Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Comprehension: Social organization determined by incommunicability of insights

Global Strategies Project


1. Constraints on communicability

It is readily assumed that new understanding of problems and opportunities can be communicated comprehensibly. This is not the case. Any new insight is understood to different degrees by different people. The resulting situation can be clarified using the work of Ron Atkin (Multidimensional Man; can man live in 3-dimensional space?, 1981) on q-analysis, namely the theory and application of mathematical relations between finite sets. He has applied this to the analysis of communication patterns within complex organizations.

2. Modelling the communication problem

The perceptual significance of this approach is well-illustrated by visual sensitivity to colours resulting from the three primary hues (red, green and blue). These may be represented on a simple triangle. Here the vertices (O-simplexes) represent the primary hues, the sides are twofold combinations (1-simplexes), and the combination of the three hues makes the central white (2-simplex).

0-dimension vision:
--- Red, Green or Blue

1-dimension vision:
--- Yellow (=Red/Green);
--- Purple (=Red/Blue); or
--- Turquoise (=Blue/Green)

2-dimension vision:
--- White (=Red/Green/Blue)

Now to be able to see all the colours,including white, a person's vision needs to have the ability to function within the triangle as 2-dimensional "traffic" on that geometry, moving from location to location adjusting to the complexity of the geometrical structure which carries the visual traffic. If the person's vision is 1-dimensional, then white could not be perceived because the visual traffic of seeing is restricted to the edges and vertices only.

If the person's colour vision is O-dimensional, then it is restricted to the vertices. It can only see one vertex colour at a time and never a combination (as represented by an edge). If vision was 3-dimensional, it would allow traffic throughout the geometry, but would perceive other colours as well, calling for a fourth vertex (forming a tetrahedron) in order to contain the full range of combinations.

3. Dimensions of comprehension

If the geometry represents problems or concepts (or modes of socio-economic organization) instead of colours, then it would be expected that some people, in relation to that set, would have O-dimensional comprehension (i.e. sensitive to isolated primary problems only). In this sense there is an irony in the way that opposing political factions each tend to identify with a particular primary colour as a symbol. Others may have 1-dimensional comprehension (i.e. only sensitive to binary combinations of primary problems). The latter would be unable to maintain attention to three problems simultaneously in order to perceive the threefold combination (the central, integrated or underlying "white" problem). The threefold problem may then be termed a 2-hole in the pattern of communication connectivity amongst those involved. For 2-dimensional traffic however, the problem complex is coherent, comprehensible and well integrated. For the 1-dimensional traffic, it feels less secure as a whole, since the whole complex may only be experienced sequentially through a succession of experiences ("around the edges"). The shape of the whole may then be deduced but not experienced. For O-dimensional traffic, the underlying problem does not exist, since experience is disconnected.

4. Social action as traffic in a geometry

Generally speaking it seems that action (of whatever kind) in the community can be seen as traffic in the abstract geometry. This traffic must naturally avoid the holes (because it is impossible for any such action to exist in a hole). The holes therefore appearstrangely as objects in the structure, as far as the traffic is concerned. The difference is a logical one in that the word "q-hole" describes a static feature of the geometry, whilst the world "q-object" describes the experience of that hole by traffic which moves in that geometry.

5. Problems as comprehension inhibitors

This suggests new ways of comprehending the nature of a problem. As an "object" this phenomenon is an obstacle to communication and comprehension and obliges those confronted with it to go "around" in order to sense the higher dimensionality by which it is characterized. Communications "bounce off" such objects. As a "hole" this phenomenon engenders, or is engendered by, a pattern of communication. It appears to function both as "source" and "sink". Atkin suggests that, in some way, which is not yet fully understood, object/holes act as sources of energy for the possible traffic around them. From the initial research it would appear that such objects/holes are characteristic of communication patterns in most complex organizational systems. It seems highly probable that they can also be detected in any partially ordered pattern of communication. "Societal problems", "human needs", and "human values" merit examination in this light from the perspective of different languages and modes of socio-economic organization.

