Sunday, June 12, 2011

Remember experts?...

It has occurred to me that one thing unsettling the many who feel comforted by hierarchical political and social systems is the erosion of the authority of The Expert. The presence of sages, living repositories of wisdom who could end discussion with a definitive statement, was alluring in an age of constantly arising means of dispute.

But the explosion of collective expertise - notably Wikipedia, which has only gotten better - has, if not displaced, certainly offered a competing knowledge system. And with it, our reliance on experts has been revealed as just one possible practice, even if only because we now know how essentially mundane were their methods for arriving at their opinions.

But there continues to be resistance to the idea that expertise itself has been called into question, and we can expect that resistance to continue. Experts, understandably, are apt to be annoyed by their devaluation, and are liable to make their displeasure felt. And the thing about experts is that a lot of people still feel disinclined to question them.Experts, geniuses, authorities, "authors"—we were taught to believe that these should be questioned, but until now have not often been given a way to do so, to seek out and test for ourselves the exact means by which they reached their conclusions. So long as we believe that there is such a thing as an expert rather than a fellow-investigator, then that person's views just by magic will be worth more than our own, no matter how much or how often actual events have shown this not to be the case. For us to have this magic thinking about "individualism" then is pernicious politically, intellectually, in every way. That is not to say that we don't value those who can lead the conversation. We'll need them more and more, those "who are able to marshal the wisdom of the network," to use Bob Stein's words. But they might be more like DJs, assembling new ways of looking at things from a huge variety of elements, than like than judges whose processes are secret, and whose opinions are sacred.And there's so much more to this. If my point of view needn't immediately eradicate yours—if we are having not a contest but an ongoing comparison, whether in politics, art or literary criticism, if "knowledge" is and will remain provisional (and we could put a huge shout-out to Rorty here, if we had the space and the breath) what would this mean to the quality of our discourse, or to the subsequent character and quality of "understanding"?Maybe disagreement doesn't have to be a battle to be fought to the death; it can be embraced, even savored. Wikipedia as it is now constituted lends enormous force to this argument. The ability to weigh conflicting opinions dispassionately and without requiring a "decision" is invaluable in understanding almost any serious question. That much is clear right now. There are many, many practical political, pedagogical and epistemological benefits yet to be investigated."Learning" no longer means sitting passively in a lecture hall or on in front of a television or in a library and waiting to receive the "authoritative" version of what the experts think is up as if it were a Communion wafer. For nearly 20 years we have had the Internet, now grown into a medium of almost infinite paths, where "learning" means that you can Twitter directly to people in Egypt to ask them what they really think about ElBaradei (and get answers), ask an author or critic to address a point you feel he may have missed (ditto), or share your own insights in countless forums where they will be read and admired (and/or savaged.) Knowledge is growing more broadly and immediately participatory and collaborative by the moment.The results of these collaborations, like Wikipedia, represent not just new methods of packaging knowledge, but a new vision of what might come to be meant by "knowledge": something more like what Marshall McLuhan called "a galaxy for insight.""The sadness of our age is characterized by the shackles of individualism," Bob Stein said. But are we throwing off those shackles, even as we speak? [More of a superb essay]

This new communal knowledge likewise does not match up well with our economic system which has seen a revival of the arch-individualistic ethos of Ayn Rand, despite their faint usefulness in any part of our real world. If intellectual property, for example, turns out to be much more common than just in John Galt's head, who cares if he sulks in Colorado?

It is also fair to say this idea is not broadly embraced or even acknowledged in the public, so why should we even consider it? The answer is, I believe, that that is the only productive time to consider it - any later and the question is essentially resolved.
Electronic collectivism has very quickly gone from being a sci-fi imagining to being a plausible scenario that more and more people, at least those active in the computer-culture, would endorse for us all. It will be objected that the ambitions of the cyber-sector don’t have that much to do with the life of the culture at large. But one could similarly say that the decisions made by a few thousand members of the investment banking community don’t affect us either. In fact, there is a connection between the ideas held by that minority and the lives that the rest of us live. [More]
I am excited to be witnessing these new forms of arbitration of competitive views, and their deployment by individuals all across the social spectrum to build new things for humanity. but more than that, the excitement of the possibilities these new tools create is the most effective counterbalance to my occasional bouts of despair over our current management of human affairs.

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