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8.5 Metaphors of transformation in conferences

1. Imagination barrier

Earlier notes have stressed the special need for software capable of facilitating more complex forms of conceptual communication in a conferencing environment. This argument is based on the assumption that just as aircraft were faced with the technological challenge of the sound barrier, software faces the challenge of the imagination barrier. The sub-sonic conferencing problems have been largely solved. But we do not yet know how to ensuring the stability and integrity of conferences functioning at a high imaginative level. The conventional organizational and conceptual structures tend to get shaken apart.

2. Restricted access to significant innovation

There would seem to be a number of fruitful steps that can be taken, as indicated in earlier notes. When it is recognized what strategic advantage they offer to the networks that use them, it is probable that resources will be devoted to their development. It is very probable that such software will be restricted to those major corporations for whom strategic advantage is a vital consideration. It is also probable that versions of such software will be developed by certain alternative groups. It seems less likely that the core of the electronic networking and conferencing constituencies will have access to such facilities or perceive the need to do so. Unfortunately this is also likely to be the case with users in the international community of organizations.

3. Short-termism

The difficulty is that it is always possible to argue that concrete, short-term, simple procedures are sufficient in a crisis-management environment. Much of what passes for international projects and programmes is in effect reactive, crisis management. Upbeat reporting of their successes is always possible. But in strategic terms it is rather like a chess novice playing a grand master. The novice can be allowed to delude himself by many short-term gains as he progressively sinks into a more and more disadvantages strategic situation from which recovery is hopeless. This is the dilemma of sustainable development.

4. Countering deficiency of imagination

The real challenge for conferencing in relation to the crises of our times is to provide people with tools to counter the imaginal deficiency from which we collectively suffer when dealing with complexity. The texty, linear-environment of massaging and documents has a poor track record. Eminent experts, with suitable budgetary encouragement, can now be found to negate the importance of any problem, whether over-population, acid rain, low-level radiation exposure, or smoking. Their "facts" are no longer a reliable basis for action.

5. Insight through metaphor

In this context, there is a most intriguing unexplored resource. That is the use of metaphor as a guide to the elaboration of more complex conceptual frameworks and organizational structures. In effect the arguments already made with respect to tensegrity, resonance hybrids and imagery rely to some extent on the power of metaphor, especially visual metaphor. Metaphor is renowned as a key to creative thinking and innovation. Information systems have traditionally been ruthless in eliminating the ambiguity of metaphor from the communications they support. But the classical triangle of text, data and graphics processing is only 2-dimensional. Imaginative insight can be usefully placed at the apex of the (tetrahedral) pyramid based on that triangle. Metaphor is the prime vehicle for such insight.

6. Carrying complex insights by metaphor

How then can we marry metaphor processing into conferencing environments as a way of breaking through the imaginative barrier? There are clearly possibilities for doing so with computer assistance. But it seems doubtful that advances will be made fast enough on these fronts. However one great advantage of metaphor is that, like rumour and humour, it travels rapidly through any network, whether computer-assisted or not.

Consider the fashionable focus for the international community at this time, namely sustainable development. How is this complex notion to be carried and addressed in the imagination, and especially in the media. Metaphor can be used to highlight our collective difficulty in developing strategies to bring it about. Metaphors such as "global village" or "gaia" do not give focus to the strategic dilemma and the operational opportunities. Due to our imaginal deficiency, sustainable development is best understood at this time through the metaphor "having our cake and eating it too". This corresponds to the corporate interpretation of "sustainable competitive advantage". Both are tragic examples of poverty of imagination in a complex environment.

7. Shifting the conceptual centre of gravity of conferences

Imagine a conferencing environment in which text (including speech), data and graphics were treated as infrastructure "plumbing" and the conceptual centre of gravity shifted to an imaginative level sustained and disciplined by the computer-assisted use of metaphor. A major concern in the conference would be to ensure the circulation of meaning through metaphor. Complex notions would be expressed briefly by metaphor. The challenge would not be who could dominate the discussion in quantitative air-time terms or resolutions passed. Rather it would be a question of who could produce the most seductive metaphor to capture the strategic complexities and the opportunities for the formation of hitherto impossible coalitions of bodies.

Computer could do much to assist the management of such creative environments. Essentially they have three tasks. Firstly to render a repertoire of metaphors appropriately accessible, in the light of their structural and patterning characteristics. Secondly, to provide a disciplined communication framework to channel forces hindering the emergence of imaginative new patterns, and providing a protective framework (a "matrix") for such patterns in their embryonic stages. Thirdly, to give stability to the stages between the imaginative level and the organizational and operational implications (a sort of "Jacob's ladder" or "gearing down" facility), which need to be articulated at the "plumbing" level.