Conceptual Scaffolding and Prosthetics
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Annex 13 of Visualization
of International Relationship Networks (1992)
One way to explore future possibilities for conferencing is to consider
the implications of various possible marriages between modes of information:
1. Text and Data
The classic separation between text processing and data processing has
severely impeded the evolution of conferencing. A fruitful marriage would
allow users their current freedom of expression but would also enable them
to navigate more effectively through the maze of messages. Various approaches
could be taken:
(a) an outline facility would structure lengthy communications so that
users could explore them to different depths using an onion-skin approach.
Of particular interest would be to code such levels to indicate their relevance
to the core message (e.g. background or context, argument or justification,
precedents, counter-arguments, action implications, explanatory or learning
mode material, anecdotal illustrations, etc). Archiving could then be done
selectively, gradually reducing to the core concept only.
(b) a hypertext facility would obviously empower users in new and interesting
The issue in both cases is how to code levels of the text and embed hypertext
links in the text as part of the message generation process. This is an
extension of the classic problem of how to motivate authors to provide
abstracts. The long-term solution is to shift the focus of attention from
the text to the representation of the knowledge implied by the text . A
transitional solution is to develop what might be called a "text compressor"
or "concept processor" based on artificial intelligence procedures.
As has been repeatedly noted, the desk-top publishing revolution and its
conferencing parallel will more than overwhelm a saturated readership.
Desk-top readers do not accomplish what we would like their name to imply.
They do not help us to filter and comprehend the content. Some form of
text analysis and restructuring by a concept processor is required to mine
the conceptual ore from what needs to be dumped or filed at a lower priority
level. The most practical approach would to provide users with a minimum
facility which they could adapt and tune to their personal idiosyncrasies.
Users could of course view and edit the structured product generated from
their own outgoing communications. Such a processor might usefully be related
to the need for machine-assisted translation.
2. Data and Graphics
Much has been accomplished with respect to this marriage in the form of
representing data in graphical form (business graphics, statistical graph
plotting). But this quantitative challenge for conferencing is possibly
of much less interest than the non-quantitative one of how to represent
graphically the concept networks being articulated within a conference.
(a) mind mapping, whereby concepts are indicated as interlinked nodes
on a network. Some existing packages permit users to do this as an individual
exercise. One variant of this is the use of arrow diagrams in certain areas
(b) social network mapping, whereby the relationship between participants,
in the light of their profiles or patterns of communication, can be viewed
when this is considered desirable. One variant of this can be seen in the
citation analysis graphs.
There are two challenges here:
(a) enabling a group of users to address the emerging articulation
on a shared map (possibly with personal overlays, etc);
(b) escaping the conceptual straitjacket of packages based on a directed
graph or tree structure in order to use an associative structure (on which
alternative tree structures can be temporarily imposed).
It is worth noting that a heroic attempt was made to do just this by Stafford
Beer and Gordon Pask at the first international conference of the Society
for General Systems Research (London, 1979) before the PC era. Both concept
maps and participant network maps were produced and used to orient discussion.
Such experiments would be infinitely easier now and many refinements could
The absence of such tools is an indication of the priorities
of conferencing at this time. Questions such as the following need to be
(a) Why is it that participants in a conference have experienced no
need to represent the conceptual structure which they are collectively
attempting to articulate?
(b) Is it that participants are satisfied with the schematic representation
in an agenda or programme? Or is it that they prefer a discursive mode
in which the structure is implied or left ambiguous?
(c) Why is it that in the academic analysis of social networks almost
no attention has been devoted to the graphical problems ofrepresenting
complex networks -- despite the extensive manipulation of data on them.
(d) Why is it that in the current enthusiasm with hypertext, no effort
is made to provide the user with a map of the hypertext pathways between
the set of frames? It is almost as though a hypertext stack was designed
like a rat maze, which the user has to explore like the rat, without any
sense of perspective. Learning is the process whereby the rat builds up
its own mental model. The map of the relations in a relational database
is not considered as valuable information to orient new forms of inquiry
or modification of the pattern of relations. It can be argued that it is
that map which constitutes knowledge, in contrast to information.
There is every possibility that users have different preferred cognitive
modes (possibly under different circumstances) and that it remains important
to cater flexibly for those who feel constrained by explicit structures.
One possible reason for the relative lack of interest in conferencing systems
in the international community is that in the present form they do not
reflect the dynamics of factional interaction. The action is perceived
as being elsewhere. Even the texts produced can be viewed as conceptual
shells discarded by a dynamic beast that has moved elsewhere. The consensus-mania
pervading explicit conferences forces the real, tension-filled, business
of factional wheeling and dealing into other arenas -- if only the corridors
and bars outside meeting rooms or in one-to-one messaging. This clearly
suggests the need for handling the public-private interface more flexibly,
veiling and unveiling explicit structure when appropriate. The conferencing
of the future may yet prove to be a conceptual dance of the seven veils
The possibilities of the preceding note point to quite concrete features
which could provide a major new facility for conferences, whether electronic
or otherwise. These possibilities are basically concerned with the whole
issue of what might be called "conceptual scaffolding". In the
process of constructing a building scaffolding is necessary, especially
to hold structures in position until appropriate permanent building elements
can be inserted to lock them into place. Much can be learnt from architecture
in considering the challenges of developing more powerful and appropriate
forms of conceptual architecture.
