Forms of Presentation and the Future of Comprehension

Annex 1: Review of the information problem

Anthony Judge

A. Quantitative aspects

It is understandable that there is a very large amount of "scientific and technological" information which may be considered relevant to "development". Even if it is only (say) 1 % of the literature, this would amount to (4) :

  • 60 to 70 newarticles and reports per working day (1970)
  • a cumulative total of 200,000 to 300,000 journal articles (1970)
  • 80,000 to 140,000 new documents per year (1985 est.)

But there is also avery large quantity of information about the application of science and technology to development and much new material is being generated inanticipation of UNCSTED 1979(4a The question is whether such information can be mastered and by whom, even if those who should have access to it have no problems in obtaining or assimilating it, which is seldom the case ( 5 ).

The usual practice is to ignore the mountain of documents already in existence and to prepare a quick "study of the key issues" based on some of the "key documents" available. Such an approach is then justified by policy-making deadlines and similar pragmatic constraints. It is adequate if it is assumed that the few documents selected from society's prolific production cover the relevant issues. This assumption is however only valid if the majority of the studies is assumed to be of inferior quality,of limited relevance or a duplication of those selected (6). There is no procedure whereby this can be proven in a particular case since relevance is defined more in terms of what the agency is constrained to do than of what-needs to be done according to any wider perspective.

B. Logical aspects: classification

Multiplicity of classification schemes: The device developed to ensure access to "relevant" information in any particular case is the (document) classification system and the associated thesaurus. There are many such systems, often based on the practice in international agency libraries or departments. As such they reflect a variety of perspectives. Effective integration, even at the conceptual level, has not proved possible (7 ).

Failure to indicate functional relevance: These remarks would be unnecessary if it was possible to use each such system to identify "relevant" documents. This is not the case (unless the user knows the document in advance), for the ambition of the classification system is generally limited to identifying the standard subject categories to which the document relates, usually on the basis of its title. Now policy matters and development problems are not experienced as subjects nested neatly in logical hierarchies, but rather as action domains embedded in a network of interrelated issues where the relationships recognized depend in part upon the objectives and sensitivity of those concerned. The logical relationships between issues classified as subjects do not therefore reflect the functional relationships between interacting issues (e.g. problem A aggravates problem 8).

Classification systems threfore assist in locating documents on an issue but not on issues "relevant" to it.

Unspecified omission and partial inclusions: Classification systems fail in another respect. For example, with a scheme purporting to cover "science", the user is seldom explicitly informed what categories have been omitted as not pertaining to science according to those who conceived the scheme ( 8). On the other hand, a scheme purporting to cover "development" may also incorporate large portions of "environment", and viceversa each defining the other as a subset but failing, necessarily, to specify what is omitted as irrelevant ( 9).

A factor contributing to this problem is the widespread disagreement as to what "sciences" should be considered as "science", with the social sciences frequently omitted in the anglo-american, tradition as pseudo-sciences. This conflict is embarrassingly explicit in Unesco activities (10).

Macro-level definition: This links on to a further difficulty, namely the considerable intellectual effort devoted to the definition of "science" and its characteristics by philopher of science of various persuasions (11). This is usually undertaken without taking into account the views of those sensitive to non- western cultural spectives on science (12). A corresponding effort is being devoted to defining (or, more recently, to "redefining") "development" (13). Unfortunately these exercises focu on the "macro-concept" and fail to identify or to distinguish the "sciences" which constitute science (14) or the "development processes" which constitute the development process (15). The result is a large number of excellent studies, grouped within various schools of thought, but of very limited relevance to policy formulation concerning the application of science and technology to development. The studies reveal scholarly disagreement at their macro-level of focus (There are pre-logical or temperamental biases which contribute to this disagreement. There are referred to under point E.) and fail to decompose the concepts to a level which is of practical significance (16). Exercises in the redefinition of macro-concepts such as the "development process" within the politicized intergovernmental context, may mark a change in orientation but the nature of any relationship to the many unspecified development processes remains subject to confusion and discord.

