Global Conversations: New Horizons for Information Professionals by Herbert K. Achleitner, Faye Vowell, Roger B. Wyatt
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The emergent communication and information infrastructure of the twenty-first 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 uses the systems perspective with its co-evolutionary dynamics and McLuhan's Laws of Media to analyze the global context and conversation between information, education, technology and the economy. The outcomes of these conversations contextualized the experience of the classroom and the scholarly conference. The authors provide as an example, the conference "Information and Restructuring for Democracy," held in Warsaw, Poland in 1997. The conference explored issues of building national information infrastructures and implications for global connectivity in creating a civil society. The Internet and online conference technologies (digital imagery, text, CuSeeMe video conferencing software, streaming video) were used to extend the conversation to the world. Embedded within the conference is a simultaneous global conversation among scholars and students spread across seven time zones located on two continents in real time.


New Context
The Systems Perspective
McLuhan's Four Laws
Global Conditions
Decentered Learning Environment
Administrative Support for Innovation
Conclusion Bibliography

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, re-frame humanities view of the world. As Zerner (1997) observes, "Leonardo da Vinci was convinced of the power of vision 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, were the engines of restructuring of the Renaissance, so today quantum physics and biology with its systems perspective are the engines of contemporary change. Capra (1996) 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." 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; Capra, 1982). 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. This new view 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). Thus, the painter, the paint, the painted, and the painter's 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 the 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 transformed the social landscapes of their times. From a systems perspective these dynamic interrelationships can be viewed as co-evolutionary.

Capra (1996) views co-evolution as " ongoing dance that proceeds through a subtle interplay of competition and cooperation, creation and mutual adaptation." 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). The continuous real-time additions and deletions of information onto the Internet model Capra's observations. The current technological condition 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. 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 artifact enhance or intensify or make possible or accelerate? "What 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). These laws, when applied to the Internet, reveal the structural changes driven by relentless Internet technological development.

Eli Noam, Director of the Columbia University Institute for Tele-Information, 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.

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 retrieves this dream from under the fog of information overload.

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 (197) 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." 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. 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 an 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, as an result of the Internet, 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 the new publishing on the diffusion of information for teaching and learning purposes?

  2. At a 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, conference reports, and interviews can be utilized for diverse purposes.

  3. Global culture is shaped by the popular culture industries of the United States. The American karaitsu of technology is seen by co-evolutionary interactions between Microsoft and Intel, between Disney and Pixar, between McGraw-Hill and its publishing subsidiaries. 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 hallmarks of contemporary times. The systems perspective comes into play by its acknowledgment of the concept of optimal size. Transnationalism is manifested in GATT, European Union, MERCOSUR, NAFTA, NATO, yet 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 the drive for political independence of Quebec.

  5. The global economy is rapidly evolving from an industrial to information economy. Negroponte (1996) characterizes this phenomena as the migration of atoms to bits. The continued migration of currency from script to smart card serves as an example. This historical movement yields a symbolic economy. Tapscott states (1996) 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 into digits available any time any place.

  6. Events shape and are shaped by initial conditions. For example, the Bolsheviks made a decision to take an extreme modernist position asserting the ability of the "revolutionary vanguard" to re-engineer society and human beings towards a machine like perfection. This initial condition led 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 (1970) has observed that "The new information environment scraps the university, returning it, as it were, to its primal state." Higher education as with all sub-systems co-evolves with other elements within the system. Four dominant sub-systems that co- evolve with education are information technology, 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 as administrative overhead, academic costs, student services, and facility maintenance. The emergence of continuous learning resulting in fluid career choices coupled with a 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 Cu See Me, combined with the technology of documentation, such as digital video all combine to form a new techno-symbiosis.

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, a new learning situation is created from the intertwining of technology and content. A view of their future emerges from this event.

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. Now they are available as streaming videos playing in real time across the Internet. These videos illustrate the concept of guest lecture on the Net. A tremendous acceleration of the diffusion of knowledge by near real-time dissemination emerges. 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 computer technology industry was very generous in their enthusiastic support of this experiment. The Vivitar Corporation donated Internet teleconferencing cameras for all our participating sites. White Pine software, the developers of Cu See Me, 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 periodically summarize their impressions and thoughts on the topics under discussion. An editing and coding team edited the texts and posted them to the conference Web site. 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, and 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.

Administrative Subsystem for Innovation

New contexts require new organizations to support the new thinking. In the seventeenth century, Dutch merchants emerged with excess capital and a desire to mine the wealth of the East India trade routes. In order to accomplish these goals, more was required than merely new technology. They created new institutions and new procedures, such as joint stock companies and marine insurance. From a systems perspective, joint stock companies can be viewed as an example of co-evolutionary behavior among sub-systems. Resources of individual stock holders were pooled under the control of the Board of Directors who undertook commercial activities far beyond the means of individual investors. So too organizations engaged with the global information infrastructure must co-evolve into new structures.

