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Critical Theories on Education and Technology

Submitted to my supervisors February 2009
Ammendments in red

1. Critical Theories

Whilst most commonly linked to the original members and subsequent followers of the Frankfurt School, the term critical theory has come to represent a range of evolving critical perspectives which offer diverse meanings and interpretations. A number of authors presenting comprehensive reviews of critical perspectives on education and technology (for example, Nicholls & Allen-Brown, 1996; Kellner, 2003) reference even broader scopes of critical literature which, whilst centred on the Frankfurt School tradition, encompass a wide range of social, educational and critical theorists. These include critical theories that are predominantly feminist, postmodernist, poststructuralist, deconstructionist, new historicist, cultural materialist and postcolonialist in approach (Nicholls & Allen-Brown, 1996; Sim & Van Loon, 2002). Critical theories generally share a social and cultural analysis with an activist component based largely on the critique of oppressive and dominant economic and political forces, they have a desire for social justice and equality, and a need to represent marginalized perspectives (Tripathi, 2008). The term is also associated with the loosely connected though distinct field of literary criticism and theorists such as Roland Barthes.

The Frankfurt School of critical theory is associated with a number of early neo-Marxist members of the Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923. Prominent theorists have included Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Jürgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse, some of which have written critically on education and technologies.

Ingram and Simon-Ingram (1991) describe early critical theory as a form of utopian philosophy rooted in German idealism and cultural criticism combining Freudian and Marxist ideas. Critical theorists seek to challenge and destabilize knowledge which is seen as definitive and unitary. Instead, knowledge is seen as fundamentally pluralistic and incongruous, subject to multiple and sometimes contradictory perspectives. They believe that knowledge (even the most scientific or technical) is historical and broadly political in nature, shaped by human interests and motivations.

Habermas (1971), a ‘second generation’ theorist of the Frankfurt School, defines three forms of interconnected knowledge:
  • Instrumental knowledge corresponds to technical human interests that are associated with work, labour or production
  • Practical knowledge refers to interpretive ways of knowing through which everyday social activities are given meaning
  • Emancipatory knowledge is articulated in terms of power, control and emancipation
It is the latter of these which are most crucial to the critical theorist. In simple terms, critical theory seeks not only to ‘critique’, but to generate emancipatory forms of knowledge to provide alternative and progressive ways of looking at the world.

Critical theory forms of critique are founded on the critical philosophy of Kant, and subsequently Hegel and Marx. Hegelian critique is characterised by challenging one-sided, idealist and reductivist positions. In doing so it seeks to develop more holistic and complex dialectical perspectives that articulate connections and contradictions in an attempt to conceptualize the totality of a given field. Critical theory utilises these conflicting interests to develop ‘critical’ or ‘emancipatory’ knowledge consisting of multiple, contradictory or opposed knowledge claims. Kellner (2003) suggests “a critical theory signifies a way of seeing and conceptualizing, a constructing of categories, making connections, mapping, and engaging in the practice of theory-construction, and relating theory to practice.”

Friesen (2008) describes the concepts of ideologies and myths:

Ideologies represent knowledge that is presented as self-evidently factual, purified, neutral or objective. Ideologies are often closely associated with social, political and economic interests.

Myths emerge when ideological positions and arguments become integrated into common understanding and discourse. Myths are frequently encapsulated in catchphrases or buzz-words or -phrases.

Critical theory challenges what is frequently taken for granted socially and culturally; asking questions of things that are otherwise considered to be common sense or self-evident. With its roots in Hegel and Marx, ‘ideology critique’ or ‘immanent critique’ “proceeds through forcing existing views to their systematic conclusions, bringing them face to face with their incompleteness and contradictions, and, ultimately, with the social conditions of their existence” (Young, 1990; 18). This is partly achieved through the ‘historicizing’ or ‘denaturalizing’ of ideological claims; asserting the difference between that which is claimed and that which is evident from historical and social references. Feenberg (2002) for example, describes how critical theory can help recover ‘forgotten contexts’ to develop a historical understanding of technology.

