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American Society for Cybernetics
ASC 2002 Conference
June 13-16, Santa Cruz 


  Update on Participant Observatories

Paul Schroeder

Friday, June 14, 2002



This presentation updates the status of the participant observatories concept, continuing a conversation that began during the ASC 1997 Conference in Champaign, Illinois. At that meeting Frank Galuszka, Klaus Krippendorff and I presented a panel elaborating the notion of an ouroboratorium. I had not been present at the NSF-sponsored design conference where this exotic interactive space was invented by Elizabeth Dykstra, so I felt safer in presenting a similar space with another name, the participant observatory. To my mind the "cognitive laboratory" devised by Herbert Brun and described in his essay "The Need of Cognition for the Cognition of Needs" is another example of where we were heading with this idea (Cybernetics of Cybernetics, 336-341). According to Frank, Elizabeth Dykstra defined an ouroboratorium as a "design group that collaboratively designs recursive process."

Frank and Klaus, at the 1997 meeting, gave background about the situation where this concept emerged. Frank recounted that at the design conference, there was extended discussion about "end users," ending with the question: Are there end users? Their answer was the position of a subset of the conference participants: No, there is no user in need ofr design; rather, the user is in need of a means to design. Klaus reflected on ouroboratorium by providing a critique of physical space and cyberspace as then currently conceived: there is no such thing as physical space in nature; space is defined by our ability to move; computer space / cyberspace is flat and "prevents us from collaboration in the making of meaningful worlds."

My definition of a participant observatory was a place where reflecting on the process of observation is included in the process of observation. At that time I was academically involved with people who were trying to fit the technologies of spatial analysis, especially geographic information systems, into contexts where public inputs could have legitimate place; this has been called a public participation GIS. Our panel helped me bring some focus to the theme of participatation with technology in the five years between these meetings. A summary of how this has been applied occupies the rest of this paper, and some notion of where this is going.

From the fall of 1998 until now I have been a part of an experiment in voluntary information sharing and community building in the Gulf of Maine region, called Gulf of Maine Environmental Information Exchange (GoMINFOEX). The problem that was taken up by this group was set at a meeting in Boston that called attention to the integrated human and natural environments of the Gulf and its watersheds, the huge geographic extent of this region, and the many competing and sometimes collaborating interests in the region. How can "environmental information" best be "exchanged" in this setting. Of course, cyberneticians rooted in constructivist epistemologies will immediately see problems in this way of setting the problem. Nevertheless, about a dozen people have banded together in an Action Committee that is exploring innovations in communicating around and across the Gulf, without any specific mandate, solution or funding.

The most important advance, or innovation, adopted by this group had to do with periodicity of meetings and geographic settings, rather than technical applications. The group has met 14 times on a quarterly basis since its initial self-organization. The meetings have occurred in all of the governmental jurisdictions around the Gulf (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts), and no two meetings have been in the same place. The meetings take place over two days, and people who are interested with local ties are specially invited to attend. The meetings follow a consistent format: technical presentations, review of ongoing activities around the Gulf, and discussion of ongoing organizational questions. (Details about this effort are published in Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design  28 (2001), 865-887).

At this time, there seems to be a basic division of opinion among GOMINFOEX participants as to the need for more formal organization, staff, funding, versus continuing in the informal and self-organizing manner that has characterized the interactions so far. My own attention is being focused in a project called Visualizing a Digital Library for the Gulf of Maine. This in part has grown out of the GOMINFOEX process, the result of a general call for the organization of such a library; and also is motivated by a project called New Directions, that seeks to bring "humanists" and "earth scientists" together (see For the project that we call New Directions Downeast (NDDE), the library visualization is cooperatively engaging people from the US Geological Survey's Coastal and Marine center in Woods Hole, Mass., the GIS and community planning specialists at Island Institute of Rockland Maine, and several members of the Univ. of Maine, Orono community. Purportedly an exercise in bringing scientists into closer relationship with various publics, the New Directions Downeast effort could as well be seen as an extension of the participant observatory concept. One NDDE participant calls what we are building a discourse engine.

That's where I have come. What's coming next? I'm thinking these days mostly about question-centered learning environments, as contrasted with knowledge-based information systems. This thinking has direct application in our digital library effort. Most information systems, or knowledge resource repositories, or libraries, begin with assumptions about knowledge: knowledge exists; it needs to be adequately described and organized; when being digital, this usually means adherence to data standards, metadata, and so forth.

In fact, this organization (or pre-organization) of knowledge is a potentially infinite task. In addition, everyone wants to do it his or her own way. And then, what about the problems of common languages, machine ontologies, query languages ...?

A question-centered approach, it's assumed that everyone involved has some knowledge, and some questions. In the scientist / public scenario, rather than assuming that it is the scientists who have answers with the task being somehow to bring this knowledge to fruitful applications provided by publics with information needs, everyone might be considered to be located in the same field, all having partial and sometimes specialized knowledge (including the very special local and tacit understandings of their communities and local environments that marks the non-scientific publics, as well as the knowledge of scientists in their local community habitats). A focus on core questions and concerns, from wherever they emerge, may point a way out from the debates over specialist vs. layperson vocabularies and the difficulties in their translation.

All of what we call knowledge is contextual, and the best medium for carrying contextual knowledge, synthesizing and communicating it is the human person. The goal, then, is to bring questions into mutual proximity (a problem in the domain of coordinating cognitive spaces, or in Klaus Krippendorff's terms of this morning, a problem of creating conversational space).

The creation of this sort of question-space or question places in this way becomes another redefinition of the process of creating ouroboratoria, participant observatories, cognitive laboratories or discourse engines. Whatever we might call them, this design process is part of the ongoing task open for participation by members of the ASC.

Note: Special thanks to Frank Galuszka for suggesting an update on participant observatories for this talk.

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HTML transcription: Randy Whitaker, October 2002