Development through Alternation

9.8 Implications for information processing

Anthony Judge

The transformative right-hemisphere step advocated in the previous section can be advantageously complemented and challenged by a left-hemisphere focus on innovations in structured information processing. As argued in an earlier paper (81), the information systems currently installed or envisaged facilitate, in the Club of Rome's terms, maintenance (adaptive) learning but not innovative (shock) learning. This applies particularly to the development information systems promoted by the intergovernmental community. Maintenance learning calls for information systems in support of existing programmes for problems recognized in the past. Innovative learning calls for systems which enable unforeseen future problems to be anticipated:

"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..." (44, p. 42).

The systems required involve a degree of preparedness and an ability to redefine classificatory frameworks (not just to reshuffle and augment predefined lists of categories in a participative environment). These possibilities have been designed out of most existing systems. This may be seen in the cumbersome way in which the intergovernmental community has to re-equip itself at the information level for each newly discovered problem (e.g. environment, energy, etc.). The academic community is in a similar situation.

Bateson makes the point:

"At present, there is no existing science whose special interest is the combining of pieces of information. But I shall argue that the evolutionary process must depend upon such double increments of information. Every evolutionary step is an addition of information to an already existing system. Because this is so, the combinations, harmonies, and discords between successive pieces and layers of information will present many problems of survival and determine many directions of change." (29, p. 21)

As argued elsewhere (81): "Retrieval systems focus queries in the light of the user's existing knowledge and biases." The Club of Rome report notes: "We submit that many of the difficulties of learning today stem from the neglect of contexts." (44, p. 23) Soedjatmoko states: "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." (82)

What is needed at this time is a new variety of computer software which facilitates conceptual pattern formation as part of the inquiry process. The challenge is to facilitate accumulation of patterns, and of patterns of patterns. But this is not only a spatio-structural problem, but also a temporal-dynamic one of facilitating the discovery of the cycles of which existing categories are phases - as in Bohm's concern with "holocyclation" (93). This is in total contrast to current approaches which only meet the needs of users who assume that they know the pattern about which they require further information. Existing systems reinforce contextual ignorance and belief in the irrelevance of that of which users remain ignorant. This is valid locally but dangerous globally. There the challenge is to clarify how, when or where anything may become relevant. But even locally a category scheme which is unable to embrace the experience of a bird singing outside an office window is likely to be of dangerously limited value to any programme of human and social development. The categories of the United Nations Environment Programme, for example, ignore almost completely those species which do not have an economically significant relationship to man, thus effectively reinforcing the concept of the planet as a hydroponic system denuded of "non-functional" species.

A major disadvantage of the current approach to organizing information is that it is producer rather than consumer oriented, and is thus inaccessible to all but the most motivated learner - precisely the person who effectively already "knows what he wants" and has little interest in topics he consequently perceives as irrelevant, e.g. to his own planned production of further information The current approach does not face the challenge of designing non-manipulative information systems for people who do not know what they want, namely systems capable of responding to the condition of the uncommitted or apathetic who have not yet engaged in some development programme.

A different approach, that could be facilitated by video disc technology, would be one in which a discipline or topic was organized in terms of a number-based technique of fragmentation into sets. Information would be structured into learner-oriented units of different levels of content complexity (as is already done in programmed learning techniques). But the basic idea would be to deliberately arrange such units in sets of 1, 2, 3 or N elements. In any given set the units would be chosen and defined as complementary elements such that a pattern of relationships emerged between them. But the user would have the option of selecting sets in which the unit contents were such as to make the relationship neutrally comparative or mutually challenging, even to the point of negating each others positions. Thus the user could then alternate "backwards and forwards" through the information in terms of variables such as:

  • number of units in a set, depending on the user's tolerance of quantity and resistance to overload (i.e. attention span)
  • level of complexity of unit content
  • level of exposure desired to units formulated such as to bring out mutually contradictory, critical or challenging relationship between them, (in the light of the current debate between schools of thought)
  • level of uncertainty acceptable in the formulation of the unit content
  • preference for formulation in text or graphic modes of various types, from scientific through metaphoric to poetic imagery

Organizing information in this way raises the interesting question as to how to identify, at a given level of complexity, the concept units to be included in such sets when the number of units equals 1, 2, 3 to N. For given choices of the last four variables above, what could be selected as the 10 key concepts of political science, for example? Where N is of the order of 150, the details of the nation-state system can obviously be elaborated. But what can be discussed in psychology when N=150?

This suggests that any information or argument should be presentable in such a multi-facetted form in order to facilitate learning - a possible basis for the organization of the proposed Encyclopedia of Social Science Concepts (under the auspices of UNESCO, ISSC and COCTA). It implies that a learner should be able to approach any topic in terms of his preferred decomposition of it into N elements, namely in terms of the number of distinctions or the degree of explicit difference with which he likes to work. Note that the problem in any policy or strategy situation is to maximize the number of factors the leadership can effectively grasp - and communicate, if popular approval is necessary. Information has to be packaged in terms of whatever value of N is acceptable. This technique has not been developed.

A special advantage of this approach is that it requires that units of information in conflictual relationship be juxtaposed, in case the learner wishes to be exposed to the nature of that conflict. In effect it calls for the ability to juxtapose both a viewpoint and that of its most explicit denial. This counteracts the tendency of "protect" users from "mis-informed" alternative viewpoints. And even when the viewpoints are simply different (N greater than 2), rather than mutually denying (N equal to 2), it enables the user to learn to distinguish between N shades of difference, and appreciate the variety detectable at that "diversity tolerance level".

An approach of this kind clearly offers many advantages in the exchange of information between people of different backgrounds - sharing mind-sets. Given the developing trend to write and exchange papers in a computer conferencing mode, this approach could well be used as a way of organizing such presentations of information - in contrast to the conventional near text mode such as used in this paper. It obliges the author, or some processing service, to work his way through the concepts inherent in his presentation at various values of N, rather than distribute lists of factors, points, principles, concepts or recommendations throughout the paper in various unrelated forms.

This obstructs the learner's access to the essence of "what he is getting at", at whatever values of N he is prepared to explore the information. Such an approach would free collective authors (such as the Brandt Commission, or the GPID project which inspired this paper) to interrelate a more complex pattern of concepts by which their collective understanding could be contained.

The need is for pattern building computer software to enable users to interrelate and nest their range of preoccupations in a flexible, non-simplistic manner which is inherently integrative. This is not to be confused with the extensive work on "pattern recognition". It is a question of facilitating category and symbol management in which boundaries are open to redefinition. It is such redefinition which facilitates transformative development.

Some possibilities have been discussed in earlier papers (81, 114) to counter the current erosion of collective memory, namely negative societal learning. The related implications of information networks for a transnational university have also been explored (109, 115). It is to be hoped that the newly created, development-oriented World Centre for Computer Technology and Human Resources (Paris) will focus on such questions. They correspond to Attali's concluding plea for the mobilization of "technologies reductrices des couts d'organisation." (5, p. 295)