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Envisaging the Art of Navigating Conceptual Complexity

In search of software combining artistic and conceptual insights (Part #1)

Published in Knowledge Organization (22), 1995, 1, pp. 2-9. Selected for inclusion in the Festschrift for Ingetraut Dahlberg by the International Society for Knowledge Organization
A. Introduction
Structural outliner
Implementation and practicalities

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A. Introduction
This paper is concerned with approaches to the design and production of a range of software packages to demonstrate the feasibility of enhancing comprehension, and navigating complexity, using features uniquely dependent upon the richness and subtleties of artistic insight.

It is usual to distinguish conventional software strategies for navigating relational databases from software for purely artistic representation. Database navigation has already been enhanced by the use of spatial metaphors (windows, landscapes, etc). Multi-media features may be possible (video clips, sound, etc). Data can also be converted into graphic form (diagrams, pie charts, graphs, etc). Quite distinct from these approaches are the facilities offered by the increasingly sophisticated painting programs used by artists to manipulate colour and shape, notably with the purpose of creating "special effects" (as in video-clips) designed to capture the attention. Also distinct is visual (or experimental) mathematics, namely the experimental use of computer graphics by mathematicians sensitive to insights emerging from the aesthetic properties of the unusual forms they are able to generate. More suggestive are some of the features increasingly embodied in complex, multi-media computer games.

The concern here is with the design of a software package to demonstrate how the power of both "scientific" and "artistic" approaches may be integrated to enhance comprehension and navigation of complexity -- as well as offering new forms of creativity in response to complex policy conditions. Some operational web-based experiments by the author are discussed in the Implementation section below.

It is no longer widely believed that society has the collective ability to organize collaborative projects of a scope capable of making the breakthroughs called for by current challenges. There is a suspicion that the challenge calls for quite another approach that makes greater, and more imaginative, use of the information tools that our society has created in order to counteract the tendency for collaboration to become tokenistic and driven by narrow vested interests. Failing a new approach, projects now run the significant risk of being undermined by dynamics with which many are already all too familiar.

The general concern here is that of obtaining an integrative perspective on any complex of social issues and potential responses, bearing in mind the need to zoom between levels of complexity and effectively to pan between different ordering systems. Issues of learning are then integral to any software specifications. Flexibility in reordering is fundamental -- in contrast to many systems based on somebody's "good idea at the time" (which later proves very costly to change in the light of new insights). There is a marked tendency for the replication of this kind of inadequate thinking in electronic conferences. There is every indication that there should instead be a heavy investment in moving towards what might be termed "conceptual scaffolding" that can facilitate higher orders of consensus -- using differences rather than becoming vulnerable to emergent differences. The future will undoubtedly make as much of the need for sociodiversity, and its cognitive equivalents, as current fashions make of biodiversity.

A key question is whether valuable insights into complexity, vital to governance of social processes, may only be representable and comprehensible through presentations of an essentially artistic nature. It is then their aesthetic properties that have valuable ordering and integrative functions. Given the well-demonstrated weaknesses of current international policy-making, it would be unwise to assume that this is not the case. There is also merit in asking why such possibilities are repressed rather than explored. Even in those special meetings, or journal issues, where the bridge between science and art is the focus, there has been little ability to establish any relationship to new organizations of knowledge for policy purposes. little ability to establish any relationship to new organizations of knowledge for policy purposes.

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