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A Humane Information Society or Information War?

Reflections about Societies, Cultures, Human Potentials and Tools
such as: Filters, Brokers, Agents, Knowbots, and Maps

Heiner Benking

Consultant at FAW, Ulm, MMI, Maastricht, infoterm, Vienna, UIA, Brussels  -    MOVED -


The paper assesses the impact of global multi-media information and communication technologies on how we reason and co-operate. It argues for shared frameworks for orientation as confusion increases with the volume and questionable purpose, quality and origin of messages. The focus is on how we organise and transform knowledge by accommodating different positions and perspectives. The question is how societies address the all so natural tendencies of trying to control fields of knowledge and interests and secure transparence and exchange of ideas and information.

The paper reviews • tools in communication and knowledge management, • how we should design and use them in a way that secures transparency, • and whether the image schemas of humans and the systems we create, are compatible and comparable. Another focus is on how we see new potentials and challenges, such as virtual realities and cyberculture.


Information society, knowledge organisation, cyberspace, cyberculture, virtual reality, agents, orientation


Originally the idea was to present one further paper on "tools" for information and communication systems: developments to help us manage data and knowledge in multi-lingual and multi–cultural applications, and how we can design switching systems to translate classification and coding schemas. But as this is widely published already [1] and two recent conferences have focussed on wider questions and concerns, we shall take this opportunity to change the scope of this paper on short notice. The events referred to are the European Framework V programs report "Towards a Humane Information Society" [2] and last month’s "Infowar" at Ars Electronica in Linz [3].

The Humane Information Society and "people issues" are seen as a very important steps for the discussion of human factors and social impacts. On the other hand at the Linz conference we find primarily the negative outlook: "one-eyed" views of the technological impact, with metaphors painting only dark picture and nightmare scenarios for the futures.

After working some time on studying the impact of technologies and terminologies, new applications such as: Virtual Reality and Cyberculture, and how we experience, share, and change realities, it became obvious that our attitudes towards these new possibilities and how the messages are packaged and channelled are of high importance and immediacy. See the recent World Television Forum [4] and the work of the author to address the negative impact of nightmare definitions for the new virtual reality, making people afraid by designing an open-ended universality, meaningless and contextless chaotic (information) world [5], without any chance to find agreement and understanding.

The way that society addresses the above issues has been called "leverage point" [6] taking the definition of critical or decision point from sytems modelling (Donella Meadows, Jay Forrester). We see the departure point in how we communicate, whether there is dialogue, mental flexibility, mobility and tolerance. It is obvious, that we can fight for topics and issues, just as we can fight for terrain or goods – but if this topic has a topos, a logical place, we might be able to settle the matter which otherwise would "hang in the air"". The idea is, that the moment we can outline and grapple with what is at stake, we can grasp and grok what it is "about" and can say "NO" to whole set of martial words and metaphors like "Infowar".

The paper is meant to address the problems from both sides, instead of being caught in one-eyed scenarios of "War", "Third Bomb" (Albert Einstein), or "Flood", it raises broader, controversial questions, such as: • Where do we want to go in and with the Information Society"?; • Will information management and communication and collaboratory applications herald an evolutionary, even phylogenetic step, or is it just one further step like the stone age or industrial age?; • Should we be afraid of an overwhelming "Second Flood" of virtual information in the age of Cyberculture? [5], [1]; • Is there a space for humans and humanity?; can we find orientation in common frames of references for fields ranging from education of governance [6]; and • can we use the same schemas not only for human understanding, but have information management tools (brokers, filters, agents, knowbots) use the same scales, grids and definitions (MAPS)? [7].

What we are proposing is more focus on defining broader platforms, reference- or situation-rooms, logical places which we can agree upon and share. Such designs of new kinds of embodied, also visually explorable "Clearinghouses" are abound. See for example the World Press Center (WPC) design. We can see such spacial scaffoldings as an appropriate transparent "step" towards new mind-scapes: "landmarks" and "anchor-points" which are proposed [8] to counteract the increasing fragmentation into proprietary "isolated" channels or "magnetic portals", see [4], [10].

