Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview
Encyclopedia Project (Explanations)

Assessment: Criticism

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


1. Failure to advocate a position

A major criticism levelled at this project has been that it did not take a "position" or advocate a "stance". Such criticism fails to realize that the project is about the necessity of moving beyond the mind-set that engenders answer arenas where "stance-taking" is perceived as the only appropriate form of activity.

In a turbulent environment some more dynamic response is required than that of "drawing the line" somewhere - the conceptual equivalent of a "Maginot-line". A sailor on the deck of a ship in rough seas would fall over if he attempted to maintain a "stance" -- rather than shifting his weight from leg to leg in response to the movement of the ship (cf Geoffrey Vickers: Freedom in a Rocking Boat; changing values in an unstable society (1970), or Donald Schon: Beyond the Stable State; public and private learning in a changing society (1971)). The problem of the sailor, if he is to achieve anything under such conditions, is to learn to "walk" rather than simply "standing".

Expressed differently, the criticism is that some central "point" is not being made. This is so. If anything, the "central point" here deals with the tangential strategies of "not-making" a central point, since the over-definition associated with any particular proposal seems to occupy and obstruct the necessarily undefined nature of the space through which transformative human and social development emerges "from the future". This project focuses on the dynamics by which all points attempt to become the central point by denying the relevance of other points.

In the same geometric metaphor, this project does not favour a particular ideological "line" of argument, nor does it focus on a particular "area" of concern. The question is rather one of how such different "points", "lines" and "areas" fit together and interrelate to constitute a viable "container" for comprehension of the human and social development process. It is a question of tracking the "vectors of concern" with which people are identified. The peculiar feature of this container is that it must be able to contain the undefined.

The nature of the design problem has been compared to that of containing plasma as a source of fusion energy. Plasma also has unique global characteristics that call for a special configurative approach, especially since any contact with its container quenches it, draining away its energy, thus denaturing it.

Both in the last edition, and to an even greater extent in this one, the emphasis has shifted onto the manner in which our society is trapped by the inadequacies of the ways in which it uses language. To this extent, the "meta-stance" in effect taken is that new approaches to the use of language are required to understand the nature of the problems and possibilities which are engendered by the language used. In Geoffrey Vicker's terms: "A trap is a function of the nature of the trapped". The stress in this edition on new uses of metaphor is an effort to re-imagine both trap and trapped.

2. Excessive complexity

A second criticism has been that the project covered too many dimensions and was too complex. A response might be to question whether, except in the most specific settings, simple answers are productive or whether, at this time, they are not in fact downright dangerous.

There is widespread hope that a simple answer can be formulated to the challenge of the times. Many believe fervently that such answers exist in single-factor statements such as "peace", "love", "order", etc. Whilst a necessary feature of the psychosocial system, such belief obscures the richness and significance of the fundamental disagreement concerning the ways such conflicting answers can be implemented in practice.

Edgar Morin (1981) and Kenneth Boulding (1978) both note the dangers of single factor explanations at this time. In Boulding's words: "The evolutionary vision sees human history as a vast interacting network of species and relationships of many different kinds, and there really is no "leading factor" always in the forefront. At times, changes in material technology are the major mutational developments and create niches for social changes of various kinds. At other times, however, intellectual or spiritual movements take the lead and create niches for new material artifacts and technologies; sometimes climatic changes dominate the scene, or sometimes biological mutations dominate, such as the disease bacteria that caused the great plagues." (1978, p.19-20)

To safeguard global society in the longer-term, the challenge would seem to be to find some comprehensible way (or set of ways) of interrelating the simple answers which must necessarily emerge as short-term local responses to such an environment. Hence the reason, in Section KD, for advocating patterns of alternation between the necessary simplifications.

The difficulty is illustrated by such admirable initiatives as those of the Brandt (1980) and Palme Commissions (1982) (formally titled the Independent Commission on International Development Issues and the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues), the Worldwatch Institute (1985), or the US Council on Environmental Quality (1982). Like their predecessors, these bodies have produced reports on the global situation with carefully thought out recommendations.

In the light of the arguments of this project it is difficult to escape the conclusion that such commendable recommendations for global change are expressed in a language which is out-moded and incapable of engendering the credibility required to mobilize support to implement them. This remains true even when considerable attention is devoted to visual presentation as in The Gaia Atlas of Planet Management (1985). Such weakness is disguised by the apparent success of the public relations exercises by which the reports are launched, the manner in which they are briefly taken up by parliaments, universities and the media, and the implementation of a few of their non-controversial recommendations from what was conceived as an integrated package. The limited effectiveness of such an approach is well-illustrated by a report evaluating the implementation of the Action Plan formulated by the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (1982).

Such reports, in appealing to those who place great hope in simple answers (eg "cooperation" or "total disarmament"), fail to internalize the significance of other simplistic positions by which their implementation must necessarily be frustrated, as the historical record has repeatedly shown. The possibility of transformative development emerges from the relationship between answers, not through the elimination of one or the other (or the constituencies to which they appeal).

