Sunday, July 06, 2008

Constellations of meaning

Some more thoughts behind what Compendium is about as a project.

In transformative mediation, the goal of the mediator is to help the parties in a dispute bring about increased recognition of the situation of the other person, better ability to articulate one's own position, and enhance the ability to see connections between the two.

This means bringing about the ability to see the world as each other sees it, and in doing so to see our own world more clearly. We need to understand each other's perspectives and to make our own known with clarity and expressiveness. Even more, we need to clarify our own seeing, to be aware of nuances where we thought there were none. Hearing, being heard, and learning in the process.

This is more than points of view or ideas about an issue, that can be abstracted and written down. It is also about ways of seeing and ways of talking and listening, modes of expression and emphasis, ways of knowing. There are different kinds of logic, and sometimes illogic. We need containers for these, where we can see them separately but also see how they come together. And containers for those containers.

There are many ways of seeing, knowing, talking, and an infinitude of things to see and know. We need means to bring these together, without losing the identity of each portion or facet. We need a way to see and make the connections, to have them be explicit, visible, and shareable. This also needs to be open for further questioning, to always allow and imply that such exploration is possible.

The communication, the medium, and the vehicle shouldn't end when we come to the boundaries of the current tool that contains it, because then its trajectory is interrupted. There needs to be a means to bring the content and the forms beyond those boundaries. That means shouldn't require the whole corpus to be recreated. With today's software, the boundaries of individual tools no longer need to be iron walls requiring wholesale re-creation. But most tools do provide a kind of boundary: the explicit connections, especially the connections between views, are lost when we move a body of ideas across the boundaries. Means need to be found to allow bringing what matters from one form to another, without losing the connections.

I've often envisioned each idea standing like a light, with all the related ideas and associations arranged around it like a constellation. Each has a particular relation to the idea, and the relations are visible, each with its own character. I can see where and how this idea (or person, thing, picture) matters to the others that orbit around it. Each idea also orbits around other ideas, each part of other constellations of meaning.

When we need to focus on one, we can put it in the center of the constellation, but all the others are there also.

It takes effort, and skill, and commitment to bring something like this into being and to keep it coherent, engaging, expressive, and useful.

Each of us have something like this going on within ourselves -- constellations of meaning, symbols, connections, ideas, memories, feelings. Some talented people are able to make portions of these visible and compelling to others, through art, speech, or design. That's what we do when we make meaning manifest, give it some tangible form. But there are few ways to bring these together and show the points of connection, at least in their entirety. Media like blogs and wikis go part of the way, but the connections are still largely implicit and hidden, up to the individual to bring out, or to the invisible collective mind. They are there, and real, but not available in the way I think is needed.

This doesn't mean that each portion or view has to be all things to all people. A view can be as eloquently and expressively fixed as its authors intend. But there need to be ways that allow that view to be explored, questioned, opened up, without losing its integrity or identity.

What would it get us if we had tools and practices that encouraged this level of communication? To me it means seeing each other's identities more clearly, and understanding our own better. Our history is stained with the ways in which we stick each other in false containers, and the ways we stick ourselves in them. Being able to see and talk about the constellations of meaning we each operate within would reveal the ways in which our ideas about identity do not define or confine each other. There is more than what this facet alone shows. If you saw all of it, if you saw where it connected to what you are, we would not be as opposed, we would not be enemies, we would not reduce each other to just the pieces that our own limitations make most loudly visible.

We are as capable of seeing each other's value, what needs to be supported and protected in the other, as we are of forgetting or choosing to ignore these, to see only the portions that conveniently let us act as if the other's concerns had no value. Our history shows that as one of the things to fear the most -- the choice of ignorance and the brutalities that result. It's what motivates my search for a way of communication that shows as many connections as need to be shown.

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