Structurally an agenda or a conference programme, even a multi-track program,
is rather simple -- even simplistic -- especially when considered in relation
to the complex ecology of problems and organizations which are supposedly
to be interrelated effectively through it. Is it any wonder that conferences
are relatively ineffective at coming to grips with complex issues? What
is being attempted is in defiance of Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety.
The issue is therefore how to enable users to collectively design more
complex forms of conceptual scaffolding to hold in place embryonic or unstable
concepts until other concepts can be fitted into the pattern to lock them
into place. Ideally, of course, it is the conferencing software which should
provide such scaffolding. And, like the scaffolding for buildings, it should
be adjustable to different structural configurations as the building grows.
A typical function of scaffolding in a conference is to provide a framework
within which complementary perspectives can be articulated, especially
when there is a major tension between them. When Concept A is formulated,
the scaffolding holds a space for Concept B to counter-balance it. Such
scaffolding is even more essential when more than two concepts have to
be held in balance. As with buildings, the scaffolding provides a protection
against disruptive forces in the conference process. A typical disruptive
force in a contemporary conference might focus narrowly on "industry
is exploitative", when the larger issue is to provide a sustainable
framework in which to balance the exploitative characteristics of industry
against the socio-economic benefits that it provides in the light of environmental
constraints. The more complex the balance, the more vulnerable is the conference
to disruptive forces.
Four forms of scaffolding are especially interesting:
4. Conceptual transformation
(a) Symmetrical structures: Geometry supplies a vast repertoire
of geometrical patterns which can be used to interrelate concepts. Of special
interest are the symmetrical polygons in 2-dimensions and polyhedra in
3-dimensions. Symmetry has the merit of being in some way associated with
global or integrative comprehensibility. To the extent that opposing perspectives
can be mapped onto such structures, there is greater possibility of collective
recognition of the distinct functions they perform in relation to one another.
It is also possible that the more complex the structure, the greater its
stability. Eastern religions have made extensive use of such conceptual
patterns in the form of mandalas. These hold the complex relationship between
a multiplicity of complementary insights, whilst maintaining an integrative
focus on the whole. The software issue here is how to massage an associative
network of concepts into the pattern (or a range of alternative patterns)
which can give the most appropriate overall order to it. Maybe there is
a place for marrying networking concepts to those of sacred geometry.
(b) Tensegrity structures: A feature missing from such geometrical
structures is any explicit recognition of the dynamics between the elements
and of how they contribute to the dynamic integrity of the whole. Again
architecture points to the importance of appropriately interrelating tensional
and comprehension elements. In conferences the art is to creatively interrelate
perspectives that are in sympathy and in opposition to each other. Buckminster
Fuller pointed to the existence of a whole family of tensegrity structures
which underlie the structure of his well-known geodesic domes. Tensegrity
(or tensional integrity) has many suggestive implications for more effective
such structures make explicit the value of having discontinuous (antagonistic)
relations between concepts (or their advocates) embedded in a continuous
(mutually supportive) network of relationships. Both have a role to play.
such structures make clear how an appropriate combination of appropriately
positioned elements can give rise to a totally unsuspected structure of
unsuspected stability. Whilst it is relatively easy to comprehend the logic
of such a structure in 3-dimensions, the process of constructing it is
much less clear. This suggests that the conceptual elements and dynamics
characteristic of today's conferences could lend themselves to structural
patterning of a totally new kind.
such structures make clear that facilitating communication between
all parties (all to all) is not the only way forward, even if it were feasible
in practice. They suggest that much may be accomplished by ensuring a supportive
relationship with neighbouring nodes, provided that position is "challenged"
by an appropriate opposing node. This is a step beyond all the work done
on social networks. It implies that software could be used to configure
communication pathways (opening some, closing others) to bring about much
more healthy (non-flabby) networking.
of special interest is that such structures have empty centres so that
every point is visible from every other. The centre is a virtual one rather
than being occupied by some dominant individual or concept.
as will be seen below, such structures also imply a range of global
transformations through which the conference can grow to encompass greater
It is clear that only with the use of appropriate software could tensegrity-based
conferences be explored. The scaffolding problem is an ideal computer challenge.
It opens the door to a totally new way of representing agendas non-hierarchically.
(c) Resonance hybrids: There is a certain class of chemical
molecules whose structure cannot be meaningfully defined by a single pattern
of atoms. Thus the benzene ring, present in most organic compounds, is
best understood as oscillating between 5 distinct patterns of bonds between
its constituent atoms. The resulting resonance hybrid is much more stable
than any of the 5 individual patterns -- even though that stability is
dynamic. This suggests the possibility that there may be conceptual and
organizational structures which can only come into existence by allowing
them to alternate between essentially unstable (or unsustainable) extremes.
