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.”
- every actor has the ability to participate
- every actor can question any proposal, introduce a proposal, and freely express him or herself regarding proposals
- 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.
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.