Utilisation of International Documentation
- / -
Introductory report (Panel III) for the Second World Symposium on International
Documentation (Brussels, 20-22 June 1980) organized by the United Nations Institute
for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the Association of International Libraries
(AIL). [UNITAR/AIL/SYM.2/WP.III/Rep]. Published in International Documents
for the 80's: their role and use
(Unifo Publishers, 1982, in an incomplete
version, edited by Th. Dimitrov). An abridged version also appeared as: Societal
Learning and the Erosion of Collective Memory: the role of international organizations
in combatting global amnesia
, 36, 2,
pp 83-93, bibl.) Version
(Utilisation de la Documentation Internationale
Given the current period of budgetary crisis in the international organization
community and elsewhere, it may well be asked whether consideration of "the
utilization of international documentation" at this time can lead to
significant conclusions. The report of the 1972 Symposium indicates a range
of user problems which remain valid (l). Budgets have however been contracted
rather then expanded since then. Furthermore the hopes for major inter-agency
information exchanges, particularly at the computer level, have been largely
abandoned or focused onnarrowly specialized domains. Those who earlier expressed
concern are now resigned to the fragmentation of international documentation.
Relations between potential collaborators in any such exchanges have been
eroded by priority attention to basic programme concerns within each agency.
In many cases where there has been a real cross-system need this has been
met by external services possibly established by a commercial enterprise
at the national level. Given this level of activity, the recommendations
of the 1972 Symposium still stand as a minimal adequate guideline.
On the other hand the period since 1972 has witnessed the advent
of the pocket computer which has changed peoples perception of the
credibility of the "computer revolution". There have been many
studies of the "information society" now and to come. Computer
terminals are creeping into offices and the "paper-free office" is
amounced for the immediate
future. In homes such devices are used
for education and amusement (attached to television). International
and national agencies are now experimenting with such devices -
each in their own way in support of their own system. The pressure
to do so is great because of the rapid spread of international
satellite-linked data networks and the multitude of data bases
now available via them.
The boundless optimism of those associated with the information
society revolution is far from being matched by those concerned
with the world problematique. Crisis has
been heaped on crisis
and international agencies are increasingly perceived as helpless observers of these worsening conditions.
Loss of confidence
in them, as reflected in their budgets, is part of the general
loss of confidence in established institutions.
In this context it would seem to be shortsighted, if not simply
foolish, to attempt any conventional inward-looking evaluation
of the problems of "utilization of international documentation".
The dramatic times in which we live would seem to call for a
new look at the context within which the objectives of "international documentation" are defined and perceived by the user,
whether actual or potential. Not to
do so would simply beg
the well-known management quip:
"Having lost sight of their
objectives, they redoubled their efforts".
The danger in the emerging information society is that many traditional
library dreams of total computerization and in-depth cataloguing may too easily
become a reality. The question is not whether this is worthwhile, especially
to the user. In this transition period a major concern should be with whether
such innovations are assessed within a broad enough framework in the light
of needs during social crisis and upheaval. The latter concern is of course
a special responsibility of international documentation services. Are the
right questions being asked - are there better questions to ask? It
is the search for such a framework, to stimulate better questions about utilization,
which is the prime thrust of this report.
B. Social learning and the world problematique
Given the continuing, insistence of international agencies on the complexity
and urgency of the world crisis situation, it is unnecessary to summarize
this point here (2). In response to recognition of this world problematique
a new generation of perceptive studies is now emerging. What is surprising
is that they stress similar points which are relevant to the objectives
of any international documentation system.
As a first example, in 1978 Ambassador Soedjatmoko of Indonesia (Appointed
Rector of the UN University in 1980) stressed the importance of the "learning
capacity of nations":
"The capacity of a nation - not just of its government, but
of society as a whole - to adjust to rapidly changing techno-economic,
socio-cultural and political changes, on a scale which makes it possible to
speak of social transformation, very much depends on its collective capacity
to generate, to ingest, to reach out for, and to utilise a vast amount of
new and relevant information. This capacity for creative and innovative
response to changing conditions and new challenges I would like to call the
learning capacity of a nation. This capacity is obviously not limited to
the cognitive level, but includes the attitudinal, institutional and organisational
levels of society as well"(3).
These remarks are very much in sympathy with those in the Presidential
Address of Professor Helmut Arntz on the 80th Anniversary of the International
Federation for Documentation in 1975. He stressed that:
"... l'information ... est le seul moyen de garder suffisament le
controls de Involution pour que l' humanité . . . conserve toujours une avance
sur la menace qui peut mener a la catastrophe ... la survie de l'homme depend
de 1'obtention et de l'utilisation de l'information..." (4)
In 1979, the most recent report to the Club of Rome was published (5). It
"Whoever chronicles the history of the 1970s will see clearly what
we perceive only dimly now, Wot only is a critical element still missing
from most discussions on global problems, but the most striking analyses
of the world problematique are diverting attention from a fundamental issue.
What has been missing is the human element, and what is at issue is what me
call the human gap. The human gap is the distance between growing complexity
and our capacity to cope with it....
This report examines how learning can help to bridge the human gap. Learning,
as we shall use the term, has to be understood in a broad sense that
goes beyond what conventional terms like education and schooling imply. For
us, learning means an approach, both to knowledge and to life, that emphasizes
human initiative. It encompasses the acquisition and practice of new methodologies, new skills, new attitudes, and new values necessary to live in
a world of change. Learning is the process of preparing to deal with new
Distinguishing this notion of learning from schooling does not mean that
this report will ignore education which is a fundamental way and a formal
means to enhance learning. .. Further, me shall contend that not only individuals but also groups of people learn, that organizations learn, and that
even societies can be said to learn. The concept of "societal learning"
is relatively new and stirs some controversy. Some contend that it is merely
a metaphor that distorts the meaning of learning. Doubtless the concept
of societal learning has limits, but we nonetheless shall maintain that
societies can and do learn, and me shall not hesitate to cite evidence of
learning processes at work in societies.
The fact that inadequate contemporary learning contributes to the deteriorating
human condition and a widening of the human gap cannot be ignored. Learning
processes are lagging appallingly behind and are leaving both individuals
and societies unprepared to meet the challenges posed by global issues.
This failure of learning means that human preparedness remains underdeveloped
on a worldwide scale. Learning is in this sense far more than just another
global problem: its failure represents, in a fundamental way, the issue
of issues in that it limits our capacity to deal with every other issue in
the global problematique. These limitations are neither fixed nor absolute.
Human potential is being artificially constrained and vastly underutilized
- so much so that for all practical purposes there appear to be virtually
no limits to learning."(5, pp. 6-9)
In 1980, Alvin Toffler (author of "Future Shock") produced a book
(6) reviewing the positive factors associated with the current period of crisis.
In it he stresses the importance of "social memory" and how it
is being revolutionized by the changes in the "info-sphere", (pp
192-193). He points out:
"Our remarkable ability to file and retrieve shared memories is
the secret of our species' evolutionary sucess. And anything that significantly
alters the way we construct, store, or use social memory therefore touches
on the wellsprings of destiny. Twice before in history humankind has revolutionized
its social memory. Today, in constructing a new info-sphere, me are poised
on the brink of another such transformation...
What makes the leap to a Third Wave info-sphere so historically exciting
is that it not only vastly expands social memory again, but resurrects
it from the dead.
The computer, because it processes the data it stores, creates an historically
unprecedented situation: it makes social memory both extensive and active.
And this combination will prove to be propulsive". (6, pp. 192-193)
Unlike earlier hopes for a "world brain", a functioning information
infrastructure (7) is emerging very rapidly which will omplish much more
than was desired by those who first reflected on the future of information.
(Recent years have neverthless seen the rebith of a World Mind Group (8)).
But Toffler makes the point that:
"Unless we incinerate the planet and our social memory with it, we
shall before long have the closest thing to a civilization with total recall"
(6, p 193).
This optimistic argument conceals a basic problem to which the Club of Rome
report (above) is more sensitive. For whilst technically it may well be possible
to recall any item of information, the problem lies with how the user is
to use such a facility given the limited processing capacity of the brain.
And, more specifically, how is he to learn from it and to what extent will
it facilitate social learning in relation to the world problematique?
This basic constraint emerges more clearly in the Dakar Declaration (1979)
of Informatique pour le Tiers Monde" (9)
"The key element of human communications - the ordering and transmission
of information - is tending to become a source of mis-communication.
The scientific and technological breakthroughs which have led to the informatics
revolution are way ahead of the learning process of human society. This cultural
lag is the most serious challenge to a comprehensive view of the implications
of informatics. It is a matter of values, of organizational capacity and transformation
in mental structures".
This statement, however, itself fails to distinguish between the collective
and the individual dimensions of the problem. These are explored in the following
C. Information usage
1 . User specialization
It is unnecessary to comment here on the large amount of information now
available or on the rate at which this is increasing in every field of knowledge
- including those of interest to international organizations. It has
long been an accepted truism that nobody can be expected to "master"
every field of knowledge, and few can be expected to master one unless it
is narrowly specialized. This does not raise major problems in the world
of documentation. Users are expected to have specific concerns and are guided,
more or less effectively to the information services and tools best able to
respond to those concerns.
If at the end of his search the user is faced with a selection of 65 documents
(or more) corresponding to his concern, it is the user's problem to decide
on how to proceed. If he complains about the quantity, it is considered appropriate
that he should be asked to specify his requirements more narrowly. He may
even be assisted in this by allowing him to scan abstracts. If finally he
complains that he "does not have time" to scan all the "relevant"
abstracts or selected documents, this is not a matter of concern to the documentation
service, especially if he has been informed of the documents as a subscriber
to a selective dissemination of information (SDI) system on the basis of his
2. Usage contexts
Expressed in this way, the user problems lie outside the information service.
But the nature of those problems is such as to raise questions - in the
light of the remarks of the previous section - about the value of the
information systems now available and envisaged. In order to clarify these
problems it is necessary to be more precise about the "usage contexts"
with which information systems may be concerned. These may be ordered as
1. Automatic, namely information movement not requiring human decision,
as typified by computer controlled manufacturing processes - the computer
is the "user"
2. Procedural, namely information selected and transformed under well-defined
procedures, as typified by computerized reservation systems and many aspects
of bibliographic control
3. Programme-oriented, namely selection of information governed by a pre-defined
set of criteria based on a research or learning programme, as typified by
the major uses to which documentation systems are put
4 . Open-ended exploration, namely dialogue with an information system
to determine more valid ways of formulating a research or learning programme,
as typified by the needs of those attempt ing to determine the thrust of
an as yet un-categorized policy concern.
The first two are of no concern here. Increasingly it is expected that these
should exist and that they should function satisfactorily. The third is of
major importance to international documentation services but its user problems
are largely covered by the 1972 Symposium report (1), Existing and envisaged systems are satisfactory for users who are content with their ability
to specify their information requirement.
3. Maintenance/shock learning
The first three usage contexts correspond to the requirements of what the
Club of Rome report (5) calls "maintenance learning":
"Maintenance learning is the acquisition of fixed outlooks, methods,
and rules for dealing with known recurring situations. It enhances our problem-solving
ability forproblems that are given. It is the type of learning designed to
maintain an existing system or an established may of life. Maintenance learning is, and will continue, to be, indispensable to the functioning and
stability of every society" . (5, p. 10)
Maintenance learning reinforces existing cateqories and paradigms, the disciplines
to which they give rise, and the professional and institutional division of
labour of which they are the basis. Funding for the associated information
systems is governed by maintenance priorities.
But, as the Club of Rome report points out:
"Traditionally, societies and individuals have adopted a pattern of
continuous maintenance learning interrupted by short periods of innovation
stimulated largely by the shock of external events... Even up to the present
moment, humanity continues to wait for events and crises that would catalyze
or impose this primitive learning by shock. But the global problematique
introduces at least one new risk - that the shock could be fatal. This
possibility, however remote, reveals most clearly the crisis of conventional
learning: primary reliance on maintenance learning not only is blocking the
emergence of innovative learning, but it renders humanity increasingly vulnerable
to shock; and under conditions of global uncertainty, learning by shock is
a formula for disaster". (5, p. 10)
It is shock learning that has established new programmes, new institutions,
and the need for new kinds of information services crossing previous categories
(e.g. the environment or energy crises). But the report stresses:
"The conventional pattern of maintenance/shock learning is inadequate
to cope with global complexity and is likely, if unchecked, to lead to
one or more of the following consequences:
(a) The loss of control over events and crises mill lead
to extremely costly shocks, one of which could possibly be fatal
(b) The long lag times of maintenance learning virtually guarantee the
sacrificing of options needed to avert a whole series of recurring crises
(c) The reliance on expertise and short time periods intrinsic to learning
by shock will marginalize and alienate more and more people.
(d) The incapacity quickly to reconcile value conflicts under crisis conditions
will lead to the loss of human dignity and of individual fulfillment".
