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Particular features relevant to the global brain theme


Simulating a Global Brain: using networks of international organizations, world problems, strategies, and values (Part #3)


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Comprehensiveness and the meanings of 'global': It might be said that there are no biases regarding the areas of human activity on which information is collected for these knowledgebases -- or, better still, that the profiles produced each reflect the strong biases held by particular constituencies. However a significant bias is towards information that is of more than local or national significance. Other kinds of bias might be identified regarding the adequacy of representation of information from non-English, non-western, non-literal cultures -- even though such concerns are assiduously reflected in the preoccupations of many international organizations and the information they provide. Interesting questions might also be raised regarding the bias implict in the notion of 'node' and the kinds of relationship possible. Currently ternary relationships (on which there is an extensive literature) are excluded. [for more on biases]

With respect to 'global' brain however, there are important questions as to the degree to which of the following is the prime emphasis:

  • global in the sense of 'world': Here the focus is on the geo-political dimension, namely a brain encompassing preoccupations from around the world -- worldwide. It is this sense that gives rise to 'globalization' and 'global traveller'. Any global ordering here primarily emphasizes the multiplicity of bilateral connections around the geographical world as a set, without any other explicit sense of their meaningful organization. This may include understandings which specifically refer to global 'networks' where these are essentially understood as a pattern of bilateral links, with some significant hubs.
  • global in the sense of 'unitary': Here the focus is on the unity of the world (often symbolized by a photograph of Earth from space, or the notion of Gaia). This focus tends to lack any ability to deal specifically with the complexity and diversity from which that unity is understood to emerge. The unity is taken as a given posing no conceptual challenges. This focus is a basis for reflection and campaigns about Earth as a whole. The phrase 'think globally, act locally' is associated with it, as are notions of 'planetary consciousness' and Teilhard de Chardin's 'noosphere'.
  • global in the sense of 'integrative': This relatively obscured sense emphasizes the degree of integration of the brain, in the mathematical or systemic sense of a global, rather than a local, solution. Such a connotation is characteristic of higher degrees of order whether embodied in cybernetics, theories of complexity, complex organizations, or the levels of understanding that are purportedly an attribute of wise (mature, well-integrated) people. It raises fundamental issues about how any higher orders of integration are achieved, function and may be understood.

In relation to these distinctions, the UIA has produced a database of some 600 integrative, transdisciplinary and unitary concepts (http://www.un-intelligible.org/projects/homekno.php). The web however provides an interesting bridge between all three of the above understandings of 'global' (Judge, 1996). The UIA information collection focus relates primarily to entities that are integrative in the first sense, namely interrelating perspectives from different parts of the world. But the concern is to build into the access facilities features responding to the challenges of the third -- especially the challenge of coherence as suggested by the need for interdisciplinarity and comprehension of complexity (**). However a more radical question might also be raised as to whether a global brain should, at some stage, also reflect non-human intelligence.

Interrelating different kinds of conceptual entity: To avoid the challenges of information overload, the focus of this work has been on a range of quite distinct, and specifically defined, conceptual entities that are handled in separate databases. Entities within each database may be extensively hyperlinked together in addition to hyperlinks between entities in different databases. For the puposes of the global brain perspective of this paper, these entities may be viewed as follows

Entities Explanation Global brain relevance
international organizations non-profit intergovernmental or nongovernmental organizations globally connected distributive knowledge systems
world problems identified as preoccupations by international organizations and other constituencies. Care is given to distinguish such entitiers from topics of study, and there is a requirement that they be well-named with negative-value descriptors (eg literacy is not a problem, illiteracy is) collective phobias, neuroses, etc
global strategies advocated by international organizations or other constituencies in response to world problems. Care is given to ensure that these are named with action-oriented descriptors to avoid confusion with topics of study or interest. collective procedure, best practices
human values values implicit in recognition of world problems, in strategies in response to them, or exemplified by human development collective attractors / repulsors
international meetings organized by international organizations in response to problems, to articulate strategies or to celebrate values binding moments within global brain
human development concepts of human development and modes of awareness as an important objective of many strategies and embodiment of values goals and processesd to be facilitated by global brain?
integrative knowledge understandings of transdisciplinary, integrative, unitary and globality articulations of coherence potenjtially associated with a global brain
bibliographical references whether the products of international organizations, about them, or about the issues with which they are concerned  
biographical profiles on key executives of intrnational organizations  

Interaction with information sources: The knowledgebases are maintained through various degrees of interaction with providers of information, especially international organizations having issue and strategic preoccupations. International organization information is obtained annually via (email) questionnaires (as well as via the web) as a basis for the Yearbook of International Organizations and its electronic variants.

