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Global Conversations: New Horizons for Information Professionals and Students

Herbert K. Achleitner, Faye Vowell, Roger B. Wyatt

Emporia State University

Emporia, Kansas

The emergent communication and information infrastructure of the 21st century with its global, virtual and real time characteristics is here today. Its seamless combination of Internet, satellites and cellular communications is transforming institutions, professions, and individuals. This paper will describe how these technologies are being employed to enhance the experience of the classroom and the scholarly conference using as its example the "Information and Restructuring for Democracy" conference held in Warsaw, Poland in 1997 . The conference explores issues of building national information infrastructures and implications for global connectivity in creating a civil society. The Internet and online conference technologies (digital cameras, CuSEEMe software, modems, servers) were used to extend the conversation to the world. Embedded within the conference is a simultaneous global conversation among scholars from Australia, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, and the United States who interact with conference attendees from Eastern and Central Europe.

New Context

Neil Armstrong's trip to the moon began when Galileo and Copernicus first started to gaze at the heavens above them. The Renaissance redirected their gaze from Medieval inner space to Modernist outer space. The medieval consciousness with its preoccupation with salvation and the afterlife was shifted to a secular, materialistic focus on the here and now. The combined movement of philosophical, mental, economic, social, and political forces were of such a magnitude that they can only be characterized as a paradigmatic shift. So too are the movement of the same forces in our era as we enter the postmodernist cyberspace.

The broad outlines of the earlier forces manifested themselves in the rise of the scientific method. The world of metaphor gave way to the world of fact. Astronomical observations decentered the world view of the earth being in the center of the universe. Shifts in world view of this magnitude change all things including the structure of knowledge and its discourse. Burke (1995) observed a combination of visual forces including geometry as applied to cartography and perspective as applied to painting, reframe humanities view of the world. As Zerner (1997, 61) observes, "Leonardo da Vinci was convinced of the power of vison as an instrument of knowledge. He felt that it was above all through our eyes that we grasp and understand the world, that visual representation is the primary method of recording knowledge and, most importantly, that such knowledge enables us to master and control our environment." As then so today fundamental restructuring is taking place as we turn our gaze to the digital heavens of cyberspace.

While astronomy and mathematics, with its tool of geometry, was the engine of restructuring of the Renaissance, so today quantum physics and biology with its systems perspective are the engines of contemporary change. Capra states that "The subatomic particles have no meanings as isolated entities but can be understood only as interconnections, or correlations, among various processes of observations and measurement" (Capra, 1996:30). From a systems view, structure is emergent and co-evolutionary, having some of the following characteristics: self-organizing, self transcending, self maintaining. These characteristics are interdependent and interrelated (Capra, 1996: 36-38; Capra,1982:269). As a contemporary engine of restructuring, characteristics of the systems view can be seen in all aspects of the Internet. What can be observed is that the Internet extends the Renaissance view of a visualized world defined within geometric space to an extreme of no view at all. What emerges is a postmodernist claim of an environment that includes and is defined by the viewer. These notions are best illustrated by the steady progression of electronic technologies within the second half of the twentieth century. Television is the apogee of the Renaissance view. The electronic screen is framed like a painting and gazed upon from a near distance by a contemplative yet passive viewer. Today's Internet pulls and transforms the viewer into a participant interacting within a total information environment. It resonates with Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle which posits that on the subatomic level the act of observing changes the nature and relationships of the viewed (Capra, 1996:79-80). Thus, the painter, the paint, the painted, and the painters viewer are one dynamically interconnected whole participating within a vast global Internet conversation.

The Systems Perspective

In the systems view, emergent means scaling characteristics that dynamically appear when moving from one stage of organization to another. In an attempt to better their social position, Renaissance princes and merchants invested their excess capital in the arts and polity. This resulted in a flowering of learning and changed architectural landscape that continued far beyond the departure of the Medicis and their like minded brethren. Similarly today, the likes of George Soros and the National Science Foundation are changing daily the geography and content of the Internet. Their heavy investment in building local information infrastructures and information communities in Central and Eastern Europe allows them to engage dynamically with global community. The desired outcome is a democratic and civil society. After all, as frescoes were the encyclopedias and newspapers of a largely non literate world, so today the networks of networks are the carriers of information for our period. Both the Renaissance princes and merchants and today's philanthropists like George Soros and Ted Turner are transforming the social landscapes yet again. From a systems perspective this dynamic interrelationship can be viewed as co-evolutionary.

