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Limits to societal learning


Utilisation of International Documentation (Part #8)


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It is now appropriate to return to the question of whether there are "no limits to learning". Some definite limits were identified above for the individual learner-user. It may be argued that these focus on the learner's limited relationship to the body of knowledge, whereas the learner is unlimited (except by death) in his ability to continue to engage in the learning process, i.e. however slowly he learns or relearns, he can always learn something more.. It is easier to argue that society's learning capacity is unlimited, especially if it is assumed that the component individuals each focus on overlapping portions of the body of knowledge. Presumably the slogan does not simply refer to the trivial notion that society can always learn something more.

There is a danger in such optimistic slogans in that they divert attention from the nature of the obstacles to societal learning - obstacles which have prevented society from responding with greater maturity and insight to the crises with which it is now faced. The Club of Rome report cites the case of increasing world-wide illiteracy as an example of wasted human learning potential. In 1980, 820 million, namely 20% of the world population, are illiterate following several decades of Unesco literacy programmes. This indicates a very practicallimitation on any theoretical possibility of unlimited learning. It is important to explore such limits before launching new learning programmes (34, 35). Understanding the limits helps to redefine the kind of learning which is vital at this time and for which the support of international documentation systems is required.

a.Quantitative limit: Just as no individual can absorb all information, so is it not feasible for any group to do so even by sharing the load amongst its members. In fact it is only practical to devote a limited proportion of time and resources to absorbing or disseminating information. Much information goes unrecorded or cannot be disseminated. Furthermore much is destroyed after a certain period. Multinational enterprises deliberately destroy most records after several years, for example.. In an important sense we live in a forgetting society. Much information quickly becomes irrelevant, especially in rapidly evolving disciplines. There have been complaints that the original observations (facts) on which most scientific papers are based are destroyed.

"In speculating about the evolution of memory, it is helpful to consider what would happen if memories failed to fade. Forgetting clearly aids orientation in time; since old memories weaken and the new tend to be vivid, clues are provided for inferring duration. Without forgetting, adaptive ability would suffer; for example, learned behaviour that might have been correct a decade ago may no longer be... Thus, forgetting seems to serve the survival of the individual and the species". (17)

Groups, like individuals, can suffer from information overload. There is no way that some countries or institutions can absorb the amount of information considered relevant by their better endowed counterparts. This is an aspect of the problem of transfer of know-how. Such groups are "unlimited" in their capacity to continue to learn, but there is a "limit" on the rate at which they can do so.

Another fruitful aspect of this question emerges from comparison of the rate of increase in knowledge production with the rate of increase in population. Each advance in knowledge awareness of whate remains unknown. "Compared to the pond of knowledge, our ignorance remains atlantic. Indeed the horizon of the unknown recedes as we approach it". (The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance, New York, 1977, p. IX).

"For example, when one acquires a bit of new information, there are many new questions that are generated by it, and each new piece of information breeds five or ten new questions. These questions pile up at a much faster rate than does the accumulated information. The more one knows, therefore, the greater his level of ignorance" (Itzhak Bentov. Stalking the Wild Pendulum, New York, 1977, p.1)

But, perhaps more significantly, each "unit of knowledge" produced becomes increasingly difficult to disseminate through the learning process, because of the increasing "competition" (for attention time)

from other units to be learnt. Under such conditions each "unit of knowledge" produced can usefully be seen as increasing the ignorance of those who are unable to absorb it (for whatever reason). The production of new knowledge for some is therefore matched by the reduction of others into greater ignorance. And the amount of ignorance so "produced" increases much faster than knowledge production because of the effects of population growth. Each ("significant") document entering the international system increases the ignorance of those who fail to absorb it. The question is when the ratio of ignorance to knowledge in society will be such as to render knowledgeable decision-making unimplementable because of ignorance on the part of those who are needed to support the decision in a democratic progress. And given the prevalence of ignorance (and the impossibility of eliminating it) would it not be more creative to investigate it in the hope of discovering properties which would enable it to be viewed and used as a resource :

"If all knowledge were within a man, and ignorance were wholly absent, that man would be consumed and cease to be. So ignorance is desirable, inasmuch as by that means he continues to exist..." (Jalaluddin Rumi. Discouses)

For example, given its inherent "boundedness", it could presumably provide insights into the structuring of society into "information cells" of many types, linked by a variety of information networks. Then the question becomes how groups and individuals can learn to benefit from their state of ignorance.