To the extent that the universe of international bodies may be said to reflect deliberately organized responses to the complete range of human preoccupations, it can be said that they constitute focal nodes in a form of global brain through which facets of human social reality are perceived, defined, and given relative significance. Whether this is to be understood, as with any encyclopedic undertaking, as one precursor or a subset of some larger understanding of a global brain is clearly a matter of discussion.

The web facility is being designed to facilitate and encourage continual amendments to profiles and links by interested parties, notably international organizations, whether through a comment facility or through online distance intelli-work.

Hyperlink context and generated links: The knowledgebase is not designed as an isolated system. Every entity is named with titles rich in keywords that are used to enable query links to web search engines offering access to relevant resources. Experimentally such keywords are also used to pull into the profile visible to the user generated hyperlinks to entities in other parts of the knowledgebase. This technique is used where resources have not been allocated to providing hard links to selected entities in other databases.

With respect to the global brain, this raises interesting issues about the values of associative links which may or may not be relevant.

Hypertext editing: The databases are very much understood as knowledgebases. A major challenge is to provide links between entities whose relationship may often be neglected or represented only in secondary literature. Clearly when such links are explicit in accessible texts they can be incorporated. However many problems arise where link information is crudely given in the literature. An example would be if Entity A is described as directly linked to Entity D in one source when other sources make it clear that this link is only via Entity B and Entity C.

Resolution of the class of challenges of this kind requires a combination of software and knowledge skills that will probably be the basis for a future profession through which the quality of a global brain will be maintained and enhanced. Effectively this is a process of synapse editing!

Use of multi-media for conceptual integration: The quantities of information involved, and the manner in which the system is normally used in text mode, raise concerns about simply reinforcing user tunnel vision -- a concern fundamental to any discussion of a 'global' brain.Whilst hyperlinks are usually present to points outside the user's immediate domain of preoccupation, there is a need to provide useful contextual frameworks to facilitate any desire for a broader overview. Several experimental approaches have been taken to this and made available to users:

  • Virtual reality: A number of approaches have been investigated for the projection of complex networks onto different kinds of structure that could be explored using readily available virtual reality browser plug-ins. The key here has been decisions on the integrative design metaphor of the surface onto which nodes and relationships are projected. The intention has been to offer to the user choices of geometric design metaphor (sphere, spiral, etc). The structures are generated over the web on request.
  • Spring maps: This approach, pioneered by Gerald de Jong, takes advantages of properties of elastic interval geometry to resolve the basic problem of how usefully to distribute elements of a topological network over a restricted plane surface (what might be called the 'automated subway map design problem'). Essentially links are defined mathematically as springs allowing any network to self-organize over a given surface. Various tools may then be offered to the user to explore such networks (zooming, panning, etc), to drag and freeze parts into meaningful positions, or to redisplay the map with other colour codes. Currently software permits spring maps with up to 2300 nodes to be explored.

In both these cases the features of the display are active in that users could either choose to obtain text profiles corresponding to nodes or generate a new structure centred on the selected node.

Data sets have also been ported into proprietary packages:

  • Decision Explorer: This enables more detailed analysis of networks from a decision-making perspective. It has its own display and modelling approach. This facility is directly available as an option to web users. [*** sample]
  • Netmap: This sophisticated tool allows millions of entities to be positioned around the circumference of a cricle, with links between them displayed as coloured lines across the circle. In this way the single circle provides an overview of the complete data set (one experiment with UIA data used 150,000 entities; see more). Zooming facilities allow display of individual entities. Analytical features allow subsets of the data to be clustered in a variety of ways meaningful to investigative decision-making. [**** ppt]

Currently developments are focusing on the association of tones and music with spring maps in order to use sound effects to provide the user with a soundscape matching the visualization. The emphasis is on how users can themselves associate sound effects with complex structures in order to sustain integrative understandings of complexity.

Such an approach has been justified for similar reasons in efforts (under the term 'protein music' or 'genetic music') to associate tones with features of DNA structures, notable by computational biologists. Web resources include: http://education.llnl.gov/msds/music/midi-dna.html; http://www.whozoo.org/mac/Music/index.htm; http://ndb-mirror-2.rutgers.edu/NDB/archives/MusicAtlas/proj.1.html. A useful discussion of such approach is given in http://www.whozoo.org/mac/Music/Sources.htm; http://www.aber.ac.uk/*phiwww/pm/. These efforts have given rise to a Nucleic Acid Database Musical Atlas (http://ndb-mirror-2.rutgers.edu/NDB/archives/MusicAtlas/index.html).