(5, pp. 11-12)
4. Innovative learning
Having reached this conclusion the report asserts as its central thrust that
"innovative learning is a necessary means of preparing individuals and
societies to act in concert in situations, especially those that have been,
and continue to be, created by humanity itself". (5, p. 12) Conscious
anticipation is considered to be a primary feature of innovative learning
in contrast to the unconscious adaptation characteristic of maintenance
learning. Anticipation is conceived as necessarily tied to participation
as a second feature. For without it anticipation becomes futile. And participation without anticipation can be counter-productive or misguided, leading
to paralysis or to counteraction. The report stresses that it is not enough
that only elites or decision-makers are anticipatory when the resolution of
global issues depends on the broad-based support of groups of every kind.
(5, pp. 13-14)
Clearly innovative learning corresponds to "open-ended exploration"
as the fourth usage context noted above. Given the importance attached to
it, it is clearly appropriate to ask to what extent international documentation
systems respond to the need for anticipatory learning as a participative process.
D. User limitations: limits to learning
1. Specialized user
The previous section noted the widespread condition of user specialization.
This is characteristic of a programme-oriented usage context associated
with the adaptive processes of maintenance learning. In such a context the
user cannot really be said to have limitations because whenever any limitations
are encountered it is simply accepted that greater specialization is necessary.
Through specializing limitations in the user are circumvented (in effect
by imposing limitations on the user). Specialization is here taken
to include avoidance of any subject matter which is too complex. In other
words the user focuses on that material which he believes meets his needs
and abilities (whether as a schoolchild or a postgraduate). (Any relative
operational "incompetence" of a userlearner can be considered
as a limitation society effectively imposes on him; the educational level
of documentation he is capable of absorbing define a form of specialization).
2. Limits to learning
The Club of Rome report optimistically concludes that: "Human potential
is being artificially constrained and vastly -underutilized - so much
so that for all practical purposes there appear to be virtually no limits
to learning" (5, p. 9- the added emphasis being the actual
title of the report). The subtitle of the report,"bridging the human
gap", arises from a recognition that "the human gap is the distance
between growing complexity and our capacity to cope with it". (5, p.
This "gap", in the case of the individual user, appears in the
form of one or more limits. Only by considering the nature of these limits
(listed below) is it possible to determine the form of learning which is "unlimited".
(The report itself is necessarily vague, if not ambiguous, in the way in
which these limits are neglected in its more general focus on unlimited learning
a. Quantitative limit: As noted previously, no user is expected
to master the quantity of information in every domain of knowledge. A user
is limited in that he can only process a fraction of that amount in any given
period (even a life-time). It may be argued that a total access system gives
him unlimited "finger-tip mastery" through the ability to access
any item of information. But it is important to distinguish between his unlimited
power of access and the limited number of accesses he can usefully make in
any given period of time. In this respect his learning capacity is limited
b. Limit to perception of connectedness: Learning is not simply
the commitment of isolated elements of information to memory. These elements
must be interlinked in a web of comprehended relationships. Such relevance
networks extend around every item of information. There are clearly limits
to the extent of any such network which an individual can "bear in mind",
or tolerate as relevant, particularly as a user of an information system.
Even if the task of remembering them is delegated to the system (and there
are budgetary limitations), there are limits to the density of connectedness
which the user can comprehend as a pattern. Abandoning such comprehension
in favour of a linear sequence of accesses imposes a different limit. This
is analogous to the case of a traveller on an unmapped subway system who
has only 1ists of stations as a guide - there is no limitation
to his travels but, as in a maze, there is a limit to the complexity of the
pattern he could finally comprehend)
c. Limit to comprehension span; A standard response to the two previous
limits is to encode information into some category scheme which provides a
better grasp for learning purposes. A user-learner can only tolerate a relatively
limited range of categories. This may be as low as 3, or it may extend into
the hundreds if only a low degree of overall comprehension is demanded (10).
This need for categorization is a user limitation which arbitrarily distorts
his comprehension of the continuum of knowledge.
d. Limit to comprehension depth: The previous limit necessitates
the use of nested sub-categories in order that at each level the number of
categories should not exceed an acceptable span. But the number of levels
of any such nesting is limited by problems of comprehension if it becomestoo
"deep". Hierarchical nestings seldom have more than about 7 levels
for the same reasons as above (10). The need to restrict the number of levels
actively borne in mind by the user is another user limitation which affects
his learning capacity in the face of complexity.
e. Pre-logical limitations: Learning is strongly
influenced by pre-logical(possibly culturally determined) biases governing
which kinds of information are preferred. A user will unconsciously select
information which is in sympathy with his position on each of the following
axes, for example: order/disorder, static/dynamic, continuity/discreteness,
spontaneity/process, etc (II). Such preferences impose a limit on the learning
capacity of the user, concealing blindspots and giving rise to irrational
antipathies for certain forms of information which are significant to others.
The situation is further limited because the biases may also determine the
media (e.g. text, image, speech) through which information is preferred and
via which learning is facilitated. Some information may only be communicable
via certain media (e.g. music, space-structures).
f. Attention span limit; As noted above a user is normally only
prepared to devote a limited amount of time to any learning process through
an information system. The amount is frequently less than the time required
to access information from the system. But even if a document is distributed
to the user automatically, his available attention time for absorbing the
contents (through whatever medium) is often such that the information is effectively
rejected. A third aspect is that even if he allocates the necessary time
to the learning process, there are limits to his power of concentration in
the presence of whatever distractions he accepts in his environment. Given
that some phenomena require a significant amount of attention before they
can be comprehended (at least by a given user), it is clear that users are
limited in their ability to comprehend those requiring more attention than
they are prepared to give.
g. Memory limit: A number of the above limits could be circumvented if user-learners mere unlimited in their effective memory
capacity. This is clearly not the case. Poor or "patchy" memory
is a widespread phenomenon. In an information society this situation
is complicated as Toffler notes:
"On a personal level, we are all besieged and blitzed by fragments
of imagery, contradictory or unrelated, that shake -up our old ideas and
come shooting at us in the form of _ broken or disembodied "blips".
We live, in fact, in a "blip culture"... Instead of receiving
long, related "strings" of ideas, organized or synthesized for
us, we are increasingly exposed to short, modular blips of information
- ads, commands, theories, shreds of news, truncated bits and blobs
that refuse to fit neatly into our pre-existing mental files". (6,
Toffler argues that the "computer is one antidote to the blip culture"
(p. 191): "It can sift vast masses of data to find subtle patterns. It
can help assemble "blips" into larger, more meaningful wholes".
Whilst this may be a future possibility, most users are attempting more
or less unsuccessfully to navigate through a whirl of blips rapidly forced
into oblivion by the emergence of others. Computers have done little to assist
memory to organize them, even in sophisticated computer conferencing data
base-linked environments (7). And even if assistance was effective, the computer
dependence it created for the user could be construed as a major limitation
- a handicap accentuated by the effectiveness of the crutch. Such dependence,
without critical renewal of categorization, could well lead to a computerized
version of the "railway hammer civilization" . This is illustrated
by an anecdote cited in the Club of Rome report (p.22): "An old British
story tells of an elderly railway man who, at his retirement after thirty
years of irreproachable service, asks his colleagues gathered for the celebration,
why it was that he had to hit the wheels with a hammer each time the train
was stationed. Mo one knew the answer. Current sociology is now concerned
with the possible emergence of a "railway hammer civilization"
in which people are repeating patterns and forms of behavior without any
hint of the reasons, laws, and purposes behind them".
3. Integrative comprehension
It is possible that in arguing thatthere were "no limits to learning",
the Club of Rome report was really implying the lack of limitations on a mass
of people each pursuing overlapping or complementary concerns. The question
of the limits to societal learning mill therefore be considered in the next
Given the above constraints, however, it is important to recognize the
challenge to the individual user and to the information system serving him.
The report notes:
"While some societies have gingerly experimented with inter-disciplinary
and trans-disciplinary studies, the modern trend toward fragmentation continues...
Nowhere is the impact of over-specialization so keenly felt as in the context
of global issues. It is simply not possible to analyze and formulate policiesfor
global issues from any exclusive disciplinary perspective. The economic
approach, the legal approach, the social or political approach are each, by
themselves, insufficient for dealing with problems that require an integrated
and holistic understanding. Such specialization virtually guarantees irrelevance".
(5, p. 70)
International information systems have been significantly weak in facilitating
interdisciplinary approaches. For example, an overview and extensive bibliography
of such approaches appears under the title "Integrative, Unitary and
Transdisciplinary Concepts" (Section K of ref. 2). The library of the
intergovernmental agency with ongoing programmes on interdisciplinarity,
failed to register this in its computerized system although it possessed the
volume. (Possibly because it only uses "interdisoiplinarity" as
a category for the few items it processes on this approach). Little is known
about how an individual user-learner can build up an integrative understanding,
as recommended by the Club of Rome report (5, p. 98). Some suggestions concerning
this are made in separate papers (12, 13).
It is within this integrative perspective that the problem of innovative
learning (discussed earlier) must be raised again. How are international information
systems with heavy financial, intellectual and personal commitments to fixed
category thesauri to respond to the integrative needs of future users? :
"Innovative learning is problem formulating and clustering. Its main
attributes are integration, synthesis, and the broadening of horizons. It
operates in open situations or open systems. Its meaning derives from dissonance
among contexts (On this point see ref. 14). It leads to critical questioning
of conventional assumptions behind traditional thoughts and actions, focusing
on necessary changes. Its values are not constant, but rather shifting.
Innovative learning advances our thinking by reconstructing wholes, not
by fragmenting reality". (5, p. 43)
Is the international documentation system relevant to the challenge of innovative
learning? Or is its progressive computerization the object of criticism such
as the following:
"It is lamentable that innovative technologies introduced into maintenance
learning structures have been diverted to performing maintenance tasks, such
as rapid presentation of fixed facts that was characteristic of early attempts
at programmed instruction". (5, p. 32)
The question is how to help the user-learner reformulate the category scheme
he is using into one which is more innovatively relevant.
"But even if all items in the total body of literature were identifiable
and available at low cost (which is the aim of those who favour this approach),
there still remains the problem of how to improve the relevance of the questions
asked to the problem complex faced by the policy-making process. Retrieval
is not the problem, it merely aggravates this more fundamental problem.
Retrieval systems focus queries in the light of the user's
existing knowledge and biases. They do not orient the policy-oriented
user to knowledge and issues with which he should also be concerned in relation
to his current preoccupations (in the light of qualified or alternative opinions).
They do not bring to his attention where his
preocupation may fit in re1ation to other
preoccupations. He is given no sense of scale, proportion
or orientation - he merely gets what he asked for however much difficulty
he has in formulating his question in appropriate words". (15)
The quotation above was made in a report to the Commonwealth Secretariat
on the possibility of using mapping techniques to provide users with a better
sense of context than is provided by the arbitrary category divisions
of thesauri insensitive to the functional relationships between the phenomena
categorized. (Nature and society are no more subdivided on the basis of such
categories than they are on the basis of university faculties).
"We submit that many of the difficulties of learning today stem from
the neglect of contexts... Innovative learning cannot be the mere digestion
of an input, resulting in an output; nor can it be a simple additive process
of connecting values to things. In order to enhance the human capacity to
act in new situations and to deal with unfamiliar events, innovative learning
requires the absorption of vast collections of contexts. When contexts are
restricted, the probability of shock learning increases, for shock may be
conceived as a sudden event that occurs outside the known contexts. Hence
one task of innovative learning is to enhance the individual's ability to
find, absorb, and create new contexts - in short, to enrich the supply
of contexts. If the existing supply cannot offer the required analogy to
deal with new or unexpected events, then me must develop the capacity
to construct suitable alternative mental frameworks". (5, pp. 23-24)
This brings the argument back to a point made by the Rectorelect of the
UN University, Ambassador Soedjatmoko:
"Part of our incapacity to comprehend fully what is happening to us
in the changing conditions of the world, despite the plethora of available
information, lies in the operational inadequacies of present conceptual frameworks. We almost need a new language and me certainly need new concepts which
will enable us to select, synthesise and conceptualise the full implications
and the human significance of the challenges we face, of the changes we are
going through, and of the means we will choose to meet these problems".
Hence his concern with the learning capacity of nations.
E. Fragmentation and erosion of collective memory
1. Nature of collective memory
Learning implies memory, whether in the case of the individual or of society.
"That experiences influence subsequent behaviour is evidence of an
obvious but nevertheless remarkable activity called remembering. Learning
could not occur without the function popularly called memory... So-called
intelligent behaviour demands memory, remembering being prerequisite to reasoning.
The ability to solve any problem or even to recognize that a problem exists
depends on memory" (17).
What than is societal memory? How is it related to the international documentation
In the past, as Toffler notes (6, p. 192), "social memory" was
stored in the minds of individuals as "history, myth, lore and legend,
and transmitted... to their children through speech, song, chant, and example
... all the accumulated experience of the group was stored in the neurons
and glia and synapses of human beings". This is still the case in many
countries and sectors of society. But anthropologists do not appear to have
studied "folk memory" or "cultural memory"
as such. They focus on traditions as "values, beliefs, rules,
and behavior patterns that are shared by a group and passed on from generation
to generation as part of the socialization process" (16). This verbal tradition has largely been replaced by one based on texts.
Biologists on the other hand have tentatively recognized a "noosphere".
