The End of the Era of Experts
The Internet has now fundamentally changed communication and information sharing. Ubiquitous access to information is now a given for most people in the first world and for a growing percentage of those in the remainder of the world as mobile devices spread ever more broadly across the globe. This has profound consequences for society. Importantly, Western Democracies and other traditional institutions will not be excluded from those consequences.
People have almost universally seen the advent of high speed access to the world’s storehouse of knowledge as a positive thing unless, of course, you are a tyrant. If you are a dictator, and want to keep your day job, you’ve moved very quickly in recent years to control the internet and the access to information in your country. But in a Democracy, where we believe in free speech, this will, of course, not happen.
One of the ironies is that, most Western Democracies looked at things like the Arab Spring, at least initially, as a very positive thing. Initially, we said: “lookee how the Internet and, especially, Social Media, helped these people throw off the yoke of dictatorship – Yay!”. We said that, of course, before those dictators were replaced in short order, not typically by democratic alternatives, but by even more suspect rulers- often with even more troubling agendas.
With Brexit and, now, Trump, I believe we are seeing a similar dynamic play out in Western Democracies and I believe that this pattern will continue and strengthen. That is that the Internet itself and the access to direct, instantaneous, information is starting to threaten, or at least put significant stress on, ALL the old institutions that held our cultures and countries together. As just one example, I do not believe that Donald J. Trump would be the President of the United States today without the Internet.
Let me provide a simple example of how I think the world has been changed. Last week my Doctor advised me to go on a statin. My cholesterol numbers were a little high. I decided NOT to take his advice. Why would I ignore my doctor’s advice? Do I have a death wish? Well, no. I just don’t trust my doctors like I used to. Why?
Well… as soon as a doctor tells me anything, I go read up about the topic on the internet. What I find there might or might not agree with what the doctor conveyed to me. If it doesn’t agree with their advice, my confidence in the infallibility of my doctor is shaken.
This is happening in every aspect of our lives and it’s not just happening with Doctors. It’s also happening with Lawyers, Religious Leaders, and more to the point of what happened last week it’s happening with our established Media institutions and our Political Leaders.
20 years ago, I don’t think I would have been nearly this feisty. I think I would have almost felt I had no choice but to do what my Doctor told me. I don’t feel that way anymore. The reason I’ve changed is that I have access to information and that information has caused me to question everything that those who sit in traditional Expert Roles tell me.
Despite all the social conditioning I received as a Baby Boomer growing up in an America that cherished and valued those Sage Experts in every field, I now question everything.
I’ve seen cases now where, on certain medical topics, I knew more than my doctor because I researched it on the Internet ahead of my visit. This changes everything about how we perceive “Experts” and “The System”.
When you think about it in this light, the Internet is what enabled a movement where a whole bunch of parents have decided not to immunize their children. There is information on the internet that contradicts what Doctors are telling mothers they need to do or ought to do and Mothers read it and believed it – not all, but enough that it became its own “current” in our social and cultural stream. I’m not saying I agree with the meme that says that immunizations are what cause other disorders like autism, but I’m saying this would NEVER have happened without the Internet.
I bet doctors hate the Internet, certainly ones who spent any significant period of their career prior to the Internet. All their patients have gotten “so darned uppity” – just like me.
The old model, where doctors dispensed wisdom along with medications and were just implicitly trusted is, essentially, gone. I assume doctors now get asked questions every day about what their patients read about on the Internet and it must suck after almost a decade of med school, an internship, and years of service – but there you are – welcome to the monkey house.
If you go back to the invention of the printing press, who stood the most to lose when it came along? History tells us it was the Established Religious Leadership of the time. Why? They controlled access to Bibles.
This meant that whoever had a Bible had the power and authority to tell everyone else not just what was in it, but also how to interpret it. One of the most revolutionary things that ever happened in the past three hundred years was the printing of Bibles so that they became universally available and people learned to read. And what happened when they became available? Martin Luther is what happened. And the power of Catholic Church has never been the same.
