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Constraints of the past

Union of International Associations -- Virtual Organization: Paul Otlet's 100-year hypertext conundrum ? (Part #2)

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From a hypertext perspective, it is difficult to avoid asking the question whether a 'Union of International Associations' was not in some measure created to exemplify in organizational practice -- through an enigma à la Umberto Eco -- how semantic 'associations' across conceptual boundaries could be formed into a 'union'. To what degree should the UIA then be understood as a deliberate effort to create, within the frameworks of the time, what is now understood to be a 'virtual organization' -- in the absence of the technology that currently makes this possible?

Of course, as it was formally created, the UIA indeed appeared to be the first effort to coordinate the actions of the existing international organizations of the nascent 'international community' -- as an 'umbrella organization'. Although perhaps the only strategically viable approach at the time, with hindsight this may be seen to have been unnecessarily and dysfunctionally focused on the more explicit, literal and tangible aspects of:

  • 'union': resulting in an excessive concern with contractual bonds and coordination through operational norms -- which history has demonstrated to be essentially ineffectual or unsustainable amongst autonomous bodies (at least with current understandings of what is meant by such cross-sectoral integration). This focus obscured the subtleties of the challenge of creating unifying frameworks at the conceptual level which are still a concern in the elaboration of global plans, strategies and ethical frameworks;
  • 'international': resulting in an excessive concern with geo-political boundaries. This focus displaced attention from the more general issues of creating conceptual bridges across any form of boundary, as subsequently given form in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as in increasing concern with interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity;
  • 'associations': resulting in a focus on organizations of people and other bodies. This obscured the other forms of conceptual associations and linkages. Some are basic to the science of bibliographical classification of which Otlet was an acknowledged expert -- and which are a major justification for recognizing his role in relation to hypertext.

It is curious also that Paul Otlet, in another little-known exercise in synthesis (Monde: essaie d'universalisme -- connaissance du monde; sentiment du monde; action organisée et plan du monde, Brussels, Editions du Mundaneum, 1935), effectively framed the UIA's much later initiative in 1972 to undertake an Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential in association with Mankind 2000. The book Monde opens with a preface on Le Problème des Problèmes and closes with one of the earliest explorations of the methodology and organization of world sociological futures studies -- the subsequent raison d'être of Mankind 2000.

Otlet's Monde goes far beyond the technicalities of his Traité de documentation (1934) on which information science historians have focused. It is essentially a treatise on synthesis -- prefiguring work on the nature of transdisciplinarity. His concluding prophetic description of a Universal Documentation Network, on which hypertext historians have focused, is as follows:

French (original) English (translation)
'L'homme n'aurait plus besoin de documentation s'il était assimilé à un être devenu omniscient, à la manière de Dieu même. A un degré moins ultime serait créée une instrumentation agissant à distance qui combinerait à la fois la radio, les rayons Röntgen, le cinéma et la photographie microscopique. Toutes les chaoses de l'univers, et toutes celles de l'homme seraient enregistrées à distance à mesure qu'elles se produiraient. Ainsi serait établie l'image mouvante du monde, sa mémoire, son véritable double. Chacun à distance pourrait lire le passage lequel, agrandi et limité au sujet desiré, viedrait se projeter sur l'écran individuel. Ainsi, chacun dans son fauteuil pourrait contempler la création, en son entier ou en certaines de ses parties.' (Monde, pp. 390-391) Man would no longer need documentation if he were assimilated into an omniscient being - as with God himself. But to a less ultimate degree, a technology will be created acting at a distance and combining radio, X-rays, cinema and microscopic photography. Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, as a whole or in certain of its parts. (Monde, pp. 390-391)

Otlet, as one of the first internationalists, followed his detailed appendix on futures methodology with one on a detailed World Plan (in relation to the work of the League of Nations), and another on a World Constitution. These were followed by a fourth laying out in detail the framework of a new type of organization which would be simultaneously concept, institution, method, manifestation, edifice and network:

'Pour considérer le monde dans son total, pour l'envisager dans son ampleur et dans l'interdépendance de ses parties, quelle devrait être l'institution, l'instrumentation scientifique propre aux besoins et aux possibilités de notre temps? Un temps qui se distingue par le depassement du stade national et spécial et l'avènement de la vie universelle et mondiale -- un instrument qui tende à faciliter l'oeuvre de la 'mondialisation'. La réponse est une institution d'un type nouveau, dit le Mundaneum...' (p. 447)

Otlet describes there ( p. 456-7) the ways in which the Union of International Associations had prefigured and taken the initial steps to bring about such an institution with considerazble assistance from the Belgian government from 1920 -- suddenly withdrawn in 1934. Although intricately interrelated to that point, the Mundaneum and the UIA went their quite separate ways thereafter -- barely surviving the war.

To what extent did such overly explicit visions, anchored in tangible documents, perform a historical function as carrier for an implicit vision that framed and prefigured further developments -- but which their preoccupations with hardcopy and institutions (and buildings to house them) effectively obscured for many?

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