According to McCarthy (1991), suggests critical theory frequently emphasizes the practical over the theoretical. In an attempt to establish an analytical framework, Friesen (2008) proposes a number of key stages to adopting a critical approach:
  • Identifying ideas or claims that are presented as obvious, inevitable, or matter-of-fact in dominant bodies or sources of knowledge
  • Scrutinizing these ideas or claims in the context provided in other more marginal knowledge forms or sources
  • Revealing through this scrutiny that behind dominant claims and ideas lay one or more politically charged and often contradictory ways of understanding the issue or phenomenon in question
  • Using this underlying conflict as the basis for developing alternative forms of understanding and point to concrete possibilities for action
2. Critical Perspectives on Education

Whilst relatively few educators and fewer still educational technologists have explored critical theory as a primary approach of inquiry, critical perspectives are evident in a range of educational and related disciplines such as critical pedagogy, curriculum studies, feminist pedagogies, media and communications studies and critical sciences. These have, and continue to draw on critical perspectives from classical philosophies of education, Deweyean pragmatism, poststructuralism, and various critical theories of gender, race and class (Nicholls & Allen-Brown, 1996; Kellner, 2003).

Kellner (2003) claims that a critical theory of education must be rooted in a critical theory of society, and should be central to social critique and transformation. Therefore, as in all critical theory, a critical theory of education should have a normative and even utopian dimension, dealing with issues of democracy, equality and social justice (Nicholls & Allen-Brown, 1996). The application of critical theory in education generally rejects idealist, elitist, and oppressive elements of pedagogy, frequently taking the critical viewpoint that modern schooling is largely curriculum-driven and fragmented by discipline, having abandoned older, traditional moral and ethical pedagogical practices. Nicholls and Allen-Brown (1996) suggest critical theorists relate modern social crises, such as may be found in education, to dominating ‘means-ends’ philosophies, that tend to be rational (i.e. scientific, analytical or technological) and instrumental which, they argue, detract our attention from inherent moral perspectives and social concerns.

In developing a critical theory of education, Kellner (2003) constructs a democratic and multicultural reconstruction of education to meet the challenges of a global and technological society. His approach is radically historicist, since social and economic conditions and educational needs are constantly evolving; interdisciplinary, involving a critique of academic disciplines and their fragmentation; and transdisciplinary in connecting multiple perspectives from different domains. He therefore proposes a comprehensive ‘metatheory’ for the philosophy of education that draws from a range of historical sources:

Classical Philosophies

Classical philosophies of education and society include the Greek Paideia; which saw education as a cultural heritage in which to shape and form ‘fully-realized’ human beings.

German Bildung Tradition
A dialectical approach to an idealist notion of education [more…]

Marx and Engels
Systematic criticism of an established hegemonic discipline of bourgeois education and a call for expanded public education for the working class.

John Dewey
Deweyean education is fundamentally experimental and pragmatic (theory should emerge from practice), but is also based on progressive, egalitarian and democratic ideals.

Frankfurt School
Habermas states educational systems inhibit learners from reaching levels of maturity that foster communicative, democratic, or responsible learning. Marcuse critiques education as a reproduction of existing dominant and oppressive systems, and introduces alternative institutions and pedagogies to promote

Paulo Freire
The work of Paulo Freire, particularly in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1970), has been very influential in the critical-education field. His work explores the development of learning processes through critical, emancipatory and dialogical pedagogies, which reject dominant views and values, and promote radical social transformation and empowerment.

Ivan Illich
Ivan illich (1970; 1973) gained international recognition writing about both education (Deschooling Society) and technology (Tools for Conviviality); both of which have, in recent years, been noted as being remarkably prescient of the internet, the emergence of social computing (Kop, 2008), and the Open Source movement (Leadbeater, 2008). In Deschooling Society, Illich (1970) presents a postindustrial alternative model of education within a broad social, political, economic and ecological framework.

Allan and Carmen Luke
The Lukes argue that the majority of educational systems, curricula and pedagogies still in use were designed for the production of an outmoded labour system that does not represent contemporary economic, social, and cultural environments.

