Expertise: Just Add Ethernet

The recent shutdown of the U.S. Government revealed much more than partisanship. The barrage of wannabe political pundits overwhelmed my Facebook Homepage. I believe social media is useful for understanding the effects of “internet thinking.” When I say “internet thinking” I mean a type of thinking that is implicitly endorsed in the very way we use search engines, dictionaries, Wikipedia, social networks, video websites, etc. The thinking itself begins with a dissociative action of the will. If you want to find the definition of a word you only have to know a word’s rough spelling, what it sort of means, what language it comes from, and read the word’s definition. The search engine model for understanding the definition rests exclusively on popularity. The cell phone text message typing function T9, works similarly. The more frequent one uses a word the higher the probability that word pops up as a suggestion. Language becomes more colloquial and slang catches on faster because different people have quicker access to the same word and understanding. So while Google, Wikipedia, and Qoura allow me access to limitless information, the information may not be as good or helpful.

A good friend once told me that an expert in a field is the one that understands the interconnectivity of all the little points within his field (Disclaimer: his phrasing was far better). Ironically I use the internet to help me understand all the little points in the field. This means that though I know a few specifics here or there if I cannot assemble them in a reasonable manner, it means little and it does not make me an expert. Perhaps we ask the wrong question, instead of asking “what is?”, a better question would be “what does it mean?” Consider the example of politics. I know several people on the Tea Party side who can present me with bad voting records. If I view politics as activism, then I have a serious problem. I would take all the Tea Party standards and compare them to each candidate I wanted in office. If a politician falls short, he is automatically abandoned for the sake of cause. That’s not how politics works. American politics is a little more like chess. Each side designs a set of plays to end up winning the board. Often times this takes a series of sacrifices, forced moves, checks (and balances), all operating with a strong sense of deferred gratification. It’s not about winning every battle, it’s about winning the board. Just because we can see that a Republican voted for a spending increase does not mean that politician is a sell-out. He may just know the game better than we do. We are not the experts we think we are.

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                 “I say! It all sounds quite elitist if you ask me.”

We may have strong convictions, but activism and political maneuvering are two different things. Activism is a form of naivety in politics, because it seeks a solitary goal and interprets success through the accomplishment or failure of that goal. (Please note: sometimes this is necessary even if it makes a person a single issue voter). Meanwhile, a politician has to work with other people whom he disagrees with, sometimes he has to sacrifice a vote here or there to get a better position or wrangle a few votes for his next bill. He cannot focus on winning every fight. After all if you win every small battle, you are either the world’s best strategian or about to lose the king.

My generation wants to be an expert in every field. The problem is we seem to know neither what that takes, nor how impossible that reality is. In lieu of expertise we settle for intellectualism. It’s not about knowing something, it’s about others thinking we know something. This form of intellectual narcissism pervades the web especially Facebook and Twitter. I would suggest we remain intellectually honest regarding those things we do not know. Feigning expertise is exhausting.

Just because we know facts about an issue does not mean we understand an issue. Ignorance with wisdom is often better than a little knowledge with naivety. The internet can offer us facts, but it can only tell us part of the story. In other words, one wikipedia article does not a scholar make.

This post was inspired by Evgeny Morozov’s book To Save Everything Click HereI highly recommend a peruse at the least.

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