The Challenge

Undisputedly, information and communication technologies are new tools, we have yet to realise how to "handle" them. We can use them to solve problems and to think in new ways. But if we just let go, let the technological potentials and possibilities decide, they might create quick and dirty solutions, but nothing lasting and wanted. It is therefore mandatory to agree beforehand on directions and scales. A tool and technology can not set for us the framework of operation and decide upon the order, purpose, and values. What we need to do is define the interface, we now speak about inter-spaces [11] between humans and systems in order to be able communicate more widely and not leave out the unique potential which make us different. If we use the best from both worlds we can also increase the quality of communication and exchange, augment the human intellect, imagine and co-create, even develop new approaches to governance, democracy and participatory management, as we can on a MAP index, outline and agree-even upon conceptual and abstract issues.

So what is different with these new tools? Why are they so different? For the first time we have now tools to create and simulate, to create conceptual realities and worlds which influence manifold, physically, conceptually and emotionally. It is no longer the case, as the Indians say, that "we share only one skin and live under one sky". Now unprecedented and fast, our experiences and perceptions have to cope with parallel realities - there are suddenly "many skies". The danger is, that everybody creates their own sky and our common cultures and values erode quickly, as a society is bounded and defined by its values and internal order. Einstein said we do not have to know or understand, we only need to cope with the World and Life. This coping ability is lost when there is no orientation. The result? We increasingly care only for ourselves, live in "cocoons" and are alienated by everything from "outside". For more about extensions and how think about and explore our environment see [11].

What we are experiencing here is the result of a one-sided belief in "subjectivism", denying according to the dogma of the school of post-structuralism any "objective" sharable realities, things we share and agree upon. In order to avoid the dualistic dilemma of objective versus subjective, The author favours the notion of "situated knowledge" (Donna Harraway [14]) and recommends for the debate on constructivism-structuralism versus post structuralism [15]. We cannot avoid to touch these basics, how we think and built realities, as it is important to realise how consensus is build and what the dangers are if competing world-views and portals (see below and [9] do not provide a common frame, if we can only see the islands and do not realize that they are "connected in the deep" [16] – in the depth of an extra, third dimension.

Before we present ways to have a map which has depth and includes the ground of the "ocean of knowledge" as well, extra dimensions, we have to see how negative or dangerous picture and "constructions" such as Information War, Bomb, or Flood, even though "very appealing" are oversimplistic or "flat", just as a door (portal) without a house is staffage for the stage in the "Age of Show" (Ivan Illich) - but this is flat and empty and of little use in real life.

Space, Cyberspace, and new "pictures"

Before we design new terrains for navigation, exploring and sharing "what we know and do not know" [9]], [17], [25] let us come back to a very central term and concept: "Space". It is the key term for understanding issues and processes. We only need to overcome the myth that physical space for the natural sciences and abstract space for the intellect and imagination are separate things. This article argues for applying the same approaches to the real, ideal and imaginary. Embodiment, construction and imagination all take place in space, we can create and edit boundaries, between objects and subjects, even navigate and explore imaginary realms: problem, learning and solution spaces.

One example: The term cyberspace is connected to the term cybernetics (Norbert Wiener): "a steering or control space" where information could be ordered and seen with a systems perspective. Unfortunately the concept of a de-materialized "no-space" cyberspace is a negative "u-topia", a no-land, and if we use this chaotic "science fiction" (William Gibson) as our model, we might easily get lost. The alternative is to re-materialize, to immerse conceptually and to embody issues.