"...and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason". (John Keats, Letter, 21 December 1817)

"The aim of this article has been to show that our most successful theories in physics are those that explicitly leave room for the unknown, while confining this room sufficiently to make the theory empirically disprovable". (Otto Frisch. In: Encyclopaedia of Ignorance. New York, 1977, p. 8).

b. Limit to connectedness: Assuming that the task of societal learning can be shared amongst the appropriate sectors of society, the question is whether these "learning units" can be appropriately connected so that such learning is available to guide decisions of the whole.

If it is assumed that learning can be effectively projected into documents, then this merely becomes a question of ensuring that the document systems used by the learning units are interconnected. This is a problem of physical connection (e.g. through data networks) and of the logical and functional connection amongst the documents and their contents. Considerable progress is being made on this front. But it is fairly evident that this is a long way from matching the requirement of collective learning - even, and especially, in the case of the intergovernmental agencies within the U.N. family. And the failure in the latter case indicates the presence of a definite limit which should be borne in mind.

If, however, it is assumed that learning cannot be projected into documents (but is only useable or "activated" once it has been effectively "absorbed" by one or more individuals), then the problem becomes one of ensuring that such "primed" Individuals (or groups) are appropriately interconnected, possibly backed up by documentary information stored In data bases. Here again progress is being made through the rapid emergence of computer conferencing systems (7, 36,37) . Yet despite their success,these systems merely serve to clarify the presence of a limit in the ability to establish functional connections between knowledge units (12, 38) and between those so connected (39). In addition such systems are, even more so than the telephone, only available to the privileged. However much they spread in industrialized countries, access to them in developing countries will be very limited. If it is argued that such a degree of on-line interconnectedness is not a necessity for all, there is a dynamic discontinuity with those who can only be contacted by post (or unilaterally via the mass media). This "disconnection" is perceived as a serious gap by those on each side of it and immediately affects the dynamism of the learning process and of its use.

c. Limit to collective comprehension span: Again assuming that the task of societal learning can be shared amongst the "appropriately connected" sectorsof society; the question is whether the span of collective comprehension of whatever group is empowered to act on such learning corresponds to the range of elements relevant to the act. As in the case of the individual, there is a limit to the number of domains of knowledge (however "pre-digested") which a group can handle conceptually as a comprehensible whole. Most groups have developed, whether consciously or unconsciously, remarkable skills at "sweeping awkward factors under any convenient conceptual carpet" in order to create the Impression that they are in control of a situation. Presumably society could reach a condition in which more inconvenient items of knowledge are being repressed in this way than are effectively dealt with. As noted earlier, the Club of Rome report stresses the complete Inadequacy of current integrative skills. Why is this? What are the obstacles to conceptual integration? Only by facing up to the nature of this limit can information systems be designed which compensate for the effects of the "repressive instinct".

One aspect of this design problem is the total dedication of information systems to the presentation to the user-learner of information structured linearly (a.g. lists of terms). This leads to linear conceptualization of problem situations (e.g. agenda items). Comprehension of complex domains demands nonlinear presentation of information (15). Consider the relative value, as a decision tool, of a list of subway stations versus a map of the subway network. Both are useful, but the list is almost useless without the map. This may include structured images, although the Club of Rome report strongly advocates the use of images in general:

"No less important as an element of learning, images have been under-emphasized by societies and sciences bent on rational speculations and inferences deriving from operational laws... But we cannot underestimate the advantages images have for global perception and instant access... That "is, images,generate operations at the core of our intelligence by which we produce a general proposition on the basis of a limited number of particular ones. Images also generate insight... The fact that collective images exist - and that perceptions can be shared - links societal to individual learning. It is the down-playing of images in maintenance learning that tends to blur these interconnections". (5, pp. 41-42)

