- 1 Federation through Ideograms
- 1.1 Knowledge federation is a social process; whose function is to connect the dots.
- 1.2 We use the word gestalt to pinpoint what the word informed means.
- 1.3 Modernity ideogram
- 1.4 Information ideogram
- 1.5 Holotopia ideogram
- 1.6 My point
Federation through Ideograms
(Neil Postman in a televised interview to Open Mind, 1990)
"[...] of people not having any basis for knowing what is relevant, what is irrelevant, what is useful, what is not useful, where they live in a culture that is simply committed, through all of its media, to generate tons of information every hour, without categorizing it in any way for you", Postman continued.
Knowledge federation is a social process; whose function is to connect the dots.
And complement publishing and broadcasting; and add meaning or insights to overloads of data; and ensure that they are acted on.
Among various sorts of insights, of especial importance are gestalts; of which "Our house is on fire" is the canonical example: You may know all the room temperatures; but it is only when you know that your house is on fire that you are empowered to act as your situation demands. A gestalt can ignite an emotional response; it can inject adrenaline into your bloodstream.
We use the word gestalt to pinpoint what the word informed means.
Our traditions have instructed us how to handle situations and contingencies by providing us a repertoire of gestalt and action pairs. But what about those situations that have not happened before?
Knowledge federation uses ideograms to create and communicate gestalts. An ideogram can condense one thousand words into an image; and make the point of it all recognizable at a glance; and communicate know-what in ways that incite action.
The existing knowledge federation ideograms are only a placeholder—for a variety of techniques that will be developed through artful and judicious use of media technology.
So what is the way to interpret the data and conceive of the situation we are in—which will empower us to act as this situation demands? And what is the process by which this all-important question is to be answered? My (proposal for the) answer to this latter question you already know—it is to federate what's been academically published or otherwise reported, which is of relevance.
In Guided Evolution of Society, in 2001, systems scientist Béla H. Bánáthy did exactly that—he surveyed a broad range of sources; and concluded in a genuinely holotopian tone:
“We are the first generation of our species that has the privilege, the opportunity, and the burden of responsibility to engage in the process of our own evolution. We are indeed chosen people. We now have the knowledge available to us and we have the power of human and social potential that is required to initiate a new and historical social function: conscious evolution. But we can fulfill this function only if we develop evolutionary competence by evolutionary learning and acquire the will and determination to engage in conscious evolution. These are core requirements, because what evolution did for us up to now we have to learn to do for ourselves by guiding our own evolution.”
By depicting our society as a bus and our information as its candle headlights, Modernity ideogram renders the gestalt of our contemporary situation that Bánáthy reached in a nutshell—and just a tiny bit more.
Information ideogram dramatizes Bánáthy's call to action; and turns it into a warning and call to action:
There is something all-important we've somehow forgotten to modernize!
Imagine us as passengers in this bus—as it rushes at accelerating speed toward a disaster; because its headlights are flagrantly unsuitable for the function they need to fulfill—for showing us the way.
I am imagining that this bus is already off track, struggling to avoid trees and ravines; which is increasingly more difficult as technological "improvements" make the bus run faster; while it's this struggle and and this struggle alone—that is giving this bus a direction.
Information must intervene between us and the world.
And between us and our choices; not just any sort of information—but information that's been conscientiously designed for that pivotal function (I qualify something as pivotal if it decisively influences our society's evolutionary course; and as correct if it corrects it).
What should information be like—to empower us to see the world correctly?
My aim is not to give you a conclusive answer to this question—but something at the same time more modest and more ambitious: To set in motion a social process by which the answer will be created, and continually re-created!
Surely this process must involve a prototype; because regardless of how hard we try—we'll never create the lightbulb by improving the candle. The rest is what I've been telling you about all along—we need to federate the prototype 'lightbulb'; by accounting for what's been found out in the sciences, and for whatever else that may be relevant; which I'll here illustrate by a single example—the Object Oriented Methodology; which constituted a landmark in the history of computer programming. Ole-Johan Dahl (who later received the Turing Award—the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in computing—for this work) wrote (with C.A.R. Hoare) in Structured Programming in 1972, in a chapter called “Hierarchical Program Structures”:
“As the result of the large capacity of computing instruments, we have to deal with computing processes of such complexity that they can hardly be understood in terms of basic general purpose concepts. The limit is set by the nature of our intellect: precise thinking is possible only in terms of a small number of elements at a time. The only efficient way to deal with complicated systems is in a hierarchical fashion. The dynamic system is constructed and understood in terms of high level concepts, which are in turn constructed and understood in terms of lower level concepts, and so forth.”
If computer programming was not to result in chaos, but in code that's easily comprehensible, reusable and modifiable—the programs would need to be structured in a way that conforms to the limits of our intellect, Dahl and his colleagues found out; and created the Object Oriented Methodology which enabled the programmers to achieve exactly that—by structuring the programs in terms of "objects".
I adapted this idea and drafted the information holon; which is what the Information ideogram depicts. Arthur Koestler coined the keyword "holon" to denote something that is both a whole a piece in a larger whole; and I applied it to information.