6. Traffic in an organizational geometry

Very concretely, Atkin has investigated situations in which the "vertices" (which could themselves be n-simplexes in a multidimensional geometry) are individuals or offices linked together through various committees. They could also be governments or disciplines. There will then be a lot of O-traffic and 1-traffic within and between offices due to the details of their intra-and inter-office (bilateral) operations.

This traffic will circulate around the holes/objects which they constitute. Any n-level traffic can only be accommodated, or be brought to rest, by an (n+1)-level body (e.g. an executive or a committee). If the latter does not exist, such traffic will continue to circulate around the q-objects in the structure and, according to Atkin, may be defined as noise. An "empire builder" (or any elite), for example, in such an organizational system will carefully create many q-holes underneath him (at the n-level), so that subordinate bodies answerable only to his appointees, are trapped in the flow of noise between them.

Atkin notes that even though the geometry may not have been rendered explicit, such structures generate the feeling throughout a community of some "power behind the scenes" acting to outwit the formal structure. The special value of q-analysis is that it can clarify why action/discussion in connection with (development) problems tends to be "circular" in the long-term, however energetic it may appear in the short-term. As such it shows how social change is blocked by the way in which conceptual traffic patterns itself around any core problem, which is never confronted as such because the connectivity pattern is inadequate to the dimensionality of the problem.

This would explain why so many problems go unresolved and why the process of "solving" problems becomes institutionally of greater importance than the actual "elimination" of the problem.

7. Representation of different modes of societal organization

The elements of the triangle may also be used to represent different modes of socio-economic organization comprehensible under different conditions. It is possible for a person or an organization to conduct all its communication in terms of one of these modes or frameworks. Communications in terms of other modes or frameworks would be incomprehensible and to some degree inconceivable.

It is possible to envisage a different paradigm, corresponding to the 1-dimensional traffic, which would permit movement between the primary modes via intermediate modes. This would correspond tothe mind-set of a polyglot or a polymath, for example. Presumably more complex paradigms could also be envisaged.

Atkin analyzes much more complex situations in exploring information flows through the committee structure of a complex organization. He is especially concerned with how information on substantive issues gets moved around through appropriate committees without it being necessary to confront core issues or bring them into focus, namely the bureaucratic technique of handling information overload by avoiding use of that information.

8. Constraints on movement of communicable insights

Q-analysis gives precision to the recognition that traffic of different degrees of content connectivity finds (or creates) its appropriate level in any psycho-social communication complex, presumably including a language. Communicable insights are level-bound, especially where they are of high connectivity. In other words, at the level within which it is possible to communicate, problems cannot necessarily be anchored unambiguously into terms and definitions which "travel well". Precision introduces distortion which is only acceptable locally within any communicating society - although "locally" must be interpreted in the non-geographical sense in which all nuclear physicists are near neighbours, for example.

9. Compromise as warping communication geometry

The relation between two personal or institutional structures, conceived as a multidimensional backcloth, carries whatever traffic that constitutes the communication between them. If this backcloth changes by becoming dimensionally smaller, then its geometry loses vertices and the consequent connectivity properties. This is first indicated by the failure of higher dimensional traffic which the geometry can no longer carry. Such 4-traffic, for example, must then move through the structure to some new haven of 4-dimensionality or it must change its nature and become genuine 3-traffic.

This process of reducing communication expectations in order to continue to live within the new warped geometry is the classical problem of compromising. The feeling of "having to compromise" is a painful one. It is the feeling of stress induced by the warping of the communication geometry, namely the direct experience of a structurally induced force, in this case a 4-force. It is the feeling associated with the distortion of an unsatisfactory translation between languages. This approach clearly provides a very precise approach to understanding more subtle forms of structural violence. Atkin has applied it to an analysis of unemployment.

