Conceptual Challenge of Visualization
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Annex 12 of Visualization
of International Relationship Networks (1992)
1. Promise of the 1970s
The original excitement of the conceptual implications of computers in
the early 1970s was inspired by statements such as the following:
"Concepts can be viewed as manifolds in the multidimensional variate
space spanned by the parameters describing the situation. If a correspondence
is established that represents our incomplete knowledge by altitude functions,
we can seek the terrae incognitae, plateaus, enclaves of knowledge, cusps,
peaks, and saddles by a conceptual photogrammetry. Exploring the face of
a new concept would be comparable to exploring the topography of the back
of the moon. Commonly heard remarks such as 'Now I'm beginning to get the
picture' are perhaps an indication that these processes already play an
unsuspected role in conceptualization..."
(Dean Brown and Joan
"Unfortunately, my abstract model tends to fade out when I get
a circuit that is a little bit too complex. I can't remember what is happening
in one place long enough to see what is going to happen somewhere else.
My model evaporates. If I could somehow represent that abstract model in
the computer to see a circuit in animation, my abstraction wouldn't evaporate.
I could take the vague notion that 'fades out at the edges' and solidify
it. I could analyze bigger circuits. In all fields there are such abstractions."
"Concepts seem to be structurable, in that a new concept can be
composed of an organization of established concepts... A given structure
of concepts can be represented by any of an infinite number of different
symbol structures, some of which would be much better than others for enabling
the human perceptual and cognitive apparatus to search out and comprehend
the conceptual matter of significance...Besides the forms of symbol structures
that can be constructed and portrayed, we are very much concerned with
the speed and flexibility with which one form can be transformed into another,
and with which new material can be located and portrayed...With a computer
manipulating our symbols and generating their portrayals to us on a display,
we no longer need think of our looking at the symbol structure which is
stored as we think of looking at the structures stored in notebooks, memos
and books...In fact, this structuring has immensely greater potential for
accurately mapping a complex concept structure than does a structure an
individual would find it practical to construct or use on paper. The computer
can transform back and forth between the two-dimensional portrayal on the
screen, of some limited view of the total structure, and the aspect of
the n-dimensional internal image that represents this 'view'."
It will be possible to use computer devices as a sort of "electronic
vehicle with which one could drive around with extraordinary freedom through
the information domain. Imagine driving a car through a landscape which
instead of buildings, roads and trees, had groves of facts, structures
of ideas, and so on, relevant to your professional interests. But this
information landscape is a remarkably organized one; not only can you drive
around a grove of certain arranged facts and look at it from many aspects,
you have the capability of totally reorganizing that grove almost instantaneously."
2. Disappointment of the 1980s
Re-reading these early texts in the light of the achievements of 20 years,
it is possible to argue that we have access to these features if they are
understood simplistically. Much manipulation is indeed possible. A user
can indeed "drive around" an electronic network, dipping into
and out of conferences and examining arrays of ideas.
But it is also possible to view current electronic networking as quite
disappointing in the light of those early aspirations. Consider the following:
(a) Concept representation:
In most networking environments concepts
are represented by "message item numbers". The message may have
a "title". To this may be attached a questionable selection of
"keywords". There is no question of representation by an infinite
variety of "symbols". In fact the graphic dimension is totally
(b) Concept organization:
In most networking environments concepts
are organized as messages by "conference" and/or clustered by
"keyword". Within any message there may be a reference to an
earlier message which can then be accessed, but it may be more difficult
(if not impossible) to locate any subsequent message referring to it. In
a highly organized conference, the theme may be structured into "agenda
points". The addition and removal of agenda points is resisted in
order to give stability to the conference. Just as the addition and removal
of conferences may be resisted to isolate zones of stability -- although
there may be other constraints.
(c) Concept access:
In most networking environments permitting message
keywording, the thesaurus structure through which to explore the pattern
of keywords is poorly developed. As in many library systems, it is hierarchical
and simplistic. Keywords are used too broadly or in such unusual ways that
they are unreliable as a retrieval method. They do not provide a meaningful
3. An important distinction
It should be quickly said that the existing software is obviously satisfactory
to many users of electronic networking. Distinctions can usefully be made
(a) "Focused networking":
In which the focus is provided
(b) "Unfocused networking":
the interaction process itself, namely the bonding process with particular
participants with whom dialogue is experienced as fruitful;
information exchange (including schedule matching) in which the content
at any one time is what provides the focus.
In which the commitment of
participants is to discover and articulate a shared domain of concern,
amongst a network of participants, for which a network of concepts can
be articulated and brought into focus.
It would seem to be the case that user satisfaction is due to the predominance
of focused networking. Where users work within specific conferences or
maintain contact with specific people, the question of conceptual organization
is implicit in the text of the messages exchanged. But in the case of unfocused
networking, the question is whether the networking environment responds
to the conceptual challenge of the focusing process, namely interrelating
complex networks of organizations and problems, articulating agendas, identifying
conference participants. The view taken here is that the broader conceptual
challenge is to provide an electronic networking system which facilitates
the emergence and articulation of conceptual clusters as a prelude to focused
networking, if required.