It is appropriate to note that within the United Nations University's Human and Social Development Programme there is a sub-project on alternative "forms of presentation" to conventional text. The considerable intellectual and financial investment in the hardware and software of non-image oriented information systems makes it unlikely that any useful link to image manipulating systems (including map-generating devices (15)) can be established. Parallel systems may well be developed which fragment what should be an integrated approach. (Note how the photographic libraries are totally separated conceptually from the "more serious" documentary information systems of international agencies). The situation is aggravated by a related limit (discussed below) governing biases against different forms of information.

Another aspect of the design problem is that it is now recognized as misguided to elaborate information systems independently from the groups and institutions that they must serve. The man/machine interface has become such a critical factor that it is now vital to consider "groupware" design as a necessary complement to hardware and software design. Group comprehension of complex problems may well require that a user group "reconfigure" to grasp the pattern of information available (12, 38). Information systems should facilitate this process but as yet nosuch flexibility is envisaged. The gravity of the situation is particularly evident in the difficulty large conferences experience in organizing themselves as groups marshalling the (documentary) information at their disposal to focus on problem complexes (40).

d. Limit to depth of collective comprehension: There are two conventional responses to the previous limit. At one extreme is the effort to achieve an "overview" of a problem situation by sacrificing any focus on detail. At the other extreme is the much favoured tendency to concentrate on some highly specific "practical" question, ignoring the context, in order to make "concrete progress" and "achieve results". Information systems have not yet been designed to stabilize the shift of groupware focus between these different levels - even though they supposedly correspond to the hierarchy of subject categories by which documents are organized. As in the case of the individual, it is difficult for a group focusing on a given level to bear in mind more than the next broader level and the next narrower level. Where there are many relevant levels, much must remain out offocus. And in the dynamics of practical programmes and policy-making, levels acquire an independence from one another especially since they lend themselves to the establishment of groupware fiefdoms. These may well give rise to their own information systems by which that independence is justified and reinforced. Needless to say such divisions constitute a severe limit on innovative learning.

A slightly different emphasis may be given to the term "depth", namely that associated with the largely neglected concept of "maturity" or "wisdom". It is not at all clear what restricts the manifestation of collective wisdom. It is however very clear that its manifestation is very limited. The question is whether information systems can be designed and used to enhance such manifestation, respecting the limits to comprehension inherent in wisdom of different depth (12).

e. Pre-logical limitations: It is a convenient myth that international document systems are designed to serve a rational decision-making process. For example Harold Lasswell makes the point:

"Why do we put so much emphasis on audio-visual means of portraying goal, trend, condition, projection, and alternative? Partly because so many valuable participants in decision-making have dramatizing imaginations... They are not enamoured of numbers or of analytic abstractions. They are at their best in deliberations that encourage contextuality by a varied repertory of means, and where an immediate sense of time, space, and figure is retained". (41)

This stress on dramatization is however probably only an indication of the "tip of the iceberg". On the one hand, many use items from the international documentation system to support pre-logical positions which are completely undermined by other documents (which are not cited, even if they have been consulted). This is part of the "drama" of the political arena and is accepted as such. Many are responsive only to the immediacy of verbal presentations, or to "scientifically-backed" arguments, or to arguments of a delegation with a strong power-base. Others are affected, or unaffected, by the style of presentation, whether it stresses order/disorder, static/dynamic, continuity/discreteness, spontaneity/process, etc (11 ).

On the other hand, and more important, many (at every level of education) are totally indifferent to the whole process which the international documentation system is designed to serve. For them those documents contain no meaningful information. A major group is that for whom the international community is defined by the stars of popular music and song. And yet, perhaps ironically, it is their preference for rhythm, melody and harmony which provides valuable clues to a less "monotonous" approach to alternative futures for the world (14). It is they who are totally unaffected by efforts to "generate a political will to change through the "mobilization of public opinion" (51). No wonder thatthe UN Secretary General remarks:

"It would probably be unfair to conclude that a sudden callousness had overcome public opinion in the developed countries. It is more like a closing of the gates to a pattern of generalizations perceived as outworn by over-use" (52).

