Roger McPherson left a wonderful comment on Experts will fade away yesterday. First he challenges the proposition that improved information access is the determining factor in the decline of our reliance on experts:
I agree the information explosion makes us more reliant on someone who is willing to focus his/her curiosity, time and energies into one facet of this enlarging expanse of knowledge. People with a cursory understanding are of little use to us. We need to rely on others' depth of understanding as well as our collective breadth of insights.
But I do not agree that access to information solely made or makes an expert. The world is vast and the body of human knowledge grows exponentially. History is expanding in both directions, as we become able to peer deeper into our past and more extensively document our present. Scientific knowledge has exploded. Our understanding of the very small and the very big is expanding in both directions.
Yet this explosion of information also renders experts obsolete, clueless and unreliable. A physician cannot keep current in all the developments in each disease s/he treats. A managing editor cannot make wise choices about the content of every story in the magazine or newspaper under her/his privileged eye. The experts contributing to a encyclopedia cannot keep up with the staggering rate of innovation in our world.
It's the long tail of unique contributors, users, gamers and participants that get the job done right. The patient with the disease can research the latest research as well as the archive of past solutions created by experts. The citizen journalist can aggregate the RSS feeds and searches on a particular story of interest. The encyclopedia can emerge from a mass collaboration, argumentation and dispute resolution dynamic. The experts cannot provide the best choice at the right time for each vested interest, only the stuff that becomes useful when it's found, aggregated and put to the test of actual deployment.
It takes something, that we don't all have, to succeed in starting a business, designing effective instruction, performing a violin solo or healing a chronic health condition. It's very possible to fail, merely go through the motions or make a condition worse. It takes experimentation and experience, combined with concepts and models to understand and reformulate solutions. As Roger is saying, it depends on a commitment that remains sufficiently focused and productive.
Experts are individuals with certain talents, which they have developed, that dedicate their lives to gaining a deep understanding of a particular subject area. The more unfettered access to information has made it easier for a person with the requisite talents and development to become and maintain expertise in a given field, but it does not facilitate an individual, lacking those requisite talents and development, to become expert in that field.
I think there will always be individuals who are driven to gain a deep understanding of a subject area, and when they do so, others will rely on them because they do not have another lifetime to become as knowledgeable as the expert.
The same is true in art. The virtuoso performer is an expert that has dedicated his life to the mastery of his art.
This is helping me discern two kinds of experts:
- grandiose or humbled
- in silos or networked
- controlling us or contributing to us