Poststructuralist theories “provide important tools for a critical theory of education in the present age” (Kellner, 2003). They emphasize marginality, heterogeneity, and multiculturalism, and introduce critical theories of gender, race, and sexuality.

Feminist theories of education draw upon classical feminism (for example, Mary Wollstonecraft) as well as poststructuralist critique.

3. Critical Perspectives on Technology

Technology is becoming increasingly recognised as an important and distinct field of philosophical study (Ruse, 2005; Selinger & Olsen, 2007). Tripathi (2008) suggests most discussion of technology in the social sciences is ‘politically toothless.’, and Feenberg (2002; 14) suggests critical theory is “frequently left out of the growing debate over technology.” Feenberg and others draw on a long, if uneven history of critical inquiry into technologies:
  • Marx demonstrates how technologies are not simply neutral tools, but are linked into already existing social structures.
  • Marcuse produced a largely dystopian account of technocracy in the 1960s in his analysis of a technocratic society.
  • Heidegger's existentialist critique of technology demonstrates an inevitability of technology imposing order on the world.
  • Ellul demonizes technology in his substantive view.
  • Borgmann states technology invades ‘culture of society.’
  • Foucault's analysises modern technologies of control through the influence of technological systems on hospitals, prisons and education.
  • Henri Bergson’s dialectic of habit and creativity (change) plays a central role in technological development and use.
  • Harry Braverman's analysis of the labour process to show how technologies (such as the production line) are often installed not for purely technical reasons but to facilitate the control of capital and management over workers.
  • Hans Lenk, Walther Zimmerli, and Bernhard Irrgang have been developing a hermeneutic understanding of technology and ethics.
[Note: Contemporary theoretical approaches to technology include actor network theory (e.g. Latour, 1987) and post-humanism (e.g. Haraway, 1996).]

The question as to whether technology itself is determined by, a determinate of, or ambivalent to society's structure has become a major point of contention among social and critical theorists (Ruse, 2005).

Instrumental Theory is the most widely accepted view of technology, especially prominent in the social sciences and dominant in governmental policy. It views technologies as socially and politically neutral (i.e. without intrinsic value); as ‘tools’ to serve the purposes of their users. The neutrality of technology is usually attributed to its rationality and the universality of the truth it embodies.

Substantive Theory is a minority view which denies the neutrality of technology, but views technology as constituting a new type of cultural system; an environment and a way of life that is innately good or bad.

Feenberg (2002) argues that, in both theories, technology has a predetermined destiny “beyond human intervention or repair.” He also rejects technological determinism, which sees technological development as inevitable, and essentialism, in which technology has an immutable essence beyond our intervention (Tripathi, 2008). Feenberg and other critical theorists such as Ellul, Ihde and Irrgang maintain that technology is neither neutral nor autonomous but ambivalent. Ambivalent technology is distinguished from neutrality by the role it attributes to social values in the use and the development of technical systems.

Described as a ‘third generation’ critical theorist in the Frankfurt School tradition, Andrew Feenberg has been the foremost critical theorist addressing technological issues in recent years. He revises previous critiques of technology from critical theorists such as Marcuse and Habermas to construct a new formulation of the critical theory of technology that seeks to understand the complex social character of technology. Feenberg proposes the social and historical specificity of technology to put forward a political perspective which embraces its social dimensions (Tripathi, 2008)

Another key critical theorist on technology, Don Ihde (1990), explains how people experience both embodiment and hermeneutic relations to technology. Non-neutrality is most evident in the former, where bodily perception is extended by the use of tools (through the effects of either amplification or reduction). Hermeneutic relations occur when the technology represents the quality or value of an object without the people perceiving that quality directly. In both relations, technology mediates experience, and through this mediation, it alters the experience of the phenomena.

Arisaka (2001) explains how technology has no ‘essence’ but is always a specific configuration of some concrete entity; an engineering design, a project etc. In this process of materialization, a piece of technology becomes value-laden with a practical purpose. In other words, technology is not a thing in itself but is inherently a process of social, historical and political cultures.

