Academic journal article JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application

Contradictions, Decentring and Reflection

Academic journal article JITTA : Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application

Contradictions, Decentring and Reflection

Article excerpt


When trying to reflect on complex social situations, like the design of an information system, we need the insight provided by some powerful concepts. One concept that has been used to considerable effect is that of the contradictions between two other concepts. For example, the concept of 'knowing' provides some insightful reflections, as does the concept of 'power'. However, when creating a contradiction between these two concepts this insight can be further enhanced. 'Knowledge is Power', becomes 'Power defines Knowledge'; and a debate is opened. So specifically, this paper will argue that creating contradictions between concepts can enhance reflective thinking on information system design. This contradiction can come in many forms including underlying tensions, irony, paradox, and certain types of humour. The evidence presented to support this argument come from writers who have used contradictions to see a range of differing issues.


To information system designers, who must frequently re-view (see again) past events, the relevance of reflection seems self evident. Pragmatism is the episteme which very specifically uses the term reflection to emphasise that we think using conceptions of the world (Dewey 1910). As seeing is understood to be light reflecting off objects and entering our eye, so Pragmatism suggests the mind then compares these sensory inputs (experiences) with concepts so as to give them meaning; this is reflection. Thinking is reflecting sensory inputs against concepts stored consciously or unconsciously in our minds (Rorty, 1989). Some of the more popular concepts used to reflect against by system designers include efficacy, cost, power, system, time and knowledge. Reflecting on past performance using the concept of 'efficacy' induces different insights to those generated by using the concept of 'power'. Useful reflection becomes a quest to find useful concepts to reflect against.

So those who wish to design information systems need to be on the lookout for a range of useful concepts to reflect against, ones that suggest more choices of how to act in the future. James (1910) and Dewey (1910) separate themselves from Pierce (1878) by arguing that one concept is not preferable or more correct than another; each offers a unique way of seeing the world. However, it is being suggested some concepts are richer and thus more useful than others.

...if we treat the world as if these concepts do exist then we find we can manipulate the world and make things work much better. The point about this is that you cannot just choose any concept. What is useful is not just on our whim to choose. [A concept is] a better concept for looking at the world because it works much better than others. You don't have to worry, as some British philosophers have thought that if you go down the pragmatic route that you might believe the world is flat because [that fits best with our sensory input]. Ultimately it isn't useful to believe that the world is flat. All sorts of things won't work if you construct your view in that way. These concepts are tools for helping us manipulate the world and some work better than others"

Julian Baggini, (2005) Editor of The Philosophers' Magazine

Contradiction1 between two concepts provides a very useful meta-concept to reflect against. For example, it has provided incredible insight when used to reflect on the biological world around us. Evolution theory reflects on nature in terms of the competitive tension between species. A metaunderstanding of the design of species emerges from reflecting on the contradiction between the differing needs of each species. It will be suggested in this paper that the contradiction between two other concepts provides other unique ways of seeing the world.

Consider a very well known quote:

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us (Winston Churchill).

This suggests a contradiction between people and buildings. …

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