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Richer Metaphors for Our Future Survival

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Published in a special issue of Futures: the journal of forecasting and planning (28, 6/7, August/September 1996, pp. 604-607),
special issue on "What futurists think: stories, methods and visions of the future" edited by Sohail Inayatullah.
A later variant appeared as Concerning "What Futurists Think"
(Futurists: visions, methods and stories (Knowledge Base of Futures Studies, vol 4)


I have a lot of difficulties with labels and definitions. But, for the record, I am of Australian nationality, born in Egypt (now 55), brought up in what is now Zimbabwe, with some schooling in the UK. I read chemical engineering at Imperial College (London) and took an MBA at the University of Cape Town. My wife is German. My involvement with computers dates back to 1965.

Since the early 1970s, and to some extent before that, Ihave worked within the framework of the Union of International Associations. This non-profit, research institute was founded in Brussels in 1910 by a Nobel Peace Prizewinner and has had its secretariat there since that time. Over that period it has had many changes of form, function and ambition, but may now be most easily understood as a clearinghouse for information on international non-profit organizations (including governmental bodies). More challenging insights into its work may be obtained by reframing the meanings of: 'union' in terms of the logic of sets and the possibilities of conceptual integration; 'associations' in terms of relationships in general, rather than simply in their organizational form; and 'international' in the sense of transcending conventional territorial boundaries (including those of a non-geographical nature, which offer more functional meanings of 'global').

My concrete responsibilities are for the development of the information system, the publications generated from it, and the research implications associated with it. The UIA survives, virtually unsubsidized, by processing information received from some 20000 organizations into large reference books, such as the three-volume Yearbook of International Organizations and the three-volume Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential.Other publications include a quarterly International Congress Calendar, covering some 10000 future international meetings, and a Who's Who in International Organizations.Some 10 databases are now available on CD-ROM and on the World Wide Web. The most recently developed covers 30,000 'strategies'.

The economic parameters of such an information processing enterprise have created many research-related possibilities, allowing me to write many papers and reports. There have been links to such professional bodies as the International Studies Association, and there have been many occasions to write on the international NGOs - which raise major typological challenges in the debate on civil society and relations to the UN system. There have been contributions to professional conferences concerned with international documentation and classification, notably the Committee for Conceptual and Terminological Analysis and the International Society for Knowledge Organization. The work, dating back to 1972, on 'world problems' and 'human potential', was undertaken in collaboration with the financial support of Mankind 2000 (through James Wellesley-Wesley), which was a catalyst for the emergence of the international futures research movement. It led to interactions with the McHales and with the formative years of the World Futures Studies Federation. It involved contact with various groups concerned with 'interdisciplinarity', most recently the Centre International de Recherches et Etudes Transdisciplinaires (Paris).

Interaction with Johan Caltung over the years led to participation in the United Nations University mega-project on Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development (1978-82), which proved to be a great stimulus to my research on a range of topics.

The data collected by the UIA is highly relational: 80,000 links between organizations, 120,000 links between world problems, 85000 links between strategies, 15,200 links between human development approaches, 23,000 links between human values. Much of my work has been with how to represent networks of such diverse interdisciplinary conceptual relationships in a working database, and what might be done to facilitate comprehension of such complexity.

This resulted in participation in systems research, notably through the Society for General Systems Research and later in the International Network for Social Network Analysis. It also led to much work on Buckminster Fuller's concept of tensegrity, most recently taken up by Stafford Beer. More recently it has involved papers on graphical possibilities, especially now that CD-ROM and the virtual reality markup language (VRML) are accessible to low-budget initiatives. Our data is ready-made for a hypertext environment, possibly with more links-per-megabyte than any other database.

As to where next: I remain challenged by the plethora of information and the inability to capture insight in conferences of the wise so as to make any operational sense out of it. Internet and Bosnia merely serve to bring home the point. My current interest is in how preoccupation with fashionable topics, such as 'sustainable communities', is manipulated to design out the most fruitful cutting edge-eco-sewage systems take priority over the challenges of psychosocial community design. Hence my abiding interest in metaphors for, in this example, how a community processes what it excretes is indeed of great interest in any non-physical ecosystem. With some colleagues, I have met periodically in a 'School of Ignorance' to respond to challenges of this kind.

