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Epistemic gain and incommensurable discourses:
A few reflections on Calhoun's Information Technology and the International Public Sphere
Ania Lian
7th May 2003

To begin with, I would like to refer the reader to my intellectual framework. You will recognise in it influences from different authors but also, maybe, some original thought, I hope. Most of the understandings, though, that underpin my intellectual framework come from corrective phonetics i.e. a concern that makes one realise that listening in not about hearing. I tried to make my framework as succinct as possible. I have attempted to relate the ideas expressed in this framework to issues in education and research in various ways.  For me, perhaps the most challenging aspect of this was to elaborate on its implications to science (e.g. see Ethics and Science or The mystery of time). I did this in various (possibly simple) ways.
What has come through from all this, was the realisation of how dangerous the framework is, and yet what an enabling potential it may offer. It is dangerous because it has the potential to undermine a number of empires that have come to determine what we do, how we think and how we see the future. It is enabling because it does not exclude possibilities. Rather, it demands critical (revealing) understandings. By the way, the word revealing for critical is interesting as it already implies bringing about an epistemic gain, an aspect that Calhoun sought to bring out in his elaborations on the methodology of inquiry in Critical Social Theory.  

The notion of revealing understandings in concepts such as communication or culture
The concept of ‘revealing understandings’ works well with Calhoun's concern regarding the qualities of communication raised in the article Information Technology and the International Public Sphere. I would be inclined to suggest a difference, therefore, between (a) those strategies which seek to manipulate action by resisting communication and therefore by resisting consideration of perspectives, and  (b) those strategies which seek to inquire into the sorts of insights that different perspectives reveal about the motivations that guide actions and perceptions. Thus while the former proceeds by disguising its motivations, it is the latter that proceeds by revealing what it understands. In the case of popular nationalism, there is no debate, just a message.

The revelatory aspect of communication also sits well with the concept of culture, understood here as a process of dialogue. The concept of culture, typically taken to mean ‘social practices’, has been often relegated to ‘the things we do’. But culture is a process, it is not ‘things’. It is a process in the course of which participants mobilise understandings to affect understandings. This dialogic aspect of culture suggests that culture is not so much produced and reproduced. Rather, it involves a process of making selections, or choices, between that which is taken to be relevant and that which is not. True, these selections, or choices, are embedded in people’s histories. However, they also depend on individuals’ determination to understand this history (an aspect that J. R. Saul sees as critical). Far too often, in the discussions about culture, this aspect of selection has been missed, and actions such as murder, deception or short-sighted propaganda have been justified in terms of culture, tradition or pragmatics: ‘the things we do’. Here, the example of stoning women in Islamic cultures comes to mind.

It is no accident that culture aspires to action which is cultivated or civilised. Concepts such as cultivated or civilised imply a broad consideration of potential choices. They do not imply closure, or a loop with no possibility for escaping. There is nothing in culture itself that (b)locks us. It is the choices that we make (or are prevented from making) that do so. At the same time, it has to be noted that we are not born into a specific culture. Rather, we embrace, refuse, or are denied the possibility of engaging in the process of dialogue between a diversity of perceptions, with the aim of enhancing our experiences of reality in a manner that would make them more revealing to us . Culture is a product of this process, not just its context. In my view, this description of culture as a dialogue toward richer and more revealing frameworks (insights) is not unlike Calhoun's concept of a processual approach to understanding (Calhoun 1995. Critical Social Theory: 91).

The question of how this dialogue could be enhanced is the context of Calhoun's discussion regarding IT. There would be many ways for enhancing dialogue. I have attempted to suggest a few. I would like to share these suggestions with the reader.

Some ideas regarding education and research

In Calhoun's article, there is a strong suggestion that increased communication (exchange) between individuals and groups as a means for increasing understandings and, hopefully, for enhancing the capacity of individuals to influence their destiny (my definition of empowerment or freedom).  As for the role of IT in this process, a number of difficulties are mentioned. It would seem that many of these difficulties fall under concerns relating to access and effectiveness.

To me, the issue of access would imply individuals’ capacity to join communicative contexts (with and without the use of IT). In the broadest sense, access to me therefore means ‘access to information’. On the other hand, effectiveness would relate to individuals’ and groups’ capacity to evaluate their communicative exchanges against a broad range of contexts. While in a narrow set of contexts our opinions may count as revealing and insightful, their actual significance will remain relative to those contexts. It is therefore crucial for individuals and groups to have a possibility to compare and contrast the impact of their understandings against those of others.  
It would also seem that while the issue of access can be overcome (e.g. by integrating IT with other forms of communication and media), the concern with the effectiveness of our attempts to communicate presents us with quite a challenge.

