Coherent Organization of a Navigable
Preliminary draft proposal for Intelligent - Information -
to European Commission DG XII (see http://www.cordis.lu/esprit/src/eyecall.htm)
- / -
Schema: Inhabited Information Spaces
The project is concerned with the development of interfaces which will enable a variety
of web users to interact with, and modify, information on a range of conceptual entities
relating to current challenges of governance and community organization. Some of these
entities are already managed in databases on the web. In the case of one of the proposers,
the Union of International Associations (UIA), the entities profiled and interlinked in
extensive relational databases include: world problems, international organizations,
organization strategies, human values, international conferences.
The various conceptual entities, and their relationships, may be considered as defining
a shared information space inhabited by a dynamic collection of organizational actors,
activitist networks, and individuals seeking to position themselves more fruitfully in
relation to the global 'problematique', 'resolutique', and
'imaginatique' -- and who are themselves the source ofsuch information. Users
inhabit this space as 'embodied entities' either in their own
'unaffiliated' right or through representations of collectivities --such as
local, national or international organizations. They interact with other 'disembodied
entities'. To employ a gardening metaphor, these effectively live, grow and move in
the space through the manner in which embodied entities nourish or neglect them.
Users of such information may range from the general public, through researchers,
students, information and hyperlink editors, journalists, to policy-makers -- especially
amongst international organizations, including citizens movements, or in relation to their
activities. The interface required will facilitate collective learning, as well as
formulation and undertaking of initiatives, by coalitions of partners within this space.
It is specifically envisaged as a meaningful bridge between non-specialist and specialist
users. In this sense non-specialists work, augment and enrich the space according to their
understanding, even though their focus may effectively fragment or dismember the shared
space. Specialists may seek new ways to configure the space and maintain its coherence,
whilst preserving an appearance of fragmentation for participants for whom this is
The essential conceptual challenge faced by users is to detect and impose patterns of
coherence on large complexes of information whose significance is often dangerously
distorted by any conventional hierarchical approach to menu organization. It is such
patterns which will enable them to navigate the space meaningfully. The research will
focus on interfaces which enable users to work with networks of conceptual entities,
configured to facilitate comprehension, innovative responses, and strategic organizational
initiatives. The challenge to comprehension faced by users, necessarily obliged to seek
higher patterns of order, requires attention to non-textual information through whose
structural and other properties any textual information may be ordered -- especially for
those frustrated by conventional learning pathways.
Of special interest is the need to respond to users wishing to shift between different
orders of complexity and challenges to comprehension. In interacting with such
information, users need to be able to work with differing, often conflicting, evaluations
of its significance and correctness. The special challenge in managing this space is
therefore one of introducing a self-organizing feature in response to the way different
types of user attach significance to any information -- since this is essential to the
evolving dynamics of the space.
As briefly indicated above, several interconnected thematic spaces provide the
context and immediate justification for this research. They are as follows:
International organizations: Profiles of 20,000 international non-profit
organizations and networks (governmental and nongovernmental) are maintained in a
relational database that reflects the formal working relations (some 100,000 links)
between such bodies. This thematic space calls for interface characteristics that would
enable users to go beyond access via title, text, subject or relational access. The
challenge is how to make sense, according to their need, of complexes of organizations in
any given subject area, how to detect gaps and opportunities, and how to perceive
communication and coordination possibilities -- but especially how to offer new users with
the possibilities of participating in this evolving organizational space, notably through
their own initiatives. Especially interesting is the question of how to balance
involvement of the widest public and user suppression of communications considered
World problems: Profiles of some 12,000 world problems are maintained in a
relational database that reflects both hierarchical and systemic relations (some 100,000
links) between them. These 'problems' are perceptions currently culled from the
literature of international organizations (see above) and other consituencies, including
the media. As such they reflect a wide variety of public understandings of the global
problematique. The special need of this thematic space is for users to be able to
configure patterns of problems, notably vicious loops or cycles across conventional
sectoral and disciplinary boundaries, in ways which shift the level of understanding and
analysis to a more systemic level -- but without dampening specific concerns. The concern
is to provide users with pathways across conventional category boundaries whilst giving
form to a new sense of context.
Strategies and solutions: Profiles of some 29,000 advocated or implemented
collective initiatives, in response to world problems (see above), are maintained in a
relational database that reflects both hierarchical and systemic relations (100,000 links)
between them. These strategic initiatives are currently culled from the literature of
intrernational organizations (see above) and other constituencies, including the media. As
with the 'problems' they reflect a wide variety of (often conflicting)
understandings of what needs to be done, and what could usefully be done. The special need
of this thematic space is for users to be able to configure patterns of strategies,
notablyserendipitous loops across conventional sectoral boundaries, in ways that shift the
level of understanding and collective response to a more systemic level -- but without
dampening enthusiasm for specific initiatives. Again the concern is to provide users with
pathways across conventional category boundaries whilst giving form to a new sense of
context, especially to ensure the viability of broader coalitions. It is this sense of
context which should enable users to assess the relevance of initiatives they might
promote through this thematic space.