A different language is required to render such possibilities more credible and more fruitful. Such a language should not deny the simple answers; rather it should place them in a ("conceptual") context which encodes the dynamics by which they need to challenge each other in order to separate the "essence" of each from the "dross" from which the dangerous abuses of any simple answer can emerge. In this way a form is given to the context in which each such answer has a function.

It is distressing that even in such an intellectually sophisticated country as France, for example, any individual capable of a leadership role or some degree of influence finds it necessary to align himself, right or left, and then engage in savage and often childishly unsympathetic misrepresentations of the difficulties of the other party, whilst disguising those of his own. Increasingly authorities of any tendency can only maintain credibility and dignity when those who disagree with them are absent or silenced.

What body or school of thought perceives the need for opposing tendencies in order to contain the complexities of the problematique? Presumably any such insight is confined to the much maligned "floating voters". No one of influence argues in public for the need to alternate continually between conflicting policies - and yet it is precisely through such alternation that organized society has developed. If everyone of influence is associated only with a part(y), who then speaks for (alternation between the parts within) the whole? Can the whole be given more effective expression?

The issue of "complexity" is now of increasing concern to the policy sciences, as illustrated by the initiative taken by the United Nations University in convening a meeting on the matter (United Nations University. Science and Praxis of Complexity. 1985). The challenge is once again that daily language does not normally provide a means for grasping complexity in any useful way other than through over-simplification. The jargons of the specialists of whatever discipline, even when they can encompass that complexity, can only do so by becoming impenetrable to other disciplines, and especially to any wider public expected to approve actions based on such insights.

Whilst there may be ways through this "complexity barrier", as intimated by some of the initiatives reviewed in Section KD, it seems more probable that these will be rejected as incomprehensible. It is for this reason that greater stress has been placed on the potential of metaphors as a largely unexplored resource that appears to offer a more accessible way forward.

3. Complexity of language

A third criticism, linked to the preceding one, has been that the language used, for example in Section KD, was too complex. This was done deliberately to convey a better understanding of the very different conceptual languages used by authors with different backgrounds -- each offering new insights and shades of meaning on a central undefined concern -- using their own languages often in order to discuss language.

The essential argument of this project, as repeatedly emphasized, cannot be given explicitly because there can be no one language appropriate to the meta-answer that appears to be required. It can only be presented "tangentially" as a configuration of distinct languages - whether as the insights from different backgrounds or as an understanding of an N-fold set of distinct approaches, each from a particular background. This project is an exercise in presenting information in such a way.

None of the perspectives given as examples in Section KD, are individually either necessary or sufficient, but some such set of contrasting perspectives is necessary to provide the requisite conceptual variety to contain the undefined. The problem is somewhat analogous to that of establishing a sufficiently long baseline in terrestrial or astronomical surveys, or to that of constructing a sufficiently large array of differently oriented receptors in radio- astronomy. Hopefully a pattern of resonance can be detected within the configuration of perspectives emerging from such very different languages, for it is only on the foundation of such resonance that a viable global approach can seemingly be designed.

Again it is through new uses of metaphor that it may be possible to comprehend and discuss the nature of the dynamic complexity it seems necessary to encompass.

4. Superficiality

A fourth criticism arose from those who have placed their hopes in global modelling as the key to understanding the global problematique. Indeed it was this group that first formulated the term "global problematique". From that perspective, the kind of information collected by this project is completely superficial since it does not analyze the relationship between economic and social factors and express them in mathematical terms so as to define a model which can be explored under different conditions. The modelling perspective is discussed in a following note.

5. Usability

A fifth criticism has concerned the usability of information of the type collected and presented here. Given the expectation that reference books should supply straightforward answers to questions, however complex, an Encyclopedia of this kind may seem to be inadequate.

The approach taken here has been to make individual entries relatively simple, but to increase considerably the complexity of the pattern of relationships between the entries. The Encyclopedia may therefore be used in a very simple manner, by avoiding the distractions of the pointers to other entries. As a "high-context" reference book, users derive most benefit from the Encyclopedia through the way in which it challenges expectations and habitual modes of thought.

In contrast to other reference books, this Encyclopedia is, in an important sense, of greater value in raising questions than in providing answers. It challenges the easy belief that reliance on particular answers is appropriate at this time.

6. Absence of images

Finally, in an Encyclopedia which stresses the value of visual imagery, the absence of such images represents a significant weakness. The point made here is that a new kind of imagery is required to give a deeper sense of the pattern of relationship between entries on problems, values and other concepts. Given the nature of this project, such network maps should be computer generated because of their degree of complexity. It has not proved possible to organize this within the resources of the programme as it now stands. However it is clear that a major obstacle lies in the lack of availability of the appropriate software (as discussed in Section Z).

The alternative route, chosen by many other reference books on world problems, is to use hand-drawn images. From the perspective of this Encyclopedia such imagery reinforces the impression that the patterns of information are less complex than is in fact the case. They do not respond to the challenge of that complexity.