As signaled by Calhoun, resolving the problem of the effectiveness will require practical experiments based on an idealistic vision i.e. on models of interaction that seek to “improve[s] the quality of opinions, educate[s] the participants and form[s] a collective understanding of issues that advance[s] beyond pre-existing definitions of interests or identities”.  Moreover, without such models, it may be that our use of IT will remain reduced to “websites giv[ing] the impression of consisting simply of the spontaneous postings of the public”.

While looking for some ideas which would help to address the issues of access and effectiveness, it became apparent that the central condition for such models to work is reliant on the participants sharing common stakes or common interests. These, in turn, would function as the elements that would bind the community of the participants and would give them purpose for embracing dialogue as a way toward richer and (more) revealing insights. Thus, rather than reducing the dialogic communities to groups with pre-defined interests or identities, I would propose to develop (quite intentionally) a number of public spaces where the participants would choose to meet because the alternative would be to remain isolated and on the margins of a society which is moving toward greater integration and communication. How could this be done? The solutions that are included in this paper do not appear difficult to implement but these ideas do require closer elaboration.

The suggestions are embedded in my own experiences as a teacher and researcher. I attempted to link the ideas that I am presenting in here to the issues of access to information and the effectiveness of our communicative attempts. My main concern is to relate these two aspects in ways that help to improve the “quality of opinions” in the contexts of teaching and research. See Figure 1.
 Figure 1: Innovative and collaborative teaching and research projects

Regarding access : 
It would seem important to reflect upon ways which could enhance cooperation between the citizens in environments such as Narizoma, or in the research groups. To this end, it may be useful to establish grants which help to develop appropriate support structures.

The problem of access to information and IT does not only relate to issues such as hardware but also software. A development of sophisticated storage and retrieving mechanisms (e.g. advanced browsers, databases, tools that help to compare and contrast in a multitude of ways) would seem to be crucial if dialogue is not to be reduced to conversation alone. 

To appreciate the complexity of insights that organise or influence our perceptions, it will be necessary to conduct studies which would help develop facilities which improve our searching mechanisms. We have become accustomed to simple search-engines and the like, but this type of search is limited. It is limited not only by commercial interests which determine what can be found and what remains hidden, but also in the potential to reveal the complexity of the relationships which organise our beliefs and expectations.

The problem of advanced browsers, databases and the like can be solved at many levels, global (i.e. management of large amounts of information) and local (e.g. management of field specific information). Both types, in their own ways, may facilitate searches that enrich the dialogic opportunities between that which is expected and that which they may help to reveal.

Regarding dissemination of information, complex databases should be created which would help to disseminate more than the outcomes of projects and their entire developmental histories. By creating sophisticated forms, it should be possible for the databases to let people know what groups exist, and organise new groups. It should be also possible to create forms that would help to redirect individuals queries and concerns accordingly.

Regarding the effectiveness of sites of communication: The idea here is to put in touch people who otherwise would see little reason to communicate with each other.

Narizoma: It is a project that is open to participation by students from all educational institutions interested in creating new society: the society of Narizoma. Narizoma has a chance to be what our current reality failed to deliver. Will it succeed?  It is envisaged that in order to encourage informed participation, the issues that life in Narizoma generates should form a context for projects which students, together with the support structures around them (students, teachers and researchers from their own and other schools, parents, members of the public who may be consulted, literature, browsing tools, etc.) will undertake. Narizoma is about making it possible for the participants to experience that which reflection and dialogue are able to reveal. 
It is a challenge for everyone involved, learners, teachers, researchers, etc.  Each will confront the beliefs that define for them what they are or do.

The aim is to give students
the possibility to shape their destinies in Narizoma in ways that would reflect the way they would like Narizoma to be. The participants can observe the effects of their actions and ideas in Narizoma. It is possible that the ideas from Narizoma may be then translated to the real world as we know it.  If possible, the gap between Narizoma, the virtual world, and the real world should narrow down as the Narizoma begins to write itself on its inhabitants.

The TNN project: The project involved students creating own broadcasting network which, due to limited facilities, took the form of a website. The audience consisted of local students, teachers and the community at large. As it turned out, a number of Thai universities have also shown interest. The TNN-project is an example of an activity which may be a part of a bigger context such as Narizoma, or an activity in itself where students investigate issues, opinions, polls, and put together their own productions. The preparations for the “broadcast” were enormous. Although students worked in groups on individual stories, there were meeting places organised for students to exchange points of view regarding every story that was being produced.