Perhaps the concept of an "information diet" is relevant. Individuals and groups do not flourish on information of one type only. A "balanced" diet is required. This could also apply to users of an international documentation (?) system. The userfulness of such analogies is illustrated by one relevant to the assimilation of information which is used in the Club of Rome report: "values can be said to be the enzymes of any innovative learning process". (5,p. 40). Although little is known about this pre-logical limit as it affects information, the receptivity to some forms of information only means that there is a limit to the extent to which an individual or group can learn from information in other styles and modes. It is not simply a question of "multi-media presentations" but of the pre-logical orientations inherent in any given form of information. The question is how these orientations complement one another and what this limit implies for information systems designed for communication of insights between users of every orientation

f. Collective attention span 1imit: It is a well-known characteristic of society that it is unable to focus its collective attention on any situation for any length of time. Even the most dramatic events tend to be only "nine-day wonders" before falling into oblivion. Clearly "nine-days" is more characteristic of attention focused through the mass media. But "issues" brought to the attention of international conferences may only remain active for a period of weeks or months - although "hot" issues, providing ammunition in a dramatic debate, may even be expended within a period of hours. Of perhaps greater significance are issues that survive the government election cycle (e.g. 4 years) and are given a permanent focal point through institutionalization - possibly with the creation of special documents and a specialized information system. A special difficulty for the international documentation system in this context (and, subsequently, for users) is the period over which a category is forced (for a period) to carry the significance of concepts already abandoned, then later becomes denatured, and finally "wears out". Perhaps it is appropriate to consider the "half-life" of "active" concepts, by analogy with that of radio-active elements.

This process is well-illustrated by Johan Galtung's disillusioned analysis of "concept careers" within the UN system, "meaning both how concepts undergo a career of stages or phases, a life-cycle in other words, and how concepts may move from one organization to another. Thus, as to the lifecycle aspect:

  • a fresh concept is co-opted into the system from the outside (almost never from the inside because the inside is not creative enough for the reasons mentioned). The concept is broad, unspecified, full of promises because of its (as yet) virgin character, capable of instilling some enthusiasm in people who do not suffer too much from a feeling of déja-vu having been through a number of concept life cycles already. Examples: basic needs, self-reliance, new international economic order, appropriate technology, health for all, community participation, primary health care, inner/outer limits, common heritage of mankind (In view of Unesco's favourable response to the Club of Rome report, presumably "learning" is now launched upon its career as a concept.).
  • the organization receives the concept and it is built into preambles of resolutions, drafters and secretaries get dexterity in handling it. The demand then arises to make it more precise so that it can reappear in the operational part of a resolution. A number of studies are commissioned, very carefully avoiding too close contact with people and groups behind the more original formulations as "they do not need to be convinced".
  • the concept thus moves from birth via adolescence to maturity, meaning that it has been changed sufficiently to become structure and culture compatible (it will not threaten states except states singled out by the majority to be threatened); the idiom will be that of the saxonic intellectual style, rich in documentation and poor in theory and insight; very precise but limited in connotations and emotive overtones; "politically adequate" meaning that it can be used to build consensus or dissent, depending on what is wanted where and when.
  • from maturity to senescence and death is but a short step: the concept thus emasculated can no longer serve the purpose of renewal as what was new has largely been taken away and what was old has been added in its place - except, possibly, the term itself. Even the word will then, after a period of grace, tend to disappear, those who believed in it now no longer identify with it; those who did not get tired of saying "we knew it would not work, it did not stand the test of reality". In this phase outside originators of the concept may be called in for last ditch efforts of resuscitation, usually in vain. There is no official funeral ceremony as the concept will linger on in some resolutions, but there will be a feeling of a void, of bereavement. Consequently, the search will be on, by concept scouts, for new concepts to kindle frustrated and sluggish consciences. And as a result -
  • a fresh concept is co-opted into the system from the outside, e.g. one that has already been through its life cycle in another part of the UN system. For the rest read the story once more.

