World Problems Project
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The nebulous, shadowy nature of problems discussed earlier suggests
the value of trying to understand them through metaphors. Not only can
valuable insights be obtained, but this helps to comprehend how people
acknowledging problems as understood through one metaphor have difficulty
in attaching significance to problems as understood through another metaphor.
The favoured metaphor may render some problems even more evanescent. There
is also the possibility of considering problems as metaphors in their own
right (see Section MZ).
1. Atoms, molecules
Problems may be considered as discrete entities, like atoms, having
relationships to one another, like molecular bonds. This perspective corresponds
to the simplest ways of portraying atoms and molecules (the solar system
and billiard ball models) and is still in use for teaching and in graphic
displays for research (see Section
TZ). The structure of the information in this volume is effectively
based on this metaphor. But although such models are useful, it is the
implied discreteness of atoms which obscures their other properties, such
as field effects (which are less easy to visualize) that may lead to alternative
descriptions. Problems also have non-discrete characteristics which can
better be understood as field effects.
In the light of this metaphor, the editorial process can be thought
of as an attempt to discover the detailed structure of the macro-molecular
complex which so strongly orders the life processes of society. It thus
bears some resemblance to efforts to discover the structure of DNA or to
the current Human Genome Project.
2. States of matter
It is useful to compare problems using the metaphor of the different
states of matter. Solid: problems can be described as solid barriers,
and rock-like obstacles. Liquid: the fluid, shifting, interconnected
nature of problems can be understood using liquid metaphors. (In Section
MZ, a chemical metaphor of problems dissolving into solutions and being
precipitated out as solids is mentioned). Air: the manner in which
problems "clamour for attention" or people are "bombarded by problems"
can be understood in terms of the pressure exerted by molecules in a gaseous
In the light of this metaphor, the editorial process can be thought
of as an attempt to collect and relate information concerning the different
states in order to be able to plot out a phase diagram showing their relationship.
3. Topography and surveying
Problems are often described in terms of topographical features or geological
processes. They may be compared to mountain barriers, earthquakes, volcanoes,
landslides, or avalanches.
In the light of the topographical metaphor, the editorial process may
be compared to a form of geological survey. An important concern is fixing
positions of features relative to one another by the process of triangulation.
Articulating the pattern of relationships between problems can be viewed
in this light.
4. Weather and meteorology
Problems are often described in terms of weather effects. Crises can
also be described in terms of storms and hurricanes, whether of wind or
accompanied by waves (as in the phrase "making waves"), or in terms of
severe extremes of temperature. A variant is the use of "high" to denote
a positively valued personal condition and "low" to denote a negative,
In the light of the meteorological metaphor, the editorial process bears
some resemblance to efforts to map and interrelate weather patterns. This
metaphor might be used to suggest the futility of implying any permanence
to a particular and temporary "low". But it might also be used to show
that "lows" tend to arise in particular places and under certain conditions,
however they shift thereafter. The high-low polarity has the great advantage
of being able to encode the value-problem polarity and to suggest the level
of complexity of the resulting system.
Problems can be described in terms of ecosystems (jungle, desert, ice-field),
wild beasts, insect pests, plagues or viruses.
In the light of this ecological metaphor, the editorial process can
be viewed as an attempt to identify species and to map out food chains
6. Disorders and diseases
Problems may be considered to be in some way the social equivalent of
foreign bodies circulating in the human bloodstream (requiring the action
of antibodies), or of different diseases affecting the different structures
and processes of the human body.
In the light of this metaphor the editorial process can be viewed as
an exercise in social pathology, an effort to identify the range of ills
to which the human environment is subject. To some extent the product therefore
has a function analogous to that of the WHO International Classification
of Diseases or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
(of the American Psychiatric Association).
7. Stars and astronomy
Problems may be considered to be like stellar objects spread throughout
the universe as "gravity-wells" and localized distortions of space-time.
It is then as distortions that their problematique nature becomes manifest
and that they exert effects on the social continuum. The metaphor may be
pursued further by comparing the different kinds of problems to the different
kinds of stellar objects, and even comparing their evolution to that of
stellar evolution (as charted on the Herzsprung-Russell diagram). There
is also the implication that under certain conditions problems can themselves
In the light of this metaphor the editorial process can be compared
to a star charting astronomical project. Of special interest are then the
implications of the constraints in endeavouring to generate such charts
from a single, eccentrically located position, when observations are further
distorted by a variety of interference effects. The constraints are counteracted
by establishing long base-lines and arrays, as in radio-telescopy. Networks
of international organizations can be viewed as arrays of detectors from
which problem information is derived by bringing that information to an
8. Conceptual "anti-matter"
Problems bear a resemblance to "negative theories" (or "anti-theories"),
namely they that exist in the same way that theories exist (bearing the
same relationship to data and values), but instead of providing explanatory
and predictive power to link related phenomena within a coherent framework,
they mark the presence of confusion and unpredictable relationships between
seemingly unrelated phenomena. They challenge and disrupt the conceptual
frameworks which claim to be able to handle them. To the extent that they
involve a comprehension vortex, with some form of "event horizon", they
resemble "black holes" in the universe of information. Note that the supply
of an adequate number and variety of problems may be necessary as a structuring
device for a complex society since it provides a sufficient number of "sinks"
(perhaps the psycho-social equivalent to the astronomers' "black holes")
to absorb the excess energy generated by social processes.