10. Human impoverishment and reduction of dimensionality

Such considerations suggest the power of q-analysis in clarifying approaches to human and social development in general. Reducing the dimensionality of the geometry on which a person (or group) is able to live is an impoverishment associated with repressive forces. Expanding the dimensionality induces positive, attractive forces through which a sense of development and enrichment is experienced. Q-analysis seems to be a valuable new language through which precision can be given to intuitive experiences and their communication, particularly since it provides an explicit measure of obstruction to change.

11. Disempowerment of response to problems

In the case of social development, it is probable that most continuing societal problems should be seen as holes/objects, especially given the well-established record of unfruitful action in response to them - however vigorous and dedicated. Typical examples are: peace/disarmament, development, human rights, environment, etc. Q-analysis could then provide understanding of why any action tends to be drawn into a vortex of futility, however much it satisfies short-term political needs for visible "positive" action. The participants in the action find themselves "circulating" around a central concern of which they are unable to obtain an overview due to the geometries of the overlapping conceptual and organizational structures through which they work (or which they somehow engender).

12. Dimensionality of human development

In the case of human development, Atkin shows how the individual can be defined in terms of a multidimensional geometry requiring a minimum of four levels. By relating this geometry to that of society, Atkin introduces an 8-level scheme within which thedegree of integration or eccentricity of communication can be clarified in terms of developmental or anti-developmental forces.

13. Persistence of underdevelopment as low-connectivity

In such a multidimensional geometry it is clear that, whether in the case of an individual, a group or society as a whole, it is not possible to eliminate "underdevelopment" as associated with low dimensionality. Such a geometry will necessarily continue to have traffic of very low-level connectivity co-present with that of increasingly higher level connectivity. The simplest illustration arises from the continual birth of infants who will, when resources permit, continue to be educated through to the level of connectivity to which they can respond. But there will always be communication at both low and high-connectivity levels, especially about socio-political issues. The question is then how such learning communication between these different levels of connectivity can weave itself together within a social structure.

14. Designing better configurations of holes

It is the status of the holes/objects in relation to development which could provide an interesting point of departure for further investigation. As noted above, it is not a question of attempting vainly to eliminate such holes, especially when some of them may arise from alternative concepts of "development". Rather it is a question of how configurations of holes can be identified and/or designed. It is such configurations of holes which provide the minimum structure (and communication dynamics) to stabilize and give form to the co-presence of the differing "answers" to the challenge of development.

In effect such holes exist at a lower connectivity-level than the "macro-hole" of higher connectivity constituted by the world problematique at this time. This macro-crisis hole "absorbs" the development initiatives of society by engendering the immense volume of action/communication traffic around the hole so defined. This draws attention to the developmental implications of the probable presence of holes of yet higher dimensionality than can be readily sensed or made the subject of acceptable public (consensual) communication.

How then are "better" holes -- more appropriate problems -- to be engendered within such configurations? Now from one point of view it is necessary to avoid introducing an element of evaluation, because from each hole the perception of other holes will be distorted so that no communicable assessment can be usefully formulated. On the other hand, it may prove to be the case that, at the level of the configuration as a whole, more than one such configuration can be identified/designed in order to interrelate the perspectives associated with the set of holes. And at this level, without privileging any particular hole, more adequate interrelationships between the elements making up the holes can be identified.

15. Co-existence of multiple development strategies

Expressed differently, introducing evaluative judgements into the relationships between the holes within a particular configuration can only contribute to the dynamics between such holes in terms of perceived advantage/disadvantage. Excessive emphasis on this runs the risk of tearing the configuration apart. The identities associated with the holes can be respected in each of the configurations in a series constituting progressively more adequate or richer formulations of the relationships between "developments". There is consequently a multiplicity of concepts of development operative in society. Individuals and groups may "progress" from one to another, possibly with a general tendency towards those of higher connectivity. But other individuals and groups will emerge and find the concepts of lower connectivity more meaningful before moving on, if they do, to those of higher connectivity. (In this sense the "ontogenesis" of an individual tends to repeat the "phylogenesis" of his/her society). Society in this sense is the arena within which individuals and groups refine their concept of development.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential