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March 1988

Marriage of Counter-acting Insights

Proposed newsletter

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Scope This newsletter is an experimental medium for sharing visions of a more fruitful marriage between counter-acting insights. The currently envisaged focus is on the interface between policy-making, information flow and organization design, in the light of reflections on interdisciplinarity, use of metaphor and concept management in a multi-cultural society. The significance of such visions is illustrated and anchored, where possible, by reference to the implications for meeting design. Meetings, whether physical or electronic, are seen as the most widely accessible context for significant psycho-social experiment as well as being the key arena for policy-making and project implementation.

Background This activity has been initiated by the Union of International Associations in relation to the publication of its Encyclopedia of World Problems and Hitman Potential. It serves incidentally as an exploration of the nature and fundamental cognitive significance for society of any "union" of international "associations". Since the scope of the newsletter encompasses epistemological issues raised in the course of UIA participation in a number of projects of the United Nations University, it is also seen as a means of encouraging communication amongst certain researchers in the UNU network.

Editorial policy The issues of the newsletter are currently assembled by Anthony Judge, partly in preparation for the next edition of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. Since information overload is a basic constraint, text is presented in the form of short items which are numbered for convenient cross-referencing. The items are prepared on a text database which may subsequently be shared with interested parties. Deliberate efforts will be made to select and interrelate the items to facilitate the emergence of new patterns of insight. Feedback, and items for possible inclusion, should be sent to the above address. When referring to items in past issues, consider using their reference numbers for the convenience of others.

Distribution policy Issues are distributed directly to a limited number of friends/contacts on an irregular basis - and only for as long as seems appropriate. Recipients are encouraged to photocopy the issue and send it on to their friends/contacts. To be sure of receiving any future issues, contact the above address. At this stage there is no subscription charge.

Reticulating patterns of insight Conferences tend to have difficulty in interrelating the information and insights which are brought to them by the different participants. Just as there is a problem of "networking" participants, so there is a problem of "networking" insights. "Reticulating" may be a better term, now that networking is in its fashionable phase with a primary emphasis on networking people and groups. Reticulating might then be used to refer to the way in which insights can be woven together into comprehensible patterns. Note that "articulating" insights could be used to refer to the elaboration of the dimensions of an insight through differentiating its elements, whereas "reticulating" weaves together such insights, even though some may appear incompatible or incommensurable. The process of reticulation might then be seen as that which provides a conceptual bridge between distinct agenda items or between themes developed in special commissions that report back to a plenary session. At present reticulation is the art of the skilled general rapporteur who can convey a sense of coherence from a variety of seemingly incompatible preoccupations. Procedures are required to enable participants to participate more effectively in the reticulation process.

Linear sequence of insight presentation Insights and information are presented, or merge, over a period of time duiring a conference in a necessarily linear sequence, whether in a single or parallel streams. As a consequence, those insights presented earlier in the conference tend to lose "weight" in comparison with those presented subsequently, possibly to the point of being completely effaced or displaced by them. This tendency may be partially counteracted by repeated references to earlier interventions but it is clearly not practical to keep referring in each phase of the conference to insights presented in earlier phases -- for then there would be even less time available for the presentation of new insights. The normal approach to safeguarding insights presented earlier is to ensure that they are recorded, whether on paper or on some other medium. In some conferences such records can be made available for subsequent sessions, although the extent to which they can be effectively used is questionable. Most conferences attempt to ensure that some records often of a highly edited form, are available after the conference -- possibly months or years after. Participants at the conference are thus forced to experience the conference insights linearly - supported by non-linear and evanescent recollections of insights presented earlier.

Holding patteras of insight When different insights and pieces of information are presented, or emerge, during a conference new means need to be found to "hold" them in relationship to one another throughout the period of the conference. This is especially true when the items are incompatible and do not "fit" together in any meaningful way when first presented. The problem is very similar to that of constructing a building, when scaffolding is required to hold in position certain elements until others can be put in position to ensure a stable relationship. This is best seen in the construction of any archway - scaffolding is required before the keystone is fitted. In conferences at present the only scaffolding devices are programmatic in that the programme may ensure that speakers with opposing insights speak in succession, possibly with the hope that some synthesis will emerge to interrelate their viewpoints. Holding devices could be envisaged to ensure that insights presented are indicated in symbolic form on a surface representing the "topic space" of the conference. Relationships of compatibility and mutual reinforcement between insights could be appropriately indicated as well as relationships of incompatibility and opposition. It is the resulting map, updated by each presented insight, which then "holds" the patterns of insights. The elements of such a map are then a direct encouragement to participants to endeavour to identify missing elements, to clarify poorly defined elements and relationships, or to reconfigure the map into a more meaningful representation of their collective concern.