Interdisciplinarity: Although "science" remains a focus of constant attention and a convenient label for a blurred domain, and although,in contrast, individual disciplines are relatively well- defined, the interdisciplinary relations even amongst the sciences remain a no-man's-land and a question of embarrassment or disdain within any discipline (17).This disdain is particularly tragic when extended through the "pecking order" of disciplines to the "applied sciences" and "technology". Yet the need for genuinely in terdisciplinary applications of science to development is well- recognized and the weekness of superficial or token initiatives is acknowledged (18). But relevance of disciplines to a problem situation can only be settled non-scientifically now by weighted voting techniques in expert panels - if the politics of the situation resulted in their effective representation on the panel,

C, Operational aspects: organizations and information systems

Multiplicity of organizations: The application of science and technology to development involves national and international organizations. The intergovernmental number over 300 already, and the nongovernmental number over 5,000 (19) ; the national remain unnumbered and unestimated within any country, in striking contrast to their populations (20). Clearly only a percentage of these will be considered of relevance to the development process by those producing the directories in connection with UNSTED 1979, but the criteria by which relevance is determined will in all probability exclude many bodies which will continue, to contribute if only in their own eyes, to that process. The problem remains of providing some overview of which aspects of science and technology which organizations (or divisions of organizations) help to make relevant to which aspects of the development process - currently, potentially, and whether or not their initiatives are perceived as counter-productive by evaluating bodies, and irrespective of whether or not their activities are coordinated through some umbrella body or programme.

Information systems: Here again there are many unrelated systems of differing degrees of relevance to development processes. The additional problem which emerges more clearly than in the case of organizations is the lack of integration between the operational "modes" which, the information systems are designed to serve. It is typical to find little, if any, system-level integration between information systems (even within the same agency) for: research, policy formulation, programme management, public information, education/briefing, and documentation - even when all of them are concerned with facilitating the same development processes. The reason is that the responsible organizational units in each case perceive the processes differently and have: no reference framework within which to interrelate them. The information systems are not designed to facilitate comprehension of their own content (by those not oriented to their format and especially non-westerners) or of the content of systems with which they should be integrated.

D. Comprehensibility

Comprehension overload: "Consider this dilemma: while our technological abilities to generate and disseminate potentially useful data have increased manyfold in the past few years, man's physical capacity to register and to process potentially informative data has probably increased very little, if indeed at all" ( 21). In policy circles, a widely favoured response to this constraint is to use inefficiencies (or even abuses) in procedures, and the consequent "lack of time", to filter out the majority of communications - and to require that the remaining issues be stated very briefly (22). The argument being that if the matter is important enough it can be stated briefly (however complex the chain of reasoning required to substantiate it) - and if it is too complex for this, it can be safely ignored because few people will have the attention span to be able to understand in order to protest (23). It is unclear how many problems (such as "environment" and "resources") may have been "recognized" too late for other than crisis action, because of this approach.

Issue reductionism: A more rational approach to the dilemma is to require that potential policy problems be identified and "evaluated" so that the 6 (say) "key" or core problems selected can be reviewed for action in the policy formulation process (24). The seventh and remaining problems must await until they themsel- ves reach crisis proportions (or acquire a political champion) before they are recognized (25). The only clue to the reason why 6 to 10 key issues are always selected seems to lie in evidence that this is "the maximum number of different possibilities among which the human mind can meaningfully discriminate" (26). It is also, roughly, the maximum number of divisions of any agency ad- ministration which would have to deal with a set of problems (27). Beyond the 6-10 limit lies confusion, according to current me- thods - irrespective of the number of probelemes "out there".

Communication mode preferences : Another severe problem is the limited value of the written word for communication. Many will not read until they have heard, although others refuse to "waste time" listening unless they have found the basic points worthwhile through reading. Others demand a quantified argument, possibly expressed through equations, graphs or matrices. Others are "innumerate", and demand visual images, diagrams, and films before they can comprehend an argument (28). To complete the circle, the latter are viewed with disdain by those who favour the discipline of the written word not recognizing that they themselves are "visually illiterate" (29). Policy makers and those with whom the must communicate may belong to any of these categories, although the prevalence of a particular category may be culturally deter- mined.