According to Feenberg (1991), critical theory explains how technology is embedded in society through ‘technological code’ that is dialectical, contextual, aesthetic, and humanly, socially, and ecologically responsible. Feenberg recognizes the tendency of technology to produce hegemony (i.e. it institutes a habit), but maintains that any sort of technological rationality as a totalitarian force which determines society is not technological in nature. Instead, he suggests there are three interconnected codes; the code of power, the code of capital, and the code of technology. It is capitalist technology, or rather the technological code within capitalism which dominates.

In summary, Feenberg (2002; 5) calls for a profound democratic transformation of technologies, asking “can we conceive an industrial society based on democratic participation in which individual freedom is not market freedom and in which social responsibility is not exercised through coercive regulation?” He argues a good society should support the personal freedom of its members enabling them to participate effectively in a range of public activities. This can be manifest in democratizing technological design; pursuing a ‘democratic rationalization’ where actors participate in the technological design processes. For Illich (1973), ‘tools of conviviality’ produce a democratic and convivial society in which individuals communicate, debate, participate in social and political life, and help make decisions. Convivial tools free individuals from dependency and cultivate autonomy and sociality.

4. Critical Perspectives on Learning Technologies

Critical theory remains largely unrecognised and underutilized in areas of practical research on the usability of ICTs or of their use in educational institutions (Friesen, 2008).

A number of critical authors argue that the development and implementation of educational technology are not guided so much by empirical and theoretical knowledge about learning as much as they are by neo-liberal and commercial interests (Nicholls & Allen-Brown, 1996). Koetting (1983) points out that educational technology is generally theoretically rooted within a scientific, behaviorally based model of rationality based on an empirical view of knowledge. He argues that expanding the field’s theory base toward critical sciences would align it with the current mainstream of educational thought, and suggests adopting the languages of film, video, photography and other media to inform more diverse and epistemologically appropriate educational research methods.

Feenberg (2002) devotes Chapter 5 of Transformng Technology to discussing online education. He draws on his critical theory of technology with his experience as a participant in the early development of online education, to emphasise the relevance of critical theory to educational policy.

4.1 Feenberg: The Factory and the City

Feenberg (2002) reminds us that just like any technology, learning technology is ambivalent. He sees learning technology initiatives as polarized around two alternative conceptual technological models of postindustrial education. Essentially, one views technology as a medium of automation and the other as a medium of communication. To explain this more fully, Feenberg uses the twin analogy of the factory and the city:

The factory represents a society reflected in the logic of ‘production.’ It is obsessed with efficiency achieved through hierarchical control of mechanization, standardization and reproduction.

The city represents a society reflected in an ‘urban logic’ of societal interaction and communication. It emphasises freedom and variety over efficiency, and encourages the flourishing of new ideas.

Therefore the potential that lies within ‘ambivalent learning technologies’ follows these two viewpoints. Learning technologies may be deployed to make education productive through a technocratic commodity, delivered to students in bite-sized modules. Or they may also be used to open up the education process as part of a profoundly liberatory project which aims to distribute information resources previously accessible to the privileged few. Feenberg (2002) suggests:

“The generalization on the Internet of a more traditional concept of education centred on human interaction would facilitate participation by under-served groups and might raise the cultural level of the population at large.”

The future development of educational technology will not be determined by the technology itself, states Feenberg, but rather the politics within the educational community and national political trends. In taking a dialogic approach, he stresses educational technology of an advanced society should be shaped by educational dialogue rather than the production-oriented logic of automation.

Automating Education

Feenberg applies the automation metaphor to education to describe the reduction and substitution of traditional, skilled, teacher-led educational tasks, methods and artefacts by technological means.

Whilst education technologies invoke postindustrial virtues of student-centred affordances such as flexibility and individualisation, Feenberg argues the main driver for automating education is financial. In response to shifting economic conditions in Higher Education, such as the growth of the non-traditional student population (e.g. international, part-time and mature), increasingly corporate rather than professional models prevail, in which technology is primarily seen as a centralizing, managerial and delivery tool.