Creative standoff At present conferences may be seen as oriented to one or two objectives. Either the conference aspires only to ensuring that the variety of insights, especially those that are incompatible, are suitably represented and presented. Or the conference aspires to some form of consensus, however limited the ability to take into account the essential differences of incompatible insights as perceived by their advocates. In the light of the second objective, a conference in which participants agree to disagree - a "standoff" -- is viewed as sterile and undesirable. For all are capable of resisting any manoeuver to force them to modify their position. Another possibility which merits greater attention is that of a "creative standoff". In this condition, although none change their position, participants recognize the set of incompatible insights as a given which defines a social space. Participants may then focus their attention on the degrees of freedom they have within that space and especially on the possibility of engendering new insights appropriate to the complexities of that space. This may be seen in terms of the contrast between the seeming desirability of bringing up a child in an environment in which the parents and their friends hold very similar views, as opposed to an environment in which the parents and their circle of friends all hold unrelated or incompatible views. Children can respond most creatively to the latter opportunity. Insights emerging in creative standoff conferences could well be very significant.

Conferencing generations It could be useful to distinguish the first four generations of conferencing as follows:

Co-presence: fifth generation conferencing ? Conference styles may be usefully seen as having evolved through preoccupation with content, structure, logistics and process. Each emphasis is of course necessary to a conference. The question is whether a new emphasis is now necessary to move conferencing to a higher level of effectiveness in using the resources assembled at such great cost, especially for international gatherings. None of the existing emphases aims at establishing a context for the "co-presence" of fundamentally different insights. Rather, where these are acknowledged, the tendency is to make every effort to ensure either the dominance of a majority position or the emergence of a consensus, however superficial. And yet for a conference to reflect adequately the real and continuing differences that are the source of both the problems and richness of society, new ways of juxtaposing incompatible perspectives need to be found. An emphasis on structure may guarantee that such insights are represented and presented, and an emphasis on process may modify the perceptions of their advocates (but not the perceptions of those they represent who identify with the insights). Neither accepts the continuing reality and "right to exist" of incompatible viewpoints. An emphasis in a conference on "co-presence" would highlight and "honour" such differences without attempting to obscure them through exercises in dominance or consensus formation. It would explore means of working with the reality of incommensurability. Whilst communities of the past could always exclude, in one way or another, those who disagreed, this is not possible in the case of a global community in which incompatible viewpoints must necessarily co-exist.

Use of collective silence Because of time pressure, and the belief that resources can only be effectively used at a conference if some form of verbal or audio-visual presentation is being made, few conferences have explored the use of collective silence. Exceptions include the traditional commemorative "minute of silence" and processes such as prayer and collective meditation which endeavour to transcend the conference dynamics rather than address them directly. There may well be a place in some conferences for plenary sessions characterized mainly by silence, with occasional very brief interventions on to which participants direct their attention, especially with the object of sensing the pattern of interrelationships with insights already presented. To be successful, this use of collective silence calls for a distinct sense of participant responsibility and mutual respect to ensure that only necessary interventions are made and made briefly. There is a need to accept that most participants are already familiar with the background to the issues and that it is unnecessary to re-articulate them whatever the qualities or status of the orators. This approach might help to focus attention on what has not been said, and possibly could not be said, thus improving the collective sense of the essential significance of the conference.

Integrative clarity through sets of imperfect observations Studies of metaphor, by Graham Woyka (co-inventor of the Memex computer), indicate that it is possible to describe something extremely accurately by relatively crude observations -- provided that they are differently based. In the light of the view that even science can be considered as a set of special metaphors of different degrees of adequacy, this suggests that observations expressed through different metaphors may be used together to provide more appropriate descriptions than by any of them individually. In Woyka's view, which he is using to develop a new system of chemical analysis, even if each individual observation is only accurate to within 20%, provided that five totally independent observations can be obtained, this can result in a description accurate to within 0.032 %. This recalls Margoh Maruyama's argument for "poly-ocular vision" using different mind-sets together in order to transcend the limitations of each as in binocular vision. It is irrelevant to ask which eye has the "correct" picture and which the "wrong" one. "Binocular vision works, not because two eyes see different sides of the same object, but because the differential between the two images enables the brain to compute the invisible dimension". The relevance to conference design lies in ensuring the co-presence of distinct perspectives from the differential of which the plenary body can envisage a more fundamental insight.

Tension between vision and reality: limitations of the rubber band model The consultant in organization transformation, Charles Kiefer, argues that the relationship between vision and reality as it affects group policy-making must necessarily be one of tension. He illustrates this by showing them linked by a tensed rubber band. Vision divorced from reality and reality without vision are both ineffectual in different ways. Healthy tension is maintained because of the opposing orientations. Although this model is neat, it does fail to draw attention to the existence of a "zone of mis-perception" which tends to be associated with this tension. The visionaries in a group tend to detect negative features in the concerns of the practitioners anchored in reality and vice versa. Each tends to perceive the "shadow" of the other's focus and, as a given, this tends not to be open to any form of rational discussion. Furthermore those anchored in reality, when attempting to share their visions, perceive each other's visions as the "reality of that person" . Each person's reality then casts a shadow on any vision they might share. In Jungian terms, some means of collectively coming to terms with the shadow is required.

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