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

1992

Meta-Conferencing

Integration of the Concept Structure of Debate

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Annex 14 of Visualization of International Relationship Networks


This note is concerned with the development of tools to facilitate overview -- by participants -- of the conceptual structure of the discussion amongst them. There is a marked need for such devices, especially during the course of a conference on a complex set of interrelated topics for which a hierarchical ordering is inappropriate. Two possibilities are reviewed. The first, based on the development of a form of sociogram, can be readily implemented and has already been tested in its simplest form. However this only permits a succession of grosser pictures following the processing of questionnaire information during the conference. The second requires the development of a new form of visual "note-taking" through direct coding into the computer-based graphics display. 

A. Meta-conferencing

This technique was first developed by the cyberneticians Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask as a way of raising the level of debate at conferences of the Society for General Systems Research. It consists of the following steps:

(a) Statement formulation: Participants are called upon to each formulate a single statement on a file card. Participants are free to make out more than one statement, or to join with colleagues in a joint statement. To clarify the conceptual dimensions of the conference, recommended guidelines may include:

Statements may be signed or remain anonymous.

(b) Editorial regrouping: An editorial team then groups the statements into "foci of concern", sharpening statements and eliminating duplicates. 

(c) Questionnaire production: The resulting list can then be distributed to participants as a numbered list of anonymous statements in questionnaire form. The document can be briefly explained.

(d) Participant response: Participants mark the statements, choosing between agree/disagree/indifferent (or possibly rating them between 1 (irrelevant, disagree), 4 (neutral), and 7 (agree)). Names, initials or pseudonyms, may be requested. The questionnaires are then collected. 

(e) Computer processing: Replies are fed into a database. Names,

initials, or a code number may be used to identify the source of each statement in the database. There are a number of standard statistical programmes available to process such data on an ordinary computer (even a laptop). The aim is to correlate the patterns of response in two ways so as to establish the degree of relationship:

(f) Distribution of results: The results can be produced in the form of two tables indicating the degrees of correlation between people, or between statements. The tabular information can be restructured into the form of network maps that give a visual sense of clusters and links. These may be accompanied by a key, if the people or statements are indicated in coded form. Editorial comment may be provided with the results. This may include cautionary remarks concerning the methodology.

(g) Iterative process: The process can then be repeated at a later stage of the conference by evoking further statements from participants.

Many variants of this approach can be used depending on the methodological skills of those processing the data and the needs of participants. The main area requiring development is the computer conversion of tabular information into meaningful graphic form.

Of special interest is the use of this technique to facilitate some form of convergence amongst a disparate group of participants reflecting conflicting agendas. The visual display may provide participants with insights into new configurations of issues and those concerned that do not depend on unanimity or consensus. They may even make structural use of disagreement and opposition (as is in architectural analogues).

B. Visual tracking of conceptual foci

Of greater interest is the possibility of tracking the evolution of the conceptual structure which a set of participants address through a succession of interventions. The conventional procedure is to use the services of "minute-writers" (or even stenographers) to track a debate, although the participants themselves are obliged to resort to "note-taking". Here the objective is to move beyond such "linear" tracking over time in order to produce an "atemporal, non-linear" display that presents the cumulative result that is being constructed (or rejected) through the succession of interventions.

This technique makes use of existing technology but requires the development of software to perform the following functions:

(a) Item positioning: This function is based on the activities of a "concept tracker" using a personal computer (possibly linked into a network). As each speaker makes points, the concept tracker isolates the points and positions them on a visual display. According to the nature of the point, this may either be done in a computer-aided mode or through operator intervention. When assisted by computer, the concept tracker types keywords which are matched against a thesaurus that allows the point to be positioned automatically on a "topic surface" (of which the simplest is a grid). Operator intervention may however be used to position or reposition points.

(b) Relationship positioning: This function allows the concept tracker to links points on the display using a mouse-type device. In this way a network of topics is built up as the succession of speakers intervene. The structure of the network is a representation of the structure of the debate.

(c) Appending item information: By using the mouse to click on any point, a window is opened to hold text information about the item. The window might itself be structured as a text outliner so that a number of sub-levels of text could be explored as required. These might also be associated with different speakers or different conference sessions.

(d) Appending relationship information: In a similar way, by using a mouse to click on a relationship, a window may be opened up to hold text information (possibly in outliner form) on any relationship.

(e) Coding items: By using a mouse to click on an alternative window relating to any point, the item may be coded according to type and some measure of importance. These are then used to modify the visual presentation of the point on the display using size and colour coding. Where there are conflicting evaluations by different participants, the size or colour may then be alternated between the variants to alert to that situation.

(f) Coding relationships: In a similar way, by using a mouse to click on an alternative window relating to any relationship, the relationship may be coded according to type and some measure of importance. Again these may be used to govern the visual representation of the relationships on the display. And conflicting evaluations could lead to alternation between thicknesses and/or colours, for example.

(g) Readjustment of display: As the structure of the debate is visually elaborated by the above processes, it will probably prove necessary to "rationalize" the presentation, whether locally or globally. This may be done automatically according to some set of rules and/or with manual intervention.

