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10.2 Beyond the constraints of text

1. Unexplored resources

The process by which new possibilities are currently being explored is almost completely conducted through verbal and textual exchanges. The nature of new structural arrangements is then finally defined and given form in legal texts. The structure is thus envisaged, agreed and defined through linear text.

As is clear in any complex design situation (whether concerning buildings, machinery, factory systems, or chemical molecules) imagery is vital to comprehension of richer and more complex possibilities. Such imagery may be so complex that it can only effectively be managed and manipulated by computer (as in computer-aided design).

Where efforts are at present made to use imagery in response to challenging problems of governance, it tends to be limited to video promotional presentations or to classical organization charts. The former tends to avoid articulation of structure and the latter encourages simplistic rearrangement of organizational units, usually only in a hierarchical array.

There is a significant body of evidence to indicate that creativity and innovation are catalyzed and sustained by imagery and metaphor. It is these which provide the conceptual scaffolding to capture an insight into new and more complex patterns that can reconcile hitherto unrelated phenomena. This applies in all fields of human activity.

From this perspective there is a strong argument for exploring the characteristics of structured imagery vital to the articulation of new patterns of relationships in areas critical to governance at this time. Such imagery could be used as a complement to text-based discussion of such possibilities. However, as with the concept of a spiral staircase, there are presumably quite simple institutional structures which it would be considerably easier to discuss on the basis of an image rather than through a necessarily complex textual description. Work on structured imagery is vital to clarify the nature of such options. It is these options which cannot be effectively envisaged through the current text-based debates.

2. Nature of a complementary approach

Giving increasing weight to imagery, offers the possibility of turning the present approach "on its head". Instead of producing text and then looking for images to illustrate it -- the focus is on looking for images to carry a structural insight, before looking for text to explain it. This benefits from the ways in which imagery is often part of the creative process through which social innovations take form.

This approach is in effect an effort to seek a more appropriate balance between the cognitive functions represented by imagery and text. It could even be argued that failure to explore the imagery dimension is an expression of functional imbalance at the cognitive level. From this perspective, text could be seen as reinforcing so-called patriarchal, left-brain approaches at the expense of the so-called feminine insights and right-brain approaches carried by imagery.

The extent to which policy-making is media-driven has been frequently noted in recent years. Policies are unsustainable unless they can be effectively carried by the media. Text-based policies are difficult to express in the visually oriented media. This forces the media to develop "stories" which do not reflect the complexity of the issues and policies designed to respond to them -- they capture the imagination in a distorted manner which fails to harness it in support of the policies.

3. Improving the range of options

There is a marked tendency for the extremely divisive situations discussed here to be understood in terms such as the following:

  • Favoured position (the "reasonable" perspective, the "normal" view, "my side")
  • Opposing position (the "unreasonable" perspective, the "dissident" view, "their side")
  • Complicating factors (many "sides", multiple dimensions)
  • Resolution ("peace", "harmony", "sustainable development")

This sequence may be viewed as a progression in complexity from a single position to the transcendence of such positions (reminiscent of the dialectic tradition). It might be coded as a form of counting: from one and two, through "many", to a final, desirable "null" state. The question to be asked is whether the fundamental strategic options facing the planet should be confided to such a primitive numbering system and the limited geometrical configurations which it allows. Significant issues tend to have more than two "sides". What are the geometrical forms which can give coherent insight into the governance of a multi-sided issue?

It is of course possible to describe a wide range of phenomena using a binary numbering system, as is done in computer systems. But binary codes are not readily comprehensible. As with the numbering system, those cultures and languages whose counting ability is limited to one, two and "many" are viewed as impoverished (in that respect at least). There is advantage in articulating "many" into a sequence of numbers which then allow a range of structural configurations to be described unambiguously and comprehensibly. (The harmonious "null" state, which is the goal of most forms of conflict resolution, then functions like a zero in a numbering system, rounding off a sequence. It thus "sets the stage" for work towards more subtle levels of "harmony" or "sustainable development" in terms of which new kinds of distinctions need to be reconciled at a higher null state.)

4. Image-based governance

It is possible to envisage a situation in which every major policy is carried by an image or set of complementary images. This then becomes the focus of a new form of consensus -- rather than the text "explaining" the image. The image is not developed, after the fact, to make the text-based initiative palatable, as in present public information initiatives. The image is then central both to the structure of the policy and to any media initiatives. In a sense it is the image which provides the ordering principle for any text. In computer terms, textual commentary and explanation is "hung" on the different structural features of the image.

Such developments would then open up the possibility of what amounts to image-based consensus, and the associated formal agreements. This is the way in which design-based contracts are agreed. As in the construction of a building, a piece of machinery, or a production system, it is the design "specifications" expressed in diagrammatic form on which agreement is reached. It is the central or underlying image which creates the context on the basis of which detailed arrangements can be qualified in textual form.

This approach offers an alternative to dependence on agreements based solely on the text of resolutions, declarations and treaties. In the light of the experience of past decades, it would be wise to question the adequacy of these as a support for the emerging challenges of governance.