Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

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1.4 Objectives

1. Organizational context

One of the original objectives, in initiating this project in 1972, was to endeavour to document how the network of international bodies focused on the network of world problems. Clearly some key problems attract much attention and many others attract very little, if any. But of greater interest is whether the organizations focusing on the same problem are in communication with each other, or whether the organizations dealing with one problem that closely affects another are in contact with the bodies dealing with the latter problem. How do problems escape the net of organizations? How does the network of organizations fail to encompass and contain the network of problems? What kinds of information would then be required to enhance transnational initiatives?

In addition to the major role that international organizations perform in identifying problems, many of them perform an important function in relation to human values. In fact the two functions are often intimately linked, as in the case of human rights issues. A significant group of organizations is also concerned with human development in its less material sense, as is the case of bodies concerned with religion and personal development. Again the question may be asked with which of the specific values is an organization associated, given that many of them carefully identify values in their statutes? Clearly there are very "popular" values, such as peace and justice, but are there values with which few, if any, bodies are associated? And to what extent are such values vital to the functioning of society? Is there also a mismatch between the network of organizations and the network of values?

2. Core concerns

(a) Clarification of "fuzzy" domains: The core concerns of the international community, whether problems, values or human development, remain conceptually "fuzzy". They are a continuing challenge to both scholars and practitioners. It is from this fuzziness that dilemmas, contradictions and paradoxes emerge. In considering the role of integrative approaches, and even the power of metaphor, in responding to this "fuzziness", it is apparent that here too there is considerable ambiguity and confusion. For this reason, despite the vital importance of these concerns, they are especially difficult to handle within information systems. Few information systems attempt to do so, preferring to deal with harder data. Experimenting with computer-based procedures to do so therefore constitutes a valid preoccupation.

(b) Recognition of "vectors of concern": The many international constituencies tend to disparage each others concerns, if they recognize the existence of concerns other than their own. Mapping the "vectors of concern" in relationship to one another provides a means of defining the nature and dimensions of the communication space within which the dynamics of the international community operate. Recognizing such vectors determines with what concerns constituencies identify, thus clarifying what moves them to act as well as the nature of the social reality within which they perceive themselves as functioning.

(c) Bridging between incommensurable domains: A major underlying concern is to create a framework within which it is possible to register links between specific world problems, human values and modes of human development. The intimate relationships between these domains call for more effective ways of processing information on them as a complex system.

(d) Anchoring transient insights: Insightful perceptions of subtle challenges and opportunities, of potentially major significance, appear in the literature. Because of their nature, and the categories and perspectives that they call into question, there are few places at which this kind of information can be collected. A suitable context is required to hold and "anchor" that information in relation to more conventional perspectives.

(e) Transformation enablement: There is a need for information in a form which enables social transformation in the light of more appropriate values. This suggests as a valid objective the extension of information system design to incorporate the fuzzy conceptual dimensions which catalyze and motivate such transformation.

3. Objectives

The objective of the project through which this Encyclopedia is produced is threefold and may be described as follows:

(a) Collection and presentation of information

At this level the intention is to demonstrate the feasibility and value of assembling information reflecting the perspectives of a very wide range of international constituencies. In contrast to normal practice, this information should not be filtered by some particular criteria of "truth" or "importance". Every effort should be made to present it in terms of what is held to be true by the constituencies from which it originates, even if the information totally contradicts that from some other international constituency. It is a basic assumption of this project that it is the dynamics inherent in the interaction of such conflicting biases which reflect the reality of global society, as much as the fundamental insights emerging from any particular analysis of the global system in the light of criteria carefully selected by leading experts.

In organizing the information into the sections in this Encyclopedia, the intention has been to group material into classes corresponding to the terms conventionally used to describe and order any response to the global problematique and the possibilities of human development. Each of these tends in some way to be of fundamental concern to any international constituency, whatever the differences about the appropriate content of such classes.

In designing a framework "hospitable" to such a wide range of perspectives, whether mutually indifferent or inherently incompatible, a secondary objective has been to seek ways to juxtapose such perspectives in order to highlight the variety of relationships between them. The framework therefore contains the variety of incompatible perspectives by fragmenting the information into a very large number of descriptive entries. This deliberate disorganization is counter-balanced by a very extensive network of cross-references between such entries. When appropriate information has been obtained from appropriate sources, some form of counterargument is included in many entries, illustrating the limited or misleading nature of the perspective presented.

Metaphor: star mapping This objective can be usefully described in terms of the metaphor of an astronomical telescope. Whereas a limited number of astronomical objects are visible to the naked eye, their visibility from Earth is determined both by their intrinsic brightness and by their distance from the observer. The major problems cited by any international constituency are equivalent to the brightest of those objects. Others may be barely visible to them. By the use of a telescope the number of visible astronomical objects, whether stars or galaxies, increases enormously, depending on the resolving power of the telescope. The brightness of some of them, to an observer located elsewhere, may be very much greater than those visible from Earth. So for some other international constituency, a different, but possibly overlapping, set of problems appears to be of major importance. The challenge of this project is conceived as one of designing a telescope of sufficient resolving power to collect information from distant sources on the phenomena which are highly visible to them. This is achieved by using the whole array of international bodies as collectors, thus constituting (as with a radio telescope with a long base line) a much more powerful telescope than that based on dependence upon any one of them or upon any small group of them. As with recent discoveries concerning the dangers of exposure to low-level radiation, this may also help to demonstrate that long-term exposure to less visible problems can be as dangerous as short-term exposure to the more visible problems.