Capra views co-evolution as " ongoing dance that proceeds through a subtle interplay of competition and cooperation, creation and mutual adaptation" (Capra, 1996:227). Development does not occur in isolation, rather it occurs across borders interacting with other subsystems. The software industry illustrates this condition perfectly. Development takes place globally by means of dynamic interaction among programming teams. Across the global software industry new standards and applications are established, competing and cooperating simultaneously with other systems. Self-organization is characterized by "A constant flow of energy and matter through the system which is necessary for self-organization to take place" (Capra, 1996:85). The contentious real-time additions and deletion of information onto the Internet models Capra's observations. The current technological conditions is a reflection of the paradigmatic shift to the systems perspective.

McLuhan's Four Laws

As paradigms shift so do the subsystems. The Renaissance embrace of geometry, which we have previously referred to, reinvented the subsystem of navigation. So too, in the current era, the systems view has reinvented the subsystems of the structure of knowledge by means of navigating through the Internet . McLuhan's four laws of media provide a lens for understanding this dynamic mediated world. These laws are posed as questions. "What does the artefact enhance or intensify or make possible or accelerate? AWhat is pushed aside or obsolesced by the new 'organ?'" What recurrence or retrieval of earlier actions and services is brought into play simultaneously by the new form?" "What pushed to the limit of its potential (another complimentary action), the new form will tend to reverse what had been its original characteristics. What is the reversal potential of the new form?" (McLuhan, 1988:98-99). These laws, when applied to the Internet, reveal the structural changes driven by relentless Internet technological development.

Obsolesce: Eli Noam observed the three thousand year old academic model is economically no longer viable. The continued investment by society in university campuses that need to be built, maintained and staffed is being increasingly questioned as a result of the knowledge explosion and technology revolution. The traditional university can no longer achieve universal coverage of disciplines (Achleitner & Wyatt, 1996). The movement towards intertwining Internet interactions deeply into the fabric of research, teaching, and learning modalities is accelerating this trend. New York's Empire State University, The University of Phoenix, The Western Governor's University, and Internet II are examples of responses to this powerful trend .

Retrieved: The dream always has been complete and unfettered access to the totality of the world's storehouse of knowledge. The establishment of the global network of networks is the first step towards achieving this age old dream. The combination of ever more powerful computers and greater bandwidth coupled with AI search and retrieval engines retrieve this dream from under the fog of information overload.

Enhanced: The intellectual dialog is extended and enriched through the effective use of multimedia, accelerating the dialog of the texts to real time and beyond. Information is liberated from its flat two dimensional state upon the printed page to the non-linear, immersive qualities of virtual reality.

Pushed to the extreme: Under extreme conditions, old privileges and privileged elites start to disappear. Political, economic, social, and cultural elites are decentered yielding the postmodern conditions of empowering the edge and zones of trans-disciplinarity. Kaku tells the story of the intrusion of computer science into the closed world of "...molecular biology by making a major biological discovery by simply reading computer printouts" (Kaku, 1997:157). Utilizing the computational ability to identify patterns amongst diverse sets of data, computer scientists were able to tell biologists of similarities between cancer genes and cellular growth (Kaku, 157). Pushed to an extreme by new technology, all disciplines become co-disciplinary.

One of the effects of information technologies is above all to connect. Beyond the obvious candidates for connections such as professional associations, disciplines, educational systems, and government agencies lie surprising discoveries and solutions to fundamental human challenges and ancient problems. The frontiers of medicine and space are illuminated daily by new knowledge.

Global Conditions

Within the terrestrial frame, globalization is the ultimate connection. The Internet became intergalactic once the Martian Rover started its journey. Globalization can be understood through six transformative conditions. They are information transfer, technology, culture, politics, economics, and events.

1. Information transfer is best explained through a information value chain process. Information is created, produced, disseminated, organized, diffused, utilized, preserved, and destroyed. The development of the Internet has decentered many of the elements of this value chain. All characteristics of digital telecommunications networks, including ubiquity, connectivity, and a perpetual present, which real-time computing creates, have forever altered the workings of the information transfer cycle. As an example, the result of the Internet upon the publishing industry is now coming to terms with a "distribute then print" model of document production. Within this model, documents are first created, then disseminated to the Web where they are retrieved and printed out by the end user. Distribute then print! What is the effect of technology is on the diffusion of information for teaching and learning purposes?

