University of Earth

Historical Information Initiatives

within a strategic reframing of the Union of International Associations (2005)

[reframe index]

Digital divide

The UIA organized the first gathering in Europe of Internet cognoscenti from North America within the framework of a demonstration symposium at the World Future Studies Federation Conference on Science, Technology and the Future (Berlin, 1979)

As an early response to the digital divide, the UIA was probably the first to demonstrate the potential of Internet technology in an African developing country -- within the framework of a meeting of the UN University (Dakar, 1979). In 1986 the UIA participated in the UN University’s project on Information Overload and Information Underuse.

Pioneering international documentation

The intersect between its information management skills and international content resulted in an invitation (declined) to manage the “92” (international) domain of the International Standard Book Numbering (ISBN) system -- as was an analogous invitation to consider management of the .INT domain as first conceived. Registration in the Yearbook continues to be used, under certain circumstances, as a criterion for ascription of an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN).

At the beginning of the 20th century, with a very strong bibliographical focus, the UIA network of bodies maintained 11,000,000 card file records – portions of its archives now being held by Mundaneum (Mons), currently presented as being the first “Internet on paper”. One of the UIA’s founding personalities, Paul Otlet, was intimately involved in the development of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) that remains an alternative to the Dewey system. The other leading founder, Henri La Fontaine, received the Nobel Peace Prize (1913) for his efforts towards international organization through the UIA and associated bodies. In that period the documentation work of the UIA was closely associated with the International Institute of Bibliography (IIB) founded by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine in 1895. This was subsequently transformed into the International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID), which continued as a focus for the UDC and founded in 1995 the Global Information Alliance (GIA) -- a strategic alliance of NGOs in information, communication and knowledge to serve the world community. The UIA continues to maintain strong links with the library world, notably through a 20-year relationship with its publisher K G Saur Verlag (Munich) one of the principal suppliers of international reference works and itself closely associated with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA).

Following its pre-war (very “thick”) registry activity on the international organizations (currently being released in electronic form), the UIA produced in 1923 the first registry of all previous resolutions of international conferences – the last occasion on which this task proved possible to any institution until the UIA adopted its current approach of registering problems and strategies recognized by the international community. In that same period (1922-27) it operated an International University for international association executives, participating as students and staff.

In the 1920s, the UIA transferred its registry activity on international organizations to the League of Nations whose establishment the UIA had significantly promoted, notably through La Fontaine.

Envisioning hypertext

Historians of hypertext have recently acknowledged [more] the prophetic description of a Universal Documentation Network by UIA’s founder, Paul Otlet, as part of his work on the nature of transdisciplinarity, which concluded, in 1935:

Man would no longer need documentation if he were assimilated into an omniscient being – as with God himself. But to a less ultimate degree, a technology will be created acting at a distance and combining radio, X-rays, cinema and microscopic photography. Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, as a whole or in certain of its parts. (Monde, pp. 390-391, trans.)

In this light, there is even a speculation that the UIA was itself designed by Otlet and his network as a form of virtual organization [more]. Indeed the 21st century interpretation of the UIA name, points to the challenge of discovering new insights into forms of “union” that are required to relate conceptual or social “associations” of any kind across “international” boundaries that may be cultural or sectoral as much as geopolitical

Communication for the system of organizations

In 1950 the UIA retook responsibility for registering international organizations in its Yearbook of International Organizations. Its capacity in this respect was acknowledged in a special UN/ECOSOC Resolution 334B (XI) of 20 July 1950, and subsequently figured in successive Annual Reports of the UN Secretary General. The UIA has had consultative relationship with UN/ECOSOC since 1951 for that reason.

In response to the challenges of society, the UIA was generating studies in 1969 and 1970 with titles such as: Improvement of communication within the world-system: research uses, applications and possibilities of a computer-based information centre on national and international organizations and related entities and International organizations and the generation of the will to change: the information systems required.  The UIA’s continuing dedication to democratic development and the development of information technology potential are reflected in a range of UIA-led project proposals, including:

  • Information Context for Biodiversity Conservation under the Info2000 programme of the European Commission’s information directorate (DG-XIII). (Project undertaken from 1997-2000).
  • Interactive Conceptual Environmental Planning Tool for Developing Countries (INTERCEPT): Approved for funding through the World Bank's InfoDev program [reviews comments and responses] (submitted 25 March 1998; approved 2 June 1999; removed from proposal pool March 2000 due to lack of funds). 

 

A century of organizational learning

The UIA has survived in a country overrun by two World Wars, and the following period in which international documentation was subject to considerable Cold War pressures applied through intergovernmental institutions to distort the realities with which individual organizations had to deal. Although the UIA does not associate itself with advocacy on particular concerns, in accordance with its documentalist culture, it exhibited strong resistance to efforts to curtail or misrepresent information from any sector throughout that period.

Underlying this century of exploration is the fundamental question of what to do with information on organizations and issues to enable action for the betterment of society – and how to enhance public understanding of the challenge.  At the start of this new millennium, in a version of the knowledge society prefigured by its founder Paul Otlet, the UIA seeks the endorsement of the modern Internet community to continue this work in partnership with the civil society community in the operation and delivery of services to the civil society community.

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