The resources needed to support innovation include vision, time, money, technology, and technique. Either they must all be present simultaneously interacting dynamically or not at all. 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. Rarely is an organization able to afford all the support its innovators need by itself. Under Internet conditions alliances can be made across anytime to anyplace. This pooling of assets among co-evolving subsystems resonates with the seventeenth century Dutch innovations of capital formation. It is important then that an organization be able to understand its core values, the DNA of an organization. In a rapidly changing world where meaningful prediction is impossible, systems behavior is valued. Pro-active monitoring of ones environment, nimbleness, entrepreneurial risk taking, and interconnectedness are examples of this view in action. Resources can then be leveraged for the maximum effect. The process can create stakeholders from both within and without the organization.


One can only wonder how the quiet brothers of the Scriptorium must have felt in the solitude of their quarters as they heard the clatter of the printing presses from without. Within a generation their world and all it represented was at an end. This major innovation in the production and distribution of knowledge completely transformed the social, political, economic, and cultural landscape of the sixteenth century. Then as now the raucous clatter of change can be felt reverberating through halls of modernist twentieth century organizations. Global culture is at the brink of changes as great and as profound as those of the earlier age. Once again, as we gaze at the sky with the launch of IRIDIUM, and its other Low Earth Orbit brethren we continue the heavenly journey started nearly half a millennium ago.

About the Authors

Herbert K. Achleitner is an Associate Professor at the School of Library and Information Management, Emporia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Colorado, Boulder and a MLS from the University of Denver. He has analyzed the information infrastructure of Paraguay for U. S. Information Agency and assessed information flow in the Central Bank of Paraguay for the World Bank. He teaches courses on the global information infrastructure, international information economy, knowledge and society, and information brokering. In 1995 he organized an international conference for information professionals in Kansas City and in 1997 he planned a conference in Warsaw, Poland. Since 1996 he has been a member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Information Management. His most recent publications have focused on the emerging international information infrastructure. He and a colleague are currently involved in multi-layer, multi-year research projects which includes audio and video documentation of conferences, establishment of listserv discussion groups and Web site, multi-media CD-ROM conference proceedings, and the utilization of these materials in an interactive teaching/learning environment. For additional information see:


Faye N. Vowell is Dean of the School of Library and Information Management at Emporia State University. One of her research areas is the impact of technology on pedagogical innovations especially the kinds of administrative support needed to foster such innovation. The stories that people tell about technology, teaching, and the workplace are also an interest.


Professor Roger B. Wyatt is an interdisciplinary researcher who examines questions regarding the relationship between technology and culture. He is an Associate Professor at the School of Library and Information Management, Emporia State University. Dr. Wyatt holds a B.A., M.F.A., and Ed.D., all from Columbia University. He is at work on a theory of digital cinema. Additionally he produces experimental digital cinema works. He has written and presented extensively on these subjects. Professor Wyatt received the first ever Creative Achievement award of the International Visual Literacy Association for his digital cinema production, The Songs of Steel. Wyatt is co-founder of Tech Head Stories (, an electronic journal on the World Wide Web concerned with issues of narrativity and technology.

Professor Wyatt develops low-intensity information technology prototypes and processes that are appropriate for individuals and small groups. He examines the possibilities for re-invention of academic institutions and processes brought on by technological innovation. These concerns are being implemented in his role as Principal Investigator for Technology Applications of the international conference "Information and Restructuring for Democracy," held in Warsaw, Poland, where he created a global conversation utilizing Internet videoconferencing technologies. A multi-media CD-ROM conference proceedings and a digital cinema documentary will also emerge from this project. Additional information can be found at

In his role as new media content strategist, Wyatt has consulted for a variety of information and technology companies including Apple, IBM, JVC, World Book, Cambridge Books, Meckler Media, and others. Among his many productions, Wyatt produced the documentation of the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. He has a passion for film.



A version of this paper was presented at the 1997 CAUSE annual conference and that version is part of the Conference proceedings, "The Information Profession and the Information Profession," published online by CAUSE. Further details on the proceedings can be secured from CAUSE at


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

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

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

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

N. Negroponte, 1995. Being digital. New York: Vintage Books.

E. Noam, 1996. "Beyond the national information superhighway," In: H. K. Achleitner and R. B. Wyatt (Eds.), 5th Conference of librarians in international development. [CD-ROM]. Available: Emporia State University, School of Library and Information Management, Emporia, Kansas.

School of Library and Information Management, Emporia State University, 1997. Warsaw Conference [Online], at

D. Tapscott, 1996. The digital economy: promise and peril in the age of networked intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill.

H. Zerner, 1997. "The vision of Leonardo," New York Review of Books, Volume 44, number 14, pp. 61-66.

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