In fact, the project has already finished. Some information on it is included on URL: http://www.anialian.com/TNN_www.html Students’ opinions on the project can be found on URL: http://www.anialian.com/Maliwan_students.html 
Some viewers' opinions (not all has been translated as yet) are on URL: http://www.anialian.com/TNN_viewers.html. For the record, the project was enjoyed, for many reasons, not just by students but also teachers from Khon Kaen University and the audience (the data is still being translated). I must say that I was quite startled with the results.  Teachers said that students who participated in the project subsequently did better in other subjects as they learned to work with information in more interesting ways. The project will continue in Khon Kaen University in Thailand. Students now want to participate in it independently of their formal university subjects. Interestingly other universities have expressed a wish to be shown how to conduct such a teaching experiment.

Regarding the compulsory and highly valued collaborative research projects:  This idea is a bit unusual but which seeks to  increase the contexts of reference that shape academic research projects.  Typically, academic research tends to be largely self-referential and contained within disciplinary boundaries. The result is that with the boundary of the inquiry set prior to the inquiry itself what follows are studies that focus on increasingly smaller objects while losing the perspective of the big picture. But the big picture will not come in unless many perspectives are considered.

What is suggested here is a system which whose design seeks to create support for multireferential inquiries. It derives its legitimation not only from its outcomes, but also from a multitude of administrative sources (such as grants, a specially designed Internet site for publication of the outcomes) which encourage and favour this type of inquiries. With enough lobbying, universities and schools should find themselves isolated unless their staff participates in the activities organised within the framework of the compulsory and highly valued collaborative research projects. All publications produced in the course of the projects should be available free. Also, it would be interesting to try out the possibility for the reviewing process of publication to be integrated in the inquiry process itself. In Figure 2, each oval stands for examples of fields of expertise that individuals bring with them into the specific research foci that they investigate or help to investigate.  

Figure 2: Collaborative research projects


As Figure 2 illustrates, it would be desirable if research groups included a broad range of expertise. This can be achieved by specific grants distributed on the grounds that a group would open a discussion issue which others would be able to join, but which would also have a specific focus in mind. What costs these grants would cover, is up to the discussion. However, academics would be encouraged to devote time to such groups in order to explore questions that they pursue at a personal level and to help others in their own explorations. The legitimation of these groups would come from their inclusion in a database of projects supported by the Multidisciplinary Research Council (a possible administrative body).

The Multidisciplinary Research Council may also be the body that seeks out and distributes funds to enhance the working of such groups. The legitimation of these groups could also come from research outcomes. Projects which are able to reveal their relevance in terms that would reflect a consideration of grounds other than the old, hackneyed problems, would be given special recognition and prestige (“brownie points”). These may be in recognition, in extra grants that are trusted to result in similar form of inquiry.

In order to distinguish the work of such groups from the more traditional research projects, questions which these groups should raise, should never be in the form of ‘What is …?” Questions of this type seek answers rather than insights. Instead, their exploratory question should be in the form of “How can we enable …?”. Questions in a “How can we enable …?” format imply that one does not seek answers, but a more comprehensive basis of one’s understandings. Questions in the “How can we enable …?” form therefore demand an exploration of the categories in terms of which understandings are created and interpreted.

The participants in each research should undergo a screening process. They must enter the discussions from an approved address. This is very important. Thus while it may not be necessary to limit the number of participants, in order to preserve the group’s IP rights, it is important that people who participate in the discussions have a past that is easily traceable. The discussion and outcomes of the group’ explorations should be managed by the group. They should post the relevant information to the central database which then should also be a central body for consultation by those who award patents.  The quality and the quantity of the participants should balance itself by the kinds of issues that the group raises. Also, it would be crucial for the groups to work by distributing and evaluating shorter or longer commentaries in ways that must recognise the contributions of others. The grants that would be awarded by the Multidisciplinary Research Council do not have to be awarded only prior to the study. The participants may ask for additional funding as the explorations develop to the next level.  
It would involve a comprehensive inquiry to explore points that the organisation of such groups may involve, and the potential impact that they may have on people at large. The point made in here is that what we do is limited by our imagination and by our understandings (as also pointed out by Calhoun). His article issued a challenge to both.


I have attempted to produce some reflections regarding the ways of helping to enhance dialogue between various perspectives in order to create richer and more revealing frameworks for action and thought.  As suggested in Information Technology and the International Public Sphere, there are many possibilities that IT may offer in this regard. And yet, it would seem that whatever promises technology may hide, its potential to bring people together with the aim of enhancing communication between them has been rather under-explored. Considering my background as a researcher in second language teaching, I have proposed a few humble ideas in which this problem could be remedied, especially in the context of teaching and research.

