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December 1969

General Systems Education

and the relevance of world system data banks and the Inter-Contact technique

- / -

Submitted as a background paper to the Annual Meeting of the Society for General Systems Research, Boston, December 1969

Some problems in world society
Some characteristics of the systems approach
Some problems of systems education
Systems approach to systems education and the use of systems analysis
Some characteristics of the short-cut required
Description of the Inter-Contact technique
Systems and the individual
Some assumptions about unifying concepts


This note attempts to illustrate the difficulty of developing and implementing any general systems approach and the interaction of this problem with that of systems education. The side-effects of these two are shown to be intertwined in such a way as to oppose any change, or to lead to any modification in the way that resources are allocated to these two areas.

Some fundamental problems in world society are noted, leading to a discussion of some of the characteristics of the systems movement and the need for systems education. The need for a review of the function of systems thinking and its place in society, in the light of systems approaches, leads on to a discussion of the characteristics of the solution required to facilitate more rapid advance. The significance of world system data 'banks and the Inter-Contact technique being developed through the Union of International Associations in Brussels leads finally to a discussion of the importance of this type of approach as an aid to individual understanding of both systems concepts and the world system within which he acts.

Some problems in world society

'World society' and 'world system' are both very poorly defined terms. They are taken here to mean the totality of interrelationships between man, his roles and his organizations.

1. Problem Levels

A number of levels of problems can be distinguished within the world system.

  1. There are the primary problems of which we are most aware and which most agency programmes are organized to solve or alleviate. These include: pollution, malnutrition, refugees, mental health, etc.
  2. Then there is a secondary problem level which includes problems which hinder or prevent the solution to the primary problems, for example, population growth, expanding market requirement, etc.
  3. A third level of problems might then consist of the limitations built into the organizational units with which an attempt is made to solve the lower level problems. Clearly, if lower level problems interact then it is unlikely that the activities of non-liaising departments or organizations will converge on an acceptable solution.
  4. A fourth level then consists of those limitations which are built into the culture space or conceptual apparatus of the decision-makers and planners concerned with the reallocation of resources to deal with lower level problems. It is these conceptual limitations which prevent them from opting for or recommending interdisciplinary solutions. An example of this can be seen in the great effort being made for 'development' by a number of agencies, whose analyses have led to few recommendations that the effects on the environment should be considered. The relationship 'development tends to lead to pollution' has not been given full recognition.
  5. Finally, a fifth level of problems might consist of the difficulty of clarifying, blocking out, and objectifying the interrelationship between the lower level problems. This is the difficulty of counteracting one's involvement in the problems to which one is exposed and of gaining the necessary psychic distance from them. Other levels of problems could perhaps be usefully suggested to clarify this.

It is surprising that with all the discussion of 'problems' of many different types and of their interaction, we do not appear to have a very clear idea of what a problem is, whether they can all be numbered and placed in a systematic typology or hierarchy. This lack of clarity has been recognized during some work at the Research Policy unit at the University of Lund (1). A problem can be usefully considered as system malfunction. A problem hierarchy then constitutes the inverse of a hierarchy of systems. Since a system can be thought of as a totality of functional interrelationships, when one of these interrelationships becomes dysfunctional a 'problem' condition occurs. It would appear to be useful to tie the idea of system and problem more closely together.

2. Interacting Problems

No comprehensive catalogue of problems faced by society exists, nor is there any catalogue of systems. Normal practice is to focus on a limited sub-set of the totality of problems or systems. In this section an attempt is made to review some of the significant problems from the third to the fifth level in order to facilitate discussion in the following sections. Some counteracting trends are also noted.

A.1 The considerable increase in the degree of specialization of interest and field of activity

2. Associated with A.1 is the consequent decrease in interest in any comprehensive view or 'vue d'ensemble' within specialist circles. For example ' has become more and more difficult for any individual, whether in government service or in an international secretariat, to be aware of the totality of the united Nations family programme and activities.'(2) The stage has been reached where the possibility of any overall view is increasingly considered somewhat of a chimaera.

3. The increase in the degree of specialization and an abdication from any attempt at an overall view is matched by an increasing recognition of the rapidly increasing complexity of society and social processes.

4. As a consequence of this recognition of complexity and due to the attention of many different disciplines to the same subject matter, many traditional distinctions and categories are being eroded or recognized as only applicable under narrowly defined circumstances or where attention is simultaneously paid to related concepts. Such distinctions are therefore becoming less useful and less credible as guides to decision-making.