"The age of ecological enlightenment has brought with it a new term,
the ecosphere, which implies a responsible stewardship of Earth. Beyond and
superimposed on these spheres lies another dimensional sphere, the noosphere,
a figurative envelope of conceptual thought, or reflective impulses produced
by the human intellect... It is not scientifically measurable, of course,
but its presence is strongly felt and its influence is all-pervading"
(17). The concept was first formulated by Vladimir Verdansky and elaborated
by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. This approach has not focused on memory.
As one biologist remarks, however:
"Although we are by all odds the most social of all social animals
- more interdependent, more attached to each other, more inseparable
in our behaviour than bees - we do not often feel our conjoined intelligence.
Perhaps, however, we are linked in circuits for the storage, processing,and
retrieval of information, since this appears to be the most basic and universal
of all human enterprises". (17a, p. 14)
Classical Greek philosophy developed a concept of the worldsoul
which was related to memory. Little attention has however been given to recent philosophical investigations of social minds, as "syntheses
of individual minds into wholes with new minds"(18). This is also the
case for the group mind as applied to national mind and character (19). Phychologists
may refer to "culturally shared knowledge...though... This is merely
an idealization...not to be confused with reality". (60, p.9).
Scientists may, however, refer to "the store of human knowledge...achieves
a corporate, collective power that is far greater than one Individual can
exert". (20 )
The concept of group mind was examined and discarded by sociologists in
connection with public opinion. This is a collection of individual
opinions on an issue of public interest. It is considered to have characteristics
that make it something more than the sum of individual opinions on an issue.
Its function as social memory does not appear to have been explored. The
concept of collective consciousness was
developed by Emile Durkheim as a derivative of Rousseau's general will
and Comte's consensus. But again there is little concern with memory,
although Jung's concept of archetypes of the collective unconsciousness
is closely related to it. The distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness
may not be important in relation to memory: (*).
"A structural model may be conscious or unconscious without this difference
affecting its nature. It can only be said that when the structure of a certain
type of phenomena does not lie at a greatdepth, it is more likely that
some kind of model, standing as a screen to hide it, mill exist in the collective
consciousness. For conscious models, which are usually known as "norms.",
are by definition very poor ones, since they are not intended to explain phenomena
but to perpetuate them". (Claude Levi Strauss. Structural Anthropology.
London, Allen Lane, 1968, p. 28. )
Educators, at least in the light of the Encyclopedia of Education (20),
do not appear to have any interest in social memory, or even social learning
as such. Programmes in support of inter national
understanding, such as Unesco's, do not clarify any aspect
of social memory even if they ensure the dissemination of cultural traditions.
The new Unesco programme on cultural heritage also has no explicit
concern with memory. Recent use of the term planetary
consciousness by many alternative groups (29) is not related to any memory
It is to be expected that a social memory concern would
emerge more explicitly in the development of the classification of knowledge from Aristotle through Juan Huarte,
Francis Bacon, Diderot, to Dewey and Otlet and
their successors (22, 23). But whilst such
initiatives are effectively attempts to impose some organization on social
memory, their proponents do not appear to be concerned with
its nature. Thus although there is a
study of classifications in their social context (24),
there is little to be
found on the social impact of classification schemes. A
discipline such as the history of ideas is not concerned
with the nature of collective memory.
The power of such
impacts is, however, illustrated by Jacques Attali in
terms of styles of music as coding systems reflecting
social structures and presaging new structures (25). But
he does not consider any memory function.
Clearly social memory is an elusive and poorly explored
phenomenon. Instead of attempting to
clarify its nature
as a psycho-social phenomenon, the search can be switched
to the repositoriesof
social memories . This switch necessarily abandons the preoccupation with how societies
internalize recorded knowledge and focuses instead on how
knowledge can be physically recorded
Societal learning is not, however, achieved by simply recording and disseminating knowledge. It
must be "absorbed"
by society. How societal learning (or
group learning) takes
place remains unclear, as the Club of Rome report stresses.
Before commenting on modern systems it is important to note
the role of encyclopaedias as
repositories. Initially these
were often conceived as "mirrors" of the knowledge of mankind - which reinforces the distinction noted above. Even
in recent years national or ethnic encylopaedias have been
deliberately created to orient social consciousness. Deliberate efforts have also been made to move beyond the
traditionally passive role of the library and museum, as
with Paul Otlet's Mundaneum which assembled 17
(26). The social significance of such
initiatives was given
its most eloquent form in the H G Wells proposal for a "world
brain" (27). With the advent of
computers, the concept has
been refined under the stimulus of information scientists
such as Manfred Kochen (28), Harry
Schwarzlander (29) and D
Soergel (30), who are linked
through the World Mind Group
The reality today is however represented by a multiplicity
of information systems, whether national or international,
specialized or general, computerized or not, and whatever
the degree of interlinkage via data networks (31, 32). In
this context the above concern with social memory is reduced
to a preoccupation with computer memory
and processing power.
2. Nature of societal learning: the
Emphasizing societal learning raises the important point of a "collective
user" whose requirements are clearly somewhat different from the
individual user-learner. How does such a user learn? This relates to the
problem of the "learning capacity of nations" (3) and to learning
by international agencies, possibly via their international documentation
Although it was not possible to clarify in the previous section how knowledge
was internalized by society, the Club of Rome report gives further precision
to this process.
"Our continued survival is testimony that humanity indeed learns...
So we have to reconsider what is meant by the statement "humanity learns".
Does the statement not imply - indeed demand - that learning occur
at the right time and on a scale sufficiently large not only to avoid disasters
but also to conclude a century, so much traumatized by successive follies,
with a gain in peace, dignity, and happiness?" (5, p. 118)
The report notes:
"The conventional, often unarticulated, conception of how societies
learn usually starts with one or more centers of concentrated competence as
the emanators of new discoveries, theories, beliefs, and solutions. These
new ideas are then disseminated to larger circles of people and to the public
at large. This model of societal learning distinguishes two separate steps:
one of distinct discovery and another of less distinct dissemination. The
roles people play in this process are likewise differentiated: some invent
and others assimilate. The role of society at large is reduced to adjusting
to and consuming the discoveries and knowledge produced in centers of expertise.
It is easy to see that this conception entails more teaching than learning.
The unavoidable consequence of this view of societal learning is elitism,
technocracy, and paternalism. What is omitted is the fact that meaning and
values - decisive for learning - are products of society at large,
not of specialized centers. Despite all their technical advantages, the bodies
of knowledge, technologies, knowhow, and theories produced by such centers
contain inherent shortcomings - they are too often divorced from the
social context. They tend to reproduce themselves according to their own
internal logic. This autonomous and self-reproducing development accounts
in large part for the fact that so much of societal learning is maintenance
"Innovative societal learning seeks to restore active learning to
those in society conventionally confined to a passive role of assimilation.
Key to this goal is participation that goes beyond mere invitations to
accept "given products. To encourage innovative societal learning,
true participation must enable people to open and inspect the "black-boxes"
of knowledge, to question their relevance and meaning, and to re-design,
re-combine, and reorder them where necessary. Effective participation therefore
does not mean paying lip service to those who in the past have been deemed
to count less than others, but rather ensuring a real contribution of the
entire society". (5, pp. 80-81 )
Elsewhere in the report a distinction is however made between the need and
possibilities for accelerating learning processes of decision-makers, at
all levels of institutional learning, on the one hand, and the equally urgent
necessity but greater difficulty of enhancing the more general and slower
processes of societal or "public" learning, on the other
(5, p. 127). In considering the use of international documentation systems,
it would of course be convenient to focus only on the first. The report makes
it clear, however, that the two must advance hand-in-hand or the decision-makers
will be unable to communicate effectively with the public.
The phrasing of the previous paragraph easily leads to the error of assuming
that in either case it is still only a problem of individual learning.
In commenting approvingly on the Club of Rome exercise (5, pp. 138-139), for
example, the Deputy Director General of Unesco cites Unesco's concept of the
"learning society", which appears to mean life-long education
for the individual (33, pp. 160-164, 182, 263). But the Club of Rome report
is quite explicit that colective/societal learning ("macro-learning")
is to be contrasted with individual learning ("micro-learning")
" Much research has been done on individual learning processes;
hardly any research is done on organizational or group or societal learning.
This is clearly a new research area". (5, p. 137)
Given the urgent tone of the report, and the absence of further information,
those responsible for inter national documentation systems are placed in an
embarrassing position. They clearly have a key role in a vital process about
which little is known. Furthermore, from the above comments it would appear
that they are likely to be contributing mainly to maintenance learning because
of the manner in which their function is currently conceived and defined.
Given the time lag before the appropriate research is done, what can be done
now to clarify the obstacles to societal learning in order to identify the
role of such documentation systems?
3. Limits to societal learning
It is now appropriate to return to the question of whether there are "no
limits to learning". Some definite limits were identified above for
the individual learner-user. It may be argued that these focus on the learner's
limited relationship to the body of knowledge, whereas the learner is unlimited
(except by death) in his ability to continue to engage in the learning
process, i.e. however slowly he learns or relearns, he can always learn
something more.. It is easier to argue that society's learning capacity is
unlimited, especially if it is assumed that the component individuals each
focus on overlapping portions of the body of knowledge. Presumably the slogan
does not simply refer to the trivial notion that society can always learn
There is a danger in such optimistic slogans in that they divert attention
from the nature of the obstacles to societal learning - obstacles which
have prevented society from responding with greater maturity and insight to
the crises with which it is now faced. The Club of Rome report cites the
case of increasing world-wide illiteracy as an example of wasted human
learning potential. In 1980, 820 million, namely 20% of the world
population, are illiterate following several decades of Unesco literacy programmes.
This indicates a very practicallimitation
on any theoretical possibility of unlimited learning.
It is important to explore such limits before launching new learning programmes
(34, 35). Understanding the limits helps to redefine the kind of learning
which is vital at this time and for which the support of international documentation
systems is required.
a.Quantitative limit: Just as no individual can absorb all
information, so is it not feasible for any group to do so even by sharing
the load amongst its members. In fact it is only practical to devote a
limited proportion of time and resources to absorbing or disseminating information.
Much information goes unrecorded or cannot be disseminated. Furthermore much
is destroyed after a certain period. Multinational enterprises deliberately
destroy most records after several years, for example.. In an important sense
we live in a forgetting society. Much information quickly becomes
irrelevant, especially in rapidly evolving disciplines. There have been complaints
that the original observations (facts) on which most scientific papers are
based are destroyed.
"In speculating about the evolution of memory, it is helpful to
consider what would happen if memories failed to fade. Forgetting clearly
aids orientation in time; since old memories weaken and the new tend to be
vivid, clues are provided for inferring duration. Without forgetting, adaptive
ability would suffer; for example, learned behaviour that might have been
correct a decade ago may no longer be... Thus, forgetting seems to serve
the survival of the individual and the species". (17)
Groups, like individuals, can suffer from information overload. There
is no way that some countries or institutions can absorb the amount
of information considered relevant by their better endowed counterparts.
This is an aspect of the problem of transfer of know-how. Such groups are
"unlimited" in their capacity to continue to learn, but there is
a "limit" on the rate at which they can do so.
Another fruitful aspect of this question emerges from comparison of the
rate of increase in knowledge production with the rate of increase in population.
Each advance in knowledge awareness of whate remains unknown. "Compared
to the pond of knowledge, our ignorance remains atlantic. Indeed the horizon
of the unknown recedes as we approach it". (The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance,
New York, 1977, p. IX).
"For example, when one acquires a bit of new information, there are
many new questions that are generated by it, and each new piece of information
breeds five or ten new questions. These questions pile up at a much faster
rate than does the accumulated information. The more one knows, therefore,
the greater his level of ignorance" (Itzhak Bentov. Stalking the Wild
Pendulum, New York, 1977, p.1)
But, perhaps more significantly, each "unit of knowledge" produced
becomes increasingly difficult to disseminate through the learning process, because of the increasing "competition" (for attention time)
from other units to be learnt. Under such conditions each "unit of
knowledge" produced can usefully be seen as increasing the ignorance
of those who are unable to absorb it (for whatever reason). The production
of new knowledge for some is therefore matched by the reduction of others
into greater ignorance. And the amount of ignorance so "produced"
increases much faster than knowledge production because of the effects of
population growth. Each ("significant") document entering the international
system increases the ignorance of those who fail to absorb it. The question
is when the ratio of ignorance to knowledge in society will be such as to
render knowledgeable decision-making unimplementable because of ignorance
on the part of those who are needed to support the decision in a democratic
progress. And given the prevalence of ignorance (and the impossibility of
eliminating it) would it not be more creative to investigate it in the hope
of discovering properties which would enable it to be viewed and used as
a resource :
"If all knowledge were within a man, and ignorance were wholly absent,
that man would be consumed and cease to be. So ignorance is desirable, inasmuch
as by that means he continues to exist..." (Jalaluddin Rumi. Discouses)
For example, given its inherent "boundedness", it could presumably
provide insights into the structuring of society into "information cells"
of many types, linked by a variety of information networks. Then the question
becomes how groups and individuals can learn to benefit from their state of
"...and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of
Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so
enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable
of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching
after fact and reason". (John Keats, Letter, 21 December 1817)
"The aim of this article has been to show that our most successful
theories in physics are those that explicitly leave room for the unknown,
while confining this room sufficiently to make the theory empirically disprovable".