The Information ideogram is an “i” (for "information"), composed as a circle or dot or point on top of a rectangle; inscribed in a triangle representing the metaphorical mountain. You may interpret the rectangle as a multitude of documents; and the point as the point of it all; and this ideogram as a way to say the obvious—that without a point, a myriad of printed pages are just point-less!
You'll comprehend the mountain if you think of knowledge federation as a collective climb to a mountain top; so that we may rise above the tree tops and see the roads and where they lead; and what is the one we need to follow.
And you'll comprehend knowledge federation more precisely if you imagine the mountain as a structure of viewpoints; which offer coherent views (you can bend down and inspect a flower; or climb up the mountain and see the valley below; but never see both at the same time).
The information holon is offered as a structuring template and principle; and the mountain, which is technically called information holarchy, is composed of information holons—so that the points of more detailed holons serve as dots to be connected to compose those more general or high-level ones.
The key to it all is abstraction.
It is by recourse to abstraction that "information glut" is transformed into meaningful scopes and views; and into guidelines for meaningful action. The Information ideogram illustrates three kinds of abstraction:
- Horizontal abstraction, represented by the rectangle—which you'll comprehend if you think of looking at an object from a specific side
- Vertical abstraction, represented by the point—which you'll comprehend if you think of going up the mountain; toward the top, where the whole terrain is visible and the choice of direction is easy
- Structural abstraction, represented by the triangle or the mountain—which you'll comprehend if you consider how important it is to be able to consciously choose the ways—several ways—to look at an object; if your task is to see it whole.
The structural abstraction is what enable us to categorize; and configure and access information accordingly; as Neil Postman said we should do.
The holotopia vision, which is depicted by the Holotopia ideogram, resulted from an experiment—where we did Postman suggested, and identified five pivotal categories; and for each of them collected and organized what's been academically published or otherwise reported; and condensed that to a point. Those five categories were:
- innovation—our technology-augmented capability to create, and induce change
- information—which by definition includes not only written documents, but all other forms of heritage or recorded human experience that may help us illuminate the course; and also the social processes by which information is created and put to use
- foundation—on which we develop knowledge; which decides what in our cultural heritage will continue to evolve—and what will be abandoned to decay
- method—by which we create knowledge; and distinguish knowledge from belief
- values—which direct "the pursuit of happiness" and our other pursuits.
The Holotopia ideogram comprises five pillars, each of which has a pivotal category as base and a point or insight as capital. Think of those pillars as elevating our comprehension of the corresponding category (by accounting for what's been academically published or otherwise reported) to a simple insight or point. In each case the resulting insight showed that the "conventional wisdom"—the way the category is ordinarily comprehended and handled—needs to be thoroughly revised and reversed.
The resulting five points or five insights elevate our comprehension of the world and our situation as a whole; so that when other similarly important themes such as creativity, religion and education are considered in the context of those five points—their comprehension and handling too ends up being revised and reversed; and we added ten themes to this ideogram—represented by the edges joining the five insights—to illustrate that.
Even more spectacular is the fact that—regarding each of those five pivotal categories—our overall situation, personal and societal or cultural, can be dramatically improved by reversing the way it's comprehended and handled; which turned holotopia into an uncommonly realistically optimistic future vision.
Furthermore, all the requisite changes are applications of a single general principle or rule of thumb—make things whole; which is, by the way, also the course of action the Modernity ideogram is pointing to (by showing us information as a functional element of the larger system of society; and how information needs to be adapted to its all-important function, so that the society can become functional or whole). The holotopia experiment showed that (not "success", nor "profit", but) making things whole is the direction we need to follow; that it is everyone's enlightened interest.
The stars on Holotopia ideogram stand for "reaching for the stars"—i.e. for the sort of achievements and changes that may now be unthinkable; which will be normal in the informed order of things that holotopia initiative undertakes to foster.
(Albert Einstein in an interview to The New York Times, 1946)
I think it's obvious—and the holotopia experiment made it transparent—that this "new type of thinking" will be informed—by general, abstract insights and principles; created with the authority and dexterity of science, evidence-based.
My call to action is to add an evolutionary organ to our society.
Which will enable us to transition to conscious or guided or informed evolution, and life itself; by instructing us—with the dexterity of science and the esteem that science enjoys—what information needs to be like; so that instead of just looking "something interesting"—we use it as its all-important pivotal function necessitates.
Which will first of all provide us the sort of vision that the Modernity ideogram illustrates—where we clearly see, in most general or abstract terms, what our situation is and what needs to be done; and where we have systemic affordances to also act as our situation demands—namely to design the core systems (in which we live and work), instead of taking them for granted and inheriting them from the past. Because to try to solve "the huge problems now confronting us" by working within the systems we used when we created them is obviously not going to work.
The key to it all is to see information differently—to see it as a human-made thing for human purposes; which we must adapt to the functions it needs to serve in the larger whole of our society—so that this society may function and be whole.
My proposal is for a practical way in which this can be achieved.