B.1 The amount of information to which individuals and organizations are exposed and with which they have to deal to survive is increasing at an increasing rate.

2. Due to the increase in the amount of information and the speed at which it is now being processed, the tempo of life in organizations is increasing.

3. As a consequence of B.2, individuals have less and less time to absorb information relevant to their immediate concerns. People do not have time to read and absorb information.

4. The written word is becoming a decreasingly useful means of conveying new information as the jargons of each special discipline diverge.

C.1 As man's activity touches more and more sectors of the natural environment, the consequences of his activity are seen to be increasingly related. The same effect is noticed in the social environment. The more society has to be organized and planned to ensure harmonious functioning, the more activities of different sectors of society are seen to be related.

2. With the above recognition of the relationship between problem areas, is an increasing recognition of the relationship between programmes to solve such problems.

D.1 To handle the quantities of information which must now flow to keep society functioning, computers and electronic data processing equipment are increasingly necessary. Many new types of communication equipment are being developed which will not only handle the current flow of information but which will, by their very existence, permit the generation and flow of increased quantities of new kinds of information.

2. These new techniques will aim to reduce document handling and in order to do this there will be an increase in data networks linking computers and terminals nationally and internationally.

3. It is not only the transfer of data between distant points (geographically or within an organization) that is receiving attention, but the relation of man to the machines which supply information to him and receive information from him. The man-machine interface englobes all the problems which man has in communicating with the machine and,through the machine,with other individuals having a different psychological makeup. Efforts are being made to ensure that the machine displays its information output in forms which are psychological acceptable to man, to ensure the optimum transfer of meaning. There is therefore increasing emphasis on visual and dynamic display units which can be manipulated by the user.

4. In order to reduce the problem created because each user of an information system may wish to employ different concepts as the key to retrieval of the same items of information, increasing effort is being made to improve the flexibility and sophistication of indexes and the manner in which they are used. Future computer controlled indexes will link and "translate" concepts in a manner which resembles the human method of associating ideas rather than rigidly structuring information into predefined arbitrary hierarchies. Increasing work is therefore being done on the structure of knowledge and the interrelationship of concepts.

5. The most important consequences are likely to result from the * current efforts to determine the way in which the brain structures concepts in memory. Once this process is understood, together with its posited relationship to the structure of brain waves, the way will be open to think directly into the computer. Those trends can be viewed as a progressive reduction of the many barriers to effective communication of meaning between human beings. A greater proportion of routine communication will be projected through data systems.

E.1 Due to the increase in the specialization of areas of study and the consequent specialization in programmes and organizational hierarchies to administer such programmes, there is a proliferation of departments and sub-departments within large organizations. This trend, together with the counter trend to recognize the interrelationship between problem areas raises many difficulties of coordination and duplication.

2. Due to the continued use of traditional administrative machinery, the speed of response of responsible departments is decreasing, since there are many more parties to be located and consulted in connection with each decision.

3. Due to the increase in the complexity of intra-organization communication, organization departments may have more effective contact with outside bodies than with the decision-making machinery of the organization to which they belong. Outside contacts will be made at a high level of technical information exchange, inside contacts will be affected by questions of status, budget juggling, and power group activities. Organizations are becoming more fragmented and less cohesive except on highly-specific common issues.

F.1 Although from a theoretical viewpoint there is decreasing emphasis on an overall viewpoint, the problems of lack of coordination are becoming increasingly acute for large organizations. Efforts to solve these problems are not being made merely to reduce the inconvenience of lack of coordination. The value of improved information systems is increasingly recognized as being the key to effective control of such organizations. Use of such systems gives a strategic advantage. Such efforts are being made in order to control change and, ensure the organization's advantage at some point in the future.

2. Whilst both business and governmental bodies can only exist by responding reasonably closely to the day to day demands of the population, by planning ahead to areas of greater freedom, both types of organization will naturally attempt to ensure that by the time the future becomes the present, the population can be educated or induced to need or be satisfied with what each group is willing to supply. Each group will tend to consider pressure group demands as constraints to be outmaneuvered, rather than positive factors to be moulded into the planned future.

G.1 Each of the above trends and problems is only indirectly concerned with the individual as a human being as opposed to a source of activity whose consequences need to be harmonized and rationalized. The efforts to control the future will result in an increasing invasion of the privacy of the individual in order to obtain data to facilitate control and coordination of change.

2. This invasion of privacy of the individual as a unit in a series of social processes is increasingly paralleled by an isolation of the individual from the social environment. His relationships with his environment are becoming increasingly structured and formalized.

