Forms of Presentation and the Future of Comprehension


Anthony Judge

This paper has deliberately stressed the need for a new international documentation perspective sensitive to the urgent needs of the world problematique. Documentalists in this field have an obligation to render these needs more comprehensible as a whole and to stimulate and support innovative user learning -- especially collective learning. It is they who have a traditional responsibility to ensure the visibility of the "big picture". They cannot afford to adopt a passive, self-satisfied posture.

International documentalists constitute an important group of custodians of society's collective memory. It is this memory which is enriched by societal learning processes. It is the "gene pool" of ideas from which our future is born. And yet it appears to be in a totally pathological condition. How can information systems be used to "get society's act together" at a time when it is falling apart and losing focus? Societal memory is vulnerable -- how vulnerable has not been assessed (see Annex 2). What can be learnt from the rise and fall of civilisations about the factors which need to be brought together in societal memory to bring about a "golden age"? Within what comprehensible configurations can they be brought together?

The Club of Rome report, used as a principal input to this paper, is a first step towards a "capacity study of societal learning". An appropriate approach is that which led to the production of the UNDP Capacity Study of the United Nations Development Systems, 1969 (The Jackson Report). Many more detailed studies are required. The report does not specifically mention document-related systems. This omission should be remedied. It emphasises the learning process and not how society stores what is learnt. The two are, however, so intimately related in a "learning society" that "library" and "information systems" can be meaningfully substituted for "school" and "educational systems" in the following quotations:

    "While we have no inclination to defend the existing concepts of school which we find excessively concerned with maintenance learning, neither can we imagine the development of widespread innovative learning without institutions" (5, p. 63).

    "The degree to which societies have neglected innovative learning in favour of maintenance learning can be seen by the extent of irrelevance in their educational systems and their waste of human potential" (5, p. 67).

 Supposedly we will shortly have all knowledge at our physical finger tips, but the question is how to make innovative use of it. Answering that question shows how far from our conceptual finger tips the knowledge really is. As currently envisaged, data terminals induce maintenance learning of low quality. What sort of collective memory is emerging? What assistance do individual and collective users really need?

Given its progressive increase in society, ignorance should be a focus of attention as much as knowledge. Society has to come to terms with it. It cannot be "eliminated"; and, properly conceived, it could even constitute a vital resource. Similarly, "unlearning" is a process complementary to learning. Growth in understanding has often been described as a process of unlearning received misconceptions. What, for that matter, is the appropriate balance between societal remembering and societal forgetting? Exploring these perspectives could have useful implications for the acquisition and organisation of information by users. It sharpens the focus of the debate.

The quantity and interrelatedness of information generated is such that no conventional solution can be adequate to the challenge of the times given current constraints. There is an urgent need for low-cost, short-cuts to accelerated societal learning - learning with "multiplier effects" (to use an economics term). Techniques are required for the "conservation of user attention time" and the "re-energizing of the user". Documentalists have a responsibility to call for the development of "attention focusing systems", and "attention receptacles" to assist the user.

The Club of Rome report stresses the importance of developing human potential as the keystone of the societal learning process. It is unfortunate that in doing so it emphasises that there are "no limits to learning" when it is precisely these limits which are important constraints on the design of a supportive information system. But perhaps more regrettable is the implication that limits themselves are "bad". On the contrary, overcoming limits is intrinsic to the learning process. It is therefore appropriate to close with Richard Wilhelm's commentary on "Limitation", one of the 64 hexagrams in the classic I Ching or Book of Changes:

    "Limitations are troublesome, but they are effective... Limitations are also indispensable in the regulation of world conditions... In human life too the individual achieves significance through discrimination and the setting of limits... Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man; if they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless... The individual attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these limitations and by determining for himself what his duty is". ( 82, pp. 231-232)