
be relatively small. It would be of value to policy-formulation and research
and as a learning aid. The questions could be periodically rated by a suitable
jury so that they could be ranked in different ways and even interlinked
in a network of learning pathways. The collection could be open for inclusion
of questions from motivated users. Links to documents could be envisaged
Note that it has often been remarked that it is not better answers to
old questions that will lead to better action, but better questions leading
to new kinds of answers. The search for better questions is a key to by-passing
the shank 1earning process.
3.2 Resolution collections: More conventional
and requiring greater investment would be a data base focused on resolutions.
This is in no way unique insofar as much has been done for those of the
UN itself. The question is whether priority could be given to this aspect
of international documentation for all agencies as a distinct, and preferably
on-line, subject-indexed (KWIC) system.
At this point, as has often been remarked, there is no clearing-house
for decisions affecting the international community. Such a data base is
a minimum response to this condition -- whether or not the associated documents
are under control.
3.3 Proposal collections: Much creative
energy is invested in formulating proposals which, if they are reported,
are "buried" in documents. Given that these provide most valuable clues
to future action, it would seem that some effort should be devoted to providing
a brief abstract of them in a suitably indexed on-line data base. Clearly
this is most valuable if it motivates wide participation and does not concentrate
on the preoccupations of a particular (group) of agencies. As opposed to
documents in general, such proposals are "live" future-oriented information.
Whilst a valuable precedent, the Bulletin of Peace Proposals (Oslo) should
not he considered a model because of the length of the texts included.
3.4 Problem collections: Given that
perceived problems are a core feature of the world problematique, further
steps should be taken to maintain brief abstracts of them in a suitably
indexed on-line data base. An important reason for treating problems in
a separate system is that they are both "buried" in documents and often
denatured by the manner in which they are presented as agenda items or
remedial programmes. Such problems should be registered in the system in
terms of their perceived functional relationship to other problems. Such
a data base covering some 2,600 world problems in a network of 13,000 relationships
was created in machine readable form for the production of the experimental
Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential (2). Producing "problem
maps" bound as "atlases" could be an important byproduct stimulating participation
in the continual updating of such a data base.
3.5 Key document check-lists: Given
the bewilderment of librarians and users faced with the maze of international
documentation, a procedure worth exploring is the regular production of
a check-list of the "most consulted new documents". This might be restricted
to 50, or be as high as 500 or 1000, possibly organised by subjects (with
provision for interdisciplinary categories). Selections could be made by
agency librarians and pooled by the Association of International Libraries.
More ambitiously, it might include any publications considered relevant
to the world community/ problematique, as indicated by a pool of collaborating
users -- perhaps grouped around each agency library. This would be a very
valuable (and saleable) guide to what was worth acquiring (librarians)
or reading (users). It would have an important cross-category "pollinating"
role. There are many commercial parallels: best-seller lists, record hit
lists, TV ratings, etc.
3.6 Subject field glossaries: Fred Riggs
in his paper (77) notes that:
"International documents written in 'technical jargon' cannot be understood
by many readers. The problems involved in utilising international documents...
concern not so much the availability or intrinsic importance of these documents
as the capacity of users to understand what they contain... The problem
of comprehension arises from a basic semantic difficulty involving the
appearance and use of many new concepts as a result of progress in the
social and natural sciences, and in the fields of technology and information
science... Consequently it is by no means a simple matter to convert technical
jargon into ordinary language"
He has studied this problem extensively through the Committee on Conceptual
and Terminological Analysis (COCTA) (78) and the Unesco INTERCONCEPT programme
(79). He suggests that:
"In order to master these new technical languages, reference tools
are required which will take the form of subject field glossaries -- but
such glossaries cannot be very useful if they follow the traditional format
used in most such works".
He has made very specific design proposals for a new kind of glossary.
4. Integration and comprehension
A major effort is required to facilitate the cross-category interrelationship
of subject areas and to provide users with some tools to augment their
ability to tolerate the complexity with which they have to deal.