Information on problems can be considered as detected by a process similar
to that by which light or radiation is captured on photographic film. Whereas
the normal investigatory procedure depends on the development of such film
into "positives", problems are more appropriately viewed on "negatives".
Problems can be understood as discontinuities in the seamless pattern
of the known and predictable. As such they lend themselves to exploration
as "catastrophes" using the mathematics of catastrophe theory, or as "strange
attractors" using the mathematics of chaos theory.
Many problems can be viewed as sins of omission or commission on the
part of humanity, especially since many of them can be held to derive from
the fundamental ("deadly") sins, whether singly or in combination.
In the light of this metaphor the editorial process is equivalent to
studying and cataloguing sins (in the Christian tradition) or afflictions
(in the Buddhist tradition).
12. Demons and demonology
Traditionally, and from some psychoanalytic perspectives, there is merit
in viewing problems as demons or gods of wrath. Different demons then manifest
to humans through problems of different types. Classes of problems are
then the work of classes of demons.
In the light of this metaphor, the editorial process then becomes an
exercise in demonology. The product is thus equivalent to a Dictionary
13. Monsters and bestiaries
Traditionally the unknown is indicated by the risk of encountering monsters
and legendary beasts, to which problems can usefully be compared in the
light of the devastation which both effect on societies. Ancient maps of
the known world were traditionally bordered by regions inhabited by monsters.
This is equivalent to the known and predictable world of routine from which
problematique monsters must be kept at bay.
In the light of this metaphor, the editorial process can be viewed as
an effort to document such beasts and monsters and to produce a "bestiary".
As with such supposedly factual bestiaries, the information is based largely
on travellers tales - the travellers being either ill-equipped to register
unambiguously the nature of the beasts encountered or otherwise unable
to confirm their experiences to communities insensitive to the rich variety
of life. International organizations may be considered such travellers
to distant and specialized domains.
14. Topography of hell
Traditionally Hell is the realm in which problems may be viewed as reigning
explicitly supreme. In some cultures, this realm may be subdivided into
many hells of different nature. Some forms of the board game "snakes and
ladders", especially in South East Asia, are also used to indicate the
transformational pathways to these distinct hells.
In the light of this metaphor, the editorial process might be viewed
as an effort to provide a topographical map of Hell -- mapping the wrinkles
on Satan's face. The hierarchies of problems detected might then be viewed
as the skyscrapers in downtown hell. The challenge is to get a clearer
sense of the relationship between such urban structures and to map the
pathways on which resources flow to and from them.
15. Evils from Pandora's box
Problems can be viewed as the evils which, in Greek mythology, escaped
from Pandora's box as a result of her curiosity and carelessness. They
might be understood as having escaped because of the inadequacy of the
mental framework with which she approached the original container. Hers
lacked the requisite variety to contain the variety to which she exposed
In the light of this metaphorical context, the editorial process might
be viewed as an effort to create a framework or "box" by which the evils
could once again be contained. At this point in time no such conceptual
container exists. Different conceptual frameworks endeavour to contain
different problems, but many escape any such efforts. (The challenge is
reminiscent of the current technical challenge of designing an adequate
container for plasma to derive energy from nuclear fusion reactions.)
16. Shape-changing monsters and protective devices
Greek mythology offers examples of monsters that shift their form once
effectively attacked, or sprout additional heads if one is cut off. Problem
complexes often appear to be of a similar nature, shifting their point
of impact, disappearing to manifest in some other form, or multiplying
in vigour in response to efforts to contain them. Greek mythology also
offers examples of monsters, such as Medusa, which destroy or transform
those who view them directly (eg into stone). The petrifying potential
of such monsters seems to carry over into the superstitious fear that some
have in exposing themselves too closely to problems in all their negativity.
Such proximity is believed to undermine the positive energy necessary for
social advance, or even to bring bad luck (possibly attracting the unwelcome
attention of supernatural powers).
In the light of this metaphorical context, the editorial process may
be viewed as calling for appropriate protective conceptual devices (analogous
to the shield of Perseus) to avoid being transformed by the horrific nature
of some of the problems. As in laboratories and surgeries, a certain form
of conceptual hygiene is required to avoid being transfixed and traumatized
by exposure to the problems.
17. Hallucinations and delusions
It may also be the case that the greater recognition of problems in
an increasingly sophisticated society based on communications media, is
to some extent a social equivalent of individual hallucination under conditions
of prolonged sensory deprivation. The increasing proportion of the population
living and interacting with, and through, a world of images reduces the
collective daily necessity to relate directly to traditional grounded realities.
In so doing it creates a generalized sense of eventlessness which provokes
the emergence of compensatory collective hallucinations to which the collectivity
can respond with positive activity.
From this perspective the editorial process is that of the psychoanalyst
faithfully recording the patient's delusions and accepting them as realities
as a prerequisite for fruitful and transformative dialogue.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential