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Societal Learning and the Erosion of Collective Memory

A critique of the Club of Rome Report: No Limits to Learning (Part #1)

Introductory report of Panel III on Utilisation of international documentation of the Second World Symposium on International Documentation (Brussels, 1980). Published in International Documents for the 80's: their role and use (Unifo Publishers, 1982 in an incomplete version), edited by Th. Dimitrov). Presented to the meeting of the Forms of Presentation sub-project of the United Nations University project on Goals, Process and Indicators of Development (Geneva, June 1980). Extracts published in Transnational Associations, 36, 1984, 2, pp. 83-93 with the sub-title: role of international organizations in combatting global amnesia [PDF version].
A. Introduction
Social learning and the world problematique
Information usage
User limitations: limits to learning
Fragmentation and erosion of collective memory
Nature of collective memory
Nature of societal learning: the collective user
Limits to societal learning
Future approaches to collective memory
Relevance of international documentation system to innovative learning
Maintenance versus innovation
Review of issues raised in panel papers
Continuing problems
User problems and innovative learning
Implications and recommendations
Challenging producers and users
Unconventional information tools
Integration and comprehension
Users and usage
Core contents

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A. Introduction

Given the current period of budgetary crisis in the international organisation community and elsewhere, it may well be asked whether consideration of "the utilisation of international documentation" at this time can lead to significant conclusions. The report of the 1972 Symposium indicates a range of user problems which remain valid (1). Budgets have however been contracted rather than expanded since then. Further the hopes for major inter-agency information exchanges, particularly at the computer level, have been largely abandoned or focused on narrowly specialised domains. Those who earlier expressed concern are now resigned to the fragmentation of international documentation. Relations between potential collaborators in any such exchanges have been eroded by priority attention to basic programme concerns within each agency. In many cases where there has been a real cross-system need this has been met by external services possibly established by a commercial enterprise at the national level. Given this level of activity, the recommendations of the 1972 Symposium still stand as a minimal adequate guideline.

On the other hand the period since 1972 has witnessed the advent of the pocket computer which has changed peoples' perception of the credibility of the "computer revolution". There have been many studies of the "information society" now and to come. Computer terminals are creeping into offices and the "paper-free office" is announced for the immediate future. In homes such devices are used for education and amusement (attached to television). International and national agencies are now experimenting with such devices-each in their own way in support of their own system. The pressure to do so is great because of the rapid spread of international satellite-linked data networks and the multitude of data bases now available via them.

The boundless optimism of those associated with the information society revolution is far from being matched by those concerned with the world problematique. Crisis has been heaped on crisis and international agencies are increasingly perceived as helpless observers of these worsening conditions. Loss of confidence in them, as reflected in their budgets, is part of the general loss of confidence in established institutions.

In this context it would seem to be shortsighted, if not simply foolish, to attempt any conventional inward-looking evaluation of the problems of "utilization of international documentation". The dramatic times in which we live would seem to call for a new look at the context within which the objectives of "international documentation" are defined and perceived by the user, whether actual or potential. Not to do so would simply beg the well-known management quip: "Having lost sight of their objectives, they redoubled their efforts".

The danger in the emerging information society is that many traditional library dreams of total computerisation and in-depth cataloguing may too easily become a reality. The question is not whether this is worthwhile, especially to the user. In this transition period a major concern should be with whether such innovations are assessed within a broad enough framework in the light of needs during social crisis and upheaval. The latter concern is of course a special responsibility of international documentation services. Are the right questions being asked -- are there better questions to ask? It is the search for such a framework, to stimulate better questions about utilisation, which is the prime thrust of this report.ramework, to stimulate better questions about utilisation, which is the prime thrust of this report.

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