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Conceptual Challenge of Visualization

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Annex 12 of Visualization of International Relationship Networks (1992)

1. Promise of the 1970s

The original excitement of the conceptual implications of computers in the early 1970s was inspired by statements such as the following: 

"Concepts can be viewed as manifolds in the multidimensional variate space spanned by the parameters describing the situation. If a correspondence is established that represents our incomplete knowledge by altitude functions, we can seek the terrae incognitae, plateaus, enclaves of knowledge, cusps, peaks, and saddles by a conceptual photogrammetry. Exploring the face of a new concept would be comparable to exploring the topography of the back of the moon. Commonly heard remarks such as 'Now I'm beginning to get the picture' are perhaps an indication that these processes already play an unsuspected role in conceptualization..." (Dean Brown and Joan Lewis) 

"Unfortunately, my abstract model tends to fade out when I get a circuit that is a little bit too complex. I can't remember what is happening in one place long enough to see what is going to happen somewhere else. My model evaporates. If I could somehow represent that abstract model in the computer to see a circuit in animation, my abstraction wouldn't evaporate. I could take the vague notion that 'fades out at the edges' and solidify it. I could analyze bigger circuits. In all fields there are such abstractions." (Ivan Sutherland) 

"Concepts seem to be structurable, in that a new concept can be composed of an organization of established concepts... A given structure of concepts can be represented by any of an infinite number of different symbol structures, some of which would be much better than others for enabling the human perceptual and cognitive apparatus to search out and comprehend the conceptual matter of significance...Besides the forms of symbol structures that can be constructed and portrayed, we are very much concerned with the speed and flexibility with which one form can be transformed into another, and with which new material can be located and portrayed...With a computer manipulating our symbols and generating their portrayals to us on a display, we no longer need think of our looking at the symbol structure which is stored as we think of looking at the structures stored in notebooks, memos and books...In fact, this structuring has immensely greater potential for accurately mapping a complex concept structure than does a structure an individual would find it practical to construct or use on paper. The computer can transform back and forth between the two-dimensional portrayal on the screen, of some limited view of the total structure, and the aspect of the n-dimensional internal image that represents this 'view'." (Douglas Engelbart) 

It will be possible to use computer devices as a sort of "electronic vehicle with which one could drive around with extraordinary freedom through the information domain. Imagine driving a car through a landscape which instead of buildings, roads and trees, had groves of facts, structures of ideas, and so on, relevant to your professional interests. But this information landscape is a remarkably organized one; not only can you drive around a grove of certain arranged facts and look at it from many aspects, you have the capability of totally reorganizing that grove almost instantaneously." (Nilo Lundgren) 

2. Disappointment of the 1980s

Re-reading these early texts in the light of the achievements of 20 years, it is possible to argue that we have access to these features if they are understood simplistically. Much manipulation is indeed possible. A user can indeed "drive around" an electronic network, dipping into and out of conferences and examining arrays of ideas. 

But it is also possible to view current electronic networking as quite disappointing in the light of those early aspirations. Consider the following: 

(a) Concept representation: In most networking environments concepts are represented by "message item numbers". The message may have a "title". To this may be attached a questionable selection of "keywords". There is no question of representation by an infinite variety of "symbols". In fact the graphic dimension is totally lacking. 

(b) Concept organization: In most networking environments concepts are organized as messages by "conference" and/or clustered by "keyword". Within any message there may be a reference to an earlier message which can then be accessed, but it may be more difficult (if not impossible) to locate any subsequent message referring to it. In a highly organized conference, the theme may be structured into "agenda points". The addition and removal of agenda points is resisted in order to give stability to the conference. Just as the addition and removal of conferences may be resisted to isolate zones of stability -- although there may be other constraints. 

(c) Concept access: In most networking environments permitting message keywording, the thesaurus structure through which to explore the pattern of keywords is poorly developed. As in many library systems, it is hierarchical and simplistic. Keywords are used too broadly or in such unusual ways that they are unreliable as a retrieval method. They do not provide a meaningful conceptual overview. 

3. An important distinction

It should be quickly said that the existing software is obviously satisfactory to many users of electronic networking. Distinctions can usefully be made between: 

(a) "Focused networking": In which the focus is provided by: (b) "Unfocused networking": In which the commitment of participants is to discover and articulate a shared domain of concern, amongst a network of participants, for which a network of concepts can be articulated and brought into focus. 

It would seem to be the case that user satisfaction is due to the predominance of focused networking. Where users work within specific conferences or maintain contact with specific people, the question of conceptual organization is implicit in the text of the messages exchanged. But in the case of unfocused networking, the question is whether the networking environment responds to the conceptual challenge of the focusing process, namely interrelating complex networks of organizations and problems, articulating agendas, identifying conference participants. The view taken here is that the broader conceptual challenge is to provide an electronic networking system which facilitates the emergence and articulation of conceptual clusters as a prelude to focused networking, if required.

4. Challenge of innovation under complexity and turbulence

Focused networking may be adequate to well-defined stable issues. However, to respond proactively to a complex, turbulent environment requires some form of unfocused networking.

It is unfocused networking which facilitates the emergence of different perspectives and alternative agendas -- different foci. Such a context can be used during the creative, tentative period when agendas and coalitions are being formed. It is able to respond rapidly to crises, surprises and creative opportunities when new patterns of categories are required.

Focused networking is vital, but it needs to emerge from a context of unfocused networking, if it is not to become a trap from which those involved cannot detach themselves.

5. Conceptual weaknesses of conferencing

It is useful to consider the following conceptual weaknesses in both electronic networking and in conventional face-to-face conferences:  In response to such assessments, it is usually argued that these difficulties can be avoided if the conference is appropriately organized with a "strong chairperson" or "moderator" to "keep things in focus". This is in effect a betrayal of the original non-hierarchical inspiration of networking. 

The further suggestion that the conference should have a "clear agenda" tends to imply that the agenda is decided in advance, thus inhibiting the creative, self-organizing process whereby responsible people redesign the framework through which they interact in response to new insights emerging from that interaction. 

Most of the burning international issues call for conference environments in which the agenda is constantly redesigned as an evolving conceptual framework. A frozen agenda precludes creativity and implies a frozen, still-borne outcome. The formation of only the most probable coalitions is possible at a time when only the less probable are appropriate to the task. The emergence of more imaginative coalitions is not facilitated. 

Is there no way that responsible individuals can get there act together without a "policeperson" or a conceptual straitjacket ? It can be argued that much more could be done with networking software to facilitate conceptual activity.

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