4. Challenge of innovation under complexity and turbulence
Focused networking may be adequate to well-defined stable issues. However,
to respond proactively to a complex, turbulent environment requires some
form of unfocused networking.
It is unfocused networking which facilitates the emergence of different
perspectives and alternative agendas -- different foci. Such a context
can be used during the creative, tentative period when agendas and coalitions
are being formed. It is able to respond rapidly to crises, surprises and
creative opportunities when new patterns of categories are required.
Focused networking is vital, but it needs to emerge from a context of unfocused
networking, if it is not to become a trap from which those involved cannot
5. Conceptual weaknesses of conferencing
It is useful to consider the following conceptual weaknesses in both electronic
networking and in conventional face-to-face conferences:
a. Conceptual amnesia: The tendency for a network of participants
to forget, or repress, points made in earlier time frames. Participants
become addicted to novelty and devalue concepts articulated earlier. The
ability to build a complex conceptual structure over time is therefore
constantly undermined. Such amnesia is in effect a process of conceptual
b. Conceptual fade out: The tendency for a complex conceptual
structure to fade at the edges, so that the scope of any emerging conceptual
structure is constantly being eroded by limitations of conceptual span,
whether for an individual or for the network of participants collectively.
Just as there is a need for screen refreshment, so there is a need for
systematic concept refreshment.
c. Conceptual burial: The tendency for concepts to be buried
in a mass of text, whether explanatory, anecdotal or otherwise. Little
effort is made to distinguish concepts from contextual material which may
not be essential to their subsequent use in articulating a complex conceptual
network. Many environments are designed to bury concepts almost as quickly
as they are generated. The conditions ensure a high concept mortality rate.
d. Conceptual haze: The tendency for a multiplicity of concepts
to be simultaneously present in a diffuse haze through which participants
wander (or blunder) with little more than a confused sense of orientation.
Everything is relevant to everything, but little can be effectively distinguished.
People enter and leave the conference environment confused.
e. Conceptual swamping: The well-documented phenomenon of information
overload. The amount of information inhibits creativity.
f. Conceptual mouse-trapping: The tendency of a conference to
premature conceptual closure. Given the conceptual confusion which tends
to prevail, any ordering which emerges tends to be seized upon and used
to impose order before alternative perspectives acquire sufficient weight
to call for their integration in a more complex conceptual structure. This
is associated with conceptual big-game hunting, namely the tendency to
focus on the most obvious and dominant concepts and to ignore other aspects
of the conceptual ecology represented within the conference -- and possibly
vital to the healthy growth of the conceptual ecosystem.
g. Conceptual collapse: The reductionist tendency to blur subtle
distinctions, collapsing them into a simpler concept. The complexity of
a soap bubble would thus be reduced to that of a blob of water on a two-dimensional
surface. Unusual, counter-intuitive or paradoxical structures are thus
not adequately protected in the normal conference environment.
h. Conceptual stasis: The tendency to define concepts in static
terms, when a dynamic definition might be more appropriate in response
to an evolving, turbulent social environment. The concepts needed at this
time may only be representable in dynamic terms (as with resonance hybrids
i. Conceptual consensus-mania (or disagreement-phobia): The
tendency of a conference to avoid disagreement and seek consensus, when
more realistic conceptual articulations might be based on appropriate configurations
of complementary, but opposing perspectives. Within a network this tends
to result in the effective exclusion of those who disagree -- leading to
a form of conceptual incest or inbreeding. The conference environment is
not designed for conceptual variety, unless variants are screened off in
their own sub-conferences.
j. Conceptual contraception: The tendency for conferences to
be designed in a sanitized, "safe-sex" mode to avoid conception
and the collective creation of viable new conceptual configurations. There
is a strong emphasis on conceptual foreplay and titillation, with success
being associated with a form of conceptual orgasm, hopefully to be repeated
on subsequent occasions. But conceptual progeny are as unwelcome as the
risk of being infected by dangerous ideas.
In response to such assessments, it is usually argued that these difficulties
can be avoided if the conference is appropriately organized with a "strong
chairperson" or "moderator" to "keep things in focus".
This is in effect a betrayal of the original non-hierarchical inspiration
The further suggestion that the conference should have a "clear agenda"
tends to imply that the agenda is decided in advance, thus inhibiting the
creative, self-organizing process whereby responsible people redesign the
framework through which they interact in response to new insights emerging
from that interaction.
Most of the burning international issues call for conference environments
in which the agenda is constantly redesigned as an evolving conceptual
framework. A frozen agenda precludes creativity and implies a frozen, still-borne
outcome. The formation of only the most probable coalitions is possible
at a time when only the less probable are appropriate to the task. The
emergence of more imaginative coalitions is not facilitated.
Is there no way that responsible individuals can get there act together
without a "policeperson" or a conceptual straitjacket ? It can
be argued that much more could be done with networking software to facilitate