University of Earth
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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Visualization: Network maps

Transformative Approaches Project

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1. Acceptability of network maps

It is now considered quite acceptable in many major cities to print and make available to the general public (often on notice boards or in tourist literature) various schematic maps: the subway (underground, or metro) network; the urban bus network; and the suburban railroad network. Travellers are also accustomed to exposure to documents showing the airline network. Other kinds of network are mapped for the benefit of workers in specialized sectors (eg oil pipeline networks, electricity distribution networks, telephone networks, military communication networks, goods distribution networks, etc). The most complex map of this type would seem to be that used to summarize (on a surface 100 x 132 cm) the relationships between over 1000 biochemical compounds involved in metabolism (See: Gerhard Michal. Biochemical Pathways. Mannheim, Boehringer Mannheim GmbH, 1982; extract shown on Figure 1, Section 3.2, p.522).

The point is that people are now very familiar with such maps in one form or another and use them, like road maps, to organize their thinking about the movement of themselves or items with which they are concerned between distant points embedded in a complex network. No such network maps are currently available to show the relationships between distant points representing particular features of the social system. As a result thinking about the social system and its problems is somewhat chaotic, as would be any discussion about travel in the absence of adequate maps to provide the necessary frameworks for such discussion.

2. Reasons for the lack of societal network maps

(a) There is much confusion concerning the kinds of entities that can be distinguished in the social system, due to overlapping systems of categories, needs, and the maze of associated terminologies.

(b) Where clarity emerges, it is usually in relation to one particular entity (eg one holding company and its network of subsidiaries, or one government agency and its associated bodies); any maps produced then have that body as the central reference point.

(c) Much of the required information is scattered through a variety of reference books and no research has justified its systematic organization.

(d) Systematic sociological research in the past inverts the focus so that, for example, instead of determining how many organizations (problems, etc) there are in a sample in order to determine the number per capita, the mean number of personal relationships to such entities is determined on a per capita basis, so that there is no means of determining how many distinct entities there are to which the relationships are established.

(e) Where such information is collected it is often considered secret because of its political or economic significance. Examples are (a) the collection of data on organizations in every country by the civil or military intelligence units; and (b) the secrecy associated with the subsidiaries owned by a major (multinational) corporation at any one time and their interrelationships.

(f) Where the data can be collected, and there is a strong case for doing so, there is often reluctance to do so because of the problems of data handling. This is best seen in the (non-societal) case of mapping ecosystem food webs in which animal species are embedded. There is a multiplicity of inter-specific "food chains", together with many branches and cross- connections among food chains making a structure of interactions called "food webs". The complexity of these food webs is such that no one has yet worked out the complete pattern of food relationships and interactions in any natural community. The relationships between 50 species in a given community results in a diagram so full of lines that it is difficult to follow and this only represents one quarter of the 210 known species in a "simple" community.

(g) Where the research has been done, there is a reluctance to produce maps because of the tiresome, time-consuming and often costly nature of the task of doing so, particularly when the networks are complicated.

3. Psycho-social significance of maps

A parallel: The current ability to map the societal system may be usefully compared to that of the European geographical mapping ability during the Middle Ages and earlier. The changing psycho-social significance and status of maps, since such early times, provides many clues for understanding the present situation. Maps in that period were often closely guarded secrets, for military and economic reasons. And just as the understanding in Europe of non-European continents was very limited at that time, so today there are only a few well-known problem areas (such as: population, food, peace, etc). Each such territory (or "feudal state") is more or less poorly controlled by a few major organizations (the "cities") with a few well-established links between them (the "roads" or "rivers"). The relations between these feudal states are the limit of concern. Few people travel long distances and when they do, in the absence of readily available maps, they use "experts" to guide them from point to point. Other continents are only vaguely known (and are widely held to be populated by mythical monsters). Each group is content with artistic or impressionistic two-dimensional maps centred on its own organization (or field of concern), confidently held to be the prime mover in the social system as perceived from that point of reference. The significance of any three-dimensional representation is not recognized and a flat-earth perspective prevails.

Under such conditions, it is easy to understand the psychological and communication difficulties which make it impossible to achieve any general galvanization of political will in response to world problems. Each sector is content with its own sketchy local map (if any is held to be required) of the problem environment, and there is little concern for whether such local maps mesh together with those of neighbouring territories or into a general map of the region. Communication therefore frequently breaks down and moments of solidarity are soon forgotten. Warring between feudal territories is common. The state called "energy", clashes with that called "environment". Alliances are formed and each state has imperialistic ambitions: "development" wants to incorporate "environment"; "environment" lays claim to the territory of "development", and all are claimed by the territory called "peace". Lacking maps, assemblies of individuals and groups from different problem territories are pathetic. The people from "heavy rainfall" areas cannot understand the constant harping on water by people from "desert" areas; the people from "arctic" areas cannot relate meaningfully to those from "tropical" zones.

The history of the evolution of geographical perceptions, and the tools that have been required to move humanity towards a global perception, indicate the kinds of difficultly which have to be faced. (The much-used NASA photograph of Earth from space is only significant as a symbol because people know that they can relate its features to the map of the world in their own atlas in order to be able to locate their home town, for which they also have a detailed local map, to which they can relate their personally acquired knowledge.) Local maps are needed which mesh into global maps, so that each can see his place in any world problem strategy and so that global decision-making can relate to the tactical problems of groups as perceived in each community.

Problem maps (bound together into "atlases") are needed to help individuals see and appreciate the relationships, distances and differences between problem territories. And it should be possible to relate these to organization (and other) maps, just as any atlas has contour maps, climatic maps and political maps of the same region. Individuals, whether students, executives, researchers, or policy makers, have at least as much need for such visual devices to orient themselves in the social system as they have for road and other currently available maps.

Figure 1: Tensegrity Construction, Physical and Organizational


Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
It is the centre hold that makes it useful;
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful;
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful;
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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