The above attempt at a trend/problem list is unsatisfactory and unsystematic. It would seem that we lack perhaps both (a) the conceptual framework to relate problems and trends crossing the concerns of different disciplines, and (b) the media in or on which to hold the interrelationships detected.(3)

Another approach, which will be discussed in connection with the implementation of a systems approach, is given as a form of flow-chart (see Figures 1 and 2).

Some characteristics of the systems approach

In this section an attempt is made to indicate some of the characteristics of the systems approach. There seems to be little question that it is only through some development of the systems approach that it will be possible to relate processes which at first sight appear to be unrelated or even of a totally different type. At the present point in time, however, advocates of systems thinking operate under a number of disadvantages. Some of these are listed here.

1. Vagueness.

The first impression created on an outsider faced with systems thinking is possibly its vagueness. This is possibly a negative reaction to its generality, but even until quite recently there was very little written material on systems analysis itself (although there has been a great deal written on specific applications), and the more general the approach, the less the material available.

Even in the written material available, all that emerges is a new attitude to environmental processes and an awareness of a certain type of question that should be asked. For example, James Greenwood, Jr. states 'At this stage of development, the systems approach is probably more nearly a bundle of concepts with varying degrees of clarity and definition than a sharply honed tool of scientific research or decision-making.'(4).

As Greenwood says 'The emphases in the systems approach are on inter-relatedness and the inter-relatedness of the elements and processes within a sub-system, the intor-relatedness of sub-systems, the inter-relatedness of systems within their environment and on the holistic viewpoint...' (3). The way of approaching problems is therefore clear, but from there on, procedure is governed very much by the problem or subject matter.

2. Restriction to Western Developed Societies

It is only in the United States that the discussion of systems has become sufficiently detached from particular approaches and problems. It is possible that systems thinking could only be developed under the sort of pressures met with in American society. These very same pressures are being encountered in other Western societies and with them has come some awareness of the need for a systems approach.

3. Restricted to a Limited Group

The term 'systems analysis' is only meaningful to a limited group of people. This group is itself split according to the meaning attached to the term. The degree of generality of the systems which is considered acceptable is a most important distinguishing factor between the subgroups. It is uncertain how many people are interested in systems or processes which interact across the boundaries established by the natural sciences, the social sciences and into the domains studied by anthropology and the person-oriented disciplines.

It is not clear whether what the sub-groups have in common is not in fact much less than that on which they differ.

4. Applied to a Limited Group of Topics and Problems

The systems approach has as yet been accepted in very few areas. It has seen most application in defence, space and computer systems and this stress has even tended to redefine the term. The systems approach has of course been suggested and even tried out in many problem areas, mostly in the U.S.A. But it is a case of'one swallow not making a summer. This cannot be considered to represent a thorough penetration of systems thinking. The more general the systems approach suggested, the less apparent are the uses made of it.

There is even a strong tendency within the systems movement to restrict the areas to which "systems theory' applies, as is indicated in a later section.

Some problems of systems education

Great efforts need to be made to increase education about systems in order to provide the brainpower to tackle the world system problems. Systems education is also required to counteract the tendency for systems thinking to be restricted to certain types of problems for which resources are more readily available. There is an even greater need for systems education to highlight and expose the higher level problems which oppose or hinder solutions to the lower level problems.

The difficulty which arises is that whilst a limited group of people may agree that this approach is correct, this does not of itself lead to an allocation of resources required for the job. There is first the problem of educating the people controlling the resources (the decision-makers and, in the last analysis, the public). Even if the resources are made available however, there is the second problem of attracting the desired quality of individuals to research the subject and build up the teaching manpower, namely the necessary pod of brainpower. But then, even if the funds and techniques are available, there is the final hurdle of educating the people involved in the systems understudy. And the more general the concept of the system required, the greater will be the difficulty of conveying the necessary perspective. The systems approach may be totally impracticable if the original request for advice does not come from the people in the systems in question.

This is a fairly classical vicious circle for the introduction of any changes in society. The change cannot be made until sufficient resources can be obtained and the people controlling the resources or needing the change cannot be communicated with effectively until the change has been made. The classical solution to this situation is to accept the rhythm imposed by the rate of gradual education and to deplore the necessary delays.