(Otto Frisch. In: Encyclopaedia of Ignorance. New York, 1977, p. 8).
b. Limit to connectedness: Assuming that the task of societal
learning can be shared amongst the appropriate sectors of society, the question
is whether these "learning units" can be appropriately connected
so that such learning is available to guide decisions of the whole.
If it is assumed that learning can be effectively projected
into documents, then this merely becomes a question of ensuring that
the document systems used by the learning units are interconnected. This
is a problem of physical connection (e.g. through data networks) and of the
logical and functional connection amongst the documents and their contents.
Considerable progress is being made on this front. But it is fairly evident
that this is a long way from matching the requirement of collective learning
- even, and especially, in the case of the intergovernmental agencies
within the U.N. family. And the failure in the latter case indicates the
presence of a definite limit which should be borne in mind.
If, however, it is assumed that learning
cannot be projected
into documents (but is only
useable or "activated" once it
has been effectively "absorbed" by one or more individuals),
then the problem becomes one of ensuring that such "primed"
Individuals (or groups) are appropriately interconnected, possibly backed up by documentary information stored In data bases.
Here again progress is being made through the rapid emergence
of computer conferencing systems (7, 36,37) .
Yet despite their
success,these systems merely serve to clarify the presence of
a limit in the ability to establish functional connections
between knowledge units (12, 38) and between those so connected (39). In addition such systems are,
even more so than the
telephone, only available to the privileged.
they spread in industrialized countries, access to them in
developing countries will be very
limited. If it is argued
that such a degree of on-line interconnectedness is not a
necessity for all, there is a dynamic discontinuity with
those who can only be contacted by
post (or unilaterally
via the mass media). This
"disconnection" is perceived as
a serious gap by those on each side of it and immediately
affects the dynamism of the learning process and of its use.
c. Limit to collective comprehension span: Again assuming that
the task of societal learning can be shared amongst the "appropriately connected" sectorsof
society; the question is whether
the span of collective comprehension of whatever group is empowered to act on such learning corresponds to the range of
elements relevant to the act. As in the
case of the individual,
there is a limit to the number of domains of knowledge (however
"pre-digested") which a group can handle conceptually as a comprehensible whole. Most groups have developed, whether consciously
or unconsciously, remarkable skills at "sweeping awkward factors
under any convenient conceptual carpet" in order to create the
Impression that they are in control of a situation. Presumably
society could reach a condition in which more
of knowledge are being repressed in this way than are effectively dealt with. As noted earlier, the
Club of Rome report
stresses the complete Inadequacy of current integrative skills.
Why is this? What are the obstacles to
Only by facing up to the nature of this limit can information
systems be designed which compensate for the effects of the
One aspect of this design problem is the total dedication of information systems
to the presentation to the user-learner of information structured linearly
(a.g. lists of terms). This leads to linear conceptualization of problem
situations (e.g. agenda items). Comprehension of complex domains demands
nonlinear presentation of information (15). Consider the relative value,
as a decision tool, of a list of subway stations versus a map
of the subway network. Both are useful, but the list is almost useless without
the map. This may include structured images, although the Club of Rome report
strongly advocates the use of images in general:
"No less important as an element of learning, images have been under-emphasized
by societies and sciences bent on rational speculations and inferences deriving
from operational laws... But we cannot underestimate the advantages images
have for global perception and instant access... That "is, images,generate
operations at the core of our intelligence by which we produce a general proposition
on the basis of a limited number of particular ones. Images also generate
insight... The fact that collective images exist - and that perceptions
can be shared - links societal to individual learning. It is the down-playing
of images in maintenance learning that tends to blur these interconnections".
(5, pp. 41-42)
It is appropriate to note that within the United Nations University's Human
and Social Development Programme there is a sub-project on alternative "forms
of presentation" to conventional text. The considerable intellectual
and financial investment in the hardware and software of non-image oriented
information systems makes it unlikely that any useful link to image manipulating
systems (including map-generating devices (15)) can be established. Parallel
systems may well be developed which fragment what should be an integrated
approach. (Note how the photographic libraries are totally separated conceptually
from the "more serious" documentary information systems of international
agencies). The situation is aggravated by a related limit (discussed below)
governing biases against different forms of information.
Another aspect of the design problem is that it is now recognized as misguided
to elaborate information systems independently from the groups and institutions
that they must serve. The man/machine interface has become such a critical
factor that it is now vital to consider "groupware" design as a
necessary complement to hardware and software design. Group comprehension
of complex problems may well require that a user group "reconfigure"
to grasp the pattern of information available (12, 38). Information systems
should facilitate this process but as yet nosuch flexibility is envisaged.
The gravity of the situation is particularly evident in the difficulty large
conferences experience in organizing themselves as groups marshalling the
(documentary) information at their disposal to focus on problem complexes
d. Limit to depth of collective comprehension:
There are two conventional responses to the previous limit. At one extreme
is the effort to achieve an "overview" of a problem situation by
sacrificing any focus on detail. At the other extreme is the much favoured
tendency to concentrate on some highly specific "practical" question,
ignoring the context, in order to make "concrete progress" and "achieve
results". Information systems have not yet been designed to stabilize
the shift of groupware focus between these different levels - even though
they supposedly correspond to the hierarchy of subject categories by which
documents are organized. As in the case of the individual, it is difficult
for a group focusing on a given level to bear in mind more than the next broader
level and the next narrower level. Where there are many relevant levels,
much must remain out offocus. And in the dynamics of practical programmes
and policy-making, levels acquire an independence from one another especially
since they lend themselves to the establishment of groupware fiefdoms. These
may well give rise to their own information systems by which that independence
is justified and reinforced. Needless to say such divisions constitute a
severe limit on innovative learning.
A slightly different emphasis may be given to the term "depth",
namely that associated with the largely neglected concept of "maturity"
or "wisdom". It is not at all clear what restricts the manifestation
of collective wisdom. It is however very clear that its manifestation is
very limited. The question is whether information systems can be designed
and used to enhance such manifestation, respecting the limits to comprehension
inherent in wisdom of different depth (12).
e. Pre-logical limitations: It is a convenient myth that
international document systems are designed to serve a rational decision-making process. For example Harold Lasswell makes the point:
"Why do we put so much emphasis on audio-visual means of portraying
goal, trend, condition, projection, and alternative? Partly because so
many valuable participants in decision-making have dramatizing imaginations...
They are not enamoured of numbers or of analytic abstractions. They are at
their best in deliberations that encourage contextuality by a varied repertory
of means, and where an immediate sense of time, space, and figure is retained".
This stress on dramatization is however probably only an indication of the
"tip of the iceberg". On the one hand, many use items from the
international documentation system to support pre-logical positions which
are completely undermined by other documents (which are not cited, even
if they have been consulted). This is part of the "drama" of the
political arena and is accepted as such. Many are responsive only to the
immediacy of verbal presentations, or to "scientifically-backed"
arguments, or to arguments of a delegation with a strong power-base. Others
are affected, or unaffected, by the style of presentation, whether it stresses
order/disorder, static/dynamic, continuity/discreteness, spontaneity/process,
etc (11 ).
On the other hand, and more important, many (at every level of education)
are totally indifferent to the whole process which the international documentation
system is designed to serve. For them those documents contain no meaningful
information. A major group is that for whom the international community is
defined by the stars of popular music and song. And yet, perhaps ironically,
it is their preference for rhythm, melody and harmony which provides valuable
clues to a less "monotonous" approach to alternative futures for
the world (14). It is they who are totally unaffected by efforts to "generate
a political will to change through the "mobilization of public opinion"
(51). No wonder thatthe UN Secretary General remarks:
"It would probably be unfair to conclude that a sudden callousness
had overcome public opinion in the developed countries. It is more like a
closing of the gates to a pattern of generalizations perceived as outworn
by over-use" (52).
Perhaps the concept of an "information diet" is relevant. Individuals
and groups do not flourish on information of one type only. A "balanced"
diet is required. This could also apply to users of an international documentation
(?) system. The userfulness of such analogies is illustrated by one relevant
to the assimilation of information which is used in the Club of Rome report:
"values can be said to be the enzymes of any innovative learning process".
(5,p. 40). Although little is known about this pre-logical limit as it affects
information, the receptivity to some forms of information only means that
there is a limit to the extent to which an individual or group can learn
from information in other styles and modes. It is not simply a question of
"multi-media presentations" but of the pre-logical orientations
inherent in any given form of information. The question is how these orientations
complement one another and what this limit
implies for information systems designed for communication of insights between
users of every orientation
f. Collective attention span 1imit: It is a well-known characteristic of society that it is unable to focus its collective attention on any situation for any length of time. Even the most dramatic events
tend to be only "nine-day wonders" before falling into oblivion.
Clearly "nine-days" is more characteristic of attention focused
through the mass media. But "issues" brought to the attention of
international conferences may only remain active for a period of weeks or
months - although "hot" issues, providing ammunition in a dramatic
debate, may even be expended within a period of hours. Of perhaps greater
significance are issues that survive the government election cycle (e.g. 4
years) and are given a permanent focal point through institutionalization
- possibly with the creation of special documents and a specialized information
system. A special difficulty for the international documentation system in
this context (and, subsequently, for users) is the period over which a category
is forced (for a period) to carry the significance of concepts already abandoned,
then later becomes denatured, and finally "wears out". Perhaps it
is appropriate to consider the "half-life" of "active"
concepts, by analogy with that of radio-active elements.
This process is well-illustrated by Johan Galtung's disillusioned analysis
of "concept careers" within the UN system, "meaning both
how concepts undergo a career of stages or phases, a life-cycle in other words,
and how concepts may move from one organization to another. Thus, as to the
a fresh concept is co-opted into the system from the outside (almost
never from the inside because the inside is not creative enough for the
reasons mentioned). The concept is broad, unspecified, full of promises
because of its (as yet) virgin character, capable of instilling some enthusiasm
in people who do not suffer too much from a feeling of déja-vu having been
through a number of concept life cycles already. Examples: basic needs,
self-reliance, new international economic order, appropriate technology,
health for all, community participation, primary health care, inner/outer
limits, common heritage of mankind (In view of Unesco's favourable response
to the Club of Rome report, presumably "learning" is now launched
upon its career as a concept.).
- the organization receives the concept and it is built into preambles of
resolutions, drafters and secretaries get dexterity in handling it. The demand
then arises to make it more precise so that it can reappear in the operational
part of a resolution. A number of studies are commissioned, very carefully
avoiding too close contact with people and groups behind the more original
formulations as "they do not need to be convinced".
- the concept thus moves from birth via adolescence to maturity, meaning
that it has been changed sufficiently to become structure and culture compatible
(it will not threaten states except states singled out by the majority to
be threatened); the idiom will be that of the saxonic intellectual style,
rich in documentation and poor in theory and insight; very precise but limited
in connotations and emotive overtones; "politically adequate"
meaning that it can be used to build consensus or dissent, depending on
what is wanted where and when.
- from maturity to senescence and death is but a short step: the concept
thus emasculated can no longer serve the purpose of renewal as what was
new has largely been taken away and what was old has been added in its place
- except, possibly, the term itself. Even the word will then, after
a period of grace, tend to disappear, those who believed in it now no longer
identify with it; those who did not get tired of saying "we knew it would
not work, it did not stand the test of reality". In this phase outside
originators of the concept may be called in for last ditch efforts of resuscitation, usually in vain. There is no official funeral ceremony as the
concept will linger on in some resolutions, but there will be a feeling of
a void, of bereavement. Consequently, the search will be on, by concept scouts,
for new concepts to kindle frustrated and sluggish consciences. And as
a result -
a fresh concept is co-opted into the system from the outside, e.g. one
that has already been through its life cycle in another part of the UN system.
For the rest read the story once more.
Nevertheless, each concept leaves some trace behind, more than its denigrators
would like to believe, less than the protagonists might have hoped for.
If this were not the case the cognitive framework for the system would have
undergone no change during the 35 years of its existence", (53).
The special feature of this limit is its dynamic nature. In one sense
it is perhaps to be deplored that collective attention cannot be focused long
enough to give rise to effective action (40 ). But in another sense attention
shifts once the issue no longer serves the poorly understood needs for dynamism
within the international community (issues are 'consumed' to fuel the dynamics).
And, to the extent that the attention shift takes place In search of innovative
renewal, this is to be welcomed - particularly since this brings alternative
and complementary factors into focus. But, given these extremes, not enough
is known to indicate when a shift is premature (in terms of action requirements) and when it is necessary (in terms of the healthy dynamics of world
society). Clearly a complex world problematique demands both sustained attention
to comprehend the dimension of the problem and shifts in attention to
respond to complementary needs.
A more subtle constraint associated with attention lies in the assumption
that the process of attention can be completely "insulated" from
the matter to which the attention is directed. This convenient distinction
between observer and observed, traditional to the classification sciences,
is now shown to be questionable even within that discipline (56, 57), Not
only is attention time limited but the process can (and possibly should in
a learning situation) change the observer and what is observed. In this sense
learning does not result in conceptually "grasping" some fixed
"thing", but rather in an elusive, evolving conceptual "dance"
in which both partners are modified by the process. The very lack of limitation
limits the social relevance of such learning.