Feedback loops: The major emphasis on hyperlinking conceptual entities means that these semantic networks can be analyzed to detect various characteristics, notably the presence of loops. Such loops may be an indication of possible errors but may more interestingly be a basis for shifting the level of analysis and understanding beyond the common focus on individual entities in isolation or simply as part of an unordered set. [see discussion]

The notion of "loops", and its relevance, requires some further explanation. As defined by Colin Eden and Fran Ackermann (Making Strategy, 1998) in describing the value of Decision Explorer : a loop represents a description of a chain of consequences that produces a dynamic outcome by feeding off itself (positive feedback = "vicious" or "virtuous" loops), or by controlling itself (negative feedback). Typically a feedback loop will be an important strategic issue in its own right. The purpose of detecting feedback loops is to raise the level of analysis of individual issues to a higher, systematic level. It is a technique which has the potential to add extra meaning to basic data, particularly relevant for policy makers (one significant user group for this product) and others concerned with understanding the interrelationships and root causes of environmental problems, notably those relevant to biological conservation.

A self-reinforcing ("vicious") problem loop, then, is a chain of Problems, each aggravating the next, and with the last looping back to aggravate the first in the chain. An example is:

Man-made disasters > Vulnerability of ecosystem niches > Natural environment degradation > Shortage of natural resources > Unbridled competition for scarce resources > Man-made disasters.

Such cycles are "vicious" because they are self-sustaining problem cycles. organisational strategies and programmes that focus on only one problem in a chain may fail because the cycle has the capacity to regenerate itself. Individual "vicious problem cycles" also tend to interlock, forming tangled skeins of interlinked global Problems which implicate single environmental problems in chains and complexes of multi-sectoral issues. Without the means to untangle the relationships, the response to a conservation challenge may be ineffective, self-defeating or, even, harmful.

It is important to recognise that it is precisely through the detection of such loops that attention can be drawn to defects in the pattern of relationships in the data. It is possible for some loops to be the result of incorrect relationships rather than being representative of genuine feedback, and so "accidental" loops appear. Detection of loops is therefore in the first place an editorial tool for hyperlinkage within a relational database. It raises questions as to the appropriateness of certain links which otherwise may go unquestioned. It also sharpens the discussion on how distinctions are made, using verbal categories and definitions, and how system boundaries are drawn grouping what is represented in this way. The results indicate this is a very interesting area for further exploration.

An indication of the numbers of loops detectable (of different size) is given below for the case of problem entities linked by the 'aggravating' relationship (namely Problem A aggravates Problem B):

Progressive Refinements of Problem Loops
.

Prior to Project

EU INFO2000 Project

Date

1995

1999

1999

2000

2000

. Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4 Column 5

Machine

386/486

486

Pentium III

Pentium III

Pentium III

Processing Time

many weeks

Some days

37 hours

12.5 hours

500 hours

Chains tested

9,519,722

15,000,000

46,474,882

16,091,877

1,239,769,768

Profiles

- -

6,891

1,217

12,397

2-Loop

-

- - -

5

3-Loop

35

- - -

173

4-Loop

115

- - -

230

5-Loop

527

- - -

473

6-Loop

3,058

- - -

1,163

7-Loop

3,568

- - -

3,473

8-Loop

excluded

excluded

excluded

excluded

10,600

9-Loop

excluded

excluded

excluded

excluded

35,438

Total

7,303

6,000

15,958

8,253

51,555

Reflection of real-world preoccupations: By using international organizations as a prime source, the resulting web knowledgebase endeavours to hold the widest possible spectrum of perspectives on matters and dimensions of concern to the world. It can at any time be 'confronted' with new entities in knowledge space for inclusion within whatever hyperlink framework is appropriate. The result is relatively compact and internally ordered in a way that is to some degree self-organizing.

With respect to a global brain, this raises interesting questions about the way any global brain mirrors reality. Clearly the knowledgebase is both a limited map and a distorted one. Clearly it is itself not the brain but a reflection of entities in knowledge space that perform brain-like functions through their interaction with one another. It might perhaps be likened to an ECG readout or a cat-scan.