Once anyone has access to a Bible, not only do they not need to find out what’s in it from someone in authority, they can and will come to their own conclusion about what it actually says and means for them personally. And the next thing that happens is they stop trusting the person (the Pope in this case) in authority because, if they were so great, how come they used to tell me stuff that’s not true from my own reading of the Bible?
Established institutions always break down when information that is held in private becomes available to the masses.
Now that citizens have access to information ON EVERY CONCEIVEABLE TOPIC that they previously did not have, they have become empowered and emboldened in a way that no generation before them has ever been to question all authority. This trend will continue and I believe that every single established institution of our culture will come under significant stress.
We may be at the start of something much larger than any of us realized before and for which have no way of predicting exactly how it will all work itself out. Such a situation is often referred to as a “Singularity” – a moment in time where circumstances have changed so profoundly that there is no way to predict what will happen afterwards.
My thinking here is that we are at a kind of Singularity in that we can’t predict any longer how this instantaneous-access-to-all- information-for-the-masses will play out now. One thing that we can say for sure: Any time in history where institutions that were the long-established centers of leadership for the masses came under assault, both bad things and good things happened. Bad things like revolutions and civil wars happened. And good things, like the Reformation and the rise of the Scientific Method also happened too.
In our American past, we’ve always had a system where certain Experts held the key knowledge on behalf of society. Because they had knowledge that we did not have, we looked to them almost as Gods – they told us what to do and we believed them. This election, I believe is the wake-up call that more has changed than any of us imagined up until now.
You need to look no further than Facebook to see how this has played out and continues to play out.
Messages from both sides during the most recent election (and third parties) were a key dynamic and influence in this election. Anything that one of the candidates or their surrogates put out as a new fact “This will be what brings Hillary down once ad for all!” or “What Donald Trump doesn’t want you know!” were immediately picked up and reverberated by millions of supporters in a kind of echo chamber of feedback until, just like feedback on a microphone, all you could hear after a while was the screeching.
Hillary, unfortunately for her, represented more of the established norms. In a world where the masses are beginning to distrust all the traditional institutions at unprecedented levels, this was not a good place for her to be.
[Note: I originally wrote this article right as the election results had come in – before the “Fake News” tidal meme broke out. The affect t that Fake News will have on all of this is all the more troubling – since it isn’t just access to information that is going to affect us, but access to dis-information as well.]
What came through loud and clear is that anyone with a Facebook account, and that is just about all of us now, could share their opinion, and most did so – instantaneously. Most felt compelled to. Facebook is now our National Town Square and everyone had their own personal soap box to stand up on – or you could just listen and learn about stuff that Walter Cronkite would never have said – because as we have sadly come to learn, those old institutions filtered information as well as magnified it. The Press Corps in Kennedy’s White House knew, for instance, that Kennedy was having affairs but they didn’t tell us – that was for our own good, supposedly. Those days are over.
When something like The Pentagon Papers happened 47 years ago, we (the masses) didn’t actually read the leaked Pentagon Papers. We listened to what Walter Cronkite told us about it on the 5 o’clock news. He sifted through it and told us what to think about it. The Established News Media, yet another Expert institution that has held power in the past couple of centuries, is itself under assault. Now, when WikiLeaks comes out with what Hillary Clinton or John Podesta or Donna Brazile or anyone else typed in some email months ago, we get to read it ourselves, IMMEDIATELY and UNFILTERED. This changes everything. Someone used to tell us “It’s all Ok – don’t go look behind the curtain” and we listened because we TRUSTED them – they were the EXPERTS.
But we are like Dorothy-In-Oz now – we’ve noticed that there is someone over to the left behind a curtain and it’s suspicious to us now. We aren’t afraid to go over there and look. In fact, we WANT to go over there and look – our Facebook friends make us look even if we don’t want to!. So we do and we discover that the Great and Powerful Oz is just a carnival huckster who got caught in an updraft one afternoon at the county fair and couldn’t find his way home.
How this all turns out is anybody’s guess. But the one thing for sure is that we are never going back to Kansas.