(h) Scaling and nesting levels of information: Where the visual display becomes cluttered, it may prove useful to shift some information to a lower level of detail or to change the scale of the map. It may then be accessed/displayed by using some variant of the zoom or outliner philosophies. Typical candidates for reduction of visibility would be points that were only cited as qualifying remarks on some more prominent point.

(i) Using several concept trackers: A number of variants can be envisaged in the use of one or more concept trackers, especially when they work as a team with different functions. Some tasks may be defined as more basic, corresponding to a moment-by-moment attention to the points being made. Others may be more concerned with improving the quality and comprehensibility of the display by readjusting it in various ways. There is even the possibility of defining a "traffic control" function to channel the output of minute-writers (or even stenographers) into the succession of appropriate text windows as points are made. 

(j) Wall and hardcopy displays: The most direct feedback to participants would undoubtedly be by projection from the computer of the evolving structure onto the kind of large wall display now quite common in large conference centres, or onto the smaller variants that can be attached to a personal computer. Hardcopy versions could be produced for distribution when appropriate.

(k) Participant direct access: Some very sophisticated conference rooms (and situation rooms) already have individual monitors and keyboards installed at each seat. But the exclusivity of such settings is now being overtaken by the rapid emergence of notebook computers and their increasing use by conference participants. It is now quite feasible periodically to distribute (or sell) to participants a diskette of information to explore on the current status of the conference, including both visual displays and access to appended information. Increasingly it will be possible to allow participants to link their own notebooks (or models borrowed or rented from the organizers) into a network node located at their seat, or elsewhere in the conference environment. This would then permit direct access of the visual display, as well as opening up a feedback channel (and communication between participants).

(l) Alternative presentations: The rules and assumptions necessary to produce any single display may be considered as necessarily biased, requiring the ability to switch into a complementary (or competing) visual representation of the debate structure. This would be especially interesting where the differences lay in the ways in which the points and relationships were configured, rather than in differences concerning the information appended to them. An analogous problem may be seen in the various projections of the globe onto a flat surface. Such alternatives might be worked from quite different disciplinary or political perspectives, or even by artists, media specialists, or cartoonists, sensitive to the needs of different audiences. Production of such alternatives could be financed by interested factions or even, as with video channels, by billing participant usage of them.

(m) Alternative commentaries: Holding information on the debate in this way would allow commentators to annotate different parts of the display in a manner accessible through the windows relating to each part of it. Again such services could be partially or wholly financed by special subscription restricting access to such information or by direct billing of participants consulting such commentaries. 

(n) Participant verbal feedback: With the availability of wall or printed displays, it is to be expected that these would evoke direct comment from participants or speakers concerning the display. This may include requests for clarification and may lead to the display being modified. Participants may correct misrepresentations, specify extra-relationships, change the weight of coding, protest at the de-emphasis of certain points, etc. Somewhat similar dynamics are occasionally seen in relation to overhead and slide displays and to problems with interpretation between languages. Of special interest is the way in which the visual overview provides a context for a more global response to issues that are too easily treated out of context.< 

(o) Participant direct feedback: Where there is a direct computer link to participants, feedback may be appropriately channelled onto the display from individual participants -- possibly onto one of the alternative displays.

C. Map curvature and "geodesic" conferences

In the two techniques described above the emphasis is on the production of mapping the structure of a debate in two dimensions. The inadequacy of this may readily be seen in efforts to map the globality of the surface of the Earth in two dimensions. The question to be asked is whether such concept maps can be organized according to additional criteria which would help to highlight more significant patterns.

The simplest approach is to allow representation of the concept structure in three dimensions, as has long been done for chemical molecules and in computer-aided design.

Another approach is to take a more radical attitude to the representation of agreement and disagreement between the positions represented in the displayed structure. Using an architectural metaphor, agreement can be viewed as a "tension" element pulling the structure together (or preventing it from falling apart), whereas disagreement can be viewed as a "compression" element that prevents structural elements from coalescing. The need for an appropriate balance between tension and compression elements is extremely clear in creating any architectural design. It is possible that agreement and disagreement should be viewed in the same light with a view to designing more appropriate conceptual and organizational structures.

With respect to this last possibility, the dynamic stability and properties of spherical geodesic structures, notably tensional integrity structures, are extremely suggestive. From this perspective, local disagreements are explicitly held within a global consensual framework. Both elements are essential to the emergence and stability of the structure in three dimensions.

The patterning of such thematic tensegrities could open up the possibility of non-linear agendas to reflect more adequately the complexity of the social conditions which conferences attempt to encompass. Moving away from resolutions based on unanimity, or the democratic majority, towards such variegated consensual outcomes, is highly realistic. It clarifies the nature of the stabilized platform (ideally approaching a spherical form appropriate to globality) upon which new forms of action can then be based. The need for dependence upon management based upon agreement (and the associated variety reduction) is no longer the concern. Attention focuses instead uponthe self-management of (partially ordered) configurations of disagreement -- benefitting from the variety of perspectives thus encompassed. 

Explorations in this direction serve to delineate the pattern of the decentralized organizational network needed to operationalize the complex range of tasks reflected in contrasting participant perspectives -- while still maintaining its integrity. It is the ability to move in this direction which creates an environment within which conference concept structures can be progressively transformed into more "mature" forms. It is useful to speculate on the continuing influence of "flat earth" thinking in relation to the globality of the issues requiring responses.

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