Wikipedia: a model of a rational discourse

Review of:
Hansen, S. Berente, N., and Lyytinen, K (2009) “Wikipedia, Critical Social Theory, and the Possibility of Rational Discourse.” The Information Society, 25: 38-59, 2009.

The authors of this article look at the phenomenon of Wikipedia –the “open” knowledge repository of the Internet–as an example of what critical social theorist Jurgen Habermas called “rational discourse.” In his idealistic theory of literacy, Habermas suggested that humans can use communication acts to the furtherance of the social goals of “emancipation,” or greater freedom for all. Information technologies can also be used to further oppression, discipline and “control” (Hansen, et al, 2009).  The authors point out the “pitfalls” of Wikipedia, but they also claim that it functions as an overall emancipatory tool and a “platform for rational discourse.” 

In order to meet the basic requirements for Habermassian “rationality,” a discourse must follow three basic rules:

  1. every actor has the ability to participate
  2. every actor can question any proposal, introduce a proposal, and freely express him or herself regarding proposals
  3. No actor can be subject to compulsion

According to Habermas (2003) without these conditions being present, “cooperative action cannot fruitfully take place.” When he made his rules (1984) the Internet –the platform for Wikipedia– did not exist, and so “rational discourse” could not be tested on a large scale. But because it supplies the “open argumentation” and persistent space in which to discourse over time, Wikipedia can be seen as the partial fulfillment of Habermas’ dream.

    So how well does Wikipedia perform as a rational discourse platform? All things considered, it does reasonably well, though not perfectly. The authors (2009) use the Wikipedia articles for Intellectual Property, Ethanol Fuel, and the Armenian Genocide as test cases for their analysis. They find that while each page is subject to vandalism and thousands of edits and counter-edits by users who may not be operating in “good faith,” an equilibrium of opinion is established in the article, allowing the end-user to access the important “Notes” and “Discussion” pages for divergent and convergent resources for further inquiry. The end result is that, even for controversial subjects, “few truth claims have been uncritically accepted,” and “Wikipedia’s claim to improved accuracy and balance over time is warranted.”
And because its procedures sometimes exclude good faith actors in the discourse, and because there is no way to totally avoid the furtherance of institutional domination through a Wikipedia articles, the authors cannot call it an unqualified “emancipatory” medium. Instead, comparing it with the monolithic and unilateral knowledge merchants such as Encyclopedia Britannica, the authors (2009) claim that it is “more emancipatory than many alternative media.” The authors place the medium of emancipation that is Wikipedia in the context of possibly more emancipatory emerging information systems such as the “open-source software community.”

The authors remind me of the limits of any truth-seeking, and give me and my students new impetus to take part in the grand global experiment that is knowledge gathering on Wikipedia. In my class in new literacies, I will have as one possible learning outcome for our high schoolers the creation, fact-checking, editing, and discussing of “live” Wikipedia articles. By making students valid actors with standing in the rational discourse surrounding Wikipedia articles, they may internalize the humanistic values of Habermas’ rational community, and this could help them to create the next, more emancipatory information system.

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