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Conceptual Scaffolding and Prosthetics

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Annex 13 of Visualization of International Relationship Networks (1992)


One way to explore future possibilities for conferencing is to consider the implications of various possible marriages between modes of information: 

1. Text and Data

The classic separation between text processing and data processing has severely impeded the evolution of conferencing. A fruitful marriage would allow users their current freedom of expression but would also enable them to navigate more effectively through the maze of messages. Various approaches could be taken: 

The issue in both cases is how to code levels of the text and embed hypertext links in the text as part of the message generation process. This is an extension of the classic problem of how to motivate authors to provide abstracts. The long-term solution is to shift the focus of attention from the text to the representation of the knowledge implied by the text . A transitional solution is to develop what might be called a "text compressor" or "concept processor" based on artificial intelligence procedures. 

As has been repeatedly noted, the desk-top publishing revolution and its conferencing parallel will more than overwhelm a saturated readership. Desk-top readers do not accomplish what we would like their name to imply. They do not help us to filter and comprehend the content. Some form of text analysis and restructuring by a concept processor is required to mine the conceptual ore from what needs to be dumped or filed at a lower priority level. The most practical approach would to provide users with a minimum facility which they could adapt and tune to their personal idiosyncrasies. Users could of course view and edit the structured product generated from their own outgoing communications. Such a processor might usefully be related to the need for machine-assisted translation. 

2. Data and Graphics

Much has been accomplished with respect to this marriage in the form of representing data in graphical form (business graphics, statistical graph plotting). But this quantitative challenge for conferencing is possibly of much less interest than the non-quantitative one of how to represent graphically the concept networks being articulated within a conference. Possibilities include:  There are two challenges here:  It is worth noting that a heroic attempt was made to do just this by Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask at the first international conference of the Society for General Systems Research (London, 1979) before the PC era. Both concept maps and participant network maps were produced and used to orient discussion. Such experiments would be infinitely easier now and many refinements could be incorporated. 

Comment The absence of such tools is an indication of the priorities of conferencing at this time. Questions such as the following need to be asked:  There is every possibility that users have different preferred cognitive modes (possibly under different circumstances) and that it remains important to cater flexibly for those who feel constrained by explicit structures. 

One possible reason for the relative lack of interest in conferencing systems in the international community is that in the present form they do not reflect the dynamics of factional interaction. The action is perceived as being elsewhere. Even the texts produced can be viewed as conceptual shells discarded by a dynamic beast that has moved elsewhere. The consensus-mania pervading explicit conferences forces the real, tension-filled, business of factional wheeling and dealing into other arenas -- if only the corridors and bars outside meeting rooms or in one-to-one messaging. This clearly suggests the need for handling the public-private interface more flexibly, veiling and unveiling explicit structure when appropriate. The conferencing of the future may yet prove to be a conceptual dance of the seven veils !

3. Scaffolding

The possibilities of the preceding note point to quite concrete features which could provide a major new facility for conferences, whether electronic or otherwise. These possibilities are basically concerned with the whole issue of what might be called "conceptual scaffolding". In the process of constructing a building scaffolding is necessary, especially to hold structures in position until appropriate permanent building elements can be inserted to lock them into place. Much can be learnt from architecture in considering the challenges of developing more powerful and appropriate forms of conceptual architecture. 

Structurally an agenda or a conference programme, even a multi-track program, is rather simple -- even simplistic -- especially when considered in relation to the complex ecology of problems and organizations which are supposedly to be interrelated effectively through it. Is it any wonder that conferences are relatively ineffective at coming to grips with complex issues? What is being attempted is in defiance of Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety. 

The issue is therefore how to enable users to collectively design more complex forms of conceptual scaffolding to hold in place embryonic or unstable concepts until other concepts can be fitted into the pattern to lock them into place. Ideally, of course, it is the conferencing software which should provide such scaffolding. And, like the scaffolding for buildings, it should be adjustable to different structural configurations as the building grows. 

A typical function of scaffolding in a conference is to provide a framework within which complementary perspectives can be articulated, especially when there is a major tension between them. When Concept A is formulated, the scaffolding holds a space for Concept B to counter-balance it. Such scaffolding is even more essential when more than two concepts have to be held in balance. As with buildings, the scaffolding provides a protection against disruptive forces in the conference process. A typical disruptive force in a contemporary conference might focus narrowly on "industry is exploitative", when the larger issue is to provide a sustainable framework in which to balance the exploitative characteristics of industry against the socio-economic benefits that it provides in the light of environmental constraints. The more complex the balance, the more vulnerable is the conference to disruptive forces. 

Four forms of scaffolding are especially interesting: 4. Conceptual transformation

The need for conceptual scaffolding is clear given the kinds of complexity with which society has to work. The challenge of making the more complex structures comprehensible is also clear -- those most appropriate to the challenge of sustainable development may be beyond the ability of any single human mind to grasp. But any form of development implies structural transformation. Whilst transforming simplistic structures like conference agendas and organization charts may pose little challenge, the transformation of the complex structures described earlier are quite another matter. 

The process of conceptual or social transformation appears to call for a form of dynamic scaffolding which provides some form of continuity -- from stage to stage -- through the transformation process. What we are looking for is a form of scaffolding onto which the conference's insights can be mapped at Stage I. The relationships in this mapping would then be stretched or changed in the transformation to Stage II, which might be some very different kind of structure -- suggesting new kinds of relationships between the concepts so bound (and between their proponents in the conference). 

There are few examples of this kind of structure: Presumably it will only be through such explorations that conferences can anchor their transformative insights so that people can recognize and have confidence in the structural continuity of appropriate change, rather than being threatened by change of any kind -- and therefore resistant to it."

There is a dearth of imaginative ideas to respond to the challenge of sustainable development in this period of crisis and crisis-management thinking. An immediate challenge for the West is how to respond to the radical transformation in the Eastern European countries. Given the scarcity of resources, what can they be given to catalyze the fruitful reorganization of their societies? And even more challenging, how can advantage be taken of the very high level of education achieved by a high proportion of the younger generation? 

Rather than thinking in terms of how such societies can make use of various Western styles of organization, which have resulted in many significant failures in other societies to which they have been exported, is there an alternative? Is it possible to provide some communication package, to run on stand-alones or small networks, which could provide them with the conceptual scaffolding that would enhance their ability to apply their own imaginative insight to their own problems? 

The challenge of the Eastern bloc is in effect a metaphor of the challenge that the world as a whole faces with respect to sustainable development. The economists will continue to be given every opportunity to apply their unimaginative insights to the task, whatever suffering their austerity measures imply. This will not change. And the degree of alienation of the population, and especially the young, will continue to increase. But in the many creative interstices, there is a receptive audience for devices which open up opportunities for more complex, and more fruitful, modes of thinking and organizing. With appropriate imagination, limited resources can be applied in new ways. Computers can provide an environment to assist that process.

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