Clearly the international information systems should have a major role to
play in focusing collective attention, maintaining that focus, and shifting
without hiatus to alternative issues - recognizing of course that many
alternative issues must be focused upon simultaneously, in the light of the
previous limits (Use of the term "focus" suggests the possible
value of investigating optical systems as providing useful analogies to describe
the problems and possibilities (see 40)), and that the different attention
spans of users must be appropriately catered for and somehow "phased"
together. In this sense the problem may be defined as the "management"
of humanity's most valuable resource, namely attention-time, especially
collective focused attention-time. It would be a valuable exercise to develop
a theory of societal development and control in terms of "attention
absorption" and its information flow and learning implications.
g: Collective memory limit: In an earlier section some clues to the
nature of collective memory were explored. It is clear that there has been
very little study of this. As a device to stimulate further discussion of
the matter, this section will make use of studies of individual memory by
assuming that there is some degree of equivalence between individual and societal
In the study of individual memory much has been learnt from its malfunction.
Is there not a striking parallel between the many attempts by the UN Secretary
General to communicate to world society the urgency of our present situation
and the following fictional account of an analogous situation with an individual?
"To say that he understood what went on was true. To say that he
did not understand - was true. I would sit and explain, over and over
again. He listened, his eyes fixed on my face, his lips moving as he repeated
to himself what I was saying. He would nod: yes, he had grasped it. But
a few minutes later, when I might be saying something of the same kind, he
was uncomfortable, threatened. Why was I saying that? and that? his troubled
eyes asked of my facet What did I mean? His questions at such moments were
as if I had never taught him anything at all. He was like one drugged or
in shock. Yet it seemed that he did absorb information, for sometimes he
would talk as if from a basis of shared knowledge: it was as if a part of
him knew and remembered all I told him, but other parts had not heard a word.
I have never before or since had so strongly that experience of being with
a person and knowing that all the time there was certainly a part of that
person in contact with you, something real and alive and listening -
yet most of the time what one said did not reach that silent and invisible
being, and what he said was not often said by the real part of him. It was
as if someone stood there bound and gagged while an inferior impersonator
spoke for him". (Doris Lessing. Re: Colonised Planet 5- Shikasta.
London, 1979, pp. 56-57).
The collective inadequacy of society in the face of information on the world
problematique suggests that such aberrations should be reviewed carefully.
Collective memory would seem to be exposed to processes leading to its very
rapid erosion. Psychiatrist Ronald Laing has given an account which can be
interpreted as dramatizing the problem of institutional and inter-institutional
learning (see Annex
I). These quotations suggest that understanding the present constraints
on societal learning could benefit from a systematic review of the pathology
of individual memory. Some pointers are given in Annex 2.
The paragraphs above focus on memory as that which is actively shared in
collective consciousness. This was shown to be an elusive phenomenon. The
alternative (as before) is to focus on the international information systems
on which such collective consciousness is supposedly based (5). Their most
striking feature is their fragmentation, whether as systems almost completely
independent of each other, or individually in their isolation of subject categories from each other.
As to the first, there are of course many initiatives to
interlink such systems via data networks.
But for each
such initiative successfully achieved, many new specialized
independent information systems are created.
must also be made between linkages between such systems
(presumably resolving the fragmentation problem for the user),
and linkages to such systems from a
given user via data networks(which relegate to the user the
problem of resolving the
fragmentation). In his own review
Toffler (6) in discussing
the "intelligent environment" makes it clear that the era of
the large central computer is largely past.
Society is now
faced with the
"distribution" or de-centralization of computing power to the point that individual offices in an agency
could well develop and maintain local memory which they may
share with other parts of the organization or of the system
to which it belongs. In the face of the
of "Big Brother" manipulation of information systems, it is
unlikely that much effort will be made to facilitate such
sharing beyond a certain point. This
will severely limit
collective learning ability.
As to the second, there are of course many attempts to improve
and standardize the classification of subjects. But the more
fundamental problem is that any such classification scheme is
imposed as a relatively rigid logical abstraction on a dynamic subject continuum. The limiting
assumption of the observer/
observed distinction (56, 57) has already been discussed. But
there remains a tremendous functional gap between the logical
subject hierarchies and the network of operational realities.
It is as though society depended upon subject categories organized in memory
in a manner analogous to the rigid protocol of 16th century, battle order,
when the problematique demands a flexible organization of memory corresponding
to the shifting patterns of modern guerilla warfare and changing alliances.
Environmental information provides an admirable example. Plant and animal
species are interrelated in food webs (networks). There is considerable controversy
about the "logic" of the systematic (hierarchical) grouping into
species although these are used as categories in information systems. Pollutants
travel through food webs to points which society chooses to perceive as "problems"
and only as problems may the species be included in the systems. But the information
systems are organized in terms of the "logical" categories of pollutants
and species (if both are in the same systetern) without any attempt
to record the food webs via which the categories are linked in ecosystems
and through which a continuing pattern of problems will emerge.(Point made
by the author at the UNEP 2nd Infoterra Network Management Meeting, Moscow,
It may be that the incompatible demands of "hierarchical" and "network"
memory organization cannot be met within present information systems and that
this limitation calls for a paradoxical shift in perspective (59).
Another limiting facctor in collective memory is the widespread practice
of restricting or "classifying" documents as "secret".
Information is treated in thiswaywhen it is assessed as having the potential
to trigger change which the possessor of the information wishes to control,
present, or use to his advantage. The possibility that somemilitary
or industrial classified information might lead to widespread benefits if
released need not bediscussed here (5.,p.54 ). Much more serious it
restriction of information ("liable to cause public panic")
concerning the world problematique or institutional incapacity when
it is only such information that can provoke rapid innovative societal
learning and galvanize"the political will to change". In such
a context,no one can prove that there is not, for example, solid classified
evidence for any number of present and future phenomens which would put
the world problematique in a totally different light. It is merely
a frail assumption that open information systems supply documents of
more than trivial significance. In the case of an individual,
this problem of hidden pockets or information "charged with significance"
is of course well -known to psychoanalysts.
Perhaps, however, the ultimate limit to societal learning lies in the
consequences of unrestricted social over-commitment to learning. As enthusiastically
described by Unesco (33) and the Club of Rome (5), learning is
not limited by its relationship to other social processes.. As an
extreme example, this leads via the "eternal studant" to
a society dedicated to the consumption of information and totally unable
to focus that learning foraction on the world problematique, for example.
This raises the Question as to what extent information systems do,
orshould, empower users to act.
4. Future approaches to collective
It is ironic, in the light of the word-list orientation of the previous
section, that investigations of individual memory In the 1950's and
1960's focused almost exclusively on the recall of word lists. "At
present, wehave reached the point where lists of sentences are being substituted
for word lists in studies of recall and recognition. Hopefully,
this will not be the endpoint of this development, and we shall soon
see psychologists handle effectively the problems posed by the analysis of
connected tests. (60, p. 2) But the same author continues:
:Most of the experimental research concerning memory has never really dealt
with problems of the acquisition and retention of knowledge, but with episodic
memory (storage of experiences) which is not at all the problem of interest
in education. Simply replacing the words with sentences in our experiment
will make the research no more relevant to education than it was before...
I n contrast to short-term memory, there are only a few reasonably formal
and specific models of organization and long-term memory processess... The
experimental study of memory for prose, comprehension, inferential processes,
and semantic memory is just beginning. Thus, memory theorists have shown an
unfortunate tendency to realy solely upon list-learning data, to neglect other
problems, and finally to construct not models of memory, but models of memory
for word lists". (60, pp. 4, 74 and 79)
Is this not the problem with current storage and retrieval systems? What
are needed for learning are patterns of subject information
"It is one of the most salient facts about memory that organized
material is easier to remember than unorganized material, and that subjects
actively strive to detect how to-belearned material is organized, and impose
their own subjective organization if none other can be found... Storage,
organization, and retrieval processes in memory all involve the operation
of pattern completion". (60, pp. 74 and 83).
Furthermore, new learning presupposes the availability of such patterns in
memory to which the new information can be connected. Learning does not consist
in the passive recording of new information (60, p. 4). Moreover these
patterns may be made up of generative rules rather than
"When one talks about the structure of memory, one tends to think
about it as something given, something fixed, erected inside the brain in
all its complexity, like a Gothic cathedral sitting in a town square. Alternatively,
one may think of structure not as something existing physically but as a potential to be generated upon demand on the basis of implicit information and
according to certain rules". (50, p. 23)
Despite its greater visibility, it may well be asked whether there exists
any adequate model of the international documentation system with all its
various subsystems. If not, why not? Surely this is a valuable way to investigate
user-learner problems. It should be much easier to simulate than individual
memory (as is done in artificial intelligence investigations). As a useful
guide Nico Frijda has listed the structural properties which must eventually
be incorporated in a model of memory. Such a model must (minimally) encompass
the coding of single items (cognitive units), classes, relations (inferences,
functions), higher order systems. In addition, any adequate model must
deal with methods for transferring data, assimilating new information into
the data base and deriving implications which influence future action. But,
as Frijda concludes:
"It is one thing to give a formal representation of this complexity,
and quite another to envisage learning processes that contruct the necessary
categories as well as the specific structures. It seems to us that the study
of learning processes which can account for knowledge acquisition, has hardly
begun". (61, p. 159)
The current literature on individual memory postulates a rich array of storage
systems; temporary way stations along the route taken by information in the
process of assimilation. Memory overlaps with perceptual and decision processes
not as a unitary system but as a synthesis of diverse cognitive activity.
The explanatory progression has been away from registration of experience
etched upon a suitably receptive surface towards a selective process in which
information is encoded, stored and retrieved following the operation of processing
strategies which may vary with both task and material requirements. (62, p.
On this last point work is now being done in which:
"The end product can be described by a directed graph whose organization
reflects the organization of the information in the user. What me would
like to do is find experimental procedures which will readily reveal at least
the major part of these structures". (63, p. 91)
The author then indicates the classification problem which is highly relevant
to use of international documentation systems with rigid classification:
"Another problem is that the internal schemes organization is likely
to be different for different groups of people. Thus, in a hospital, nurses
will be likely to classify patients with tonsilitis and appendicitis together
in contrast to throat cancer and prostate operations since the former need
little nursing and the latter pair more intensive nursing. For medical staff,
on the other hand, it would be more natural to classify the tonsilectomy and
the throat cancer patients together and the prostate and appendix patients
together on the basis of the parts of the body concerned". (63, p. 91)
More generally this suggests a major lack in user sensitivity of international
documentation systems using logicalcategory schemes. Some work on individual
memory is now focusing on associative or relevance networks:
"Relevance simply tells us 'what goes with what. This aspect of belongingness
is to be found both in the world itself, in the sense of causal, spatial and
temporal connections and structure, and also in the representation of the
world in our minds, commonly referred to as our 'knowledge of the world:
the author maintains the view that one very important aspect of this knowledge
of the world is simply knowing these 'what goes with what' connections.
This kind of knowledge is clearly not all that me need. In addition to knowing
that chair goes with table, we also need to know a great deal of information
about the relational (logical) nature of the connection. Considering, however,
the extremely large amount of relational information that we all carry around
with us in our memory, efficient retrieval of parts of this information
demands that we should have the means for quick, global evaluation of what
alternative possibilities need to be considered in a situation... My interpretation
of word associations is that they are direct indicators of degrees of relevance
between the concepts for which the words are labels through their word senses".
(54, p. 108)
Such associative networks, crossing conventional categories, could highlight
and facilitate possibilities for the integrative approaches recommended
by the Club of Rome report.
"Word association norms, and particularly the Associative Thesaurus
network, are thus fairly direct mappings of this aspect of structure of the
organization in our minds. Not only do they tell us what the elements arewhich
we need to think about in contiguity with each other, but they also indicate
the degree of cohesion existing between them. The detailed study of this kind
of organization is what the Associative Thesaurus makes possible for the first
time on a large scale". (64, pp. 108-109)
Such networks as data bases also permit a whole new range of analyses of
value to the user. This was a determing factor, for example, in the organization
of the experimental Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential
Although the production of relevance maps would be a major aid to international
document users (16), the challenging requirements for comprehension and innovative
learning already make such an advance inadequate. The problem is that such
maps are too complex and disorganized to facilitate contextual memorability
and comprehension, as opposed to detailed consultation (Again
the use of subway maps provides a good example. They can be used but are
difficult to memorize as a whole.) . As noted before, this is the price of
moving away from a conventional hierarchical scheme of categories, whatever
The problem is how to "pack" complex patterns of information in
order to facilitate representation, communication and comprehension whilst
retaining contextual memorability (10). Certain encoding schemes - the
use of imagery, the method of loci, and the mnemonic pegword system are
only the most familiar examples - have long been employed by mnemonists
to assure the memorability of events (65). But it is not the curious abilities
of memory prodigies that are of interest, rather it is the severememory
challenge to users posed by the world problematique. The optimistic proponents
of total "finger-tip" access are quick to relegate all memory problems
to any computerized information system. This could ultimately imply a user
defined as a "memory-less decider" between computer supplied options,
namely a human "switching device" without any sense of context.