What does not happen

The UIA has offered me daily exposure to information from organizations of every persuasion and enabled me to appreciate their constraints and visions to some degree. I have been most strongly influenced by what happens when representatives of such bodies get together-or, more precisely, what does not happen. I have been struck by the extent to which organizations consider each other's concerns to be dangerously misguided or completely irrelevant. This is also reflected in academic comment on the social system and in the behaviour of the best, the wisest, or those I find most congenial, when they gather together.

As a 'save-the-world conference junkie', I am most impressed by what does not happen at gatherings in which much has been invested with the greatest of expectations_usually deliberately ignoring previous failures. I am struck by the conceptual oversimplification through which those who deplore such inadequacies frame their remedies. I profoundly regret the reliance on consensus-building, with its miserable track record (Bosnia again), and the fear of exploring more complex social structures that might be based on real differences of perception and a genuine respect for diversity. It is for such reasons that I have a long-term interest in what might be called transformative conferencing and the requirements for future dialogue.

Richer metaphors

At one level my concern is to provide frameworks to hold and respect differences. This meshes with UIA information concerns. At another level I am concerned with how to transform such frameworks according to the needs of perceivers with different biases-while still retaining a degree of integrity for the whole.

It is here, I believe, that the real breakthroughs will come through metaphor, as a form of 'conceptual scaffolding'. Richer metaphors are needed to develop richer software environments (in 1995 the world is stuck with the metaphor of 'windows', when we at least need 'buildings', 'communities' and sustainable 'ecosystems' in order to survive). Whether or not these happen in time, I am interested in metaphors for future survival or, better, metaphors for psychic 'thrival' and how they can engender new forms of psychosocial organization among the most disadvantaged. I see methodology at this time as being metaphor-led or, alternatively, trapped by implicit metaphors that are inadequate to the challenges. The breakthrough will come when people feel empowered to develop new metaphors to frame their own development pathways-with or without supportive information technology.

1 would argue that most insight into this question can be gained by treating the fashionable problems as metaphors of underlying problems we choose not to recognize. The noosphere is as dangerously subject to overpopulation as the biosphere, through frenetic production of cultural products and concepts-often born of desperate one-night stands. Our cultural rainforests are being hacked down as systematically as the tropical forests-in the service of media desperate for anything that still carries value and can command awareness. Cultural variety is being lost through homogenization and monoculture as rapidly and dangerously as species are being exterminated in the cause of agricultural productivity. Psychic hunger and malnutrition are even more widespread than their physical manifestations-boredom provokes riots as readily as physical starvation. Most of us are effectively underemployed, if not unemployed, in terms of creative use of our talents and contribution to social development-and this has consequences as tragic as those of economic unemployment. And so on. It seems easier to focus on the non-metaphoric dimension, but that is not where the real problems or solutions lie, in my view.

What world do I want to live in?

I endeavoured to articulate this in an article on the Aesthetics of governance ... in the year 2490 (Futures, 23(4), 1991, pages 426-436). Briefly, I think that we have a basic challenge with how we handle and are governed by categories. They have acquired a rigidity and permanence analogous to buildings in an alienating architectural environment-asa result, most of our strategies seem to be exercises in simplistic tinkering with building blocks. There is a need to reacquire the ability to create and dissolve categories, as with many growing and evolving biological forms. Edward de Bono may best have captured this distinction in his book entitled From Rock Logic to Water Logic.

I should like to live in an environment characterized by greater ambiguity, with evolving shitting forms of subtler aesthetic quality, capable of carrying higher orders of collective insight and operational consensus. It is these which will make implementation of more appropriate strategies possible. It is the ecology of visions which will then enthuse the disabused.

Whatever the nature of the expected crisis, I believe that the future will be characterized by multiple worldviews. Many will continue to live in the world of rock logic. We are free to shift to the world of water logic, or to that of other logics-aided by the appropriate metaphors. The clustering by worldview will be more developed than at present, with many imperceptible to others-also as at present. These possibilities are already accessible through shifts in understanding, but sustaining them collectively is another matter.

The challenge will be how to make a worldview capable of sustaining a higher quality of life. For me, the latter will be significant more in psychosocial than in physical terms. The challenge is, therefore, how to enable people to design qualitatively superior sustainable communities with minimal requirements of material resources. 'World' is how 1 encompass whatever lies beyond my horizon of comprehension, including that which experiences night during my day.

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