Whilst there are definite signs that systems education is becoming accepted (a) nationally, through, for example, the regular conferences on systems education in the U.S.A., and (b) internationally, through the sort of programme proposed by Jere Clark to design a global network of centres for general systems education, the rate of development of systems awareness must be very critically compared to the rate of development of the problems which it is expected to combat, not only in one country, but in all parts of the world. Most important perhaps, is the rate of transfer of these systems attitudes into government and decision-making circles.

A number of well-placed observers consider the situation to be extremely critical:

1. Introduction to a 1968 management conference session of the College of Management Control Systems (The Institute of Management Sciences):

'Evidence is mounting that the environment which managers seek to control -- or at least to guide or restrain -- is increasing in turbulence and complexity at a rate that far exceeds the capacity of management researchers to provide new and improved methodologies to affect management's intentions....there is real danger that the process by which new concepts of management control are invented and developed may itself be out of control relative to the demands that are likely, to be imposed upon it.'

2. After-thought by Stafford Beer following the O.E.C.D. Working Symposium on Long-Range Forecasting and Planning, Bellagio, 1968:

'The appearance of today's world is chaotic....Action is more urgent than I had supposed. Action is less likely to be taken than I had hoped. Although a few symposiants thought that there exists a ready ear for the major use of science in a sophisticated mode of planning, most of us thought not. All we could do was prepare the Bellagio Declaration. It seemed better to do that than to do nothing, but it is not enough.'

3. Sir Geoffrey Vickers speaking at the inaugural meeting of the London Chapter of the Society for General Systems Research mentioned that the situation was spinning out of control and that this difficulty was compounded by the confusion of the controllers.

From the above it is possible to suggest the need to build into any systems education programme, not only an awareness of the systems and processes chosen for examination, but also the peculiar limitations imposed upon the systems education process.

First, a systems education programme should use materials, devices and techniques selected in such a way as to compensate for the inadequacies which must be present in the teacher and the pupil (bounded world view at starting points and inclination to favour particular inputs, methods and systems) and their environment (particular local or national world view and types of information available). The awareness of the 'boundedness' of the systems perspective obtained is essential as a means of ensuring that the student is always actively searching for new systems relevant to the ones with which ho is concerned.

Second, an awareness of the need to consider, not only the 'conventional' systems, tut also the systems which prevent or compensate for the introduction of a systems approach.

Systems approach to systems education and the use of systems analysis

The above sections have attempted to show that whilst there is a vital need for systems thinking in the conventional sense of the term, there is also a need for ?. systems approach to the evaluation and use of systems thinking and the process of systems education. The systems approach does not appear to have been used to determine:

This lack seems to be caused partly by the way people involved in systems limit their definitions of relevant or 'acceptable' systems.

In the first case, the political process is excluded from the'system' despite the fact that it interacts with it. Psychological processes are also rejected. The second case, part of a report of the Bellagio symposium, shows that despite a very broad definition of systems, participants could only stand back and indicate why the planning process was rejected, and then deplore the fact that society was in a chaotic state.

James Greenwood, Jr. points out that 'In fact, the critical difficulty in the systems approach is how to separate a viable system from its environment for study.'(4). It would seem that the tone of despair in the two sources quoted above is duo to the lack of a broad enough definition of the systems in question. The process by which a systems approach is introduced can be considered as a system and then treated objectively. The focus in both cases was on the more easily objectifable systems and the more visible or lower level problems, for both of which resources arc more readily available.

It is questionable whether the major systems focus should be placed on the more visible problems. There may be a strong argument in favour of the suggestion that a large proportion of these resources could be better devoted to determining and portraying problems which prevent the more visible problems from being solved. There may in fact be a danger inherent in the visible problem focus. As things stand well-intentioned pressure and action groups 'discover' and dramatize problems as they become visible -- as part of the democratic process -- thus setting up a magnet for resources and obscuring the need for a focus on critical problems.

The difficulty is to show and make evident, with all the systems education techniques possible, that a given project is not critical, or that the advocation of a given project fragments the required integrated approach to the problem -- the only approach which multidisciplinary research to date has shown as converging to a solution. This is a problem for everyone, because each person runs the risk (given his limited perspective and inputs) of advocating a project which is non-critical or uses up the resources which could be allocated to a critical project. Investigation is required of means of displaying, analyzing and interrelating projects to highlight degrees of criticality on the basis of different models.

