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 meaningful.
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 non-significant.
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 textual articulation.
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 community.
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 space.
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 the space
development of more sophisticated cognitive mappings within the space
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