It is hoped that the collection and presentation of information in this reference book form will meet the information needs of many users.

(b) Clarification of conceptual challenge

At this level the intention is to clarify the challenge of interrelating perceived patterns of information with which people and constituencies can identify and by which they are empowered. In one sense this project is an endeavour to document the perceptions active in global society. For the resulting quantity of information to begin to become meaningful as a whole, this calls for new approaches to communication, with an emphasis on patterns of concepts. The perceptions documented are those with which different people identify and by which they are motivated. For such motivations to reinforce each other to achieve the required political will to change, greater understanding is required of how patterns of concepts may be nested together without doing violence to the particular perceptions with which people identify. For such social change to be fruitful, there is the even more challenging requirement of ensuring a comprehensible relationship between mutually incompatible patterns of concern that can correct each others' inadequacies and excesses.

Metaphor: electricity generation This second objective can to some extent be described in terms of the metaphor of electricity generation. The electrical current produced by some form of generator depends upon the degree to which opposite charges can be simultaneously generated within the same framework and conducted together (but insulated from each other) to the point where the difference between the charges can be used to do work. This project endeavours to accumulate and juxtapose within the same framework both extremely negatively charged information on world problems, and extremely positively charged information on human potential in various forms (values, subtler states of awareness, etc), rather as in the design of a battery. The hypothesis is that it is through an appropriate juxtaposition of the "bad news" and the "good news" that the generation of the will to change is effectively generated. This is in strong contrast to many other initiatives which endeavour to focus only on positive initiatives (solutions, values, etc), only on negative doom-mongering, or on a mixture from which the opposing charges cannot be effectively separated so as to empower people to act. In the light of this metaphor the latter efforts are as likely to succeed as attempts to design monopolar batteries or an electrical circuit with a single wire. When they do succeed in mobilizing people, their subsequent failures could be usefully compared to the dangerous discharges resulting from the generation of static electricity.

It is hoped that the information presented here will stimulate some users to contribute further to the clarification of this challenge.

(c) Enablement of paradigm alternation

At this level the intention is to explore indications of ways of moving beyond the sterile relationships between the existing paradigms within which the perceptions documented in this Encyclopedia are generated. For although the strengths and weaknesses of such paradigms continue to be demonstrated in many studies, the purpose of such studies tends to be that of proving the merits of some existing or alternative paradigm. The challenge then is to explore ways of moving beyond prevailing conceptual fragmentation whilst avoiding the opposite danger of simplistic holism under the guise of sterile relativism. The challenge is made more dramatic by the irresponsibility of experts. Whilst these may be qualified to justify some particular position, they are totally unable to offer any guidance to voters and decision-makers as to the manner by which their position can be reconciled with some totally contradictory position justified on other grounds.

In an isolated local context, or a simpler world, this difficulty may be avoided by establishing certain perceptions as true and others as false, misleading or totally irrelevant. Some people are then empowered by the acceptance of such a coherent pattern of truths and the challenge of articulating them. Others are empowered by the process of denying the corresponding falsehoods.

In the more complex modern world of interacting contexts, decision-makers are forced to recognize pragmatically that contradictory positions may both be true, possibly under different conditions, even though there is no coherent framework within which they may be reconciled. Some are even empowered by the opportunity this provides to "divide and rule" by "playing one side against the other". But there is also the recognition by others that neither position need be true, and they are then empowered by the process of rejecting the system constituted by both together.

Metaphor: fusion reactor This third objective can also be described in terms of the metaphor of the current technological challenge of designing a suitable magnetic container for plasma to enable nuclear fusion to take place. In order to generate energy in a fusion reactor, the problem is to discover the particular configuration of magnetic fields, values of plasma parameters, and means of protecting the plasma from contact with any material surface which would quench it. This can be achieved by "bouncing" the plasma around within the configuration of a magnetic cavity (or "bottle"). As in the case of plasma, any comprehensive understanding of the human condition (encompassing both the global problematic and the associated opportunities for human development) is "quenched" by any efforts to contain it within a particular conceptual framework. And as with plasma, transcending this difficulty seems to require the design of a container which ensures that such understanding can only emerge, exist and develop if it is continually "bounced" or alternated between an appropriate configuration of different conceptual perspectives. Although there are indications as to the possible design of such a container, the multi-perspective containers that have so far been designed reflect the lowest common denominator of the participating perspectives, rather than the highest common insight by which appropriate action in response to the global problematic could be empowered.

As this metaphor illustrates, this project is in many ways about the adequacy of the language used amongst international constituencies. To what extent are the challenges of society and the possibility of innovative response determined by the distinctions and connections permitted or forbidden by the language of the international community (and its various jargons)? Can the many distinct problems, values and strategies engendered by that language be meaningfully distinguished? Is it in some way fundamentally inadequate as a means of formulating distinctions and relationships that are required to respond appropriately to the global problematic?

It is hoped that this Encyclopedia may to some degree be used to explore the nature of the art of alternating between paradigms, languages or viewpoints as a way of enabling individuals and societies to be appropriately empowered in response to the conditions of the moment. The challenge appears to be to discover a comprehensible conceptual dynamic of sufficient complexity to permit an appropriate conscious alternation between the different combinations of acceptance and denial. This has been admirably illustrated in drawings by the artist Escher, especially as analyzed by Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach. As in the relationship between male and female, or between parent and child, it is the collective equivalent of the art of saying "yes" or "no" under changing conditions. This is at its most frustrating and enchanting as it explores the excluded middle ground forbidden by the boundaries of Aristotelian logic, however vital the latter may be in particular circumstances.