Monday, January 7, 2008

Where to Find the Real Experts

Most of us are trained to believe that universities are – to use an agricultural metaphor appropriate for my location in Greeley, Colorado – feedlots full of experts. Indeed, many journalists looking for insights into the latest political scandal, Wall Street surprise, environmental disaster, or psychopathic escapade, turn to a professor for commentary. Of course, not all experts are to be found within the ivory tower: there are plenty of experts in industry and government, not to mention the expertise of media pundits, who are paid to wax authoritative on just about anything. Take William Safire, for example, who, in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, gave us answers to such diverse questions as to whom the academy award for best picture will go (“There Will be Blood”), what levels American troop numbers in Iraq will reach at the end of 2008 (100,000 and dropping steadily), and whom we will elect to be the next president of the United States (McCain).

There is one characteristic that all these experts have in common. No, it’s not that they are all and always correct (I can’t wait to test Safire’s predictions) or that they all have privileged access to the facts. It is simply that they are all privileged. The word “privilege” comes from the Latin for “private law”; that is to say, rights that apply to particular individuals and are granted based on one’s position or office (or gender, or race/ethnicity, or social class, or sexual orientation…). If these people didn’t achieve their status as experts because of privilege, they achieved their privileged status because someone or something powerful conferred it upon them.

However, as an anthropologist, I have a hard time with such an elite view on who should be or who should not be considered an expert. This doesn’t mean I scorn William Safire’s point of view or the perspectives of university professors, CEOs, and politicians. Many of them have the experience, smarts, and insight to deserve my attention. I just hesitate to ignore the advice of others who don’t have as much privilege, but who do have valuable knowledge and wisdom drawn from a deep well of multi-generational and direct experience. Anyone who’s sat down with a commercial fisherman to talk about fish stocks, a Native American elder to talk about geography, or a farmer to talk about the weather knows what I mean. Rarely can we find these experts’ perspectives featured on a TV news program or in a newspaper article. Those spaces are reserved for the “real” experts.

Here’s a case in point. In Monday's New York Times, I found an article in the Technology section opaquely entitled “Ex-Harvard President Meets a Former Student, and Intellectual Sparks Fly.” The article is really about the debut of “BigThink.com” – basically a YouTube for thinking people, wherever they might be. BigThink’s tagline is “We Are What You Think,” which, I think, cleverly updates Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” for the wired 21st century. Unlike YouTube, where you can go, as I just did, to discover Derek Waters’ “Drunk History Volume 1” (currently listed as one of YouTube’s Featured Videos), BigThink wants to be the place you’ll go to ponder allegedly more profound issues such as how to make sense of it all and the nature of the creative process.

As I was reading about BigThink, I became intrigued because I conceived a mental image of their site, which included a “Featured Videos” page inviting me to select content posted by thoughtful people all over the world. People like me (or, even more interesting, people completely unlike me) who have thought long and hard about particular problems and want to share their analyses, theses, antitheses, or syntheses with their global community via the razzle-dazzle of digital video. Imagine discovering a treatise on climate change from a bloke in the Orkney Islands or an exposition on the digital divide from an Argentinean gaucho.

This would be an amazing thing, not only because it would be another example of democratization of the media (on YouTube virtually everyone can be a movie producer!). It would represent the democratization of expert opinion. No longer would we be constrained to seeking the counsel of privileged egg heads and talking heads; now we could access the experience and insight of underprivileged local experts, whose hard-earned knowledge would help us (more than any Apple product) to think different.

Sadly, this is not what I found when I hopped online and paid a visit to BigThink.com. Instead, I was confronted by a smorgasbord of glossy videos featuring the ruminations of hand-picked philosophers like Mitt Romney, Calvin Trillin, Deepak Chopra, and Sir Richard Branson. To be sure, there are many experts at BigThink I’ve never heard of and whose ideas and erudite disquisitions would fascinate and edify me. But, to a person, they are all privileged experts of one kind or another.

To be fair, BigThink is not simply a place to go for more expert opinion. The rest of us who happen to have internet access can post our own ideas in the form of questions or statements. Dutifully, I registered on the site and posted some ideas about evolution and, what else?, empathy. Egotistically, I later revisited the site to rediscover my own ideas. Where did they go? Knowing myself to be unqualified as a BigThink Expert, I skipped the “Browse Experts” link and instead selected the “Browse Ideas” option. Exploring BigThink’s so-called Meta Ideas of “Faith & Beliefs” and Physical Ideas of “Policy & Politics” and “Science & Technology,” I found the ideas of a host of privileged experts, but mine were inaccessible, not because of their arcane reasoning or blinding brilliance (both of which are surely lacking), but because there was no facility anywhere on the site to browse the ideas of non-elite experts.

In the NYT article, BigThink’s founder, Peter Hopkins, recalls Larry Summers – the “Ex-Harvard President” to whom the headline refers – worrying that someone might put up “a porn video next to my macroeconomic speech.” Indeed, this highlights a problem with my critique. Is everyone an expert? What if Jane Sixpack, who has some strongly worded, if unsophisticated, opinions about Muslims because of what she’s seen on TV decides to post her “philosophy” on BigThink? Worse yet, what if some enterprising politician who’s running for the highest office in the land decides to use BigThink as a cleverly nuanced political ad? Isn’t it best to let the BigThinkers choose the talent so we’re not wading through flotsam and jetsam? Undoubtedly, they know who the real experts are, right? Right?

I rest my case.

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