Nevertheless, each concept leaves some trace behind, more than its denigrators would like to believe, less than the protagonists might have hoped for. If this were not the case the cognitive framework for the system would have undergone no change during the 35 years of its existence", (53).

The special feature of this limit is its dynamic nature. In one sense it is perhaps to be deplored that collective attention cannot be focused long enough to give rise to effective action (40 ). But in another sense attention shifts once the issue no longer serves the poorly understood needs for dynamism within the international community (issues are 'consumed' to fuel the dynamics). And, to the extent that the attention shift takes place In search of innovative renewal, this is to be welcomed - particularly since this brings alternative and complementary factors into focus. But, given these extremes, not enough is known to indicate when a shift is premature (in terms of action requirements) and when it is necessary (in terms of the healthy dynamics of world society). Clearly a complex world problematique demands both sustained attention to comprehend the dimension of the problem and shifts in attention to respond to complementary needs.

A more subtle constraint associated with attention lies in the assumption that the process of attention can be completely "insulated" from the matter to which the attention is directed. This convenient distinction between observer and observed, traditional to the classification sciences, is now shown to be questionable even within that discipline (56, 57), Not only is attention time limited but the process can (and possibly should in a learning situation) change the observer and what is observed. In this sense learning does not result in conceptually "grasping" some fixed "thing", but rather in an elusive, evolving conceptual "dance" in which both partners are modified by the process. The very lack of limitation limits the social relevance of such learning.

Clearly the international information systems should have a major role to play in focusing collective attention, maintaining that focus, and shifting without hiatus to alternative issues - recognizing of course that many alternative issues must be focused upon simultaneously, in the light of the previous limits (Use of the term "focus" suggests the possible value of investigating optical systems as providing useful analogies to describe the problems and possibilities (see 40)), and that the different attention spans of users must be appropriately catered for and somehow "phased" together. In this sense the problem may be defined as the "management" of humanity's most valuable resource, namely attention-time, especially collective focused attention-time. It would be a valuable exercise to develop a theory of societal development and control in terms of "attention absorption" and its information flow and learning implications.

g: Collective memory limit: In an earlier section some clues to the nature of collective memory were explored. It is clear that there has been very little study of this. As a device to stimulate further discussion of the matter, this section will make use of studies of individual memory by assuming that there is some degree of equivalence between individual and societal memory.

In the study of individual memory much has been learnt from its malfunction. Is there not a striking parallel between the many attempts by the UN Secretary General to communicate to world society the urgency of our present situation and the following fictional account of an analogous situation with an individual?

"To say that he understood what went on was true. To say that he did not understand - was true. I would sit and explain, over and over again. He listened, his eyes fixed on my face, his lips moving as he repeated to himself what I was saying. He would nod: yes, he had grasped it. But a few minutes later, when I might be saying something of the same kind, he was uncomfortable, threatened. Why was I saying that? and that? his troubled eyes asked of my facet What did I mean? His questions at such moments were as if I had never taught him anything at all. He was like one drugged or in shock. Yet it seemed that he did absorb information, for sometimes he would talk as if from a basis of shared knowledge: it was as if a part of him knew and remembered all I told him, but other parts had not heard a word. I have never before or since had so strongly that experience of being with a person and knowing that all the time there was certainly a part of that person in contact with you, something real and alive and listening - yet most of the time what one said did not reach that silent and invisible being, and what he said was not often said by the real part of him. It was as if someone stood there bound and gagged while an inferior impersonator spoke for him". (Doris Lessing. Re: Colonised Planet 5- Shikasta. London, 1979, pp. 56-57).