E. Behavioural aspects

Interorganizational antipathy : The behaviour of agencies, orga- nizations and professional associations is not simply governed by programme directives, statutes and principles. The well-known antipathies amongst the UN Agencies and their competition for resources, are a matter of common knowledge as is the case amongst their creators, namely the equivalent national agencies (30). Such behavioural phenomena, often reinforced by political consideration (e.g. vis-a-vis the World Bank or "non-universal" bodies such as the OECD, the Council of Europe or the Commonwealth), are seldom acknowledged in writing (31). They are however evident in the absence of reciprocal arrangements and, more important, in omissions from documentation by each concerning other bodies relevant to the application of science and technology to development. The data provided deliberately concals the behavioural phenomena, whether advantageous or disadvantageous to development and field-level coordination. In this sense, "positive, cooperative" public information and protocol statements may be counter-productive by concealing a situation which those less well-informed need to take into account if their initiatives are to succeed.

Interorganizational rivalry: Another aspect of this problem is evident in the information systems, classification schemes and thesauri produced by such international bodies - or even within their own divisions. With respect to the application of science and technology to development, each has its own (resources permitting) and will argue in all seriousness that they are the most relevant to its particular programme objectives (32). Needless to say the lack of relationship between them does not facilitate the development process with which they are,in principle,ultimately concerned (33).

Interorganizational territoriality: Related to this question is the marked tendency for issues to constitute the arena for inter- institutional territorial dynamics. With the division of intellectual and operational space into smaller and smaller compartments and the multiplication of institutions and professions which assume the management of each such territory, results the formation of a feudal system which governs the majority of science- related enterprises. Under the pretext of division of labour, each intends to be master of its own domain and to defend its position against, enemies from without and emerging institutional and professional rivals from within (34). Because the arena is ill-defined and unmapped it is difficult to comprehend such dynamics.

When a new issue emerges, suddenly providing an expanse of unoccupied institutional territory, each body makes every effort to demonstrate its right to a portion of that territory, either by "reinterpreting" its past initiatives to show relevance or by redefining existing initiatives under appropriate labels. The succession of special UN Conferences (environment, water, population, habitat, etc.) may be seen as catalyzing such responses, whether they are made in a spirit of cynical opportunism or per : ceived as a fresh opportunity through which it may at last be passible to define "the good, the true and the beautiful". And in this sense all the past unresolved issues get redefined under new labels in the hope that they may be resolved within the new framework. UNCSTED 1979 is one such opportunity and the same dynamics will be repeatedunless such dynamics are more adequately portrayed for comprehension.

Pre-logical biases : Finally, it is appropriate to note the existence of pre-logical or temperamental biases which determine individual (and, by extension, institutional) preferences for the nature and organization of information of information presented namely the kinds of explanation that are felt to be satisfactory. As such they characterize not merely the physical theory that a society develops but also much of the legal, political, and social behaviour of that society. There is evidence that such pre- logical biases may prevent logical consensus, such as on the nature of "science" or "development" (35).

F. "Mythical" aspects

Information on the application of sciences and technology to development is also distorted by a number of myths whose nature may be well described but rarely,if even, in the same context.

There is the myth that science based on western values is neutral and universal (36) - and that indigenous practices and folk wisdom are dangerous or charming nonsense. There is the myth that there is a scientific or technological solution to every "real" problem - other problems being subjective. There is the myth equating development with economic growth and industrialization, which conceals the problems of development and the limits to growth. There is the myth that cultural development is a direct consequence of the application of science and technology to development, since it is assumed that the acquisition of science enhances a culture rather than eroding its values (37).

There is the myth of the problem as existing "objectively" and susceptible to "properly organized" remedial action. There is the myth that it is only the lack of "political will" and the importance attached to non-scientific and non-rational arguments that prevents problems from being solved.

