It’s become difficult to locate an individual who hasn’t become expert in one way or another. The culture of expertise goes hand-in-hand with the culture of fame: you can become renown for your own expertise, or you can bask in a reflected glow as you plumb the depths of another’s accomplishments. In either case, the result is the same: you become a deep well of knowledge about something – vital or trivial. Assessments of the value of expertise are broadly subjective: I may not care that you know all about Corvette Sting-Rays, or permafrost ecosystems, or currency fluctuations in Bolivia, but someone else almost certainly does.
While we pursue our own expertise to satisfy the designs of our own desires, there is always a second element in play: we want to be needed and valued for what we know. We achieve social standing within our social networks by providing instruments of value – acts and services – which reinforce our utility to the membership of the network. The greater the instrument of value, the higher the social standing, hence there is a constant pressure to deliver ever-higher value, a pressure that is placed on all members of a social network. Because of that pressure, the social network is constantly in motion, as members within the network gain or fall in standing, according to their perceived value. The operating principle is analogous to that old Hollywood saw, “You’re only as big as your next film.”
The greater your social standing, the greater the pressure to introduce instruments of value to your social network. This is an evolutionary arms race of sorts, because it eventually becomes impossible to outperform expectations; everything naturally reaches its own level. Members at the higher levels of a social network suffer from the “Burden of Omniscience” – because they know so much, they become the “go-to” member for the network. Inquiries requiring great expertise are invariably forwarded up to the members thought to be most competent to address them. While this reinforces the hierarchy of the social network, it also means that the hierarchy’s most expert members are also spending more and more of their time addressing the inquiries drawn from layers underneath them. Time is the only zero-sum quantity in human experience: time spent answering inquiries can’t be invested in extending expertise. Success carries within it the seeds of failure, for to the degree that any member of a social network becomes essential, to that same degree they will be hamstrung by the demands of the network. Yet, to refuse inquiries from the network carries another cost: every refusal decreases your utility to the social network. Turn down enough invitations to dance, and soon you’ll find yourself without any suitors.
I am known as an expert in the field of computing. The recognition of this expertise has its smaller consequences: when I visit my friends and family I tend to perform the sorts computer maintenance tasks that they might find too difficult. Because I can perform these tasks, I feel as though I must; and because others hold me in esteem for my expertise, there is a pressure to perform to expectations. However, in the age of connected humanity, this pressure to perform is no longer bounded by proximity; anyone can ask for my help, anywhere, anytime. And quite often they do.
I have friends who are very competent with computers – more competent than 95% of the population – who nonetheless encounter questions that they can’t answer, or problems they can’t solve. These issues invariably make their way to me. Hardly a day goes by without one (or several) emails or IMs coming my way with obscure computing questions. Some of these questions are easily addressed and immediately answered. Others are harder to answer. This is where I start to feel the conflict between my desire to assert my expertise and my desire to extend it.
This week I have been writing computer programs, something I used to do on a daily basis, but which I now restrict to a few, carefully-chosen weeks every year. It’s very intense work, which requires a level of concentration and focus which, in my own experience, is entirely unique. Conforming to the dictates of the computer-as-medium requires a dedicated suppression of various aspects of my mind and my personality. Programming, at this level – which is to say that I’m inventing something that has never existed before this – is a meditation of sorts, which requires a certain quality of mind. This quality is precisely anti-social – not misanthropy, but rather an almost autistic disinterest in the human world. When you embrace the soul of the machine, there’s little room for anything else. Yet that embrace is the only way to extend the expertise for which I have gained some modicum of renown. This essential paradox drove me to make an ironic reply to one friend, in response to his inquiry. “I AM NOT YOUR GOOGLE,” I wrote, but, even as I typed the words, I realized that I was lying.
This is the one recognizably universal quality of the present moment: we have surfeit of information. It’s gone beyond “information at your fingertips,” the hacker dream of twenty years ago, to “information, anywhere, anytime, about anything.” Where first Google indexed all the pages of the Web, thereby allowing us to surf sensibly, Wikipedia delivered the corpus of human experience, presenting it in depth. Both of these tools have become absolutely indispensable; and both are the first stops for anyone looking for some bit of knowledge. Google is raw, unfiltered data; Wikipedia is cooked, condensed, and formatted for human cognition. Google and Wikipedia: information and knowledge. Yet even these two are not enough. Information and knowledge are theory without practice; when knowledge is embodied in practice, it transforms into understanding. Practice is a uniquely human task, so understanding is a uniquely human quality. It can’t be written down – that simply translates understanding back into knowledge. Understanding must be imparted through a direct transmission of experience. That’s what mentoring is all about.
If one knew everything about everything, but could not express that knowledge usefully, nor mentor others into an understanding of that knowledge, that knowledge would have low instrumental value. Individuals rise in social networks because they can translate their expertise into understanding. Our social networks of expertise represent the natural emergence of a human strategy to grow into a more comprehensive understanding. In this they represent a technique which arguably dates from the emergence of language. Once it was possible to impart understanding linguistically, social networks of expertise were the inevitable result. Thus you have the cults, mystery schools and guilds of the ancient and mediaeval worlds.
My address book reflects my own network of expertise; I have a list of individuals whom I know I can contact – at any time – if I have a burning question that must be answered. Different individuals have different areas of expertise, and I will forward the inquiry to the individual that I deem most likely – given their weight in my social network – to provide a satisfactory answer. Some of these inquiries will be answered immediately; others will go long weeks before I receive a reply. If an inquiry goes too long without a reply, that individual falls in value within my own social network. And we’re all like this. We all do this, all the time. We are no longer bounded by proximity, so we have come to expect immediate replies to our inquiries. This also means that we’re expected to reply immediately to any inquiries which make their way to us.
The era of pervasive electronic communication acts as an intense amplifier for our social networks. We are harnessing our social networks to deliver understanding, on demand. This represents an enormous opportunity to increase our effectiveness: understanding must necessarily translate into effectiveness. Yet there is an enormous opportunity cost. To be an effective member of a modern social network means that we are buffeted from all sides, with everyone wanting us to share what we’ve got. This tension is already becoming one of the dominant features of 21st-century life; we’re constantly struggling to demonstrate our expertise and extend that expertise – only to find we can’t do both simultaneously. It’s a recipe for frustration.
What we’ll see now – as frustration levels increase – are the emergence of tools and techniques to manage the constant irritations of our newly amplified social networks. Frustration creates the friction which powers the engine of human creativity. The social networks which develop effective adaptations to this friction – and, perhaps, harness it – will increase their own effectiveness, incorporating the understandings gained into their own bodies of expertise. We are learning how to Google one another, and, in so doing, we are opening ourselves to an exploration in depth of the human universe of understanding.