The challenge of an appropriate response to the issues of sustainable development
may depend on the ability to discover such structures. Computer conferencing
may be absolutely essential in providing the conceptual scaffolding through
which they can emerge. It is even possible that the legal and accounting
structures to maintain institutions based on them could only be managed
through some such environment. (Just as the newest aircraft can only be
flown with computer assistance, it is possible that the most advanced organizations
need to be conceived in the same light.)
(d) Embedding data in images: It has long been recognized that
some of the most complex problems of process control, call for a totally
new way of presenting hard data to the human brain. Instead of a multiplicity
of dials and graphs, use is made of the full range of visual images (landscapes,
animals, imaginary objects) as vehicles onto which to project or hang complex
patterns of data so that they can be more readily comprehended. Thus when
the wind agitates a tree on a landscape image, a particular control action
is called for. Very large amounts of data can be compressed into such images.
Recalling Douglas Engelbart's vision, this suggests the need to explore
how conference participants can embed their insights into comprehensible
images. In particular it suggests the possibility that the collective task
of a conference might also be perceived in terms of sculpting such an image
-- with every conceptual contribution leading to a modification or articulation
of it. This calls for a very special marriage between conceptual contributions
and image processing. Of special interest is the possibility that the insights
of some conferences could only be effectively carried by dynamic imagery,
and especially by imagery governed by other rules than those of the physical
world (as is the case with some computer generated imagery). It is clear
that computer image manipulation skills are well developed, but much needs
to be done to determine how to hang data on them such that changes to the
data modify the image, and changes to the image modify the data.
The need for conceptual scaffolding is clear given the kinds of complexity
with which society has to work. The challenge of making the more complex
structures comprehensible is also clear -- those most appropriate to the
challenge of sustainable development may be beyond the ability of any single
human mind to grasp. But any form of development implies structural transformation.
Whilst transforming simplistic structures like conference agendas and organization
charts may pose little challenge, the transformation of the complex structures
described earlier are quite another matter.
The process of conceptual or social transformation appears to call for
a form of dynamic scaffolding which provides some form of continuity --
from stage to stage -- through the transformation process. What we are
looking for is a form of scaffolding onto which the conference's insights
can be mapped at Stage I. The relationships in this mapping would then
be stretched or changed in the transformation to Stage II, which might
be some very different kind of structure -- suggesting new kinds of relationships
between the concepts so bound (and between their proponents in the conference).
There are few examples of this kind of structure:
(a) Image transformation: The skills of image-transformation
on computer suggest many possibilities. The challenge is to find waysof
relating real-world issues and challenges to such images so as to benefit
from this facility. Of special interest is the way in which development
is to be understood or encoded in such image transformation. If the many
details of the global problematique could be encoded onto one (or more)
archetypal animals, suitably animated, this would be of major conceptual
and symbolic significance --especially when the animation can be used to
represent a transformation process. The media advantages are obvious.
(b) Vector equilibrium: Buckminster Fuller drew attention to
a very unusual symmetrical polyhedron, the vector equilibrium (normally
known as the cuboctahedron) as the common denominator of the tetrahedron,
octahedron and cube. It is unusual in that it lies on a transformational
pathway to a variety of other structures. An appropriately jointed model
can be transformed into an icosahedron and from there to an octahedron
and on to a tetrahedron. The merit of this model, aside from the many claims
made by Fuller himself, is that it provides a way of understanding the
structural transformation process. The challenge in a conferencing environment
is not to focus on this particular structure, but rather to use it as an
example to persuade topologists to locate other transformational systems
of this kind so as to build up a library of possibilities on which to draw.
Presumably it will only be through such explorations that conferences can
anchor their transformative insights so that people can recognize and have
confidence in the structural continuity of appropriate change, rather than
being threatened by change of any kind -- and therefore resistant to it."
There is a dearth of imaginative ideas to respond to the challenge of sustainable
development in this period of crisis and crisis-management thinking. An
immediate challenge for the West is how to respond to the radical transformation
in the Eastern European countries. Given the scarcity of resources, what
can they be given to catalyze the fruitful reorganization of their societies?
And even more challenging, how can advantage be taken of the very high
level of education achieved by a high proportion of the younger generation?
Rather than thinking in terms of how such societies can make use of various
Western styles of organization, which have resulted in many significant
failures in other societies to which they have been exported, is there
an alternative? Is it possible to provide some communication package, to
run on stand-alones or small networks, which could provide them with the
conceptual scaffolding that would enhance their ability to apply their
own imaginative insight to their own problems?
The challenge of the Eastern bloc is in effect a metaphor of the challenge
that the world as a whole faces with respect to sustainable development.
The economists will continue to be given every opportunity to apply their
unimaginative insights to the task, whatever suffering their austerity
measures imply. This will not change. And the degree of alienation of the
population, and especially the young, will continue to increase. But in
the many creative interstices, there is a receptive audience for devices
which open up opportunities for more complex, and more fruitful, modes
of thinking and organizing. With appropriate imagination, limited resources
can be applied in new ways. Computers can provide an environment to assist