Forms of Presentation and the Future of Comprehension


Anthony Judge

It is too soon to assess the merit of this approach in terms of its more experimental aims. Hopefully their implications have however been related to the organization of the categories in such a way as not to affect its value as a practical tool. As such the result is an interesting compromise between theory and practice with the merit of emphasizing the dimensions of innovative change and the value-related experiences in the name of which it is advocated.

The effort made to incorporate these less tangible dimensions in positions similar to those usually only accorded to the more concrete manifestations of human activity calls for a careful evaluation. It does attempt to reflect the concerns underlying recent major international projects, such as that of the United Nations University on Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development. This questioned the traditional "value-free" approach to serious scientific activity (63, 64) and the efforts to avoid consideration of non-material human needs (30). As the first stages of what is hoped to be an ongoing experiment, it is natural that much may be modified for future editions. But whilst this experiment is definitively not value-free, it is hoped that is helps to clarify ways in which a variety of seemingly incompatible value biases can be usefully balanced.

The prevailing assumption that classification is an objective, neutral activity may be what in effect severely reduces the value of its products as a support by which international organizations can be empowered to act more effectively. It may thus reinforce the importance they experience in the face of the problems on which they are mandated to act (65). As pointed out above, the classification of each item of concern to the international community can usefully be seen as a political act. The treatment of "homelessness" as a sub-category of "sociology", a theoretical discipline, is indicative of the manner in which problems can be swept under convenient intellectual "carpets" in order to avoid acting upon them directly. Indeed each item classified in any international classification system needs to be assessed in the light of its implications for problem-solving. It can be argued, for example, that the choice of classes or subject fields reinforces and legitimizes their organizing influence in society such that each becomes a domain in which a different kind of significance is accumulated, usually at the expense of society as a whole (25).

Classification schemes are the basis for user access to international information systems. As pointed out on the occasion of a recent conference on intergovernmental documentation, such systems are not yet adequately designed to facilitate societal learning in order to counter the marked erosion of collective memory (66). A Club of Rome report (67) specifically identified the need for innovative (shock) approaches to societal learning to counter the weaknesses associated with the adaptive (maintenance) approach built into the organization of current information systems. These tend to be totally unprepared for future crises and developments. It is for such reasons that it is appropriate to take the kinds of risk inherent in an experiment of this nature. Although errors are to be regretted, they are a useful indicator that risks are being taken in an endeavour to find a basis for a more appropriate mode of response. As pointed out by Donald Michael:

    "More bluntly, future-responsive societal learning makes it necessary for individuals and organizations to embrace error. It is the only way to ensure a shared self-consciousness about limited theory, and hence about our limited ability to control our situation well enough to expect to be successful more often than not." (39)

The weaknesses of this volume as a practical tool are partly those of any computer-based retrieval system, namely the presence (or possibility) of a percentage of misplaced entries within any category. Weaknesses at this stage are also associated with the fact that, as an experimental procedure, problems can only be eliminated progressively in an iterative "semantic tuning" procedure. Hopefully however these first three editions already indicate the possibility of organizing information on international organizations in a manner which highlights functional relationships relevant to the emergence of a new world order. To the extent that this has been achieved in some measure, it may be considered a first step beyond the current subjects and discipline-oriented approaches. These are only distantly related to the dynamics of relationships between functional domains and the problems of comprehending them and communicating the nature of such interdependency in support of problem-oriented action.

(*) If the states of matter are defined in terms of relationship to the environment, plasma is the fifth state. The others are: solid, liquid, gas, and reacting elements (eg in fire). 99% of the matter in the universe is in the plasma state.

(**) It is interesting that this book should be published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, normally associated with left-hemisphere approaches.