A major function of the systems movement may turn cut to be the development of techniques to locate the critical set of control points at which action can be taken corresponding to the resources available to effect an optimum change. The action taken may be based on any of the traditional academic disciplines or may make use of non-academic disciplines. As Börje Langefors points out:

"The answer should be fairly obvious -- but is yet often missed -- a balanced cooperation between different groups is what gives the best premise of success....A basic problem of systems theory should actually be to find out the best way of subdividing the work between different groups of specialists.'(7)

This approach applies to any change, including the development of systems education itself. Low resources groups operating in a period prior to their general acceptance by society must look for the critical points in the system at which to interfere with existing processes in order to achieve change.

It would seem that we need a new language to relate systems and processes of different types. It may be useful to conceive of the spectrum of knowledge disciplines as spread along one dimension of a cube. Attempts at a unification or integration of knowledge aim at getting all portions of this spectrum within one perspective. A second dimension of the cube might represent the theory-action spectrum, such that at the intersection with the first dimension the knowledge governed modes of action tend to be located, whereas at the other end the application or skill governed modes of action ('disciplines' is also used to describe them in French). Finally on the third side of the cube, the spectrum from subjective or person oriented to objective is located. A focus on any sub-cube within the 3-coordinato system loads to the detection of a particular type of system or process. Using this structure it should be possible to map out the different and overlapping types which arc considered acceptable and relevant.

Such a structure would ensure that the following types of system are all registered; those detected by knowledge oriented disciplines, those detected by mission oriented disciplines, educational systems, public information systems, policy formulation systems and project administration systems. It would seem that whilst it is possible to conceive of concepts unifying knowledge, it is much more difficult to gain the psychic distance to enable the systems detectable in terms of the three different dimensions to be brought into perspective. Yet in many cases the bottleneck, or the key to the solution of a problem, may lie in an unsuspected part of the system, in a different discipline mode. A systems approach to the application of systems is the only means of focussing on such other modes. General systems may then be concerned not only with the unification of knowledge but with the integration of processes in some of which the knowing function of man is not of prime importance.

Figure 1
Figure 2

As an attempt at clarifying the situation faced by individuals and organizations attempting to survive and introduce changes in the social system, some flow-chart type diagrams arc reproduced in Figures 1 and 2 showing how cross-discipline conditions interact. This is really an attempt to gain psychic distance and perspective on the information processing problem. Some of the charts do show, however, how some attempts to change are doomed to failure. These charts appear to clarify the point made by Stafford Beer:

'Reformers, critics of institutions, consultants in innovation, people in short who 'want to get something done', often fail to see this point. They cannot understand why their strictures, advice or demands do not result in effective change. They expect either to achieve a measure of success in their own terms or to be flung off the premises. But an ultrastable system [like a social institution] ...has no need to react in either of these ways. It specializes in equilibrial readjustment, which is to the observer a secret form of change requiring no actual alteration in the macro-systemic characteristics that he is trying to do something about.'(8)

The charts are a very crude attempt but they do represent a means of objectifying relationships and phenomena which it is very difficult to handle logically.

Even given this perspective, however, the problem of how to ensure rapid, orientation of programmes and perspectives in more general systems terms remains. It may be possible to use such charts to detect critical points to short circuit the various built in processes in society which compensate for any changes made or delay their effects.

Some characteristics of the short cut required

1. Ensure that individuals and organizations receive information on systems interacting with their own

2. Information must be presented in terms of the perspectives of the receiver

3. Information must to structured or structurable in terms of the most general systems

4. The information should not be biased to reflect the system perspective of one particular group controlling the process by which information is supplied

5. The cost of introducing and using the short cut must be relatively low.

6. The process by which the information is supplied should not be under the control of a limited group and should therefore be as far as possible self-supporting

7. The process should itself be open-ended and improvable

8. The process should be designed in such a way to have multiple purposes in order to meet the needs of different types of approach

9. The process should attempt to overcome the chasm between knowledge and action

10. The process should deal with national and international systems and for that reason should be based on an institution which is international

11. The process should have built into it educational techniques to improve knowledge about it.

The process or device should stimulate or catalyze viewpoint mobility

Clearly this cannot take the form of a theory put forward by a limited group of people. The device needs to be built up empirically in such a way that persons involved in any sub-system, or holding any particular viewpoint, can insert or 'file' their world view within it. These insertions then constitute the building blocks to be used by any body wishing to educate himself about sections of function speace bordering on his own.

The building blocks may be envisaged as having been originally filed with explicit cross-links to other sub-systems. It is for the user, with his own special starting point, to weight these cross-links with his own values. He selects and eliminates explicitly -- he decides what he considers to be relevant and irrelevant -- but by being forced to act to eliminate what he considers to be irrelevant, he is effectively warned that someone somewhere with experience of the building block in question considers those links to be relevant. The soft-sell of the system approach cannot be made any harder without alienating all but those who are for some reason pre-sold on the idea of systems thinking.