This is totally inadequate for innovative learning.
As argued elsewhere (10, 13), new approaches are required. It is interesting
that these make use of structured images, linking to the strong case made
for images by the Club of Rome report (5, pp. 37-42) for different reasons.
"Recent studies of imagery have firmly established the fact that
imagery variables are highly effective in a variety of memory tasks. Indeed,
they are the most potent mnemonic variables ever discovered.. The information
in images appears to be structured and integrated in a figural, spatial,
or synchronous manner so that the components of the image are simultaneously
available for retrieval... The verbal system, however, organizes information
sequentially, that is, it concatenates discrete linguistic units into higherorder sequential structures... But none of the available information satisfactorily
explains why image-mediated memories often seem to be more resistant to forgetting
than 'pure' verbal memories..." (66, pp. 57, 77, 81)
How then can information systems augment their value to users
by using "structured imagery"
? The difficulty is that the
provision of imagery is seen as the intellectually disreputable
task of the public information divisions of international agencies. As such the images have an
extremely distorted "glossy"
relationship to "soberly ordered" documents. This gap should
be bridged if documented issues are to become memorable and if
public information imagery is to have more than a superficial
impact. Hence the use of the term
"structured images" which
should combine visual appeal with useable information content
intimately related to information system concept schemes. Much
remains to be investigated in this area (10, 13).
It would however be a mistake to be content with structured images in general.
It could be that the really significant break throughs in the world problematique
will only be possible with the development of focused structured images
of it (40). Images are too easily lost in the "blip culture" mentioned
by Toffler (6). The question is whether new kinds of more powerful image
can be developed which can focus and guide user access strategies. Such developments
lie at the frontier with the elaboration of a new symbolism. It
is symbols which as "meta-patterns" provide the most powerful level
of integration in relation to the user and thus empower users to act
(10) . The question is how to find ways of linking the elaboration of operationally
significant symbols with the pattern of a user's access strategies to relevant
concepts in an information system (67).
Ideally what is required - to conteract the fragmentation of collective
memory - are shared symbols rather than simply userspecific
symbols. The challenge in user terms is to elaborate some symbol which could
be the information system analogue to the earth-globe - with equivalent
significance for the world community. Such a symbol would orient users in
terms of the "functional roundness"
of the world problematique rather than the present "flat earth"
classification of societal functions as subject categories. Whether or not
such shared general symbols can be developed to interrelate detailed access
maps, users should be able to work in terms of alternative
user-specific symbols, constrained by their particular horizon and interrelated
by the controlled manner in which they can be generated for users from a data
base. Ultimately the pressure for (and constraints of) collective comprehension
may lead to efforts to map such symbols back onto the integrated phenomena
of the natural environment from which they have been "extracted"
- and with which they remain dramatically associated in many cultures
whose participation in the societal learning process would be valuable (68)..
It is the web of such alternative symbols, tensed by apparent incompatibilities
into the form of an unbounded spherical tensegrity network, which could
contain the expanding societal "emptiness" of everincreasing
ignorance (10, 59, 69, 70). The notion of incompatibilities in a tension relationship
is in accordance with points in the Club of Rome report. Thus "it is
the tension created by the pressure to select from among multiple values that
catalyzes innovative learning" (5, p. 40). But "society... is inherantly
conflictual and hence global issues are not "resolvable" in some
final sense but need to be seen as conflictual" (5, p. 129). Global
issues cannot be resolved by innovative social learning,but
perhaps they can be contained by some new kind of comprehension structure
F. Relevance of international documentation system to innovative
Maintenance versus innovation: The
previous sections have emphasized the new problems which individual and
collective users face in benefitting from internationally available information.
The basic assumption of this paper has been that the "international
documentation system" could respond to these user problems and
gear itself to a participative aproach to
innovativesocietal learning , The question is whether
it should do so.
To what extent should the international documentation system be perceived
as part of any societal "learning" process for that matter? This
paper assumes that this is a major function and that those responsible
for such systems would perceive this to be the case.
Whilst stressing the vital importance of the new innovative learning approach,
the Club of Rome report recognizes that maintenance learning will itself
continue to play a vital role. The two roles must be recognized as complementary.
Does this mean, however, that they are incompatible within the same
information environment? Given the already onerous task of document information systems (and the everpresent budget restrictions), to what extent can
they respond to user requirements for innovative learning?
Then there is the question of whether international documentation systems
have until now concentrated exclusively on users' maintenance learning requirements
(as is argued here). The Club of Rome report clarifies the distinction as
"This type of learning consists in assimilating as quickly as possible
time-honored procedures developed slowly but surely for given and recurrent
"problems". The response to any such problem starts by making
simplifications - the process is to define, select, and isolate a situation
From a larger maze of interrelationships. This is the classical approach
of science. It is also a description of maintenance learning, which is
a process of problem solving based on bounded plans and agreed-upon procedures,
with well-defined goals and tasks.
Maintenance learning is essential, but insufficient. It is indispensable
in closedsituations where assumptions remain fixed. The meaning derived from
such learning easily assumes an inner coherence. The values underlying it
are given and granted. It is primarily analytical and rule-based. But it
falters in "border situations". For example, when driving a car,
maintenance learning teaches what to do when the traffic light turns red or
green. It falters, however, when a power shortage blacks out the light altogether.
Innovative learning is problem formulating and clustering. Its main attributes
are integration, synthesis, and the broadening of horizons. It operates in
open situations or open systems. Its meaning derives from dissonance
among contexts. It leads to critical questioning of conventional assumptions
behind traditional thoughts and actions, focusing on necessary changes.
Its values are not constant, but rather shifting. Innovative learning advances
our thinking by reconstructing wholes, not by fragmenting reality...
Another difference of approach between maintenance and innovative learning
is more subtle but no less important. Maintenance learning typically creates
solutions whose validity is ascertained by the scientific or administrative
authority which originated them. Adoption comes first, public understanding,
assimilation and acceptance come afterwards. A key premise for innovative
learning is that proposed solutions are judged prior to their adoption...
Thus a key aim of innovative learning is to enlarge the range of options
within sufficient time for sound decision-making processes". (5, pp.
In this sense user innovative learning demands more than information systems have been able to supply. So the fundamental question is whether
they should respond to these additional requirements, or whether these should
be met by other parallel systems.
As stated in the introduction, if they do not consider it appropriate
to respond to these new conditions then the report of the 1972 Symposium (1)
is an adequate quideline. The following sections assume, however, that they
do wish to respond to the problems of innovative learning.
G. Review of issues raised in panel papers
1 . Continuing problems
Given the purpose of this report, as described in the introduction, continuing
problems should be recognized but should not obscure the more fundamental
challenge to international documentation systems. It is important to be
realistic in that such issues will continue to exist despite debates
and recommendations, such as those of 1972 (1), especially when "too
few of the recommendations have been implemented" (71, p. 4 and 20).
Constant pressure should be applied to remedy them.- although major break
throughs should not be expected and there is little hope
for recommendations requiring any degree of coordination. In addition,
many new issues will emerge as a natural accompaniment to the fragmented evolution
of an under-budgeted international community in which documentation is conceived
as a budgetary embarrassment to those producing it and a constant source of
bewilderment to those facilitating its use (71, pp. 10-11). Robert Schaaf's
paper (71) admirably summarizes the situation with regard to many of them
and his remarks on possible future action (71, pp. 20-24) need not be repeated
here. Elaborating upon some of his chapter headings, they can perhaps be
grouped as follows:
Quantity of documentation in terms of acquisition, processing, organization,
storage, and use
Bibliographic control problems, standards, and agency indexes
Diversity of materials, print, non-print, and electronic Delays in rendering
new materials accessible to users Documentation complexity for librarians
and users Library personnel and training problems
Restrictive and fragmented agency distribution policies Closed archives
and classified (confidential) material Status of user, guides to documentation
Automated information systems: scope, access, integration, cooperative
Microform status and related user problems
Statistics on documents, translations, and usage.
Note that many of these are problems which affect users but whose solutions
should really be discussed within other panels. The utilization dimensions
of some of these problems were reviewed in may own paper for the 1972 Symposium
(as rapporteur for the panel on acquisition and organization of international
documentation), to the extent that "acquisition" may be viewed as
a problem for the ultimate user, rather than any intermediary.
In general those depository libraries who replied to Professor Arntz's lists
of questions answered descriptively in terms of the above headings and their
points may be said to have been covered by the 1972 Symposium (1) as updated
by Robert Schaaf (71).
2. User problems andinnovative
Given the earlier sections of this report, it is significant that few of
the papers focused directly on user problems. Most of the agency papers of
necessity discuss the problems of producing and distributing documents. Host
of the depository library papers of necessity discuss the problem of acquiring
and controlling the flood of material, and in some cases the question of tools
for users. But libraries are only intermediate users, if that. They are obviously
not the ultimate users. It is significant that Professor Arntz's questions
concerning users gave rise to few answers or answers which were clearly
not based on any kind of survey. The questions were:
Is the material used, and if so, satisfactorily used?
- Which are the obstacles felt by the users?
- Do users express themselves, and in which sense, about the accessibility/value/usefulness
of the material?
- Does it seem to be too rich (an information avalanche), or have they detected
gaps; are fields missing where there is an information need?
- Are there linguistic or terminological barriers?
- Have users other sources of information which could replace the material
from governmental organizations?
To some extent at least, these questions will be discussed with (together
with any communications received relevant to them) within the following section
which mill endeavour to give a practical direction to the contextual remarks
of the previous sections.
H. Implicatons and recommendations
This section will not discuss the continuing problems listed in the previous
section but rather the underlying problems relating to utilization in terms
of individual and collective user needs in conditions requiring innovative
societal learning. Given the financial and other handicaps of the international
community, it will be assumed that the continuing problems will continue and
that any recommendations must recognize the constraint they represent and
look for ways to by-pass them if any breakthrough is to be achieved.
1 . Scope
1.1 Active attitude: What is the "international
documentation system"? There is little point in indulging in definitional
games, but perhaps it is appropriate to distinguish four components:
producers (agencies, etc)
- intermediaries (libraries, abstracting services, etc)
- ultimate users (social, change agents)
- individuals and communities (from whom producers derive their mandate)
Now narrow definition would give priority only to the first, on the assumption
that the others would respond appropriately to document production. A broader
definition, characteristic of "average" librarianship perhaps, would
include the second on the assumption that it was responding to the needs of
the third. "Enlightened" librarianship would include the third
in the system, on the assumption that they were an adequate interface with
the community. The problem is that societal learning requires the integrated
evolution of all four components.
A basic question for intermediaries therefore is the extent to which international
documentation should be treated as a continuous outpouring which ought to
be passively conveyed, to the extent possible, to "accessible"
users. The intermediaries respond actively only to the extent of pursuing
priority user requests and by limiting responsibility to that priority portion
of the total outpouring which can be handled with available resources. Is
A strategy open to intermediaries is to adopt a (low-budget) active role
whereby both producers and users are challenged to redefine their
action in the light of new patterns of information supplied by the intermediaries.
Possibilities will be discussed below, but the point here is to stress a more
active attitude toward producers and users.
It is a question of a different "posture" than the traditional one
1.2 Producer-user participation
network: Schaaf states that "use of international documents in libraries
is primarily subject-oriented" (71, p. 9) . But he restricts his attention
to intergovernemental organizations (71, p. 1), possibly because these are
his professional responsibility. By so doing, however, such papers neglect
the production of the several thousand international nongovernmental organizations,
including the FID publications in which these symposiums papers appear, and
the Club of Rome report cited above, which states (5, p. 80):
"Looking at the three spheres of governments, intergovernmental
agencies, and non-governmental organizations (the "NGOs"), it is
the NGOs that appear to have the longer term, flexible, interdisciplinary
perspectives and where both anticipation and participation are emerging.
Not every NGO, of course, could be considered a source of innovative learning.
Yet the number and importance of those which are innovative is growing with
astonishing rapidity. Many provide the forums where new ideas and creative
alternatives can be explored and simulated without the constraints of the
existing economic, social, cultural, military, or political obstacles".
If users are subject-oriented and NGOs contribute so significantly, to innovative
learning, then it is a disservice to the concept of international documentation
to exclude them as producers. This point would be trivial were it not for:
the affect such an attitude has when it governs the scope of the service
offered to users
the importance in society today of involving all organizational resources
in the process of societal learning.
This point is argued by the Club of Rome report:
"Groups of every definition are asserting themselves around the world
and rejecting a marginal position or subordinated status with respect to power
centres... Without participation, for instance, anticipation often becomes
futile... Probably no area is so essential to innovative learning as participation,
and at the same time probably no greater need exists than to learn how to
participate effectively ... And from a global view, the potential for innovative
learning in the world system as a whole hinges on the extent of participation
at international as well as national and local levels".(5, pp. 14,
29 and 30).
The fact of the matter is that new issues are likely to emerge first in nongovernmental
organization literature. If this is effectively excluded, then the essential
anticipatory element disappears from the "international documentation
system. ", which is then truly a maintenance learning system only.