Automated versions of online education have perpetuated existing transmission models of learning (Feenberg, 2002). Automation separates out informational content from process and simply extends the economies of scale associated with the distribution of written materials into the wider range of media supported by the Internet (Agre, 1997).

[Note: compare with Noble (2002) Digital Diploma Mills]

Learning Communities

In her retrospective of Illich’s Deschooling Society, Kop (2008) highlights the similarities not only with the social learning of Web 2.0 practices, but also the connected learning theories of Downes (2006) and Siemens (2004). Downes suggests the main characteristics for online networks to support knowledge development are that they are diverse, open, autonomous and connected.

Illich envisaged ‘community webs’ in community settings and aimed at bringing local learners together with so called ‘people with knowledge.’ Whilst Illich welcomes the adoption of contemporary computer network systems, he was at the time of writing unable to foresee the global power of connectivity and communicability provided by the World Wide Web. However, his emphasis on the local should not necessarily be seen as an indicator of his limited technological perception, but also that he recognised the importance of human agency which communities afford over networks as a learning system; a distinction Wenger (2001) emphasises with distributed Communities of Practice.

Role of the Tutor

Feenberg (2002) believes the active involvement of the teacher is fundamental to the educational process and that it should be ‘woven’ into the design of new tutor-facilitated learning technologies. He emphasizes the complementarity of human and computer capabilities, suggesting that whilst learning technologies may be suited to operational tasks, teachers are best suited at managing the complex and unpredictable activities and communication process in the classroom.

E-learning literature increasingly perceives the role of the tutor as facilitator (Salmon, 2004), whilst in a connectivist learning environment, it may become further marginalised or even obsolesced (Siemens, 2004). This emphasis on informal and autonomous learning and student engagement with experts outside their formal educational institutions also recalls Illich’s (1970) community webs. Critical educators such as Freire and Feenberg are critical of the diminishing of critical engagement by the tutor and believe it is essential that teachers continue to have a directive role.

4.2 Friesen: e-Learning Myths

Friesen (2008) explores three myths pertinent to current e-learning literature:
  • Knowledge Economy
  • Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime Learning
  • Technology drives Educational Change
Knowledge Economy

Friesen largely attributes the claims of a paradigmatic shift from an industrial to a postindustrial economy – which has subsequently been referred to as knowledge, information and networked economies – to neo-conservative Daniel Bell (1973). Bell’s idea of a radically new social, historical and economic order centred on information or knowledge has had important social and political consequences. Friesen argues that the concept of knowledge economy ‘papers over’ a polarized and contested social reality, pointing out that the ‘knowledge economy class’ is far smaller than the dominant sector of service industries (such as hospitality, health care and retail), whilst Kop (2006) suggests technology has been too readily adopted by politicians to push for an economic discourse with an agenda of upskilling the workforce (for example; Blair, 2000).

Arguably, the effects of the knowledge economy have been most acute in education, where the most radical anticipated technological changes of the postindustrial model are in evidence (Feenberg, 2002). As a result, traditional educational artefacts (i.e. schools and universities) are characterized as representing an outdated industrial paradigm (Gandel, Katz, et al., 2004). Friesen suggests the notion of knowledge economy remains prevalent in e-learning literature.

Friesen describes how Bell also introduced the concept of ‘knowledge theory of value’ which prescribes knowledge as the primary source of invention and innovation. Knowledge is attributed as a productive, economic or perfomative force, characterized as a service or utility to be bought and sold. In education, this commodification of knowledge is particularly manifest in e-learning literature in the descriptions of knowledge or content as modular, exchangeable, digital resources which can be integrated with other digital objects and learning objectives in the form of learning objects (Mason, Lefrere et al., 2003). In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard (1979) warns of the potential effect of commodification of knowledge on the culture of postmodern society, warning that “everything belonging to the constituted body of knowledge that is not so translatable will be abandoned” (p.13. Feenberg translation, 2002).

In conclusion, Friesen recommends educationalists and technologists “move beyond understandings of knowledge and of its construction and reproduction as a ‘universal’ and ‘disinterested’ productive force that is measured and valued only in terms of its performance.”

Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime Learning

Freisen claims this myth of flexible learning presents ‘reductive’ conceptions of identity, time and place based on economic consumption and production. The intra- and inter-national ‘digital divides’ that exist between students continue to be shaped by socio-economic determinants beyond their control and these are explored and debated extensively in the wider social and educational literature. Within a more autonomous or connectivist learning model (Siemens, 2004), Green and Hannon (2007) suggest a digital divide may be determined more by networks of knowledge rather than access to hardware. McLaren (1994) warns that the technologizing of learning, in which students develop mechanistic cognitive styles, is an emphasis on practical and technical forms of knowledge, and that this too can perpetuate social inequality.

In addition, whilst literature on the educational potential of blogs, e-portfolios and other social technologies frequently emphasize how they allow the user to construct online or virtual identities, Nakamura (2002; 3) insists the internet "propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism." Friesen concurs, suggesting ‘anyone, anywhere, anytime’ learning invokes not only a default time and place, but also a default person – which is based on an identity that is predominantly western, male and white.

[Note: Compare with texts on cyber / online identities - Sherry Turkle ('Life on the Screen'), Donna Haraway (feminist perspectives), and more currently, Dana Boyd (Web 2.0)]

Technology drives Educational Change

This myth, a version of technological determinism, propagates the belief that technological progress is independent of other social conditions to change or even render obsolete professional practices.

Friesen suggests the type of technological determinism largely presented in e-learning literature is predominantly ‘hard’ (as oppose to ‘soft’) – in which, according to Smith and Marx (1994), agency (the power to effect change) is accredited to the technology itself – and ‘optimistic’ (rather than ’pessimistic’) – only emphasising positive aspects.

Friesen suggests that in reality adaptation of many learning technologies has had the end effect of reinforcing rather than disrupting many conventional educational practices and functions.

4.3 New Literacies

New literacies is used here as a term to encompass an inconsistent range of literacies that have been proposed to distinguish from traditional (i.e. print-based) literacy and describe the study of literacy in emerging digital media and networked technologies and practices. These include visual literacies, digital literacies, web literacies, global literacies, information literacies, multiple literacies, and participation literacies.

Education in the modern era has been largely organized around the transmission of print literacies and segregated knowledges based on curricula which divide academic disciplines (Kellner, 2000). Luke and Luke (1992) argue that print literacies fail to adequately prepare students with the skills they need to navigate and negotiate emergent economic and cultural artefacts. Rapidly expanding ICT technologies, mutating subjectivities and cultural forms, and the demands of a networked society culture will they insist, require multiple literacies, cross-disciplinary approaches, and innovative skills and capabilities.

Kellner (2003) suggests Marshall McLuhan’s (1964) sweeping predictions on the effects of television and popular culture on children's (educational) subjectivities and perceptions were not realised, but argues computers and the internet represent a far more significant transformative power. Kellner stresses that multiple literacies, such as media, computer, and information literacies are required in response to emergent technologies and cultural conditions to empower students to participate in the expanding high-tech culture and networked society.

Karlsson (2002) however, suggests so called web literacies should be recognised and studied merely as print literacies that appear on the web. Feenberg (2002) reminds us arguments emerging around new educational technologies are nothing new. He suggests writing was one of the first (narrow bandwidth) educational technologies, and describes how Plato denounced writing as destructive to the dialogic relationship between teacher and student evident in spoken discourse. (Noble (1997) points out the irony in Plato using written text to critique writing, suggesting that similarly, the majority of current attacks on web-based media circulate online.)

Feenberg rejects the notion that language been reified into a technical discourse purified of human significance, suggesting the internet provides a wealth of expressive language. Writing, he argues, is not just a poor substitute for speech and physical presence but another fundamental medium with its own properties and powers.

The internet is fundamentally a vital medium of communication - not just a calculating and information storage device - which has been determined by a social process. Whilst we look back on the history of network computing with the certainty that it was always meant to facilitate human communication, Feenberg (2002) reminds us that this is not the case. He describes the democratic transformation of technical networks through social forms of innovation. He explains how, although it was technically possible, human communication over computer networks was not originally part of the design until hackers opened up the networks to allow human communication as a central functionally.