Description of the Inter-Contact technique

The Union of International Associations, based in Brussels, has since 1$07 acted as a collection point for information on international organizations, whether governmental or non-governmental. Some of this information appears regularly in a directory, the Yearbook of International Organizations. The international organizations listed cover every field of activity from science, commerce, social welfare, education, technology, through politics, international relations, sport and transport, etc. These entities arc therefore critical points of coordination and information exchange in the various systems and processes with which they are concerned. Considered together with their national member organizations and individuals these organizations offer a valuable means of concretizing the most coordinative part of the world system. There are some 3000 international organizations with 30-50,000 national member organizations. Some of these bodies group over 200 million members.

Each of these organizations has departments, commissions and programmes to deal with particular subjects. Naturally the way in which the programmes are blocked out reflects a particular conception of the system with which they are concerned and its interaction or lack of interaction with other systems. The organizations and their programmes therefore represent the visible part of the conceptual icebergs reflecting the current state of organization of knowledge.

The Union is now in the process of computerizing its data processing. This will enable directories such as the Yearbook to be produced directly from magnetic tape. The interesting feature however is that for the first time all the building blocks of the international level of the world system will be held together on magnetic media. In organizing the transfer, the opportunity was taken to redefine the elements about which information was collected. In this way organizations, programmes, departments, meetings and periodicals, etc. are now treated as 'entities''. The file is organized in such a way that these entities can be processed as nodes in a network. For these entities are not isolated. There is a web of interaction (funds flow, information flow, membership relationship, etc.) between them at the international level, as well as between the international level and the national and local levels. Some of these interactions will be coded up in 1970, others will be added at a later stage when funds arc available.

Clearly information of this type has many uses which must be reflected in the design of the system. An important use of the system will be to provide contact information. Under normal circumstances every contact list supplied to an inquirer is based on some conception of relevance and therefore on some conception of the systems and processes involved. The opportunity is being taken in the design of this file to permit the use of different models to guide the definition of 'relevance'. It is expected that the construction and development of these models will be carried out in association with university groups. Clearly some of these models could be deliberately structured to reflect a systems view of 'relevance'.

In this indirect manner, therefore, users are supplied with contact lists which may be used in the implementation of programmes. By using systems -- based lists, the programmes tend to reflect the contacts which a systems perspective would suggest as vital.

Clearly the subject areas and the organizations and other entities concerned with them can be rearranged in significant now ways once metalanguage models such as that suggested by Jere Clark (9) can be constructed. The new possibilities for patterning information frozen into directory format should help to lead people to think in terms of new relationships. On the basis of this understanding new types of inter-entity contact and new types of programme may be expected. The important point about this approach is that it does not require a large scale education programme about systems in order to accomplish a fairly similar result.

The really striking uses of such a data bank result from the possibility of displaying parts of the network of entities on an interactive graphics device (television screen) attached to a computer. A number of models of the relationships between entities may therefore be conveniently held and manipulated. A simulated third dimension may be used or the display may be switched to a flow chart mode (10).

The fundamental importance of interactive graphics is the ability to facilitate understanding. Progress in understanding is made through the development of mental models or notations that permit a simple representation of a mass of complexities not previously understood. The greater the complexity however, the more difficult it is to use mental models. For example, in a discussion of mental models of electronic circuits one author writes:

'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 the 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....I think that really big gains in the substantive scientific areas are going to come when somebody invents new abstractions which can only be represented in computer graphic form.''(11)

The importance of this approach for research on the world system and its sub-systems is immediately apparent. The importance for programme design and interaction may be illustrated by the following quote:

'The primary problem encountered when designing a large complex system is to control the utilization of three-dimensional space during the layout process. In a large system the work of numerous specialists must be closely coordinated in order to ensure that no two objects are placed in the same space, and that the interaction of layout and systems characteristics does not unnecessarily degrade the performance of systems. Ideally, everyone would work on one large drawing....However, one large drawing -- actually -- is obviously impractical. Using interactive computer graphics, however, it is possible for everyone to work on a 'single drawing; through linkage of the graphics with analytical programs, the correlation between layout of a system and the system performance characteristics is automatic.'(12)

The importance of this approach for education is considered in the next section.