Human values: This seemingly elusive thematic space may be seen as underlying
the perception of problems (it takes recognition of a value to perceive a problem) and
formulation of solutions (to enhance some value). The UIA relational database on some
3,000 positive and negative values in fact provides a vital link between problems,
strategies and understandings of human development (see below). In this space the
interface challenge is to enable users to articulate understandings of values that attract
and repel them, whilst at the same time enabling them to transcend the value polarization
which is so typically divisive in society. The question is whether it is possible to
configure value polarities in new ways, providing genuine global frameworks (or templates)
to interrelate disparate strategic initiatives.
Human development: In complex, multi-cultural societies there are many (often
conflicting) understandings of the phases, modalities and goals of human development.
These may be articulated by spiritual traditions, by academic disciplines, or through
other individual and collective explorations. As means of increasing sensitivity to subtle
value understandings, they are often the driving process behind particular collective
strategies. The complex relationships between development processes passionately favoured
(or violently abhored) by different users are a special challenge to interface design,
especially since the subtle insights (and challenges to learning) associated with them are
often held in non-textual forms, such as symbols, mandalas or even music. The UIA
relational database on 4,000 concepts of human development and modes of awareness (15,000
links) is a challenge to the development of interfaces which offer modes of travel between
extremely different configurations of insights that are often explicitly antagonistic to
International conferences: ????
The proposal assumes a variety of preferred learning styles which different users may
adopt all the time, or which the same user may adopt at different times. This is
especially important in relation to any effort to ensure meaningful communication between
contrasting European cultures and with non-European cultures. It is therefore considered
desirable to provide for a variety of alternative structural metaphors rather than to
order the space in terms of any particular, and often overly familiar, architectural
metaphor. Innovation is strongly associated with change of metaphor.
From this perspective, one research challenge is to offer users means of switching
structural metaphors in order to reconfigure their representation of the space. It is
desirable to envisage the possibility of subsequent development of metaphor
'plug-ins'. The meta-structure should therefore offer a degree of cognitive
invariance in any transformation between the structures deriving from any one metaphor.
Reflecting reality, in this sense users inhabit a shared space, but how they represent and
experience it may be quite different.
The context implicitly calls for a new approach to representation and management of
difference and disagreement within a supposedly shared space -- whose coherence must in
some way be ensured, if only though higher patterns of ordering of which particular users
may choose to be unaware. Many aspects of collective initiatives, inter-organizational
dynamics and value aspirations are mutually opposed --even deriving their identity and
strength from opposition to some contrasting initiative. One user's solution may be
another user's problem. Simplistic representation of difference by distance fails to
represent the sense of proximity of any opposition that is often experienced by users in
reality -- it also fails to hold any understanding of complementarity that may emerge as a
result of learning.
The architectural metaphor that is the special focus of this proposal is based on
centro-symmetric space structures rather than cityscape structures -- and as such suggests
intriguing contrasts that can carry new significance in dealing with difference and
complementarity. Flat cityscapes necessarily have boundaries whose cognitive challenge is
easily ignored. Various approaches to building and inhabiting spherical structures warrant
exploration and integration:
Geodesic structures: Use of the architectural principles for constructing
spherical structures to carry information of significance to the coherence and integrity
of the space. Of special interest are those associated with geodesic structures as
approximations to spheres. It is their structural elements which can then be associated
with properties of the space and with navigable routes 'around' the sphere
(including 'great circle' and other routes). The surfaces so defined can be
associated with areas of interest. Note that although such structures may be highly
complex, any symmetric or aesthetically memorable features can function as mnemonic
crutches beyond normal capacity to retain a meaningful overview.
Differences in global representation: spherical surface holds a cognitively
significant isomorphic relationship to the reality of the physical globe. It is finite but
unbounded. Any user articulation of 'global' understanding can be articulated by
cutting up the surface of the sphere into areas which can be the preferred habitat of
certain entities. Of interest is the possibility that users may choose to cut it up in
different ways or to apportion the areas differently. The interface has therefore to
manage different kinds of global understanding, reflecting the kinds of, often highly
'distorted', differences in understanding about the planet. The research
challenge is to reflect the distorted representations users may want to make of a space
that is nevertheless shared and coherent, although representation of the latter may only
emerge through a learning process.
Complexification and decomplexification: Use of geodesic-type structures allows
for the possibility of complexifying (unpacking) and decomplexifying (packing) the curved
space. If there is a need to distinguish only a limited number of areas or categories, it
may be configured with a minimum of 4. Various orderly transformations on the structure
can be used to complexify it into other geodesic configurations as required. Cognitively
this implies a structural complexity zooming feature to the interface which in knowledge
organization terms can be seen as a novel approach to category management and learning
that always preserves globality.