As mentioned earlier, there is the myth which limits attention to the 10 key sciences, and 10 key technologies as relevant to the 10 key development problems, as though each was nicely ordered in administrable units, theough it is widely recognized that it is their interrelatedness which is fundamental to any action strategy. This links to the myth which conceals the fact that existing institutions, and their associated bodies of knowledge, • are (despite of Ashby's Law) adequately structured to respond to complex problem networks (38). Underlying this is the myth that the fundamental problems are always "out there" and never in the attitudes, procedures and structures with which they are perceived and engaged. And there is the myth that if a responsible body is created to focus on a problem, then action will be seen to have been taken and because it will then cease to be perceived : as a key issue for policy purposes, it may be assumed to be under control.

As in any primitive culture, such myths are necessary to create a semblance of order in the face of a reality to which no better response has yet been developed. New approaches are required and both science and technology should be used to assist in their development.

G. Ignorance and lack of systematically ordered informatic

The kinds of information available relevant to the application of science and technology to development reveal a number of important gaps :

Scientific disciplines: There is no framework within which is collected together the succinct descriptions of the special insights, sensitivity or integrative characteristics of each scientific discipline :

  • in what way is it relevant to understanding or facilitating which development processes ; what is its unique contribution (Even systematic identification of the key concepts - and associated distinctions - unique to each discipline has not been made, nor is any attempt made to register systematically the lams or theories which govern the use of those concepts)
  • conversely, what are its special "blindspots" or "handicaps" as perceived by others and the excesses to which they give rise if uncontrolled by other factors (Namely, what tend to be the negative consequences for the development process resulting from irresponsible practice of the discipline or its inappropriate institutionalization).
  • on what other disciplines is the discipline dependent for its own effective development and appropriate application, and conversely which other disciplines are dependent upon it
  • estimates by country or world-wide of (a) the number of practitioners of the discipline, (b) institutional costs of training a practioner, and (c) annual institutional budget to enable a full-time practioner to practise effectively. Where such information is available, it is scattered through a large number of publications. This is irrelevant to the practitioner of any particular discipline, whose education slowly gives him the mastering of a very small portion of this literature by which the dependence of society on his expertise in guaranteed. But, to protect such dependence, the distinction is not made between (a) knowledge of the key aspects of the discipline (noted above) which should be widely available, at least within a policy environment, and (b) knowledge of how to use and manipulate them, which is the special skill of the practitioner. The information available in specialized encyclopaedias and dictionaries is either too diffuse, too detailed or inadequately ordered in order to facilitate understanding of the relevance to development processes.

Technologies : There is no framework within which is collected together, and systematically ordered :

  • the succinct "primitive", description of each technology, whether "outdated", modern or advanced,
  • its special relevance, if known, to particular stages in development processes and problems.
  • the interdependence between one technology and another in terms of (a) operations, (b) maintenance, and (c) substitution (whether by more advanced, less advanced, or same level)
  • dependence of the technology on the expertise of practitioners of particular disciplines
  • the negative consequences to the economic, social and cultural environment which are unique to that technology as perceived by others and the excesses to which it may give rise if uncontrolled by other factors
  • estimates by country or world-wide of (a) the number of users of the technology, (b) institutional costs of training users, and (c) annual institutional budget to operate and maintain the technology.
  • level of education required to operate and maintain the technology (specially in terms of the concepts and laws of a discipline with which familiarity is necessary).

Without systematically ordered information such as this, rational policy formulation is distorted by ignorance and lack of readily accessible overviews.

Development processes: There is no framework within which is distinguished and systematically ordered :

  • the succinct description of each development process
  • the interdependence of development processes
  • indications of the negative consequences of underdevelopment or overdevelopment of that process, or of its relationship to other processes
  • the dependence of the process on technology or various forms of infrastructure.

Application processes : There is no framework within which is collected together and systematically ordered the succinct description of the different organizational or other instruments whereby science and technology may be applied to development processes, with an indication of their unique advantages and disadvantages in different developing country situations.