A visual display unit linked to a computer has considerable advantages as a technique for the communication of new concepts. As the world system increases in complexity new techniques must be sought to simplify education concerning it and the many roles and interactions open to the individual, the citizen and his organizations. The problems posed by the time currently required to communicate an adequate working knowledge of the world system and the difficulty of building up an integrated picture of its complexity, suggest that a visual display unit with computer mass memory support may have many possibilities.

An important reason for using this approach is the tendency to consider the recognized complexity of the world system to be too great to lend itself to any form of unified treatment. Normal instruction methods, in the case of such complexity, cross so many discipline boundaries that they lend themselves to over-emphasis of one particular feature of the system at the expense of ethers and an integrated picture of the whole.

An important possibility in building understanding is the ability to manipulate part of a multidimensional network via the visual display unit so as to portray the world system network from an origin chosen anywhere within the network. Thus an organization (or even a concept), known and understood by a particular user, may be used as visual origin and all other organizations (or concepts) displayed in terms of their relationship to it -- according to a variety of models helpful to differing personality types. Entities distant in communication terms can be reduced in visual importance, whereas "nearby' organizations of relatively little absolute importance can be made of greater significance (approximating the recognition normally accorded it by the user).

The student has a known system base from which to start his exploration of the neighbouring systems which interact with it. In a programmed learning mode he is able to understand how his known systems are 'nested' within a meta-system. He can work from his base system by requesting a restructuring of the display in terms of other system viewpoints as he builds up knowledge of, and a 'feel' for, those originally conceptually distant from his starting point. Text can be displayed concerning the new system, interaction or perspective before any new 'jump' is made. In this way he can progress toward the more general levels of the world system or into other areas of detail.

A valuable feature of an interactive system is the possibility given to a student of simulating the result on the world system of 'wiping out' a single sub-system or class of systems which he believes to be of little value. Of greatest importance, the student can work out and locate which organizations or systems offer the best avenue of fulfillment for him, or alternatively precisely in what way he must initiate some new activity to achieve such a measure of satisfaction.

The organizational network is in a sense the projection and consequence of the concepts held by man. By exploring the organizational network the student is engaging in a parallel exploration of 'inner social space' in the sense used by Jere Clark (9).

Just as world unity is a long way off in organizational terms, and yet a unified multidimensional network of organizations can be 'held' in computer memory for exploration, so unification of knowledge can be simulated by holding and linking concepts in an analogous manner. In both cases the dynamic collection of data stands as a symbol of the goal. Built up empirically the systems must be explored by research workers and students alike in order to improve their concepts of the more general systems. The details of interactions can be provided in considerable amounts, but the problem for both is to build up more integrative concepts.

The process of interaction between display and person is really one in which the display is used as a crutch until the mind can hold a more integrative concept. The mind is the most potent display device. The problem is how to'pump' it (in laser terms) to an optimum operating frequency with the aid of interactive displays. It may be possible to use the graphics display unit as a focussing device when 'hunting' intuitively for a creative solution. At a certain point the user's mental display abilities can be launched from the sophisticated back up or steadying platform provided by the display unit. If necessary the display can be improved prior to a 'relaunch'. It is with this sort of approach that the speed of convergence o unifying concepts can be increased. (Non-interactive displays could easily be provided in the form of videotapes for general distribution and as possibly the simplest means of putting over systems concepts in the absence of a large pool of brainpower.)

The suggestion by Jere Clark for a focus on the exploration of inner space may be the method whereby the centre of gravity of man's interests may be shifted, permanently from one of physical territory to one of mental territory or territory in function space -- and be seen to be so. The problem in opting for this shift (and there are many signs that it is occurring already) is that all the unsatisfactory definitions of systems boundaries based on concepts of physical territory may be transferred to function space. In which case all the conflicts over physical territory will be repeated over function space territory -- even to the point of registering the need for the function space equivalent of a United nations. It is interesting to note Jere Clark's comment on James Reston's call for a 'League of Minds'(9).

Some assumptions about unifying concepts

Some of the following assumptions may be hindering a rapid convergence on unifying concepts:

1. Knowledge unification concepts can be adequately described through symbols on paper. It may be that the more abstract concepts required cannot be adequately grounded in symbols on paper, that is without merely using the symbol as an aide-memoire to the 'location' of a concept built up by learning and experience. It is possible to conceive of an equilibrium diagram which would indicate in what media or combination of media a given concept could be 'held' and in which it was metastable or unstable.

2. One a concept is 'discovered', wo ourselves can remember it and hold it effectively in cur own minds. To hold a concept however requires a constant stream of appropriate environmental stimuli to reinforce it.