It is therefore deplorable that the organization of "international"
documents by intermediaries focuses the attention of users (including researchers)
on a small fraction of the organizational resources of world society (71,
For maximum learning effectiveness, producers and users need to be woven
into a well-integrated network - especially since most collective users
are also producers, and vice versa. This "ganglionic" network is
already a major feature of world society, although there is little information
on it (see however ref. 2) . Clearly a key feature is its decentralization,
which is one reason why centralized bibliographic control is virtually impossible. Under these conditions each producer/user functions as a kind of "active
guardian" of specific portions of the collective memory. Intermediaries
have a responsibility for making that network evident to all concerned. In
local communities libraries often have a "community networking"
function - why not internationally?
1.3 Active memory: The amount
of information is so great that it is useful to think of the tendency to push
it into "inactive" memory through the following overlapping stages:
- in individual memory: current active preoccupation
- in individual memory: remembered if triggered
- documents on desk (or personal cardfile)
- documents on office bookshelf (or filing cabinet)
- documents in section library (or file room)
- documents in agency library stacks (or archives)
These stages are important in recognizing to what extent a user is able to
recall something to be able to frame an appropriate question. When Schaaf
speaks of "networking" to serve users (71, p. 6), who is able to
contribute actively to such a network?
Societal learning occurs through the accumulation of information inactivememory.
(A form of "instinctive" learning may be said to occur when knowledge
is integrated into operational procedures). But it is difficult to consider
forgotten information in forgotten documents as useable knowledge when the
key whereby it may be retrieved has itself been forgotten, if only temporarily.
New tools are required to move more information towards a condition of being
actively remembered. Intermediaries should actively create such tools or
at least encourage their creation.
1.4 Subject lacunae: At present
intermediaries respond passively to the emergence of new topics by creating
new categories if old ones appear inadequate. Given the pattern of subject
categories "managed" by such intermediaries, who should signal the
fact that information is available in documents for
- Housing, Asia etc
but not for "Housing, Pacific"? Who should be concerned
with obvious gaps in the pattern of information available? - particularly
when searching for gaps could be increasingly automated. In contrast with
what György Rózsa states concerning the lack of distortion in international
documentation, at one stage the series of country statistical codes omitted
"Taiwan" and "Rhodesia", thus apparently distorting any
world trade study because trade with those countries was not supposed to exist.
Such silly approaches to data would be extremely serious if they were used
for infectious diseases or pollution data. But who should signal the gap?.
Should producers not be actively confronted with such gaps by intermediaries?
- not simply as a search for missing documents but specially as a means
of identifying programming blindspots. A similarargument could be given
for information just "beyond" the frontier of a producer agency's
subject mandate. Who assists the agency to determine what information is relevant
and should be "imported" (or exported) across this frontier? To
what extent can it be done by automated "massaging" of the subject
category data base? If not, why not, and who else should have this responsibility?
2. Challenging producers and users
2.1 User question: It is typical of
maintenance learning for intermediaries to respond passively to a user request
with the goal of giving him "exactly what he asked for". Is enough
known about how a user frames his questions - particularly when intimidated
by library procedures or the bewilderment of librarians? (71, p. 11). How
can the quality of questions be improved? The plethora of studies on the UN
system (71, p. 10), which seem to have very little cumulative value, suggests
that it is studied to a large extent "because it is there" and there
is a lot of documentation to peruse. An example is voting patterns. What
does "improvement" mean in an innovative learning context?
Given the user-recognized importance of subject orientation, why is it that
the user guides reviewed by Schaaf (71, pp. 13-16) are producer oriented?
Would it not be appropriate to develop a guide which challenged the way the
user thought it best to frame his question? This could be relatively short,
possibly even with an abridged office wall-chart (or hand-out) form, structured
in the manner of programmed learning manuals. Its functions would include
preventing the user form being "locked into":
an agency oriented perspective
- a too-narrow subject orientation when related subjects are highly relevant
- a too-broad subject orientation
- an uncritical acceptance of the available documentation
It should "empower" or "enable" the user as a catalyst
to release his own creativity and assist him to re-define his whole stance
in relation to the categories within which he initially supposed his preoccupation
to be confined. At every stage he should be confronted with "Are you
sure that this is what you really think is the critical issue"? It should
encourage him to think "laterally" (73) and face him with the
challenge of integration (discussed below).
Such a document should not be agency focused and would
therefore need to be produced with the guidance of an organization such as
the Association of International Libraries.
2.2 Producer problems: When
the "producer" agency is also a user, the document mentioned above
is also relevant. As noted earlier, tools are required to orient the policy-formulating
user in terms of knowledge and issues impact ing on his stated area of preoccupation.
He needs to be given a sense of overview and context as noted in the Club
of Rome report (5, pp. 19-24). The reverse is also true. Exaggerating considerably,
it is almost as though a user should formulate "a knowledge-base impact
statement" (analogous to an environmental impact statement) to clarify
the consequences of "activating" and developing knowledge and action
in a particular area to the exclusion of action in response to areas to which
it is related.
2.3 Reconfiguration of category schemes:
The very large investment of funds, intellect and personal commitment in category
schemes must be accepted with all its implications for lack of flexibility
in experimenting with alternatives at that level . However, with very
little investment users could be confronted with the possibility of experimenting
with alternative patterns of categories which reflected their own priorities
and preferences. Clearly this could best be done as an on-line exercise,
but batch versions might be preferred by some. This would allow users to
manipulate a large set of subject categories into new patterns without
affect ing the existing categorization of the bibliographic data to which
it could be linked. A user might even consult an on-line system via such
a "personalized" pattern used as an interface into the standard
system. If printed out, such a pattern could well take the form of a map
(see below), rather than a list. The process whereby the user prepared "his"
map might be usefully linked to an on-line version of the programmed learning
procedure described above (point 2.1).
A major advantage of this is that users would be able to incorporate relevant
categories not yet "recognized" by their agency information system
or only present in systems of other agencies. They could subdivide, combine
or link categories according to notions unacceptable to those responsible
for the agency's s information system. A user could develop several such
patterns for different policy orientations (e.g. long-term, emergency action,
etc). A selection of such patterns could be offered to new users.
3. Unconventional information tools
It is vital not to forget the implications of the vast amount of information
generated, even within the UN system. Much of substantive value escapes bibliographic
control or is otherwise inaccessible. Much that is under control is of almost
no long-term value. In a sense the reference guides to what is under control
conceal the extent of what is not. Who could produce a guide to what is not,
and who would "dare" to do so? Given the urgency and nature of
innovative societal learning, consideration should be given to the benefits
from the minimal investment requirements of information aids such as the following .
3.1 Question collections: In the face of rising ignorance
and inability to act, ineffectual action ("for action's sake") may
often be avoided by asking better questions. Many good questions are "buried"
in international documents. Many documents are the result of bad questions.
Many good questions never get into accessible (including declassified) documents,
even though they do not need to be confidential.
Is it not possible to define criteria for a "question
focused mainly on supposedly unanswered questions. The amount
of information would be relatively small .
It would be of value
to policy-formulation and research and as a learning aid. The
questions could be periodically rated by a suitable jury so
that they could be ranked in different mays and even interlinked
in a network of learning pathways. The
collection could be open
for inclusion of questions from motivated users. Links to documents could be envisaged if justified.
Note that it has
often been remarked that it is not better
answers to old questions that will lead to better action, but
better questions leading to new kinds of answers. The search
for better questions is a key to by-passing the shock learning
3.2 Resolution collections:
More conventional and requiring greater investment would be a data base focused
on resolutions. This is in no way unique in so far as much has been done
for those of the UN itself. The question is whether priority could be given
to this aspect of international documentation for all agencies as a distinct,
and preferably on-line, subject-indexed (KWIC) system.
At this point, as has often been remarked, there is no clearinghouse for
decisions affecting the international community. Such a data base is a minimum
response to this condition - whether or not the associated documents
are under control.
3.3 Proposa1 collections: Much creative energy
is invested in formulating proposals which, if they are reported, are "buried"
in documents. Given that these provide most valuable clues to future action,
it would seem that some effort should be devoted to providing a brief abstract
of them in a suitably indexed on-line data base. Whilst a valuable precedent,
the Bulletin of Peace Proposals (Oslo) should not be considered
a model because of the length of the texts included. Clearly this is most
valuable if it motivates wide participation and does not concentrate on the
preoccupations of a particular (group) of agencies. As opposed to documents
in general, such proposals are "live" future-oriented information.
3.4 Problem collections: Given
that perceived problems are a core feature of the world problematique, further
steps should be taken to maintain brief abstracts of them in a suitably indexed
on-line data base. An important reason for treating problems in a separate
system is that they are both "buried" in documents and often denatured
by the manner in which they are presented as agenda items or remedial programmes.
Such problems should be registered in the system in term of their perceived
functional relationship to other problems. Such a data base covering some
2,600 world problems in a network of 13,000 relationships was created in machine
readable form for the production of the experimental Yearbook of World
Problems and Human Potential ( 2) .. Producing "problem maps"
bound as "a teases" could be an important by-product stimulating
participation in the continual updating of such a data base.
3.5 Key document check-lists: Given the bewilderment
of librarians and users faced with the maze of international documentation,
a procedure worth exploring is the regular production of a check-list of the
"most consulted new documents". This might be restricted to 50,
or be as high as 500 or 1000, possibly organized by subjects (with provision
for interdisciplinary categories). Selections could be made by agency librarians
and pooled by the Association of International Libraries. More ambitiously,
it might include any publications considered re1evant to the world community/problematique,
as indicated by a pool of collaborating users - perhaps grouped around
each agency library. This would be a very valuable (and saleable) guide to
what was worth acquiring (librarians) or reading (users). There are many commercial
parallels: best-seller lists, record hit lists, TV ratings, etc. It would
have an important cross-category "pollinating" role.
3.6 Subject field glossaries: Fred Riggs
in his paper (77) notes that:
"international documents written in 'technical jargon' cannot be understood
by many readers. The problems involved in utilizing international documents...
concern not so much the availability or intrinsic importance of these documents
as the capacity of users to understand what they contain... The problem of
comprehension arises from a basic semantic difficulty involving the appearance
and use of many new concepts as a result of progress in the social and natural
sciences, and in the fields of technology and information science... Consequently
it is by no means a simple matter to convert technical jargon into ordinary
He has studied this problem extensively through the Committee on Conceptual
and Terminological Analysis (COCTA) (78) and the Unesco INTERCONCEPT programme
(79). He suggests that:
"In order to master these new technical languages, reference tools
are required which will take the form of subject field glossaries - but
such glossaries cannot be very useful if they follow the traditional format
used in most such works".
He has made very specific design proposals for a new kind of glossary. (80)
4 . Integration and comprehension
A major effort is required to facilitate the cross-category interrelationship
of subject areas and to provide users with some tools to augment their ability
to tolerate the complexity with which they have to deal .
4.1 Mapping techniques: Librarians have been tricked
by the success with which computers have been used to process lists of subjects,
bibliographic entries, and lines of text. This provides them with good control
of "librarian problems" but does nothing for the user faced with
indigestible acquisition lists or on-line keyword search facilities. Innovative
learning necessitates new user tools. "Maps" of interconnected
topics around a user's focal topic would be of inestimable value in providing
him with a sense of context to guide his searches and to signal related topics
of concern (15). It should be possible to generate such maps from relatively
simple data bases. The hardware exists, as does the software, but none of
those concerned have articulated the need sufficiently in order to assemble
these elements with the necessary funding. (70)
A major value of such maps would be as a single-sheet background document
for agency meetings to provide the context to each agenda item, (and, as a
result of criticism, to ensure continual updating of the map for that topic).
The data base for the Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential
was created with this possibility in mind.They mould be of obvious value as
4.2 Interdisciplinarity: As Georges Gusdorf notes
in a brilliant essay (74a), " interdisciplinarity" has become a
disguise for the mere juxtaposition of disciplines without any significant
interaction. It is in this sense that Rozsa's (73) positive assessment of
the interdisciplinarity of international documentation must be interpreted.
Such documents must often be judged as much by the disciplines they exclude
as those they include. It has failed to emerge in any significant non-token
form in a society in desperate need of it. The Club of Rome report notes
that despite the amount of information published annually it is "incomplete
and deficient because it is essentially of an intra-disciplinary nature with
very little emphasis on inter-disciplinary materials"(5,p. 109) . University
"interdisciplinarity" is a mockery torn by interfaculty politics
and eroded by cynicism. It has become a joke. The situation is, if anything,
even worse in international agencies. Thus it is in the greater detachment
of libraries and information systems that hopes must be placed. There, however,
even the term is an embarrassment so that books with that dimension are "crammed"
into any category including "general" to avoid opening up an inter-category
notion. The reality of user access problems to such materials, and an indication
of the vulnerability of collective memory, is illustrated by an effort in
1975 to consult the General Systems Yearbook (published annually in
Washington DC since 1956) at the Library of Congress. Two volumes were available
on first request. A protest led to a visit to the stacks where it was clear
that several volumes had been mis filed in neighbouring racks. The majority
had been lost or stolen. (Unesco did not possess the series). There has,
for example, never been any study of the problems of classifying interdisciplinary
materials, because librarians have not allowed such problems to exist. Users
are therefore totally handicapped in gaining the faintest understanding of
the many intergrative possibilities (see ref. 2, Section K). This leads to
general reinforcement of the inadequacies of the interdisciplinary approach.