Horizon effects: It is readily assumed that spaces should be transparent and
without resistance to navigation. This does not correspond to the reality of physical
spaces nor to the learning and energy required to travel through them. Real spaces are
typically bounded for the inhabitant by horizon effects that inhibit receipt of distant
information from distant and unfamiliar locations. This characteristic can be a useful
feature of an interface. On a spherical surface these are explicit. Information is not all
accessible or visible from any given location on the surface -- 'beaming'
inhabitants to any part of the surface denies the importance of the delay associated with
certain cognitive operations. Certain kinds of information cannot be treated as contiguous
-- cultural niches and variety are protected by such horizon effects and by the shift in
logical assumptions signalled by the relative orientation of the gravitational vertical
around the sphere. Journeying has important psychological features to it: people 'on
the other side' can be 'upside down', as is the case between people holding
radically different views.
Tensegrity features: The constructional principle underlying spherical geodesic
structures is that of tensional integrity. This involves an appropriate configuration of
continuous tension and discontinuous comprehension elements. These have very interesting
potential in structuring a space with self-organizing features. Tension element can be
used to encode mutually supportive relationships that make for facilitated pathways around
the surface. Compression elements can be used to encode relationships between entities
bound together by constraint, and which would otherwise distance themselves from one
another. Both are significant in configuring coalitions that are sufficiently diverse to
include contrary perspectives.
Multiple space habitats: Given the desirability that users should be able to
build (or borrow) and maintain their own (or shared) habitats, of special interest is the
possibility of using the interface to shift between a single shared spherical surface and
an exploded space. In the latter case each distorted representation of the single surface
would generate its own spherical surface in a universe of such structures. This then
frames the challenge of space navigability in other terms, losing the global routing
facilities offered by any geodesic structure.
Space as perceived by its participants: A number of points discussed above also
relate to this issue.
A particular research challenge is associated with taking a complex network of
relationship information and displaying it on the spherical surface such as to minimize
the number of line crossings. The mapping algorithm should massage the network information
to confine links that can be considered proximate to local areas on the sphere and,
wherever appropriate, to position those link pathways that are not simply local around the
spherical surface (as 'great circle' pathways).
Since relational data is constantly emerging and changing in response to exchanges
between inhabitants and their perception of the space, it is of special interest to offer
facilities to reconfigure such mappings in the light of one or more geodesic structures.
Such structures thus serve as potential (optimal or ideal) templates for any mapping,
which may however only approximate to any one geodesic pattern. In this case it is the
geodesic pattern which offers the possibility of rendering the mapping memorable and
therefore globally significant.
Also of interest is to offer the possibility of projecting any such mapping onto other
user-selected surfaces, such as animals or landscapes -- again with the objective of
rendering the global structure meaningful.
Note that whatever approach is taken, the desire is to offer the user the facility of
selecting a template on the basis of which the structure of the space should be
configured. Similarly, although some entities such as organizations or problems could be
sized in the space according to a limited selection of quantitative criteria, these may
not correspond to a particular user's preferred perception of them. A local community
association might then figure larger than the European Commission for people in that
Personal presence of participants: Following from the preceding paragraph, there
is an interesting challenge in finding ways to allow individuals to inhabit the space with
collectivities with which very large numbers of individuals may be associated. To improve
correspondence with the real world, it is possible that communication ability with larger
structures could, in some situations, be related to the number of individuals despatching
that communication. Such ability could, for example, be related to the physics of that
Processes taking place within the space: These include learning, information
exchange, advocacy, coalition formation, identification of communication pathways,
accessing higher patterns of order.
Information accessible within the space: This would include: descriptive text,
comment, dialogue, images and sound, mappings and structural perspectives.
Exploration and navigation
The development of these techniques is closely associated with the research challenges
identified above under Structure and Presentation.
The information associated with the context has been built up with a variety of
techniques that respond crudely to some of the issues. These techniques include
multilingual subject access to entities which is important in a European environment.
Chains of relationship pathways can be explored. Vicious cycles of problems can be
identified. The limitations of these techniques, even for a skilled user, stress the need
for radically different paradigms, as proposed above, where the emphasis is on global and
contextual tools to guarantee adequate trans-disciplinary and trans-sectoral travel --
especially in the event of logical, ideological or cultural discontinuity.
Of special interest is the exploration of tools that help the inhabitant of the space
to move through levels of complexity, where the possibility of further movement is
determined by ability to understand more complex patterns. It is comprehension of the
pattern that gives coherence to the user's movement through the space.
Accessibility and participation
Whilst offering opportunities that may not be transferrable from the virtual reality,
the space is proposed as a means of augmenting the capacity of individuals and
collectivities to interact in the real world. This may result from:
transactions that take place through the space,
less probable coalitions that form and are given stability through the properties of
development of more sophisticated cognitive mappings within the space