This is particularly the case if the concept is highly sophisticated and 'delicate' (even if, and perhaps particularly if, very simple). Conventional media may be associated with a characteristic reinforcement rate which may be too low to permit certain concepts to be ehld for long. It may be that sufficiently rapid reinforcement can only be provided with interactive graphics devices. One author emphasizes their importance for maintaining 'thinking momentum'. Me may have to keep using such devices to aid us in focussing our thinking to recover the concept which wo have already discovered, until we have built up an attitude which permits us to pick out sufficient reinforcing evidence from the environment unaided.

3. Knowledge unification concepts can be developed by interaction between specialists using conventional communication and storage media and traditional academic interaction procedures. It may be that for purely technical reasons (despite the possible wishes of the people concerned) interaction may not permit the generation of unifying concepts of great generality.

Interactive devices create a man-machine environment with properties which differ from those of the traditional concept generating environments. Skillfully used it may be possible to ensure the interaction of specialists manipulating related concepts through interactive devices in such a way that progressive convergence towards increasingly more general concepts is built into the interaction process.

4. The discovery of highly general unifying concepts crossing discipline boundaries would of itself lead to solutions to the problems of modern society. It may be that the place allocated to such concepts in modern society is such that their value is effectively negated. They may be "contained' in a position in culture space in such a way that they are prevented from having any marked effect on society -- even those which have not yet been developed. This is a reason for studying the system in which such concepts arc developed.

It may be a question of the speed with which the concept can be got over relative to that of the reaction of compensating social mechanisms coming into play to counteract any implied changes.

5. Old, even ancient, unifying concepts are irrelevant in the 20th century. It may be the case that for some groups or personality types certain 'outmoded' unifying concepts are the most useful in terms of the problems to which they are exposed in the light of their conceptual apparatus. Similarly it may not necessarily be true that the learning path for some students and schoolchildren is optimized if the latest theories are stressed at the expense of their historical predecessors.

A major function of systems thinking could be to determine the interrelationship between historical viewpoints -- particularly since many of them are still held in some parts of the world system. With appropriate techniques a student could locate the unifying concepts most in sympathy with his current understanding of his environment. Related techniques could then be used to expose him as rapidly as possible to the evidence which outdates his view. The system framework could then speed him conceptually through the succession of systems perspectives up to the present. Should he 'stick' at any point, then it would be in a context which for him possessed lower entropy than that which he perceives in later points. He thus sticks at the point which most reinforces his concept of himself as a whole person in a unified conceptual environment.

6. Finally we assume that the social system is organized such that the people whose interaction would contribute most to the generation of unifying concepts are in communication. It may be that the dynamics of the systems are such that the people with the needed background and experience are forced out of direct communication.


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2. W M Kotschnig. Development of modern management techniques and use of computers. New York, United Nations, E/AC.51/GR/L.9 70ct. 1968

3. The first steps in the direction of a systematic list of high-level problems appears to have been made by Hasan Ozbekhan. He lists 28 system-wide 'Continuous Critical Problems' which 'our existing institutions cannot cope with unles they change or become superseded by new ones.' 'Toward a general theory of planning.' In: Jantsch, Erich (Ed.) Perspectives of Planning. Paris, O.E.C.D, 1969

4. James W. Greenwood Jr. The systems approach to education; nature and importance of systems education. In: Clark, J.W. (Ed.) Systems education patterns on the drawing boards for the future. Center for Interdisciplinary Creativity, 1969

5. Maurice Spiers. Systems theory and central government. New Scientist, 13 November 1969, pp. 356-359

6. Erich Jantsch. Perspectives of Planning. Paris, OECD, 1969 (Proceedings of the OECD working symposium on long-range forecasting and planning. Bellagio, Italy, 1968)

7. Börje Langefors. Theoretical analysis of information systems. Lund, Studentlitteratur, 1966

8. Stafford Beer. The Cybernetic Cytoblast: management itself. September 1969 (Chairman's Address to the International Cybernetics Congress)

9. Jere Clark. Designing a global network of centers for general systems education. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for General Systems Research, 1969

10. Anthony Judge. The improvement of communication within the world system; research uses, applications and possibilities of a computer based information centre on national and international organizations and related entities. Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1969 [text]

11. I Sutherland. Computer graphics; ten unsolved problems. Datamation, May 1966, pp. 22-27

12. H. J Genthner. Interactive computer graphics. Computer and Automation November 1968, pp. 14-17

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