New knowledge and communication tools such as: agents, brokers, filters, and knowbots are supposed to help us to clear the mess and cope with the information plythora we are confronted with on a daily basis. But even with "concept search", which works only on the semantic level with a knowledge base, which is expected for the next decade, many questions remain unclear. Are these new "personal assistants" going to help us cope with the world and gain understanding and tolerance for others? Some experts argue that they are a security, and privacy threat, might be "dumbing us down" and erode trust and responsibility (Dobson in [2]). Even for the lay person it seems obvious that if my "agent" or "personal assistant" serves my profile and preferences, and everybody is getting their own personalised input, understanding is lost and dialogue is even more difficult.


"Portals" are doors through which you can enter information worlds, see it as a www-start page with a complete menu of want you need. These portals are "proprietary" in the age of electronic commerce and are designed to provide a complete service in order not to "lose" a customer. Markets are segmented that way and people will get used to their portal. The objective is to keep the new community satisfied, create binding and keep it separate from other offers by providing a complete coherent service and simple, easy to remember access with minimum "mouse-clicks". This like television channels [4] for special interest groups (SIG’s) will typically service minorities, provide services, but also lead to increasing segregation in society. For more see [10]. We only want to focus here on the fact, that portals, like islands are restricted areas and it might be good, not only for competition and further developments, to reflect about and transcend these artificial boundaries. We propose to agree on a common house or a common map to allow the easy passage form one "portal" or "island" to the next. For more see below and the "house" and the "map" or "landscape" [9] in the references.

We can summarise that we are by evolution not "equipped" for parallel worlds. What we propose therefore is to embody concepts and structures which we all know, use spacial metaphors like map, house and landscape, just the same way as we already use metaphors as a central pillar for understanding our languages.

Maps and landscapes,   not just Agents without Orientation

It is intuitively clear and known, that we can learn better, understand objects and subjects better, if we have a picture of the context, neighbourhood, and background. So why don’t we make a map, a coherent, simple, and complete model in order to find things. We can relax as we forget, can find or construct them again. Is this an oversimplistic idea? This articles argues that we should at least give it a try. Isn’t there a plan to find things in every warehouse or pharmacy? Isn’t a repository and thesaurus not exactly the same idea: a plan, structure, order, or schema?

The author can only say that this search for maps and common frames of references was the mandate of the Earth Summit and the agenda for GLOBAL CHANGE research starting in 1988 [18]. It makes sense to agree and share, we should only be sure to see that there are many other alternative (thematic) maps and that we should invest into the translation and transformation of content from one perspective to the next, from one level to the next.

Captain, Map, and Compass is needed

Analogues to an old navigation and exploration quote: "We need CAPTAIN, MAP, and COMPASS", we should be aware not to invest only into BROKERS/AGENTS and FILTERS, but also MAPS. Not only individuals, but also systems and tools need common frames, in order to secure comparable, complete and coherent results. Retrieval results which make sense and leave us with a feeling for context, quality, and what it is about.

A cognitive PanorAma and a house of eyes, Horizons and perspectives

So what we did is design a space, an orientation space or situation space, you may also call it a reference room, as we do in library sciences [12]. Important is that these rooms are connected, that they are part of a common house, or as mountains or seas are part of a landscape, which by the way we call a "Panorama of Knowledge and Understanding" or alternatively a "House of Horizons and Perspectives" [9].

Most important is that these "construction" are in line with our way we think and reason, and that spacial metaphors make very often common sense in different cultures. And that this "construction" is in line with the ways we reason and act upon, that we, like with analogies and metaphors, can transfer meaning from the real to the abstract and back and secure better agreement, see[6].

What is About About

We immediately realise that this little word is central to orientation and understanding. We have to be able to talk about the same things with words which are grounded. In knowledge computing we speak about "symbol grounding" (Stevan Harnad). We need this grounding or standing for all domains and areas of Life, not just for mobile, autonomous systems. We need to see terms and concepts in their context [20] maybe even another annotation or language to communicate at one glance what a homepage or problem/solution is "about" – what is involved and in which context. This is the recent focus of the author recently, designing and developing with children "know-maps" and "interest maps" for the GLOBAL LEARN DAY II. [11].