4.1 Mapping techniques: Librarians have
been tricked by the success with which computers have been used to process
lists of subjects, bibliographic entries, and lines of text. This provides
them with good control of "librarian problems" but does nothing for the
user faced with indigestible acquisition lists or on-line keyword search
facilities. Innovative learning necessitates new user tools. "Maps" of
interconnected topics around a user's focal topic would be of inestimable
value in providing him with a sense of context to guide his searches and
to signal related topics of concern (15). It should be possible to generate
such maps from relatively simple data bases. The hardware exists, as does
the software, but none of those concerned have articulated the need sufficiently
in order to assemble these elements with the necessary funding. (70).
A major value of such maps would be as a single-sheet background document
for agency meetings to provide the context to each agenda item (and, as
a result of criticism, to ensure continual updating of the map for that
topic). They would be of obvious value as educational aids. The data base
for the Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential was created
with this possibility in mind.
4.2 Interdisciplinarity: As Georges
Gusdorf notes in a brilliant essay (74a), "interdisciplinarity" has become
a disguise for the mere juxtaposition of disciplines without any significant
interaction. [It is in this sense that Rozsa's (73) positive assessment
of the interdisciplinarity of international documentation must be interpreted.
Such documents must often be judged as much by the disciplines they exclude
as those they include.] It has failed to emerge in any significant non-token
form in a society in desperate need of it. The Club of Rome report notes
that despite the amount of information published annually it is "incomplete
and deficient because it is essentially of an intra- disciplinary
nature with very little emphasis on inter-disciplinary materials" (5, p.
University "interdisciplinarity" is a mockery torn by interfaculty politics
and eroded by cynicism. It has become a joke. The situation is, if anything,
even worse in international agencies. Thus it is in the greater detachment
of libraries and information systems that hopes must be placed. There,
however, even the term is an embarrassment so that books with that dimension
are "crammed" into any category including "general" to avoid opening up
an inter-category notion. The reality of user access problems to such materials,
and an indication of the vulnerability of collective memory, is illustrated
by an effort in 1975 to consult the General Systems Yearbook (published
annually in Washington DC since 1956) at the Library of Congress.
Two volumes were available on first request. A protest led to a visit to
the stacks where it was clear that several volumes had been misfiled in
neighboring racks. The majority had been lost or stolen. (Unesco did not
possess the series).
There has, for example, never been any study of the problems of classifying
interdisciplinary materials, because librarians have not allowed such problems
to exist. Users are therefore totally handicapped in gaining the faintest
understanding of the many integrative possibilities (see ref. 2, Section
K). This leads to general reinforcement of the inadequacies of the interdisciplinary
approach. A study of this whole matter should be made and the status of
material in this area should be reviewed in relation to the "general" category
in terms of societal learning needs and the challenge of the world problematique.
4.3 Imagery: The Club of Rome report places
great stress on imagery: "Images with their integrative power and instant
recall, have been underestimated as components of learning" (5, p. 41).
Both international agencies and their information systems are committed
in many ways to text processing. Only the "public information" programmes
use images and these are not considered to be documents of substantive
value. A study is required to look into ways to bridge this gap. Users
could benefit from images to help them to grasp the nature of the world
problematique. It is, however, important to avoid superficial approaches
to imagery which constitute a trap justifying any preferences for text.
What is needed is a way to select a pattern of images to and comprehension
of a matching pattern of interconnected problems (possibly represented
on a map, as suggested above). It is the possibilities of cross-linking
between the patterns that requires study.
4.4 Analogy, metaphor, and parable: The
increasing problem of understanding and communicating the nature of the
complex conditions in which we are embedded has been frequently stated.