Feenberg warns it is dangerous to confuse the basic medium with ‘supplementary enhancements.’ Whatever the learning environment, he argues the predominant medium must be distinguished. Whilst speech remains the basic medium in the classroom (supplemented with books, laboratories and slideshows, etc.), Feenberg believes that writing is, and will remain for many years to come, the basic medium of online expression. He describes the Web distribution of audio and video on the Internet - which seems to offer more entertaining and ‘real life’ affordances - as a form of automated education, and warns:

“To replace online written interaction with the enhancements makes no more sense than to replace the teacher in the face-to-face classroom with labs, movies, slides, text books, and computer demonstrations”

5. Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0

The increasing literature within the social and computer sciences on Web 2.0 consistently lacks critical perspectives. So much so, that when a series of critical essays on Web 2.0 first appeared in the March 2008 edition of the online journal, First Monday, there appeared to be a collective sigh of relief across the academic blogoshere (for example; Bogost, 2008; Klastrup, 2008).

What these and a limited number of other essays share, is an exploration beyond the common rhetoric that surrounds Web 2.0 technologies and practices. The result appears to be a collective deflating of the ideals habitually associated with Web 2.0; most principally the democratisation of knowledge and cultural production and creative expression.

Silver (2008) suggests understanding the implications and future potential of Web 2.0 requires exploring its historical contexts. A number of authors make the point that Tim O’Reilly’s (2005) original conception of Web 2.0 is itself fundamentally problematic. What originated as a hastily-conceived title for a conference presentation has since become a catch-all term for a range of ‘ontologically non–compatible’ elements (Allen, 2008). In an attempt to conceptualize the meaning of Web 2.0, Allen identifies four key components:
  • Technological implementations that prioritise the manipulation and presentation of data through the interaction of both human and computer agents.
  • An Economic model. Using the Web to put people and data together in meaningful exchanges for financial gain.
  • Users are perceived as active participants, engaged in creating, maintaining and expanding Web content.
  • The politics of Web 2.0 are expressed in traditional democratic terms, which emphasises freedom of choice and the empowerment of individuals.
Reilly’s upgrade metaphor evokes a new realisation of the Web, yet the technologies and the social practices associated with them may not be as new or original as is generally perceived (Scholz, 2008). The Internet was originally conceived around, and has always supported, social communication and production (Hinchcliffe, 2006). And whilst acknowledging that social bookmarking and podcasting have been developed largely within the timespan of Web 2.0, Scholz (2008) argues that numerous ‘Web 2.0 technologies’ such as social networking sites, RSS, CSS, and blogging were around in one form or another before the term was introduced.

For Allen (2008), the key to adopting a critical approach to understanding Web 2.0 is in determining how its emergence is located in the concept of convergence. This it seems, may be dependent on how convergence itself is understood. Is it merely the coming together of old and new media forms; a ‘convergence culture’ (Jenkins, 2006); or rather “the process by which various instantiations of human behaviour involving information transfers and exchanges, previously separate, come together to occur in a comprehensive, interlinked manner” (Allen, 2008). In other words, is the term technologically, socially, culturally or politically determined, or a combination of all of these?

Under a critical perspective, the democratic forms of media consumption and production of Web 2.0 are challenged by the underlying “dictates of a neo-liberal socio–political hegemony” (Jarrett, 2008), as evidenced in the exploitation of user–generated content by major corporations (Petersen, 2008). As Silver (2008) reminds us, “when corporations say community they mean commerce, and when they say aggregation they mean advertising.” Scholz (2008) contends the Web remains largely the domain of “professional elites that define what enters the public discourse,” In addition, social conditions inherent in Web 2.0 practices such as personalization (Zimmer, 2008) and participatory surveillance (Albrechtslund, 2008) require a rethinking of traditional notions of identity, privacy and social hierarchies. As educationalists demonstrate an increasing determination to tap into the apparent technological and sociological affordances of Web 2.0, these are issues that cannot be ignored.


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