The Role Of Experts In Modern Society

“If experts are wrong, it’s because they’re experts on an earlier version of the world” (Paul Graham)

Most people agree that the world’s changing but few fully appreciate that the pace of change itself is continually accelerating. But that presents us with a problem. As the world evolves in response to a stream of new discoveries, how can we identify the true experts within society?

As Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham pointed out in an essay a couple of days ago (‘How To Be An Expert In A Changing World’), the title of expert is one that’s most commonly bestowed by others. Others view your work from a distance and judge it to be leading the way. Yet that work is inevitably historical. For others to assess it objectively, the work must have already been carried out. No-one is deemed to become an expert simply because of work that they merely aspire to do.

In the past, this focus on past achievements was fine. The pace of change was slower and it took much longer for the newly-discovered knowledge to filter throughout the rest of society. Experts had time to delve deeply into the details and learn how to apply new developments based on the foundation of past principles.

But what about today?

I think we’re still working this out. It’s easier than ever for individuals to claim to be experts. Similarly, it’s easier to debunk dubious claims given the right motivation to filter through another’s digital detritus. And while social media undoubtedly can build a profile, it can destroy reputations just as swiftly. But even for those who are undoubtedly ‘old-school’ experts, does this mark of expert represent a seal of approval for the duration of their career? Or is it no more than simply another qualification that must be maintained? To use a simple example, if a marketing expert in 2000 hasn’t bothered to learn anything about digital marketing, can he or she still be seen as an expert today?

The key attribute for any modern-day expert, Graham suggests, is flexibility. To lead your field, you must still be willing to listen to those who bring forward unusual ideas that don’t fit your pre-existing conception of how things work. In many ways, being this flexible is counterintuitive. But unless you’re willing to listen and assimilate the new knowledge that is being discovered daily, the reality is that you are increasingly living off past glories. Short-term, ignorance may be sustainable. Long-term, this inflexibility will kill off your career. A form of individual creative disruption, if you like.

No-one can predict the future. So if you want to avoid that inflexibility, it’s worth remembering that many ‘hit-the-ball-out-the-park’ type businesses seemed to be formed around bad ideas at the start, ideas that experts would have laughed at.  For a good example, look no further than the story Fred Wilson tells about missing out on investing in Airbnb back in 2011 (current valuation: $10 billion).

Of course, bad ideas might be just be that. Bad. Or they might simply be bad today because they’ve identified a demand that the market hasn’t quite caught up with yet. That’s why you’ll always hear investors say that they invest in people: the great team with the bad idea will get investment in front of the bad team with the great idea every day of the week. The idea can change. It’s harder to remove the team. And the best people will continue to work away until they’ve found the idea that works.

It seems that if you’re an expert, you’ll be increasingly walking a tightrope. Perhaps you know the most about how the world works in your field, with people across the networks you’ve built up throughout your career helping to highlight new developments to you. If you willingly change direction and go against the grain in your chosen field, the stakes are inevitably higher if you ultimately get things wrong in a world when your every public comment is recorded online.

We’re certainly seeing this play out in the Bitcoin world. There are many well-known and respected individuals who are experts from the pre-Bitcoin era who are struggling to understand what all the fuss is about. Of course, I’m biased in that I’m certain that Bitcoin’s fundamental technological innovation – the creation of a cryptographically secure system of direct value transfer online – will drive the next stage of the evolution of the web. But for those that don’t share this view, whilst they may rail (justifiably at times) against what they perceive to be a lack of expertise among some of the Bitcoin community, it is naive to assume that these experts are somehow automatically experts also in this new corner of a new world. They certainly could become so – but first they must overcome the ‘expertise inertia’.

An example might be Paul Krugman, the American award-winning economist who wrote the infamous “Bitcoin Is Evil” op-ed in the New York Times almost exactly a year ago. Viewed by many as an expert in his field but entirely dismissive of the technology behind Bitcoin, it’s also worth remember that an earlier prediction of his was that “by 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”

There is no doubt that as time marches on, knowledge is becoming increasingly specialised.

Something else that experts can expect is to be asked to give their opinions. If that question is posed around this time of the year, that often translates into a request for predictions about how the next twelve months will pan out. As I’ve written before, trends do fascinate me (for example, global trends in 2015 and collaborative consumption). But I found myself particularly uncomfortable at being asked to provide a prediction for where Bitcoin will be at this time next year on the panel for the CNN Twitter Live Chat earlier this week.

Part of this may simply be a natural caution (most people tend to overestimate progress in a year but to underestimate progress over the course of ten years). But I applaud Brad Feld’s view on this: he just point-blank refuses to make predictions. He’s far more interested in the longer-term trends and themes than the hot startups. For investors, it’s not an uncommon position to take – take a look at the investment themes for Feld’s VC firm Foundry Group and also at Fred Wilson’s Union Square Ventures, for example.

So when it comes down to all of these big predictions for the year ahead, it’s probably worth taking them all with a healthy pinch of salt. And whilst you try to pursue your particular area of expertise with a permanently open mind, there’s maybe one more thing to learn:-

“Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.” (Lao Tzu)

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