The Demise of Expertise: The Rise of Googleism


In less than two months a series of events converged to unnerve me. The first occurred when I attended a business conference and went to a panel on “The Global Economy and Climate Change.” The chairman announced and introduced a substitution and then called on the first panelist.

It was an excellent session, probably the best I attended that day. During the social hour, I met and congratulated the substitute panelist on his presentation. He blushed and confessed: “It must have been glamour by association because I am a psychologist and member of the conference program committee and, hence, required to pinch hit when someone does not show up.”

“But you sounded like such an expert on the subject. How did you do that?” He picked up his laptop, tapped it with affection, and went off to enjoy the party and his triumph.

The next incident occurred closer to home. In the latest newsletter, I learned that a close colleague had spoken at an African Leadership Conference in Dubai. His subject was “The Emerging New Black Leadership.” I could not believe it. He is our IT man, white as snow, and Dubai was his first overseas trip, ever. But the image of the triumphant laptop silenced me.

But the last incident came home to roost. My pastor asked me to lead a congregational workshop on “Finding Our Roots.” I protested: “I know nothing about genealogy.” To which my shrewd pastor replied, “You already know the key descriptor, you know how to facilitate groups, you will always be a step ahead of the class. Besides, there is no one else.”

Suddenly, the devil laptop had become a guardian angel. The temptress displayed all her richness before me. I became her slave as she certified my having become one of the chosen self-designated experts whose secret would be protected and, if needed, footnotes could be provided.

So here we are–myself now included–instant experts and self-certified geniuses worshipping at the altar of the Google Goddess. All that is missing is the confidence of experience–going public and perhaps stretching our expertise so that one can speak with authority on practically every subject. Miraculously along comes social media–a public forum for everyone to talk to all the other experts–and nobody asking to show your credentials. It is the heaven of cyberspace created daily, even hourly, by the inventive cloud and constant twitter of technology.

Meanwhile, what happens to the old-fashioned notion of expertise associated with years of study, with the production of original research, with peer reviews, with the awarding of major prizes of excellence, and so on? Have we, in effect, created a competitive shortcut version of expertise–egalitarian, transparent, and democratically accessible to all–thanks to the technology of overthrow?

But all is not lost. Some are upset by the shortcutting of expertise acquisition and ask us to pause and call for a reexamination and perhaps a redefinition of the notion of expertise altogether. But done in such a neutral and comprehensive way that it can stand apart, on its own feet and apply to all examples no matter what they are or where they come from. To start the inquiry, below are five stepping-off points on the nature of expertise:

1. Originality
Experts do not sound like everyone else. Even the same statistics appear with more bite and traction. They are never in a hurry, never eager to impress, seldom override another speaker, and are deliberative and patient because they have arrived or been knighted by the queen, which when cited embarrasses them. But they are generally not pompous, timid, or wishy-washy–they call a spade a shovel, Putin a bully, and weak leaders weak leaders. They are never shallow.

2. History
Genuine experts are all historians, but deep historians, not limited just to older versions of the present or Wikipedia entries but rooted deeply in the larger scope of evolving civilizations, culture, and art and citing current everyday examples of their persistence, including even culinary links to ancient times. Experts also present nations as a mixture of historical profiles sometimes dominant, other times subdued, but always in contention for national recognition. The final impression of our historian expert is that the story is unfinished, that we have a better sense of the major and minor actors and players; and that ultimately history and evolution are one and the same.

3. The High Road
Experts always resist and are even disdainful of being lured down the garden path, taking cheap shots, agreeing to slippery summations, and being tempted to play the “blame, shame, and gotcha” game. In other words, they are not journalists forced to meet deadlines or satisfy readers. Their only constituency is the powerful and invisible pressure of their peers and their discipline, which remains intact and uncompromised. In short, genuine exerts have integrity, they are always believable, and they are never for sale.

4. Contributors
Experts are not only knowledgeable about the theory and methodology of their field and area of expertise, but also are expected to critique and add to both. In other words, exerts are required to accept and affirm the basic modes of their profession. Indeed, the one who distinguishes himself or herself in either area is often dubbed the leader or father of a new school of epistemology. Instant experts are never under any such obligation to affirm or give back.

5. Futurity
Ensuring the future viability of the profession is not the only way experts are futurists. Typically, when asked where all this is leading, instant experts generally will shy away from answering except to say, “Time will tell” or “It is too difficult to predict.” Not so for our futurist expert who knows that his or her ultimate test and distinction is always to engage what lies ahead. Thus, this expert would say, “What is reasonably clear is that three futures await us.” Then as he or she unfolds three options or scenarios, we listen intently, not because we agree that these are the only options but because we appreciate and value the expert’s calling, his or her profession, and his or her commitment to the truth and to us. We may not always be believers, but at least we can recognize when there are authentic prophetic voices that can be heard above the false din of the Tower of Babel.

What the ubiquity of instant, counterfeit, and parasitic imitations of expertise signifies is the need to strip away the imitative and even superficial trappings to define the genuine difference of what it takes to be a real expert and to exhibit and value the kind of unique behaviors listed above. 

expertiseAbout the Author
Irving H. Buchan, PhD, secured his doctorate from Johns Hopkins; has taught at Cal State, Wisconsin, and Penn State; has served as a consultant and executive coach; and has published over 150 articles and 10 books.