In Conclusion

In this paper we have not the space and place to go into details. We can not follow how we can immerse into and combine embodied semantic and conceptual spaces. The design "evolved" in related projects, but was not part of a design or development effort. Much has been written elsewhere over the past 10 years. The next step is to show the immediacy and need to define/find concepts with situations, proportions, consequences connected to them. The challenge is then how we can jointly agree on and tackle issues which before were only "hanging in the air".

We should develop many alternative ideas how a HUMANE INFORMATION SOCIETY could look like, find alternative mind-sets and metaphors to "flood" and "war", "maybe something like "diversity" and "harmonical orders". The Commission of Europe report: "Towards a Learning Society [21] begins with a citation form Condorcet: "We must have the courage to examine everything, discuss everything…" – an alternative to running with double the speed, when we have lost the directions and have no maps.


[1] Benking, H.: (1996) A Metaparadigm or Sharable Framework - Ensemble of Representations - A Paradigm Shift? In: New Ideas for Science and Art - New Spaces for Culture and Society, Council of Europe, Prag, Strassburg, and Benking (1988-98) as listed below SORRY WE MOVED:

[2] Towards the Humane Information Society - People issues in the implementation of the EU Framework V Programme, eds J.P. Chester, European Union ACTS Programme USINACTS Project, Jp Chester, Institute of Technology, Carlow, Ireland, ISBN: 1 901267 03 2

[3] InfoWar, Ars Electronica, eds: Gerfried Stocker, Christine Schöpf, Springer Vienna/New York, ISBN 3-211-83191-

[4] Surviving Cyberculture's impact - what can be done? H. Benking, In: programming for People - From Cultural Rights to Cultural Responsibilities, The United Nations World Television Forum,

[5] The Second Flood - A Report on Cyberculture, Pierre Lévy, CC-CULT (96) 27 B, Council of Europe, October 1996

[6] Benking, H.: Mapping and Sharing a New Land - Borderland / (borderland - the realm of the real and ideal/imaginary), editor Sohail Inayatullah. In: The knowledge base of futures studies. Vol. 4. Melbourne, The Futures Study Centre, forthcomming SORRY WE MOVED:

[7] Benking, H.: (1994) Proposing a Conceptual Superstructure, FIG XX Melbourne, SORRY WE MOVED:

[8] proposal for PAKM 1996, Basel: Maps Brokers and Filters: towards higher order knowledge bases

[9] Benking, H. (1998) A HOUSE OF HORIZONS AND PERSPECTIVES, A cognitive deep openspace for positioning, comparing, merging and morphing our metaphors, models, maps and views, In: The compatibility of Social Systems, ISSS – ISIS, Atlanta SORRY WE MOVED:

[10] The Magnetic Portal, In: Information Strategy Magazine, July/August 1998 or "Many Portals but no common House" discussion paper proposed for the GLOBAL LEAN DAY II, proposal: About About – Many Portals but no Common House,

[11} BEING - FEELING - THINKING – HEALING - Self-Models, Paradigms and Extension System, MedSciNetwork and CoB at UNESCO, Paris SORRY WE MOVED:

[12] Veltman, K., Benking, H.: (1998) Interface for Cultural Heritage - Cultural Dimensions of Interspaces.. Advanced Visual Interfaces (AVI), Tutorial and Panel, L'Aquila, Italy SORRY WE MOVED:

[13] Schmidt, S.J. New Definitions of Reality (manuscript received from the author in 1996)

[14] Harraway, Donna J. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature Routledge, New York

[15] Leachman, R. (1998) Cognition and Cultural Change, Artworlds, Bath, ISBN 0 9517150 5 4,

[16] Laszlo, E.: (1997) Whispering Pond, Element books, citation of this metaphor from


[18] Global Change travelling exhibition, on tour since May 1990 in Germany

[19] Concept and context mapping in terminology research. SORRY WE MOVED:

[20] Teaching and Learning - Towards the Learning Society, White paper on Education and Training, COM (95) 590 final, Brussels November 1995