This problem is more acute when there is a requirement for rapid and innovative
societal learning. Conventional logical explanations have long ceased to
suffice. Mathematicians (Thom, catastrophe theory), biologists, religious
leaders, and politicians have long been forced to communicate by the use
of analogy, metaphor, and parable. This is often true in intergovernmental
plenary speeches but rarely in the background documents which are considered
to be so indigestible. These forms use verbal imagery to elucidate unfamiliar
points and render them memorable. As with imagery (above), there is clearly
a need to bridge the chasm separating this meaningful mode with the often
meaningless textual mode of documentation. These forms can also be powerful
human-centered integrative tools which work even in the most isolated communities.
There are few other forms with these qualities. In addition, as noted by
the Club of Rome report, they are a stimulus to intuitive thinking (5,
p. 126). The question is whether greater benefits could not be derived
from these forms if they could be rendered more accessible (and more "apt")
and linked, as an aid to users, to the "problem complexes" about which
conventional documents are produced. Documentalists could usefully take
the first step by recognising the urgent need for the construction of such
a (right-brain/left-brain) bridge.
4.5 Structured images and symbols: The
important distinction between "imagery" (above) and structured images has
already been discussed. Structured images are in effect a marriage between
imagery and mapping, combining some of the strengths of both. They may
also overlap with a range of powerful symbols of integration (10). Both
can be powerful tools in communicating and rendering credible the nature
Great efforts are made to develop suitable "symbols" for international
programmes. Symbols of this type are often little more than images with
little power. The question is whether structured images orienting user
access to complex subject domains can be linked to (or blended into) existing
powerful symbols capable of galvanising a "political will to change". Note
the probability of failure of action if the two are not successfully related.
Exploration of these possibilities offers a route whereby the currently
static concept patterns of information systems can be "achieved" into a
dynamic catalyst for change.
5. Users and usage
5.1 Usage: There is little information available
on usage from the panel papers received. In the case of the agency papers,
the United Nations paper notes the "difficulty for Governments to study"
documentation. The CARICOM paper notes that "about 60% is not of immediate
use... about 25% is not of expected value at the time when the request
is made". None of the other papers comment on the matter.
In the case of the depository library replies, that of the Hungarian
Parliament states, "We feel that the material is satisfactorily used".
The Library of Parliament (Finland) only states "frequently used". Whereas
that of the Royal Library (Copenhagen) records that "materials from intergovernmental
organizations are being used -- but not satisfactorily", which is also
the judgement of the Biblioteca Nacional (Madrid). The National Center
of Scientific and Technical Information (Tel-Aviv) reports: "Much of this
documentation, notwithstanding its potential inherent value, serves no
one because the knowledge of its existence, its contents and
its access is so badly organised".
Reporting on the Library of Congress (Washington), Schaaf notes: "Lacking
any precise data, it is still clear that international materials are underutilized"
(71, p. 9). In the case of the British Library, Eve Johansson (74) notes:
"It is generally felt in this library as in others in the UK that the documentation
of the IGOs is not used as it should be, and that its advantages ... are
not fully appreciated". Johansson also itemises "reasons for unsatisfactory
degree of use" but her reasons are the "continuing problems" of the previous
section. Schaaf notes the bewilderment of users and J.P. Chillag remarks:
"Users and prospective users... are often frustrated in their efforts first
to identify the material they need and then to locate and gain access to
the international documentation they require" (75).
It is really surprising that there is so little information on usage,
given the expense of documentation and the assumption that it is
sufficiently useful to justify the financial and personnel resources allocated
to it. Is the documentation as valuable as some would claim it to be? Would
"valuable" have to be carefully defined to justify continued production
of certain categories of documents? Which ones? Is the value of such documentation
being reduced by the spread of other information media, especially electronic?
These are questions that demand a study which would not justify value by
the desire to produce or the desire to "stay on a mailing list in case...".
5.2 Users: The panel papers also give
little information on users. The agency papers, if they mention users at
all, focus on obligatory distribution to members and conference participants.
The depository libraries tend to indicate that they are used by "specialists,
researchers and students", Johansson notes that there is "little feedback".
