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Union of Intelligible Associations

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Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Significance: Forms of presentation

Metaphor Project


1. Context

This section is concerned with the forms through which new concepts and insights could be presented or communicated in response to the global problematique. It is based on the recognition that the public information programmes developed by intergovernmental and non-governmental agencies have tended to concentrate on a limited range of forms of presentation, often used such that they do not complement each other or reinforce each others effects.

The United Nations has attached great importance to "mobilizing public opinion", especially in relation to the International Development Decades. But as one report noted in 1978: "The drive towards world development and a better economic order has made little headway in the present decade. The mobilization of public opinion as an essential effort has not been very successful either. Nevertheless, the approach was right, and a more massive mobilization is indispensable." (Development Forum, Nov-Dec 1978).

It is not clear that the approach has been right, as was indicated by the conclusions of the UN Secretary-General's report as early as 1973: "... it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, in spite of governmental efforts and similar programmes by non-governmental organizations, the state of public opinion on matters of development, particularly in the industrialized countries, is generally less favourable today than it has been in the past... It would probably be unfair to conclude that a sudden callousness had overcome public opinion in the developed countries. It is more like a closing of the gates to a pattern of generalizations perceived as out-worn by over-use." (E/5358, 21 May 1973).

Corresponding concerns exist about the ability of social scientists and change agents to successfully communicate their insights, whether amongst themselves or to wider audiences, especially policy-makers and the general public. These concerns resulted in a special project on forms of presentation within the framework of the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development project of the Human and Social Development Programme of the United Nations University. At its initial meeting in Geneva in 1979, this group indicated the importance of the following issues (as extracted from the meeting report).

2. Basic questions

(a) What is to be communicated? The importance of communicating what is not evident was stressed. On the one hand a presentation of different problematiques results in excessively balanced and undynamic communication; although on the other hand, the presentation of solutions results in a "missionary" quality which is equally undesirable. Related to this is the question of whether the communication should be didactic or conscientising (not the same thing).

(b) To whom and/or with whom? This is the question of the Zielpublikum or "target audience", although these terms reflect an approach to communication which does not conform to the criteria discussed below. They stress communication "to", or "at", rather than "with". Should the concern be primarily with a maximum number of people or should the aim be selective (eg decision makers)? What are the advantages of non- mass forms of communication? The disadvantages of mass forms?

(c) To what end? What is the desired effect of such communication? What is expected? Although again these terms imply a certain determining influence and a certain minimum of manipulation of the communication process which restricts the freedom of those involved. Should the intention be simply to interest people in the subject matter, or should they challenged and stimulated to commit themselves to some course of action?

2. Basic constraints

(a) By whom? Whatever institutional or other delivery system is selected to disseminate the chosen form, certain characteristic weaknesses become evident. An intergovernmental organization may thus ensure a very widespread distribution of a publication that then ends up in the private libraries of local officials and is not accessible to those whom it was intended to benefit.

(b) Costs: Communication involves costs that must either be borne or reduced (if not eliminated). Most obvious of these are the financial costs, that of course differ with form of presentation and the audience desired. Environmental costs may be high if the chosen form or method of distribution involves excessive use of natural resources, or energy, or results in pollution of the environment (whether in the form of noise, paper, etc). Finally there are social costs associated with a particular form. These include the need for preliminary instruction if the form is to be acceptable and usable, and the social cost of bringing people into the dialogue mode.

3. Means and implementation

(a) Range of alternatives: Emphasis was placed on the importance of broadening the range of acceptable modes of presentation. The alternatives to the written medium, and particularly the traditional academic book or article, were stressed as being complementary to the written mode and not a substitute for it.

(b) Technical constraints: Clearly there is a question of appropriateness of the communication technology associated with a particular form of presentation, in a particular setting. Equipment (TV, video, projectors, etc) may involve unacceptable investment, operating, maintenance, or preliminary training costs. This may prevent use of the chosen form at the grass-roots level. Or the equipment may be unsuitable for climatic or cultural reasons.

(c) Technical possibilities: The meeting was somewhat divided as to the desirability of forms of presentation associated with advanced technologies, especially computers but not including TV and video. This issue is dramatised by the rapid spread of such devices (eg TV games for children and in cafes, low cost micro-computers, computer conferencing).

4. Criteria for desirable forms

The discussion of the following criteria responded in part to the basic questions noted above, in the sense that the nature of the desirable medium defines the nature of the desirable communication (to paraphrase McLuhan).

(a) Structure/content correspondence: The structure by which communication takes place (whether organizational or technical) should correspond to the content of the communications. Namely undesirable methods of communication should not be used to communicate desirable messages or else the value of the latter is compromised.

(b) Beyond the sender/receiver model: The tendency to perceive communication in terms of a sender/receiver model in which the sender aims to influence the receiver or "to fill a vacuum" in the receiver, should be rejected. It implies a unilateral cause.

(c) Respect for those with whom communication occurs: Those initiating the communication should respect those who become involved in the process. The latter should be understood as capable of introducing dimensions of value to both parties as well as being able to adapt the form to local conditions.

(d) Dialogue: Dialogue should be incorporated into the form of presentation whenever possible to ensure appropriate feedback between both parties. The "dazibao" in China (a wall on which community messages and counter-messages can be hung) was cited as a desirable example. Other forms may permit dialogue to a greater or lesser degree (eg letters to editor, books with write-in-option, call-in-radio or TV).

(e) Feedback: The three previous points all imply a form of feedback to those initiating the communication (however, does not the term itself imply an undesirable directionality to the communication process?). The basic point is to avoid alienating or hypnotising those exposed to the chosen forms. Passive communication consumerism should be avoided.