The ideas are neither exhausting the issue nor are they fully elaborated in this short reply. However, their implementation would require understanding and commitment from the people who decide what counts as research and knowledge. In the context of teaching, for as long as teaching institutions see the possibility of making some room for experimental projects as activities which are demanding on both staff and resources (as well as a waste of time), they will remain, at best, a reality only in the world of small experiments conducted by Masters or PhD students.

To my knowledge though, most of those research studies in Australia and the USA, are conducted within fairly traditional frameworks of concerns. For example, in second language teaching, the objective of how to help learners is being continuously translated as a possibility to be achieved only once we know how learners learn language. Thus it does not matter whether one deals with the “cognitive” camp or with the “sociocultural” camp. Both have the same question: How are things? The idea is that once we know, then we can apply knowledge. I guess, until this time arrives, our students will just have to be patient.
The point of this reply and of Information Technology and the International Public Sphere is that to invigorate thought we need to invigorate dialogue. But the dialogue cannot be mistaken to be mean developing new and better definition of the world. Neither the world nor the students will ever be what our definitions say that they are. Dialogue therefore would imply creating conditions which would allow all participants to engage. Otherwise, the effectiveness of one voice is traded for the silence of another.

In the context of teaching thus, the concept of dialogue would imply conditions which would enable students to explore perspectives, perceptions and points of view in a way that would help them to compare and contrast the revealing potential that they may have to the specific demands that students experience. In this way, the teaching conditions do not supply questions or answers. Rather, the objective is for students to explore understandings and for the teaching conditions to make this possible.

The objectives of research in education should not differ much from those directing research in other areas. Studies which look for answers rather than potential insights may be motivated more by practices which have least to do with research. One source of such motivation are companies which are more than ready to supply whatever (often myopic) solutions the studies may propose.

It would seem though that room should be made for studies which explore the very questions that they ask. As it is often said (also in Calhoun 1995, e.g. pp. 35, 91), by considering the historical contexts of our question, we can learn to understand what is it that we are actually looking for.

Thus rather than hurry in order to produce more answers, we may need to turn our attention to the questions that we ask. By opening up to possibilities which our assumptions about reality exclude, we do not waste time. We gain time. The time that we lost while hoping that technological revolution would solve our educational problems is already an indication that we have been betting on the wrong horse.

To expect answers to come from technology is to forget that technological solutions are the product of a technological revolution. Thanks to technological advances, we may do things faster or slower, bigger or smaller, but these advances do not change our perceptions of what we do and who we are. On the other hand, intellectual shifts change our perspective on these very perceptions. New perspectives emerge only when old foundational truths are challenged and when new questions are asked.

But new perspectives are not solutions to problems. They are far more important. They shift the perspective on the problems themselves by opening up ways for asking questions that are not only new and different but which, most of all, are more meaningful to us. The meaning of these perspectives does not come to us from old and worn out ideologies such as that of technology being our next savior. Instead, their meaning comes to us from the diversity of the perspectives that they help us consider, consult and connect. Their meaning therefore comes to us from our ability to include more and hence to understand more. Intellectual revolutions are harder to spot since their impact on our lives is less immediate.

Intellectual breakthroughs require, on our part, the intellectual capacity to recognise, appreciate and, most of all, work with their potential and strengths. Intellectual revolutions therefore do not lend themselves to immediate use as do technological breakthroughs. Intellectual revolutions require an active engagement on our part to reflect upon what we do or what we are. But it is hard to think (Bourdieu talks about thinking as subversion, Bourdieu on Television, 1996). It is easier to buy a faster car or a faster computer chip. 

A faster car, a faster computer chip or the so-called educational software do not give us only new technology. They also give us the impression that we are participating in progress. They give us the illusion that we are right in the midst of it. If we were to learn anything from the computer technology that has currently grown in educational institutions to be an issue that is bigger than the problem of education itself, we can learn from Michael Faraday , one of the contributors to this change.

Our lesson would be that it is not technology that marks advances in human civilisation but rather our capacity to formulate questions that allow us to consider more rather than less. Learning is about pushing the boundaries. The implication of this statement would be seen as revolutionary in the current Western systems of education even though it seemed a straightforward conclusion to Faraday and many before him including Socrates. Socrates was sentenced to death exactly because the regime of his contemporary Athens did not welcome a mind that sought to explore and question. Reinforcement is a tool that closes questions. On the other hand, exploration and challenge are the tools of learning. Dialogue was the form that Socrates was said to use to ensure that his ideas were never left without challenge.

Copyright Ania Lian (7th May, 2003)


Copyright © Ania Lian 2002