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Identification of transformative opportunities


Reflections on Associative Constraints and Possibilities in an Information society (Part #5)


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It is possible to take the 9 Arenas of Table 3 and explore the implications of each of them for the nine forms of organization identified in Table 2. This would result in a report of 81 sections and is therefore not appropriate in this context, however valuable it might be as a guiding framework for organizations wishing to explore their future opportunities and constraints in detail.

The purpose of this paper is to help to distinguish more clearly the nature of the opportunities for international associations which are characteristic of the three groups of arenas noted above.

It is very clear that there are significant opportunities for international association action in connection with all three groups. It is also clear that, as an artificial device, Table 3 does not truly convey the permeability of the boundaries between the arenas. Activity in any one arena can easily be entrained by activity in another arena. Nevertheless the objectives of activity in any one arena can easily ignore, deny or reject, the impIications for activity in another arena.

5.1 Adaptive Group (Arenas I to V): Despite the many startling differences characteristic of high technology informatics, innovation in this first group is primarily a question of adapting existing procedures to a new context. The procedures and structures are not significantly changed. It is, to a large extent, a question of 'more of the same', although carried out with greater ease, efficiency and effectiveness. And this ease creates a new problem, namely the proliferation in the amount and variety of information in circulation. This is about to receive a further boost, due to the much discussed phenomenon of 'desk top publishing', which will presumably add to the quantities of printed matter being distributed and exchanged by associations.

Innovations associated with the first group therefore contribute directly to the much discussed 'information explosion', whose consequences are at present under review in a project of the United Nations University on 'information overload and information underuse'. In the adaptive spirit of this group of arenas, many further innovations are explored to counteract such overload. They tend to take the form of 'selective dissemination of information' and specialization. But these together reinforce social fragmentation and the manipulative abuses which this makes possible. Within this group the challenge of generating and handling 'quantity', tends to be 'solved', but at the expense of 'quality'.

The operational challenges of the adaptive process associated with the first group pose real problems of mobilizing resources and developing skills. The necessity of responding to such challenges to ensure the viability of initiatives in the information society makes it appear a luxury to consider the less tangible initiatives associated with the second or third group.

5.2 Innovative Group (Arenas Vl to VIII): The second group of arenas focuses more directly on the appropriateness of such adaptive innovations, in an effort to engender structural innovations which transcend the problems associated with the first group. What, for example, is the 'desk top reading' innovation which will enable recipients to cope intelligently with the exploding output of 'desk top publishing' noted above? What are the 'alternative' styles of organization which may prove more appropriate?

This does not necessarily imply that the innovations of the second group are 'superior' to those of the first. Some of them (e.g. disinformation) seek to exploit the opportunities of the information society in a more subtle manner than that associated with the first group. Whereas the first group constitutes a 'first order' response to those opportunities, the second group is effectively a 'second order' response. It is the ability of international associations to develop such second order responses which will determine whether they will attain a new freedom to act within the information society or whether they will find themselves constrained by other initiatives (possibly as a victim of new forms of exploitation).

For those associations concerned with development issues and societal problems, the adaptive innovations of the first group are far from offering a panacea for social ills. They are opening a 'new frontier' in which such problems may well be redeployed in new configurations, without in any way being alleviated. Signs of this are to be seen in the emerging division between the 'haves' and the 'have nots', in terms of degree of participation in the information society.

The difficulty in shifting attention to the second group is that the economics of the information society are to a very large degree associated with the first group. Any initiative must be viable at the first order level before consideration can be effectively given to issues of the second order. In most cases (e.g. 'innovative meetings') the pressures to ensure the viability of a project are such that no attention can effectively be given to second order innovation. And yet it is precisely at this level that the qualitative changes, if any, will emerge.

From the point of view of international associations, in the 'pre-information' society a basic distinction is made between profit-making and non-profitmaking bodies. And yet international associations need to balance their finances in order to survive, even though no 'profit' is made. In the information society, many profit-making organizations are actively developing opportunities in the first group of arenas - often performing information tasks for which international associations have been previously created. Whilst international associations need to continue to demonstrate their effectiveness in these arenas (and balance their finances on the basis of activities there), the 'non-profit' function by which they are characterized can only effectively emerge through their development of activities in the second group of arenas which are of considerably less interest to profit-making bodies - because there is relatively little profit to be made therein. In the information society the distinction required between first order and second order initiatives can therefore usefully be considered as analogous to the distinction between profit-making and non-profit-making initiatives in the 'pre-information' society. Both forms are required, but it is the second which ensures a continuing focus on qualitative change as opposed to purely quantitative development.

There is a real risk that, in their struggle to adapt to the information society, many international associations will find themselves trapped by the real challenges and opportunities of the first group of arenas. Many new 'do-able' projects are becoming evident. These will obscure the importance of the transition to initiatives in the second group (which may well go unrecognized) that would empower associations to continue to fulfil their basic function in counter-balancing the non-qualitative initiatives of the first order.

5.3 Transformative Group (Arena IX): Despite genuine engagement in structural innovation of a qualitative kind, a prime characteristic of initiatives of the second group is that they are not structured so as to recognize their own limitations - especially the manner in which their seemingly positive achievements are themselves as much a part of the problematique as the problems which they address. Initiatives of the first group, but especially of the second, are often associated with an unquestioning belief in their inherent 'rightness' as a contribution to the common good. Their advocates are profoundly amazed by the unenthusiastic, if not negative, reactions of those holding alternative views (e.g. American reactions to European perceptions of their proposals; Western reactions to Third World perceptions of their proposals).

Initiatives of the third group can usefully be perceived as sensitive to the counter-productive aspects of their own best efforts, especially as revealed in the light of alternative paradigms and cultures. Such third order initiatives must necessarily respond creatively (rather than reactively) to the reality of the co-presence of international coalitions seemingly acting at cross-purposed. Here the challenge lies in using the opportunities of the information society to facilitate 'trans-conceptual' learning processes which can transcend such differences without denying their function in any pattern of checks and balances. The application of metaphors to the problems of such development-oriented communication is one unexplored opportunity (5).

In a sense initiatives of the first and second groups may well create the impression of transcending differences - as in naive concepts of the 'global village' or of 'holistic paradigms' - whereas in reality this superficial impression conceals the necessity for such differences. Differences and disagreements have an important psycho-social function. Indeed, it might be said that significance only emerges through the confrontation of dissimilar phenomena. The organized fragmentation of the information society may however be used to reinforce and protect such differences - whether for or against the common good.

The third group is not inherently 'superior' to the other two. As with the second, such initiatives may indeed be more profoundly exploitative. The ability to 'divide and rule' is an inherently third order skill, which ifpossessed by those responsible for a second order initiative could be used to totally pervert the declared intentions of any project. International associations enthusiastically collaborating on such a project would clearly be totally vulnerable to such manipulation - unless they developed third order skills.

The inadequacy of the innovations of the second group results from the necessarily restricted nature of the domain in which they can be successfully implemented. Such structural innovations make no provision for internalizing the radical opposition of other competing alternatives, associated with other restricted domains. International associations normally handle this fundamental problem by avoiding anything more than token (first or second-order) contact with bodies holding radically opposed viewpoints. And yet, to the extent that there is some validity to such opposed viewpoints, appropriate global transformation can only emerge by interrelating such perspectives in new ways. The emerging information society provides a context for more innovative responses to this challenge - through initiatives characteristic of this third group.


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