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14th September 2006

Enabling a Living Library

reconciling "free voices" and "intellectual propriety"

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Prepared on the occasion of the Dropping Knowledge Event -- Table of Free Voices (Berlin, 9 September 2006)


Centennial achievement

Living knowledge is created by living people -- for all people, all over the world, all over the web. Forget data streams and information overload. Living knowledge is the "compost heap" through which knowledge is recycled to fertilize world wisdom.

As a culmination of a century of work collecting and organizing insights from thousands of interlinked international organizations, the Union of International Associations (UIA) has now enabled construction of a Living Library. The UIA's knowledge structure provides a natural system through which questions posed by people can be interrelated.

Founded in Brussels in 1907, the UIA is an information clearinghouse for all international associations -- currently more than 50,000. Over decades UIA has built up interwoven profiles of over one hundred thousand global problems and solutions, initially in collaboration with the futures research foundation Mankind 2000, inspired by Robert Jungk.

The Living Library is being launched as a major media event by Dropping Knowledge in Berlin at the Humboldt University on 9 September 2006. The powerful symbol of its circular Table of Free Voices, 112 people of wisdom, is a perfect metaphor of the challenge the world faces with thousands of international associations of people separately endeavouring to respond to the same set of questions across the globe. All are challenged by the need for an enabling synthesis for action -- how to elicit, filter and focus valuable insight.

Knowledge ecology

The unique work of the UIA focuses on relationships between organizations, their strategies in response to perceived concerns, and the values through which these are understood. Since the emergence of the web, the UIA has been enabling web users to generate and manipulate maps of these networks -- visualizing the living ecology of human preoccupations.

UIA's original approach derives from its web databases through which are generated the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential and the Yearbook of International Organizations (under a special UN resolution). Together with other UIA publications, these have been distributed worldwide over a period of 25 years by the Munich-based reference publisher, K G Saur Verlag (cf Sharing a Documentary Pilgrimage: UIA-Saur Relations).

As a small historical irony, in 2000, under the good auspices of Professor Dr Klaus Saur, that company had donated the K G Saur Bibliothek to the Institute for Library and Information Science of the Humboldt University -- where the Living Library was launched. It might even be said that the fruits of UIA collaboration with K G Saur Verlag were a factor in "enabling" that donation also. The company has recently been acquired by the Berlin-based group Walter de Gruyter, creating the largest humanities publisher in continental Europe -- now under the chairmanship of Klaus Saur.

Mapping knowledge

In the light of UIA's knowledge mapping expertise, it has been possible for Dropping Knowledge to provide interactive network maps as a means of access to the Living Library content.

In constructing the Living Library, Dropping Knowledge, through its partner the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), used this long-term intellectual investment of the UIA to adapt UIA's knowledge patterning schema -- technically called an ontology. This allows relationships between different questions, asked over the web, to be established automatically in order to associate them with answers and images stored in the Living Library database.

Intellectual propriety

The acquisition and use of the UIA's relational data and expertise by Dropping Knowledge highlights a number of unresolved issues of intellectual property. All involved are committed to maximizing development of insight through free public access to knowledge structures and gathering processes. Whilst the UIA data has been freely used by Dropping Knowledge, and its sub-contractor DFKI, for creative research in enabling development of the Living Library to the launch stage, at that point no contractual relationship defines the modalities for its subsequent use. Freedom of use is typically associated with a pattern of entailments, as notably clarified by Creative Commons -- a collaborator of Dropping Knowledge.

The curious dilemma of assymetry for a Table of Free Voices is that the voices indeed speak "freely" in providing "answers" -- for which they are rewarded as appropriate to their media status as VIPs. Are they not engaged to be free? This dilemma was first explored in fictional form by Arthur Koestler (The Call Girls, 1972) following his early experience in organizing the Alpbach symposium series for the similarly wise of an earlier time. In Berlin, the questions to the "free voices" (the Very Wise People) come from those of lesser wisdom around the world, the many who are free to participate or not, a few of whom may be distinguished by having their questions highlighted. The VWPs are themselves few in number and thus also constrained, not by obscurity, but by their status -- and the need to promote it further through the quality of their answers.

Embodying the dilemma

Like consultants everywhere, the voices are rewarded for the creativity with which they can answer questions asked of them -- not for asking unwanted questions that they may consider more insightful. The challenge for all is that the wisdom of the "free voices" is not useable as a "product" of this process -- except to the extent that it is transformed into one by Dropping Knowledge as a media event. To achieve this, both questions and answerers are necessarily selected for wider exposure through a relatively untransparent process. Where are the unasked questions, or those designed off the table?

