Forms of Presentation and the Future of Comprehension

Information usage

Anthony Judge

1. User specialisation

It is unnecessary to comment here on the large amount of information now available or on the rate at which this is increasing in every field of knowledge -- including those of interest to international organisations. It has long been an accepted truism that nobody can be expected to "master" every field of knowledge, and few can be expected to master one unless it is narrowly specialised. This does not raise major problems in the world of documentation. Users are expected to have specific concerns and are guided, more or less effectively to the information services and tools best able to respond to those concerns.

If at the end of his search the user is faced with a selection of 65 documents (or more) corresponding to his concern, it is the user's problem to decide on how to proceed. If he complains about the quantity, it is considered appropriate that he should be asked to specify his requirements more narrowly. He may even be assisted in this by allowing him to scan abstracts. If finally he complains that he "does not have time" to scan all the relevant abstracts or selected documents, this is not a matter of concern to the documentation service, especially if he has been informed of the documents as a subscriber to a selective dissemination of information (SDI) system on the basis of his user profile.

2. Usage contexts

Expressed in this way, the user problems lie outside the information service. But the nature of those problems is such as to raise questions -in the light of the remarks of the previous section -- about the value of the information systems now available and envisaged. In order to clarify these problems it is necessary to be more precise about the "usage contexts" with which information systems may be concerned. These may be ordered as follows:

    1. Automatic, namely information movement not requiring human decision, as typified by computer controlled manufacturing processes -- the computer is the "user"

    2. Procedural, namely information selected and transformed under well-defined procedures, as typified by computerized reservation systems and many aspects of bibliographic control

    3. Programme-oriented, namely selection of information governed by a pre-definedset of criteria based on research or learning programme, as typified by the major uses to which documentation systems are put

    4. Open-ended exploration, namely dialogue with an information system to determine more valid ways of formulat ing a research or learning programme, as typified by the needs of those attempting to determine the thrust of an as yet un-categorized policy concern.

The first two are of no concern here. Increasingly it is expected that these should exist and that they should function satisfactorily. The third is of major importance to international documentation services but its user problems are largely covered by the 1972 Symposium report (1). Existing and envisaged systems are satisfactory for users who are content with their ability to specify their information requirement.

3. Maintenance/shock learning

The first three usage contexts correspond to the requirements of what the Club of Rome report (5) calls "maintenance learning"

    "Maintenance learning is the acquisition of fixed outlooks, methods, and rules for dealing with known recurring situations. It enhances our problem-solving ability for problems that are given. It is the type of learning designed to maintain an existing system or an established way of life. Maintenance learning is, and will continue to be, indispensable to the functioning and stability of every society". (5, p.10)
Maintenance learning reinforces existing categories and paradigms, the disciplines to which they give rise, and the professional and institutional division of labour of which they are the basis. Funding for the associated information systems is governed by maintenance priorities.

But, as the Club of Rome report points out:

    "Traditionally societies and individuals have adopted a pattern of continuous maintenance learning interrupted by short periods of innovation stimulated largely by the shock of external events... Even up to the present moment, humanity continues to wait for events and crises that would catalyze or impose this primitive learning by shock. But the global problematique introduces at least one new risk -- that the shock could be fatal. This possibility, however remote, reveals most clearly the crisis of conventional learning: primary reliance on maintenance learning not only is blocking the emergence of innovative learning, but it renders humanity increasingly vulnerable to shock; and under conditions of global uncertainty, learning by shock is a formula for disaster". (5, p. 10)
It is shock learning that has established new programmes, new institutions, and the need for new kinds of information services crossing previous categories (e.g. the environment or energy crises). But the report stresses:
    "The conventional pattern of maintenance/shock learning is inadequate to cope with global complexity and is likely, if unchecked, to lead to one or more of the following consequences:

(a) The loss of control over events and crises will lead to extremely costly shocks, one of which could possibly be fatal

(b) The long lag times of maintenance learning virtually guarantee the sacrificing of options needed to avert a whole series of recurring crises

(c) The reliance on expertise and short time periods intrinsic to learning by shock will marginalize and alienate more and more people

(d) The incapacity quickly to reconcile value conflicts under crisis conditions will lead to the loss of human dignity and of individual fulfillment". (5, pp. 11-12)

4. Innovative learning

Having reached this conclusion the report asserts as its central thrust that "innovative learning is a necessary means of preparing individuals and societies to act in concert in situations, especially those that have been, and continue to be, created by humanity itself". (5, p. 12) Conscious anticipation is considered to be a primary feature of innovative learning in contrast to the unconscious adaptation characteristic of maintenance learning. Anticipation is conceived as necessarily tied to participation as a second feature. For without it anticipation becomes futile. And participation without anticipation can be counter-productive or misguided, leading to paralysis or to counteraction. The report stresses that it is not enough that only elites or decision-makers are anticipatory when the resolution of global issues depends on the broad-based support of groups of every kind. (5, pp. 13-14)

Clearly innovative learning corresponds to "open-ended exploration" as the fourth usage context noted above. Given the importance attached to it, it is clearly appropriate to ask to what extent international documentation systems respond to the need for anticipatory learning as a participative process.