Perceptions vs Facts: With respect to several kinds of entity included (notably world problems), the emphasis is much more on perceptions of reality rather than on verified assumptions about reality. Briefly, for example, 'invasion by extraterrestrials' will be the subject of a problem profile if there is a constituency acting as though this was an important dimension of its members psycho-social reality. Briefly again, equivalent attention will be given to 'rust', 'refugees' and 'wrinkles', notably because of the economic significance of the first and the last.

With respect to a global brain, it might well be asked to what degree it might be designed only around 'facts' if major constituencies have significant doubts about those facts and articulate their concerns as though 'non-facts' were effectively 'facts'. The major challenges around this matter have recently been evident in the dubious articulation of 'facts' by political and scientific communities regarding BSE, foot-and-mouth disease, GM products, hormones-in-meat, etc. Perceptions have proven to be as significant as facts to the dynamics of the international community. At this point it is impossible to distinguish between perceptions and facts on the web.

Exaggerated claims and contradictory statements: Again, with respect to several kinds of entity included (notably world problems), an effort is also made to include (in a separate field) claims in language that reflects the dominant significance that particular perceptions may hold in the minds or emotions of some constituencies (for example with respect to issues of sexism or abortion). Equal effort is however also made to include counter-claims denying the significance of such claims or of the issue profiled -- or possibly of the misrepresentation to which such claims are typically subject.

The system is designed to handle statements that may be considered highly biased and inaccurate from another perspective. The purpose of such information is to give some feel for the dynamics of the perceptions around particular issues -- and the radically opposed opinions that may be active in society. Clearly some of these perceptions, and perhaps mutually reinforcing clusters of them, may be usefully understood as indicators of collective neuroses, phobias, denial-mechanisms, and the like. However judgements to this effect are as significant in practice as are those with respect to individual obsessions.

With respect to a global brain, it might be asked how such exaggerated perceptions -- clearly identified as misleading from other perceptions (possibly otherwise biased) -- are to be handled so as to reflect the dynamics and dilemmas to which a global brain might aspîre to provide a coherent response.

Non-closure and incompleteness: The knowledgebase is necessarily designed to avoid closure. Because of constraints on resources, many entities in it are sparsely populated with text, especially where priority is given to hyperlinks to other entities. No profile is considered complete. Profiles continue to be modified in response to clearer articulations or recognition of errors. Entities may at any time be split or combined. Their hyperlink context may be significantly amended at any time. Incompleteness may be significantly determined by lack of resources to include or amend texts. Priorities may be given to relatively insignificant entities where these help to enlarge the scope and range of the knowledgebase, as opposed to further amending entities covered by many websites (to which links are provided) on which libraries of information may already be available.

With respect to a global brain, this raises issues about incompleteness, ignorance, learning and erosion of collective memory. It is strikingly exemplified by the challenge of modern libraries with respect to archival material and the degradation of media.

Global modelling and simulation: The 1970s and 1980s saw much enthusiasm for global modelling of a particular kind. The value of such models has now been played down and their success is now acknowledged only where they are applied to rather specific domains (trade, climate, etc). Such models are in almost all cases equation driven. In contrast, the UIA knowledgebase is essentially topological in nature and calls for the use of techniques from that discipline [see comparison with conventional global modelling]. Its visible outputs are not graphs in the statistical sense but cognitive representations in which design elements to facilitate comprehension of complexity are a significant factor.

With respect to the global brain, this raises interesting questions about the contrast between an equation driven brain (following the style of chess programs) and one based on structures of semantic associations. To what extent is the debate about the bicameral nature of mind relevant to discussion of a global brain? (see below). Can right and left-hemisphere functions be identified and how are they to be integrated?

Subject matrix: In an effort to provide an integrative emphasis to subject organization, the knowledge base items are classified in terms of a matrix of subjects (http://www.uia.org/topics/aaintmat.htm) rather than a nested hierarchical structure as is typical of much knowledge organization. This sets the stage for exploration of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity as patterns of links between cells across the matrix. [see detailed review]

Humour: A humour database is associated with particular entries in several of the UIA knowledgebases. The rationale is that humour appears to be intimately related to the deprived or stressed social circumstances documented -- and often seems to be engendered by them. The vital role of humour has been recognized for people in oppressive regimes, conditions of social deprivation, prisons, ill-health and monotonous occupations, namely diminished quality of life. By introducing humour as a dimension this may therefore provide integrative insights and patterns of associaztion otherwise unobtainable. This raises the question as to how humour might be associated with a global brain (a topic occasionally explored in science fiction).


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