(f) Openness: It was suggested that the chosen form should in some measure leave those exposed to it open to dream, to disorder and to chance, namely free to impose whatever degree of order seemed appropriate at the time. In this sense the whole communication process should be conceived rather like the classic "message in the bottle cast into the sea". A degree of randomness as to how it will be received and by whom and what will be the result.

(g) Reinforcement of the existing good: Communication which reinforces beneficial tendencies and processes is much to be preferred to communication which attempts to introduce alternatives conceived as "good" by outsiders. Aside from the risk that the latter will be rejected the former is more readily understood.

(h) Simplicity: The importance of conceiving forms of communication in terms of the needs of ordinary people was stressed, in contrast to the tendency to develop increasingly complex forms of presentation. It was also argued that even those who have received a specialized education require simplicity in those domains not covered by their speciality. There is therefore a need to communicate with the simple in everybody, including in those in positions of responsibility.

(i) Action possibilities: Exposure to the chosen form should not simply trigger wonder or interest which do not necessarily offer the individual any possibility for action. The content should challenge and indicate action possibilities so that the individual is not left frustrated and alienated by the inability to act.

(j) Schematic approach: Because of the above criteria, and particularly the impossibility of determining the needs of each set of users (especially where a variety of cultures is concerned), there is an advantage in leaving the product somewhat unfinished. It is completed for local distribution, if it is not completed by the user as part of the process.

(k) Complexity: Although there is need for simplicity in communication, as noted above, it is also clear that appropriate forms are required when the relationship pattern is complex (eg ecosystemic notions), often involving non-linear features. The challenge is to find a means of communicating complexity simply and rendering such patterns comprehensible. The conventional tendency to focus on isolated questions (eg children, food, health, disarmament, etc) as though they were independent should be avoided, if only by treating each of the elements in the pattern as part of a pattern. For example, by producing a set (not a "series") of posters on individual topics such that when hung together in a room the pattern between them emerges. It is not the elements that should be stressed but the pattern of relationship between them under different circumstances.

5. Complementarity of forms of presentation

(a) Complementarity: As noted above, stress was placed on the manner in which forms should be conceived as complementating one another. The nature of this complementarity remains to be explored in the light of the complete range of forms. By complementarity is meant that the possibilities, limitations and characteristics of one form may be complemented by use of one or more others - each appealing to groups with different mind-sets and communication preferences.

(b) Transformability: It is desirable that communication through one form should be transformable into communication through another if the latter is likely to be more appropriate. As with complementarity, the limitations on transformability remain to be explored.

(c) Privileged modes: The prevalence of certain forms was noted (eg books, articles). Attention is required to the manner and extent to which alternatives can be used. On the other hand the present degree of commitment to such privileged modes ensures that any substitution can only be limited and may only be possible in areas where the written mode has not yet become habitual. In the final analysis these difficulties are raised by many forms of presentation which have emerged as a consequence of industrialization.

6. Evaluation and research

(a) Successes and failures to date: Much has been done in the way of experiment over the past decades in order to communicate development- related concepts to many different audiences. The work of the different UN Specialized Agencies through their information programmes is one example. Many more experiments have been conducted at the national level. The question is to what extent have these experiments been successful, and to what extent a failure? Is improvement possible and in what areas, in the light of past experiences? What has blocked such improvements in the past?

(b) Evaluation: Attention is required to the method by which different forms of presentation can be evaluated and compared, for example, with regard to the time period over which they effect useful change (e.g immediately or in 15 years) and the number of people which can be involved. There may be various kinds of trade-off between different advantages and disadvantages.

(c) Forms as an object of research: Beyond the problems raised by evaluation are those concerned with understanding the nature of different forms in terms their strengths and weaknesses in carrying or distorting messages of different degrees of complexity under different conditions.

(d) Influence of new forms on research: It was recognized that innovation in forms of representation had facilitated development of understanding in certain fields (eg chemistry and structural models; geography and maps). Any breakthrough to suitable new forms could therefore have important consequences. New vehicles are required for new concepts.

7. Meta and other questions

(a) Purpose of communication: Whilst the importance of specifying the effect desired on those exposed to the forms was stressed (see above), some attention was given to the question of the purpose of achieving that end. To what extent were the forms not only a means but an end? The goal/process relationship was compared to the zen attitude as exemplified in the art of archery - the two blend into a new unity. The challenge is to improve the objective forming potential. Should attention be on forms or on the process in which they are embedded, or on the process whereby they are generated?

(b) Re-assessment of communicant status: An ideal form places communicants in a situation in which they are encouraged to re-assess their own positions vis-à-vis each other and the subject matter ("une mise en question"). This process is basic to any approach to non-linear thinking.

(c) Communication vs Communications: Recent years have seen the publication of a major report commissioned by UNESCO through the International Commission on Communication Problems. Aside from the many political consequences of this report, it is much to be regretted that the title and publicity surrounding it implies that it is a report on communication in general. In fact it is a report on the mass media as the composition of the Commission indicates. The attention given to this report as a report on communication has helped to obscure many other dimensions of communication. Matters have not been assisted by what amounts to a counter-programme of the International Telecommunication Union in its organization of an International Communications Year. This focused on telecommunications hardware in such a way as to ignore other forms of communication not based on advanced technology.

(d) Variety of forms: Although the above-mentioned UNU Forms of Presentation project gathered information on a wide variety of forms. This has never been published. The over-emphasis by UNESCO and ITU on particular forms, without any sense of the contextual variety, was therefore a direct stimulus to the collection of the information presented in this section. It can be argued that only through a recognition of the variety of these forms can appropriate methods of communicating insights be developed. Concentration on extensively used, "important" or "effective" forms only raises the question as to why such an approach has been less than successful in "mobilizing public opinion".

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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