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.
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
(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
statements should be important to the participant;
statements should be relevant to the conference theme;
to discourage platitudes and banalities, the participant should expect
that the negative of the statement should find defenders (possibly even
dividing the conference 50-50);
value of avoiding conventionally accepted categories (of the conference,
of a particular discipline, or of the media).
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
(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:
between people in the light of their response to the statements;
between statements in the light of the degree of similarity of the
profile of responses to those statements amongst all responding participants.
(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
(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
(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
(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
(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
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
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
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.