It must be recognised that there will always be "users" for a topic on
which there is a large amount of documentation. Schaaf is the most explicit:
"Among the most frequent users are staff members of Government agencies,
faculty and students from out-of-town universities, and researchers from
innumerable institutions and associations". (71, p.6)
There is almost no indication of the types of questions asked by users.
What are they looking for? Could they be asking better questions? Do they
know what they need, or do they only think they know? What of the potential
users that have become disillusioned, or whose interests are neglected?
Are the principal users at present those whose activities are in need of
Rather than a study of the "acquisition and organisation of international
documentation" [The title of my report for the 1972 Symposium (1)], a study
should be produced on the "acquisition and organization of users". It is
time to think less about "inaccessible documents" and more about "inaccessible
users". It is very disturbing to read Johansson's comment: "Many users
resort for preference to newspaper and journal sources for some information
that could be found in the publications of IGOs, and are prepared to do
without some of it".
The whole concept of users and usage has become static, slow and governed
largely by the agency desire to produce and distribute. In no way can this
be said to correspond to the needs for innovative societal learning.
5.3 Psycho-cultural variants: It is
too conveniently assumed that information organization should correspond
to approaches elaborated in the developed countries. As recent studies
are demonstrating (24), there are other equally meaningful approaches to
the organisation of concepts which are characteristic of non-indo-european
cultures (and by "inaccessible" potential users in indo-european cultures).
And even in western countries there is increasing criticism of Boolean
approaches to data searches. New logics and forms of presentation are called
for (56, 57). Any user study must take into account these possibilities,
if international documentation is to be rendered acceptable to those who
have not been coopted into developed country traditions.
Also relevant is the argument of the Club of Rome report: "In large
part, it is the inadequacy of learning capacities which accounts for the
low level of understanding not only of ideas and knowledge originating
outside a particular culture but also of the values intrinsic to and embodied
in technologies that are too often 'transferred' inappropriately" (5, p.
6. Core contents
Given the amount of valuable information "buried" in inaccessible documents,
and given the spread of data networks, it would be appropriate to undertake
exploratory investigations of the possibility of creating a "core concept"
data base, perhaps on the lines of the "country file" data bases in many
agencies. This could include key insights and phrases, possibly from documents,
relating specially the world problematique. Properly designed, this could
provide a focal point for registering and interrelating insights and needs,
with possible reference to documents elaborating the point (76). Such relatively
compact dynamic data bases are essential to maintain the momentum of innovative
societal learning. The documentation system is a symbol of societal inertia
incarnate. Do many of the complex problems of the world problematique lend
themselves to treatment in the kinds of documents which can be produced
As noted in the introduction, the features of the information/communication
society of the future are emerging. Telecommunications are a vital component.
They are basic to the exciting future possibilities of data networks in
relation to societal learning. As has been said before such networks are
the planetary "nervous system". The Club of Rome report states, however:
"The neglect and abuse of telecommunications is another illustration of
how innovative learning is impeded. It is because of the existence of a
global communications network... that their neglect is so discouraging".
(5, p. 55)
Of special concern are the little-reported maneuverings of national
PTT authorities and commercial data carriers to set the foundations for
a totally elitist communication society. The carriers, with the connivance
of PTTs, appear to be aiming to create a situation analogous to the well-known
"seven sisters" monopoly in the petroleum industry. The PTTs are using
spurious arguments to justify heavy tariffs, monopolistic services, inflexible
equipment standards, and restrictive patterns of access. In part this is
a classical effort at "creaming the market", in part it is a frantic attempt
at conserving control over communications (to maintain revenues and protect
the outdated telex technology), and in part it is done under pressure from
authorities concerned with social control (military, etc.).
At a time when energy costs are soaring, it is incredible that the communications,
on which our civilisation depends to maintain the "social fabric" and innovative
learning processes, should be taxed so heavily and so artificially. This
cynical irresponsibility should be recognised in terms of its inhibiting
effect on learning and all aspects of future access to international documentation.
