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Technologies of Knowing: A Proposal for the Human Sciences

by John Willinsky

Rarely a day goes by without the media trumpeting some new scientific research that directly contradicts earlier findings – whether it’s new information about the effects of divorce on kids (It has no effect whatsoever!) or cancer (It’s not linked to tobacco!). It’s no wonder that the public is becoming increasingly skeptical. As author John Willinsky aptly points out, the research that’s designed to help people more often than not ends up confusing and frustrating them.

His proposed solution: a virtual corporation that would centralize, catalogue, and process information to make it more useful to the public, then put it online, making it widely accessible. More than just a clearinghouse for the reams of data produced every year, Willinsky’s “Automata Data Corporation” would also foster dialogue between researchers and the public, and accept commissions from agencies to underwrite research projects.

Willinsky, a professor of literacy and technology at the University of British Columbia, knows his proposal may appear idealistic and even unrealistic. But as he points out, he’s not the first to advocate universal access to reason and knowledge: Immanuel Kant and other leading thinkers in the Age of Enlightenment called for the same thing more than 200 years ago.

Of course, they didn’t have computers – and neither do most people around the world, which is one of the main flaws of Willinksy’s proposal. But for those in the social sciences especially, his ideas offer a starting point for discussion about a problem with no other useful solutions on the horizon.