Forms of Presentation and the Future of Comprehension

Social learning and the world problematique

Anthony Judge

Given the continuing insistence of international agencies on the complexity and urgency of the world crisis situation, it is unnecessary to summarise this point here (2). In response to recognition of this world problematique a new generation of perceptive studies is now emerging. What is surprising is that they stress similar points which are relevant to the objectives of any international documentation system.

As a first example, in 1978 Ambassador Soedjatmoko of Indonesia (Appointed Rector of the UN University in 1980)stressed the importance of the "learning capacity of nations":

    "The capacity of a nation-- not just of its government, but of society as a whole-- to adjust to rapidly changing techno-economic, socio-cultural and political changes, on a scale which makes it possible to speak of social transformation, very much depends on its collective capacity to generate, to ingest, to reach out for, and to utilise a vast amount of new and relevant information. This capacity for creative and innovative response to changing conditions and new challenges I would like to call the learning capacity of a nation. This capacity is obviously not limited to the cognitive level, but includes the attitudinal, institutional and organisational levels of society as well" (3).
These remarks are very much in sympathy with those in the Presidential Address of Professor Helmut Arntz on the 80th Anniversary of the International Federation for Documentation in 1975. He stressed that:
    "... l'information... est le seul moyen de garder suffisament le control de l'évolution pour que l'humanité... conserve toujours une avance sur la menace qui peut mener à la catastrophe... la survie de l'homme dépend de l'obtention et de l'utilisation de l'information..." (4)
In 1979, the most recent report to the Club of Rome was published (5). It argues:
    "Whoever chronicles the history of the 1970s will see clearly what we perceive only dimly now. Not only is a critical element still missing from most discussions on global problems, but the most striking analyses of the world problematique are diverting attention from a fundamental issue. What has been missing is the human element, and what is at issue is what we call the human gap. The human gap is the distance between growing complexity and our capacity to cope with it...

    This report examines how learning can help to bridge the human gap. Learning as we shall use the term, has to be understood in a broad sense that goes beyond what conventional terms like education and schooling imply. For us, learning means an approach, both to knowledge and to life, that emphasises human initiative. It encompasses the acquisition and practice of new methodologies, new skills, new attitudes, and new values necessary to live in a world of change. Learning is the process of preparing to deal with new situations.

    Distinguishing this notion of learning from schooling does not mean that this report will ignore education which is a fundamental way and a formal means to enhance learning... Further, we shall contend that not only individuals but also groups of people learn, that organisations learn, and that even societies can be said to learn. The concept of "societal learning" is relatively new and stirs some controversy. Some contend that it is merely a metaphor that distorts the meaning of learning. Doubtless the concept of societal learning has limits, but we nonetheless shall maintain that societies can and do learn, and we shall not hesitate to cite evidence of learning processes at work in societies.

    The fact that inadequate contemporary learning contributes to the deteriorating human condition and a widening of the human gap cannot be ignored. Learning processes are lagging appallingly behind and are leaving both individuals and societies unprepared to meet the challenges posed by global issues. This failure of learning means that human preparedness remains underdeveloped on a worldwide scale. Learning is in this sense far more than just another global problem: its failure represents, in a fundamental way, the issue of issues in that it limits our capacity to deal with every other issue in the global problematique. These limitations are neither fixed nor absolute. Human potential is being artificially constrained and vastly underutilised -- so much so that for all practical purposes there appear to be virtually no limits to learning." (5, pp. 6-9)

In 1980, Alvin Toffler (author of "Future Shock") produced a book (6) reviewing the positive factors associated with the current period of crisis. In it he stresses the importance of "social memory" and how it is being revolutionized by the changes in the "info-sphere". (pp 192-193). He points out:
    "Our remarkable ability to file and retrieve shared memories is the secret of our species' evolutionary success. And anything that significantly alters the way we construct, store, or use social memory therefore touches on the wellsprings of destiny. Twice before in history humankind has revolutionised its social memory. Today, in constructing a new info-sphere, we are poised on the brink of another such transformation...

    What makes the leap to a Third Wave info-sphere so historically exciting is that it not only vastly expands social memory again, bur resurrects it from the dead.

    The computer, because it processes the data it stores, creates an historically unprecedented situation: it makes social memory both extensive and active. And this combination will prove to be propulsive". (6, pp. 192-193)

Unlike earlier hopes for a "world brain", a functioning information infrastructure (7) is emerging very rapidly which will accomplish more than was desired by those who first reflected on the future of information. (Recent years have nevertheless seen the rebirth of a World Mind Group (8)).

But Toffler makes the point that:

    "Unless we incinerate the planet and our social memory with it, we shall before long have the closest thing to a civilisation with total recall" (6, p 193).
This optimistic argument conceals a basic problem to which the Club of Rome report (above) is more sensitive. For whilst technically it may well be possible to recall any item of information, the problem lies with how the user is to use such a facility given the limited processing capacity of the brain.

And, more specifically, how is he to learn from it and to what extent will it facilitate social learning in relation to the world problematique?

This basic constraint emerges more clearly in the Dakar Declaration (1979) of Informatique pour le Tiers Monde (9):

    "The key element of human communications -- the ordering and transmission of information -- is tending to become a source of mix-communication. The scientific and technological breakthroughs which have led to the informatics revolution are way ahead of the learning process of human society. This cultural lag is the most serious challenge to a comprehensive view of the implications of informatics. It is a matter of values, of organisational capacity and transformation in mental structures".

This statement, however, itself fails to distinguish between the collective and the individual dimensions of the problem. These are explored in the following sections.