The International Telecommunications Union bears a heavy responsibility
in this matter, especially in the light of its proposed World Communications
This paper has deliberately stressed the need for a new international
documentation perspective sensitive to the urgent needs of the world problematique.
Documentalists in this field have an obligation to render these needs more
comprehensible as a whole and to stimulate and support innovative user
learning -- especially collective learning. It is they who have a traditional
responsibility to ensure the visibility of the "big picture". They cannot
afford to adopt a passive, self-satisfied posture.
International documentalists constitute an important group of custodians
of society's collective memory. It is this memory which is enriched by
societal learning processes. It is the "gene pool" of ideas from which
our future is born. And yet it appears to be in a totally pathological
condition. How can information systems be used to "get society's act together"
at a time when it is falling apart and losing focus? Societal memory is
vulnerable -- how vulnerable has not been assessed (see Annex
2). What can be learnt from the rise and fall of civilisations about
the factors which need to be brought together in societal memory to bring
about a "golden age"? Within what comprehensible configurations can they
be brought together?
The Club of Rome report, used as a principal input to this paper, is
a first step towards a "capacity study of societal learning". An appropriate
approach is that which led to the production of the UNDP Capacity Study
of the United Nations Development Systems, 1969 (The Jackson
Report). Many more detailed studies are required. The report does not specifically
mention document-related systems. This omission should be remedied. It
emphasises the learning process and not how society stores what
is learnt. The two are, however, so intimately related in a "learning society"
that "library" and "information systems" can be meaningfully substituted
for "school" and "educational systems" in the following quotations:
"While we have no inclination to defend the existing concepts of school
which we find excessively concerned with maintenance learning, neither
can we imagine the development of widespread innovative learning without
institutions" (5, p. 63).
"The degree to which societies have neglected innovative learning in
favour of maintenance learning can be seen by the extent of irrelevance
in their educational systems and their waste of human potential"
(5, p. 67).
Supposedly we will shortly have all knowledge at our physical
finger tips, but the question is how to make innovative use of it.
Answering that question shows how far from our conceptual
tips the knowledge really is. As currently envisaged, data terminals induce
maintenance learning of low quality. What sort of collective memory is
emerging? What assistance do individual and collective users really need?
Given its progressive increase in society, ignorance should be a focus
of attention as much as knowledge. Society has to come to terms with it.
It cannot be "eliminated"; and, properly conceived, it could even constitute
a vital resource. Similarly, "unlearning" is a process complementary to
learning. Growth in understanding has often been described as a process
of unlearning received misconceptions. What, for that matter, is the appropriate
balance between societal remembering and societal forgetting? Exploring
these perspectives could have useful implications for the acquisition and
organisation of information by users. It sharpens the focus of the debate.
The quantity and interrelatedness of information generated is such that
no conventional solution can be adequate to the challenge of the times
given current constraints. There is an urgent need for low-cost, short-cuts
to accelerated societal learning - learning with "multiplier effects" (to
use an economics term). Techniques are required for the "conservation of
user attention time" and the "re-energizing of the user". Documentalists
have a responsibility to call for the development of "attention focusing
systems", and "attention receptacles" to assist the user.
The Club of Rome report stresses the importance of developing human
potential as the keystone of the societal learning process. It is unfortunate
that in doing so it emphasises that there are "no limits to learning" when
it is precisely these limits which are important constraints on the design
of a supportive information system. But perhaps more regrettable is the
implication that limits themselves are "bad". On the contrary, overcoming
limits is intrinsic to the learning process. It is therefore appropriate
to close with Richard Wilhelm's commentary on "Limitation", one of the
64 hexagrams in the classic I Ching or Book of Changes:
"Limitations are troublesome, but they are effective... Limitations
are also indispensable in the regulation of world conditions... In human
life too the individual achieves significance through discrimination and
the setting of limits... Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man;
if they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless... The individual
attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with
these limitations and by determining for himself what his duty is". ( 82,