2. At the fundamental level, technology is in an unstoppable movement towards a grand unification of all information technologies. The merging of computers, video, telecommunication, mass storage, and audio into a unified technology quintet is well under way. The World Wide Web is the most advanced manifestation at the current time. Our Warsaw conference Web site ( illustrates this convergence. This Web site serves simultaneously as new knowledge created through the presentation of papers while it distributes globally this new knowledge, often in real time to interested parties as well as to our students at two class sites in several states. Portions of this material, especially the information audits, can be utilized for diverse purposes.

3. The global culture is shaped by the popular culture industries of the United States. The American karaitsu of technology is seen by the co-evolutionary interactions between Microsoft and Intel, between Disney and Pixar, between McGraw-Hill and its publishing subsidaries. Their role is reminiscent of the Salons of Eighteen Century France where the cultural and intellectual elites set trends and tastes for the rest of the Continent.

4. Simultaneous evolution of large transnational structures and local devolution are the hallmarks contemporary times. The systems perspective comes contrasting into play by its acknowledgment of the concept of optimal size. They are manifested in GATT, European Union, MERCOSUR, NAFTA, NATO, and at the same time are accompanied by smaller subsystems such as the newly established Scottish Parliament, the separatist drive of the Lombard League in Italy, and drive for political independence of Quebec.

5. The global economy is rapidly evolving from an industrial to information economy. Negroponte (Negroponte, 1996:11-13) characterizes this phenomena as the migration of atoms to bits. This historical movement yields a symbolic economy. Tapscott states (Tapscott, 1996:46) that "In the new economy the key assets of the organization are intellectual assets, and they focus on the knowledge worker." A preview of the global office of the twenty first century is to be found in your Internet browser. In the pre-computing days the office consisted of a file cabinet, phone, typewriter, Rolodex, and the bric a brac of the managerial function. The browser collapses all these functions in digits available any time any place.

6. Events shape and are shaped by initial conditions. For example, the Bolshevik's made a decision to take the extreme modernist position in the ability of the "revolutionary vanguard" to re-engineer society and human beings towards a machine like perfection. This initial condition let to their demise seventy three years later. From a systems perspective, the collapse of the Soviet Union highlights the weakness of an outdated ideology within a closed system. This weaknesses stems from the inability of closed systems to interact dynamically with the environment. The inevitable result is decline and demise.

Decentered Learning Environment

Marshall McLuhan has observed that "The new information environment scraps the university, returning it, as it were, to its primal state" (McLuhan, 1970: 184). Higher education as with all sub systems co-evolves with other elements within the systems. Three dominant sub systems that co-evolve with education are information technology and communication systems, economics of the market place, and cultural forces. Information technology using ever more powerful communication systems transforms the educational process from a place-and-time-bound set of interactions to a fluid and virtual environment where students are as likely to participate from within a home or office as from within the traditional academic building. Policy makers are closely looking at the high cost of institutional infrastructures such administrative overhead, academic costs, student services, and facility maintenance. The emergence of continuous learning resulting in fluid career choices coupled with a multi decade, global, and continuing information explosion are two cultural forces that threaten the status quo.

Our recent experience of restructuring academic cultural pathways in the context of an international conference, revealed that off the shelf technology is more than capable of supporting a new image of an emergent information/learning community. The dynamic interaction of Web based technologies, Internet audio video teleconferencing such as CuSEEMe, combined with the technology of documentation such as digital video all combine to form a new techno-symbiosis. Figure 1 illustrates this emergent information ecosystem.


New forms of learning and research are emergent from this interaction. For example, we are merging international conference interaction with classroom processes of learning. By bringing the conference into the classrooms and living rooms of students thus creating a learning situation from the intertwining of technology and content. A view of their future emerges from this lens.

As the conference has just ended, it is too early to report on the analysis of the outcomes. However, we can share the structure in which the global conversation took place.

1. Interviews: On a daily basis before and during the conference, interviews with selected conference presenters were recorded. These interviews were converted to a digital video format, compressed and posted to the conference Web site available as streaming videos playing real time across the Internet. This video illustrates is the guest lecture on the net concept. It embodies a tremendous acceleration of the diffusion of knowledge by near real time dissemination. Using CU See Me, Internet conferencing software, students at the various sites could at designated times interact with the presenters.