The product then takes the form of a "spectacle", for the edutainment of "spectators", rather than enabling new (and more appropriate) forms of action. The "intellectual property" produced is then associated with answers rather than with questioning their inadequacy in new ways. This encourages the wise to be acknowledged for the quality of their answers and not for insight which would enable others to ask more profound questions. Whereas an answer can be "intellectual property", a question cannot.

The Table of Free Voices therefore embodies the dilemma of society associated with who, or what, is to be recognized as wise, for whom -- and how insights are to be brought into focus, by whom and for whom. It reflects the dilemma of democratic governance -- who asks the questions of whom, and to whom are the answers provided? As a result, for Dropping Knowledge, it is indeed the case that "we are our own metaphor" -- and that "the medium is the message". What does the process ensure remains unsaid?

Learning pathways

Separately in its research, the UIA has used the items in its databases to generate over one million interrelated questions as the basis for a learning experiment. This enables users to follow learning pathways between organizations, problems, strategies and values -- a vast network. Together these call for imaginative configuration to make evident the highways of wisdom -- the "songlines" of the noosphere in Aboriginal terms (cf Cultivating the Songlines of the Noosphere; Sacralization of Hyperlink Geometry). The UIA is continuing to test the Australian mapping software Netmap, capable of detecting patterns in millions of relationships -- and portraying them together in a circular format analogous to that of the Table of Free Voices. It may then be possible to represent them by sound or music to elicit harmonies capable of enabling new forms of action -- the "harmony of the spheres" (spheres of interest, that is).

Existential engagement "beyond the circle"

The UIA's work over recent decades, especially that on values, has intentionally articulated a framework for the transition catalyzed by "dropping knowledge" -- in favour of wisdom (cf Human Values as Strange Attractors: Coevolution of classes of governance principles, 1993) . But the associated ethical issues are now of prime concern, as at the international conference of Wizards of OS 4 (September 2006) under the theme "Information Freedom Rules" -- at the Humboldt University. The big question for the future is whether current global conflicts over property of every kind call for "dropping acknowledgement" or "dropping ethics" -- in favour of a new form of more direct existential engagement and mutual trust (cf Authentic Grokking: Emergence of Homo conjugens, 2003). And how is this to be distinguished from intellectual impropriety? (cf Joseph S. Fulda, The Appearance of Impropriety, 1997)

The Table of Free Voices offers a unique embodiment of the encounter between cyclopean vision, as exemplified by the media spectacle of the imposed unity of the circular Table, and the poly-sensual suffering that engenders the questions asked (cf Cyclopean Vision vs Poly-sensual Engagement, 2006). What conceptual content corresponds to the ordering circle, or is it to be understood as pointing to an emergent synthesis -- the "Tao of Dropping Knowledge"? However, does a visual circle offer requisite variety in response to the challenge of appropriately sustainable action? (cf Spherical configuration of interlocking roundtables: internet enhancement of global self-organization through patterns of dialogue, 1998). What new insights emerged from the Table of Free Voices that will sustain the life of the Living Library in contrast to the libraries of the past-- in which so many insights of the wise are already on record?

Symbolically the association of the launching of the Living Library with the university named after Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a renowned geographer, in effect points beyond the circle -- especially in the light of his ambitious later work, Cosmos, offering a representation of the unity amid the complexity of nature. There is a curious parallel to Paul Otlet (1868-1944), as founder of the UIA, who set out to develop a classification system for all phenomena, not only those of the natural world, and summarized his insights in Monde: Essai d'universalisme (1935). Otlet is now recognized by historians as being an early visionary of the internet (cf Union of International Associations -- Virtual Organization: Paul Otlet's 100-year hypertext conundrum?).

Is the dialogue forum, evoked by Dropping Knowledge, effectively an embodiment of a dynamic subset of the blogosphere -- as a contemporary approximation to the noosphere? (cf Dynamically Gated Conceptual Communities: emergent patterns of isolation within knowledge society, 2004). Does this highlight the challenge, from any particular preoccupation, of the annoying disruption of any Other? (cf Snoring of The Other: a politically relevant psycho-spiritual metaphor? 2006 ).


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Example: Progressive analysis and visualization of Table of "Free Voices" using Netmap to relate and cluster issues and/or people, highlighting subgroups Examples of screen shots of spring-map networks of interrelated problems
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Analysis and Visualization of Table of "Free Voices" using Netmap (initial phase) Spring-map of networks of interrelated problems
Analysis and Visualization of Table of "Free Voices" using Netmap (initial phase) Spring-map of networks of interrelated problems
value dynamics (svg) change curves (svg) value relationships (svg)
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