No Expertise Whatsoever

From scientific communication to adolescent health to music and culture, it's a plague of our times . . .

A phrase in an essay by Ted Gioia which I recommended recently continues to stick out in my mind:

. . . profit-seeking technocrats with no expertise whatsoever . . .

Scholarly and scientific publishing is redolent with such creatures, especially as we still elevate technological tricks and bureaucratic demands above experience, expertise, and scientific communication norms.

Social media is what Gioia was talking about, and the recent call from the US Surgeon General to place warning labels on social media because of the evidence showing these platforms can harm children’s mental health was met with more of an attitude of “it’s about time” than anything else.

Music is under assault by technologists using pitch correction and auto-tune in ways that rob music of its humanity. A recent video showing how Paul McCartney’s voice was auto-tuned in an Adidas ad was shocking — they auto-tuned his timeless recording of “Hey Jude.” As one commenter noted, hearing “take a sad song” auto-tuned causes physical discomfort for discerning listeners.

  • This recently happened also to Billy Joel and his new song, “Turn the Lights Back On.” The song released for the radio manipulated Joel’s timeless voice to the point that it was upsetting. But listening to him sing it live at the Grammy’s a week later, and it was pure bliss. Real voices matter.

The Internet is under assault as platforms increasingly interpose themselves between users and information via algorithms that obscure potentially valid and useful information in order to privilege information that may get more clicks. The rather straightforward “search and find” of AltaVista and early Google has been replaced by the “search and settle” reality of today, where information is centered either too routinely on certain sites or boiled down to oversimplified bites.

How did this come to pass? By an overt and excessive veneration of people who can write computer code and scale technology infrastructures. Sure, it’s great, and a new set of polished skills, but nothing to bow down before, actually.

  • Imagine treating people who pour concrete or erect massive public works as if they are magical beings?

Expertise is particular, narrow, and does not scale in the way technocrats like. And it’s often deep, subtle, and even poorly understood by those who possess it. Stories abound of experts who can reflexively discrern genuine articles from forgeries and fakes without being able to explain how.

But this lack of articulation doesn’t invalidate the expertise. Rather, it only confirms how mysterious, difficult, and subtle expertise can be.

To believe that you can take a singer like McCartney, children across the world, scientific communications from hundreds of disciplines, and communities of all kinds on the Internet and paint them with a few, broad technology brushes is a disservice to society.

We live in a world filled with profit-seeking technocrats with no expertise whatsoever. We need to take back our domains from them, a little at a time, or in big chunks — whatever works.

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