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Clues for the future


Union of International Associations -- Virtual Organization: Paul Otlet's 100-year hypertext conundrum ? (Part #4)


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For the UIA of the present, facing a challenging future in a turbulent knowledge-based society, it might be asked how these clues now suggest that an implicit virtual organization might emerge from the closet of explictness in which it has been so respectably entrapped over the years. Is it indeed the case that the explicit focus of the UIA should be understood as the tip of an implicit semantic iceberg for which a suitable form of expression is yet to be found -- most probably through the web? If semantic 'virtuality' is indeed embedded embryonically in a 100-year form, how is it to be revealed through the statutory and other forms by which its actions have been governed over the intervening years? This would make for an interesting theme in psycho-social science fiction !

Reviewing once again the keyword clues of the UIA's title:

  • 'union': What integrative dimensions need to be introduced into the global organization of knowledge to make that integration comprehensible and of significance to a future challenged by global incoherence and conceptual fragmentation? Such integration would seek to articulate and respond to the challenges of global governance. It would seek to move beyond checklists of resources currently typical of the web environment. The UIA's multi-media experiments (under a EU contract) with visualization and sound are an embryonic indication of the possibilities. What kinds of services could be developed to respond to the increasingly articulated need for some form of coherent, global organization of knowledge? What new frameworks for 'union' might be required in the light of advances in mathematics and other disciplines since a century ago? How are these integrative approaches to conceptual complexity to be integrated into a hypertext environment and facilitated by it?
  • 'international': The 'nations' of the future will be more closely associated with conceptual, cultural and semantic landscapes than they are with the geo-political territories that continue to be the most tangible focus of attention. It is on these new territories that the dynamics of identity and 'national sovereignty' will be played out yet again. There is already an explosive growth in single sector sources of information. The UIA is already recognized as being uniquely positioned to focus on knowledge ecology -- given its long-track record of involvement with trans-disciplinarity. What form might trans-sectoral and trans-boundary services take in the future?
  • 'associations': Clearly the UIA already has a fundamental, if implicit, commitment to "associations" in a broader cognitive sense -- rather than solely to those of a conventional organizational form. With the development of the web, many conventional understandings of 'association' have been challenged by new ways in which people organize themselves: networks, virtual organizations, movements, belief systems, peer groups, internet usenet groups, and the like. These are increasingly, and often deliberately, distant from the constraints of legal status, formal structures, permanence, etc that characterized 'associations' of the past. The 'associations' may even include the aesthetic, involving other senses (including sound, taste, touch and smell) as Otlet's multi-media vision anticipated. But what might be the nature of the services to be developed -- based on the linkages between associated entities, rather than on the entities themselves (which others can more readily profile)? How do the UIA's existing skills in hypertext editing offer clues to these possibilities?

Is an organization only what its statutes say it is in a strictly legal context, or is it the pattern of associations it assiduously cultivates that embody the insights in which it has invested -- a pattern that connects?

Is the UIA, as it is now understood to be, effectively a metaphor of what its founders intended it to be -- a virtual organization in a knowledge society?

What did Paul Otlet mean by 'union'? In the conclusion to Monde he states:

'L'Unité: Non pas à la manière qui broie la pierre et en fait du sable, à la manière chimique qui décompose chacun des corps et tend à les réduire à un même élément; mais l'unité à la manière de la musique. Dans les masses vocales et instrumentales, chaque voix, chaque instrument demeure soi, s'associe en famille de voix et d'instruments et se produit tour à tour en soli ou en tutti, affirme et développe les les 'soi', les familles, l'unité, les associations, les nations, mais les rassemble aussi en humanité, et pazr delà en univers.' (p. 403)

Anticipating current hyertext visualization efforts at the UIA, Otlet closed a commentary on the requirements of any suitable notation towards this end, with the remark:

'On pourrait ainsi, schématiquement, représenter le total du monde donnant une vue approximative concrète des éléments en présence. On pourrait aussi, schématiquement, représenter le total du monde par une sphère dont les divers grands cercles, divisés en segments, se rapprocherairent aux diverse catégories d'éléments et à leurs subdivisions, cercles et segments étant supposés projetés en un point central et s'y entrecouper pour figurer l'ensemble de leurs rapports réciproques.' (p. xxv)


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