A study of this whole matter should be made and the status of material in
this area should be reviewed in relation to the "general" category,in
terms of societal learning needs and the challenge of the world problematique.
4.3 Imagery: The Club of Rome report places great
stress on imagery: "Images, with their integrative power and instant
recall, have been underestimated as components of learning" ( 5. p. 41).
Both international agencies and their information systems are committed in
many ways to text processing. Only the "public information" programmes
use images and these are not considered to be documents of substantive value.
A study is required to look into ways to bridge this gap. Users could benefit
from images to help them to grasp the nature of the world problematique.
It is however important to avoid superficial approaches to imagery which constitute
a trap justifying any preferences for text. What is needed is a way to select
a pattern of images to and comprehension of a matching pattern of interconnected
problems (possibly represented on a map, as suggested above). It is the possibilities
of cross-linking between the patterns that requires study.
4.4 Analogy, metaphor, and parable:
The increasing problem of understanding and communicating the nature of the
complex conditions in which we are embedded has been frequently stated. This
problem is more acute when there is a requirement for rapid and innovative
societal learning. Conventional logical explanations have long ceased to
suffice. Mathematicians (Thom, catastrophe theory), biologists, religious
leaders, and politicians have long been forced to communicate by the use of
analogy, metaphor, and parable. This is often true in intergovernmental plenary
speeches but rarely in the background documents which are considered to be
so indigestible. These forms use verbal imagery to elucidate unfamiliar points
and render them memorable. As with imagery (above), there is clearly a need
to bridge the chasm separating this meaningful mode with the often meaningless
textual mode of documentation. These forms can also be powerful human-centred
integrative tools which work even in the most isolated communities. There
are few other forms with these qualities. In addition, as noted by the Club
of Rome report, they are a stimulus to intuitive thinking (5, p. 126). The
question is whether greater benefits could not be derived from these forms
if they could be rendered more accessible (and more "apt") and linked,
as an aid to users, to the "problem complexes" about which conventional
documents are produced. Documentalists could usefully take the first step
by recognizing the urgent need for the construction of such a (right-brain/left-brain)
4.5 Structured images and symbols: The important
distinction between "imagery"(above)and structured images has already
been discussed. Structured images are in effect a marriage between imagery
and mapping, combining some of the strengths of both. They may also overlap
with a range of powerful symbols of integration (10). Both can be powerful
tools in communicating and rendering credible the nature of action.
Great efforts are made to develop suitable "symbols" for international
programmes. Symbols of this type are often little more than images with little
power. The question is whether structured images orienting user access to
complex subject domains can be 1 inked to (or blended into) existing powerful
symbols capable of galvanizing a "political will to change".
Note the probability of the failure of action if the two are not successfully
related. Exploration of these possibilities offers a route whereby the currently
static concept patterns of information systems can be "achivated"
into a dynamic catalyst for change.
5. Users and usage
5.1 Usage There is little information available on usage from the
panel papers received. In the case of the agency papers, the United Nations
paper notes the "difficulty for Governments to study" documentation.
The CARICOM paper notes that "about 60%is not of immediate use...about
25% is not of expected value at the time when the request is made".
None of the other papers comment on the matter.
In the case of the depository library replies, that of the Hungarian Parliament
states "We feel that the material is satisfactorily used". The
Library of Parliament (Finland) only states "frequently used".
Whereas that of the Royal Library (Copenhagen) records that "materials
from intergovernmental organizations are being used - but not satisfactorily", which is also the judgement of the Biblioteca Nacional (Madrid)
. The National Center of Scientific and Technical Information (Tel-Aviv)
reports: "Much of this documentation, not withstanding its potential
inherent value, serves no one because the knowledge of its existence,
its contents and its access is so badly organized".
Reporting on the Library of Congress (Washington), Schaaf notes:
"Lacking any precise data, it is still clear that international
materials are underutilized" (71, p. 9). In the case of the British
Library, Eve Johansson (74) notes: "It is generally felt in this library
as in others in the UK that the documentation of the IGOs is not used as it
should be, and that its advantages...are not fully appreciated". Johansson
also itemizes "reasons for unsatisfactory degree of use" but her
reasons are the "continuing problems" of the previous section..
Schaaf notes the bewilderment of users and JP Chillag remarks; "Users
and prospective users...are often frustrated in their efforts first to identify
the material they need and then to locate and gain access to the international
documentation they require" (75) .
It is really surprising that there is so little information on usage, given
the expense of documentation and the assumption that it is sufficiently
useful to justify the financial and personnel resources allocated to it.
Is the documentation as valuable as some would claim it to be? Would "valuable"
have to be carefully defined to justify continued production of certain categories
of documents? Which ones? Is the value of such documentation being reduced
by the speed of other information media, especially electronic? These are
questions that demand a study which would not justify value by the desire
to produce or the desire to "stay on a mailing list in case...".
5.2 Users The panel papers also give little information
on users. The agency papers, if they mention users at all, focus on obligatory
distribution to members and conference participants .
The depository libraries tend to indicate that they are used by "specialists,
researchers and students". It must be recognized that there will always
be "users" for a topic on which there is a large amount of documentation.
Johansson notes that there is "little feedback" Schaaf is the
most explicit: "Among the most frequent users are staff members of
Government agencies, faculty and students from out-of-town universities, and
researchers from innumerable institutions and associations". (71, p.6)
There is almost no indication of the types of questions asked by user. What
are they looking for? Could they be asking better questions? Do they know
what they need, or do they only think they know? What of the potential users
that have become disillusioned, or whose interests are neglected? Are the
principal users at present those whose activities are in need of priority
Rather than a study of the "acquisition and organization of international
documentation" (The title of my report for the 1972 Symposium (1).),
a study should be produced on the "acquisition and organization of users".
It is time to think less about "inaccessible documents" and more
about "inaccessible users". It is very disturbing to read Johansson's
comment: "many users resort for preference to newspaper and journal sources
for some information that could be found in the publications of IGOs, and
are prepared to do without some of it".
The whole concept of users and usage has become static, slow
and governed largely by the agency desire to produce and distribute. In no way can this be said to
correspond to the needs
for innovative societal learning.
5.3 Psycho-cultural variants It is too conveniently
assumed that information organization should correspond to approaches elaborated
in the developed countries. As recent studies are demonstrating (24), there
are other equally meaningful approaches to the organization of concepts which
are characteristic of non-indo-european cultures, (and by "inaccessible"
potential users in indo-european cultures). And even in western countries
there is increasing criticism of Boolean approaches to data searches. New
logics and forms of presentation are called for (56, 57). Any user study
must take into account these possibilities, if international documentation
is to be rendered acceptable to those who have not been coopted into developed
Also relevant is the argument of the Club of Rome report: "In
large part, it is the inadequacy of learning capacities which
accounts for the low level of understanding not only of ideas
and knowledge originating outside a particular culture but
also of the values intrinsic to and embodied in technologies
that are too often 'transferred' inappropriately" (5, p. 89).
6. Core contents
Given the amount of valuable information "buried" in
inaccessible documents, and given the speed of data networks, it would
be appropriate to undertake exploratory investigations of the
possibility of creating a "core concept" data base, perhaps on
the lines of the "country file" data bases in many agencies.
This could include key insights and phrases, possibly from
documents, relating specially the world
designed this could provide a focal point for registering and
interrelating insights and needs, with possible reference to
documents elaborating the point (76).
Such relatively compact
dynamic data bases are essential to maintain the momentum of
innovative societal learning. The
documentation system is a
symbol of societal inertia incarnate.
Do many of the complex
problems of the world problematique lend themselves to treatment in the kinds of documents which can be produced at present?
As noted in the introduction, the features of the information/
communication society of the future are emerging. Telecommunications are a vital component. They are
basic to the exciting
future possibilities of data networks in relation to societal
learning. As has been said before such
networks are the planetary "nervous system". The
Club of Rome report states, however:
"The neglect and abuse of
telecommunications is another illustration of how innovative learning is impeded.
It is because
of the existence of a global communications network...that their
neglect is so discouraging". (5, p. 55)
Of special concern are the little-reported manoeverings of national PTT authorities and commercial data carriers to set the
foundations for a totally elitist communication society. The
carriers, with the connivence of PTTs, appear to be aiming to
create a situation analogous to the well-known "seven sisters"
monopoly in the petroleum industry. The
PTTs are using spurious
arguments to justify heavy tariffs, monopolistic services, inflexible equipment standards, and restrictive patterns of access.
In part this is a classical effort at "creaming the market", in
part it is a frantic attempt at conserving control over communications (to maintain revenues and protect the outdated telex
technology), and in part it is done under pressure from authorities concerned with social control (military, etc).
At a time when energy costs are soaring, it is incredible that the communications,
on which our civilization depends to maintain the "social fabric"
and innovative learning processes, should be taxed so heavily and so artificially.
This cynical irresponsibility should be recognized in terms of its inhibiting effect on learning and all aspects of future access to international
documentation. The International Telecommunications Union bears a heavy responsibility
in this matter, especially in the light of its proposed World Communications
This paper has deliberately stressed the need for a new international documentation
perspective sensitive to the urgent needs of the world problematique. Documentalists
in this field have an obligation to render these needs .. more comprehensible
as a whole and to stimulate and support innovative user learning - especially
collective learning. It is they who have a traditional responsibility to
ensure the visibility of the "big picture". They cannot afford
to adopt a passive, self-satisfied posture.
International documentalists constitute an important group of custodians
of society's collective memory. It is this memory which is enriched by societal
learning processes. It is the "gene pool" of ideas from which our
future is born. And yet it appears to be in a totally pathological condition.
how can information systems be used to "get society's act together"
at a time when it is falling apart and losing focus? Societal memory is vulnerable
- how vulnerable has not been assessed (see Annex
2). What can be learnt from the rise and fall of civilizations about
the factors which need to be brought together in societal memory to bring
about a "golden age"? Within what comprehensible configurations
can they be brought together?
The Club of Rome report, used as a principal input to this paper, is a
first step towards a "capacity study of societal learning". An appropriate
approach is that which led to the production of the UNDP Capacity Study of
the United Nations Development systems, New York, 1969 (The "Jackson
Report). Many more detailed studies are required. The report does not specifically
mention document-related systems; This omission should be remedied. It emphasizes
the learning process and not how society stores what is learnt. The
two are however so intimately related in a "learning society" that
"library" and "information systems" can be meaningfully
substituted for "school" and "educational systems" in
the following quotations:
"While we have no inclination to defend the existing concepts of school
which we find excessively concerned with maintenance learning, neither can
we imagine the development of widespread innovative learning without institutions"
(5, P. 63).
"The degree to which societies have neglected innovative learning
in favour of maintenance learning can be seen by the extent of irrelevance
in their educational systems and their waste of human potential"
(5, p. 67).
Supposedly we will shortly have all knowledge at our physical finger
tips, but the question is how to make innovative use of it. Answering that
question shows how far from our conceptual finger tips the knowledge
really is. As currently envisaged, data terminals induce maintenance learning
of low quality. What sort of collective memory is emerging? What assistance
do individual and collective users really need?
Given its progressive increase in society, ignorance should be a focus of
attention as much as knowledge. Society has to come to terms with it. It
cannot be "eliminated"; and, properly conceived, it could even constitute
a vital resource. Similarly, "unlearning" is a process complementary
to learning. Growth in understanding has often been described as a process
of unlearning received misconceptions. What, for that matter, is the appropriate
balance between societal remembering and societal forgetting? Exploring
these perspectives could have useful implications for the acquisition and
organization of information by users. It sharpens the focus of the debate.
The quantity and interrelatedness of information generated is such that
no conventional solution can be adequate to the challenge of the times given
current constraints. There is an urgent need for low-cost, short-cuts to
accelerated societal learning - learning with "multiplier effects"
(to use an economics term). Techniques are required for the "conservation
of user attention time" and the "re-energizing of the user".
Documentalists have a responsibility to call for the development of "attention
focusing systems", and "attention receptacles" to assist
The Club of Rome report stresses the importance of developing human potential
as the keystone of the societal learning process. It is unfortunate that
in doing so it emphasizes that there are "no limits to learning"
when it is precisely these limits which are important constraints on the design
of a supportive information system. But perhaps more regrettable is the
implication that limits themselves are "bad". On the contrary, overcoming
limits is intrinsic to the learning process. It is therefore appropriate
to close with Richard Wilhelm's commentary on "Limitation", one
of the 64 hexagrams in the classic I Ching or Book of Changes:
"Limitations are troublesome, but they are effective... Limitations
are also indispensable in the regulation of world conditions... In human life
too the individual achieves significance through discrimination and the setting of limits... Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man; if they existed,
his life would only dissolve in the boundless... The individual attains significance
as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these limitations and by
determining for himself what his duty is". ( 82, pp. 231-232)
Annex 1: Collective
Memory Personified: an analogy
Annex 2: Pointers
to the Pathology of Collective Memory