2. Global Conversation: The conference organizers arranged a complex network of technology support. This network involved participation of our own technical support group, the university's computer center, and our conference partners at the Warsaw University with the participation of Polish Telecom. The response of the computer technology industry was very generous in the enthusiastic support for this experiment. The Vivitar Corporation donated Internet teleconferencing cameras for all our participating sites. White Pine software, the developers of CU See Mee, provided deep discounts for their reflector and client software packages. From experience these forms of academic and industry partnerships are necessary in implementing complex information transfer experiments.

3. Web Notes: Another unique feature of our dissemination and diffusion experiment was the implementation of Web conference notes. Conference participants were asked to reflect and summarize periodically their impressions and thought on the topics under discussion. An editing and coding team edited the texts and posted them to the conference website. Our intent was to provide students with complete and unfettered access to the important but often ephemeral information and perceptions that arise from the margins and edges, but are often most revealing and most interesting to the researcher.

4. Assessment: A team of researchers at all sites, using multiple methodologies functioned as cyber anthropologists. The goal was to capture meaningful stories and anecdotes, observations, and insights. We were testing how Webcasting from an international conference impacted learning in a non traditional way.

We have selected a postmodernist lens to illuminate how information technology liberates us from traditional process of dissemination and diffusion of information.

Administrative Support for Innovation

Administrative support for such innovation is crucial. For faculty to be able to dream large dreams, they must be a part of an organization that values such activities. Such an organization is one that might describe itself in the following way:

Such an organization will value ambiguity and have a high tolerance for failure. It will desire to be flexible. It might think of itself as a research and development entity in terms of instructional technology for its institution, the information profession, and LIS education. With an R&D focus, risk taking is encouraged and rewarded.

The resources needed to support such innovations include time, money, technology, and student assistance. While each will vary with the kind of project, some general principles are important. The first principle seems to be that of the necessity for alliances. Very rarely is a unit able to afford all the support its innovators need by itself. It is important then that the unit have a vision statement, a long range plan, and a technology plan that are congruent with those of its parent institution. Resources can then be leveraged to get the maximum help. The process can create stakeholders among other parts of the institution. But alliances are also formed outside of the home institution. An example of this is the support by WhitePine and Vivitar for this conference as well as the partnering with institutions in Eastern and Central Europe. Multiple partners call for a variety of people in the unit who share the vision and who can solicit help from multiple sources according to their time, energy, and list of contacts.

Within the institution, the chief information officer, or the director of the computing center, or the person in charge of networking and the web is an important ally. He or she can smooth the way and often buy equipment centrally to save the unit money. It is important to continually update the academic vice president and the president in regard to your successful innovations. Be sure you volunteer to demonstrate the new ideas you are working on when visitors such as legislators and Regents come on campus. Give other administrators and faculty private demonstrations of the projects you are working on.

Even within the unit, alliances are important. A faculty member or group of faculty with an idea of the magnitude of this project will need support in terms of student help. This particular project was supported by two graduate assistants who worked on the web page for roughly a year. It was also supported by two graduate assistants who traveled to Warsaw to do the onsite taping and other technology support. While the institution assisted them in their expenses, they also provided some of their own money. The administrative team is also a necessary ally to enable classes to be structure in such a way as to facilitate the success of the project. In our case, the technology support person and an assistant dean tested the CuSeeMe technology twice a day for three weeks before the conference to be sure it would work. Such a commitment of time and energy is absolutely necessary when such technological innovation is attempted. But all this is necessary and rewarding to accomplish a vision.


Achleitner, H. K. & Wyatt, R.B. (Eds.).(1996). 5th Conference of librarians in international development. [CD-ROM]. Available: Emporia State University, School of Library & Information Management, Emporia, Kansas.

Burke, J.& Ornstein, R. (1995). The axemaker's gift. New York: Grosset/Putnam.

Capra, F. (1996). The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living systems. New York: Anchor Books.

Capra, F. (1983). The turning point: Science, society, and the rising culture. Toronto: Bantam Books.

Kaku, M. (1997). Visions: How science will revolutionize the 21st century. New York: Doubleday.

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School of Library and Information Management, Emporia State University (1997, October 25). Warsaw Conference [Online]. Available <>

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Zerner, H. (1997). "The Vision of Leonardo." The New York Review of Books. 44, (14), 61-66.

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