Support, Survival and Culture: Report on a research programme at the University …

IFSR Newsletter 1988 No. 3 (19) August/September
The Dutch Ministry of Education has awarded a team led by Prof. Gerard de Zeeuw at the University of Amsterdam a major research contract, scheduled to run for up to eight years. The programme has been going on for more than a year now.
The aim of the programme is to study support systems which are designed to Increase individual and collective competence. Special attention is devoted to the users and Ire ways n which they influence the design, development, maintenance and change of such systems. Ultimately a set of descriptive and predictive (user) languages should evolve, themselves support systems that will support the Improvement of support systems.
These are different from expert systems, though both types belong to the class of systems which provide support. The quality of an expert system can be evaluated in terms of the knowledge that it embodies, but this is not the case for a support system. Its quality can only be appraised by determining whether it continues to find new users IS maintained by its use and shows increasing robustness (invariance under a variety of circumstances).
The Concept of Problem
In the design of support systems a central role devolves onto the concept of “problem”, taken in a special sense. This term is used to designate situations in which actors experience obstacles to their intended activities, e.g. when the necessary resources become unavailable or when it would require a considerable effort to acquire them. By solving such problems actors realize an Improvement in their competence to avoid or solve them in the future. Solutions may involve new ways of organizing activities, the recognition of unused resources or the replacement of interfaces (e.g. changes in the design of a keyboard). Actors may be particular persons, but they can also be points of view or systems of belief entertained by a person, a society or a subculture within a society. These actors are assumed to be capable of action (including linguistic action), and therefore also of interaction.
“Problem” as used here has a broader connotation than It usually does. It includes, for example, the activities often described as “problem formulation” as well as those that deal with the solution of problems. The coordination of both of these kinds of activities is also encompassed by this term It also includes the accumulation of knowledge, both by the par11clpants and by whoever else intervenes in order to improve formulation or solution capabilities. Finally it covers the organization of actors for the purpose of making knowledge readily available to them.
This definition underlines an essential epistemological feature of our programme. The researcher is a participant actor oriented towards intervention, but also involved in the designing or support systems; these represent his or her contributions as a researcher. Thus knowledge is here defined as that which improves the competence of one or more of the actors immediately involved in a situation, but also as that which improves the competence of an intervening scientific community or of the whole of society, which can also be regarded as a community. Knowledge in this sense will be of use in both strongly and weakly structured problem situations. It is tied to the significance which an actor comes to have in society.
The design of support systems can take many different forms. One is the description of the processes employed in solving problems of the kind being dealt with. As researchers in cybernetics and systems theory are well aware, such descriptions can lead to change, since they are at the same time a conceptualization and a form of action. Another type of support system design is the actual physical implementation of processes that change the interaction between an actor and selected parts of his environment.
User Languages
User languages must ensure (a) that all actors participate to a proper extent in the interaction concerning a problem situation, (b) that a proper balance between the degree and the variety of interaction is maintained and promoted, (c) that their use promotes the individual and collective competence of the participating actors, (d) that they bring about the elimination of factors which lead other – possibly non-participating – actors to oppose their effective use.
User languages usually Will be tested and presented in the form of computer programs, but they may also be sets of concepts whose use can be taught. User languages can be regarded as theories about the nature and design of support systems. They can be formally represented in terms of socalled d- languages. A d- language is like a natural language, but it is characterized by its ability to facilitate the interaction of a duality or plurality of roles or levels In. order to mobilize knowledge and create information geared to solving problems.
Since user languages are intended to support the improved use of any system, or at least of as wide a variety of systems as possible, they will be developed and tested in the programme in a variety of contexts. Our research is concerned with the development of computer support action worlds (worlds In which simple activities such as business and war games can be undertaken) and the design of user languages in areas such as education and social aid.
To make this possible the programme has brought together specialists from a variety of different fields including social scientists, computer designers and systems researchers. In addition to the team leaders, specialist lectures, visiting consultants and artists, guest professors and support staff there are full time research assistants and doctoral students
Further generalization Will be brought about by appropriate scientific networking. This may be realized on an individual basis but the participation in and the organization of international conferences is also being planned. The next meeting Will be held in Amsterdam from March 27th until April 1st 1989, in cooperation with the American Society of Cybernetics Its central theme will be “Degradation and Celebrations: the mutual (ab)use and promise of Cybernetics and Science”.
Further information and the contact address are to be found in the list of meetings.

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