The collective inadequacy of society in the face of information on the world problematique suggests that such aberrations should be reviewed carefully. Collective memory would seem to be exposed to processes leading to its very rapid erosion. Psychiatrist Ronald Laing has given an account which can be interpreted as dramatizing the problem of institutional and inter-institutional learning (see Annex I). These quotations suggest that understanding the present constraints on societal learning could benefit from a systematic review of the pathology of individual memory. Some pointers are given in Annex 2.

The paragraphs above focus on memory as that which is actively shared in collective consciousness. This was shown to be an elusive phenomenon. The alternative (as before) is to focus on the international information systems on which such collective consciousness is supposedly based (5). Their most striking feature is their fragmentation, whether as systems almost completely independent of each other, or individually in their isolation of subject categories from each other.

As to the first, there are of course many initiatives to interlink such systems via data networks. But for each such initiative successfully achieved, many new specialized independent information systems are created. A distinction must also be made between linkages between such systems (presumably resolving the fragmentation problem for the user), and linkages to such systems from a given user via data networks(which relegate to the user the problem of resolving the fragmentation). In his own review Toffler (6) in discussing the "intelligent environment" makes it clear that the era of the large central computer is largely past. Society is now faced with the "distribution" or de-centralization of computing power to the point that individual offices in an agency could well develop and maintain local memory which they may share with other parts of the organization or of the system to which it belongs. In the face of the widespread spectre of "Big Brother" manipulation of information systems, it is unlikely that much effort will be made to facilitate such sharing beyond a certain point. This will severely limit collective learning ability.

As to the second, there are of course many attempts to improve and standardize the classification of subjects. But the more fundamental problem is that any such classification scheme is imposed as a relatively rigid logical abstraction on a dynamic subject continuum. The limiting assumption of the observer/ observed distinction (56, 57) has already been discussed. But there remains a tremendous functional gap between the logical subject hierarchies and the network of operational realities.

It is as though society depended upon subject categories organized in memory in a manner analogous to the rigid protocol of 16th century, battle order, when the problematique demands a flexible organization of memory corresponding to the shifting patterns of modern guerilla warfare and changing alliances. Environmental information provides an admirable example. Plant and animal species are interrelated in food webs (networks). There is considerable controversy about the "logic" of the systematic (hierarchical) grouping into species although these are used as categories in information systems. Pollutants travel through food webs to points which society chooses to perceive as "problems" and only as problems may the species be included in the systems. But the information systems are organized in terms of the "logical" categories of pollutants and species (if both are in the same systetern) without any attempt to record the food webs via which the categories are linked in ecosystems and through which a continuing pattern of problems will emerge.(Point made by the author at the UNEP 2nd Infoterra Network Management Meeting, Moscow, 1979)

It may be that the incompatible demands of "hierarchical" and "network" memory organization cannot be met within present information systems and that this limitation calls for a paradoxical shift in perspective (59).

Another limiting facctor in collective memory is the widespread practice of restricting or "classifying" documents as "secret". Information is treated in thiswaywhen it is assessed as having the potential to trigger change which the possessor of the information wishes to control, present, or use to his advantage. The possibility that somemilitary or industrial classified information might lead to widespread benefits if released need not bediscussed here (5.,p.54 ). Much more serious it restriction of information ("liable to cause public panic") concerning the world problematique or institutional incapacity when it is only such information that can provoke rapid innovative societal learning and galvanize"the political will to change". In such a context,no one can prove that there is not, for example, solid classified evidence for any number of present and future phenomens which would put the world problematique in a totally different light. It is merely a frail assumption that open information systems supply documents of more than trivial significance. In the case of an individual, this problem of hidden pockets or information "charged with significance" is of course well -known to psychoanalysts.

Perhaps, however, the ultimate limit to societal learning lies in the consequences of unrestricted social over-commitment to learning. As enthusiastically described by Unesco (33) and the Club of Rome (5), learning is not limited by its relationship to other social processes.. As an extreme example, this leads via the "eternal studant" to a society dedicated to the consumption of information and totally unable to focus that learning foraction on the world problematique, for example. This raises the Question as to what extent information systems do, orshould, empower users to act.


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