The Postmodern Expertise Conundrum

Areas of expertise | Charles Darwin University

Here’s an interesting question for the experts of our world. What do you do when the knowledge you possess that qualifies you as an expert becomes common? Is your speciality really necessary anymore, or does it simply become a fish flopping around on the dock of life? Make no mistake; modernist views of expertise and its accompanying authority are being challenged and changed right before our eyes.

Experts are the high priests of the various institutional silos built by the management culture in its ongoing efforts to herd and control the rest of us. Authority is granted to those with assumed expertise, because in the modern world, expertise is the secret handshake of those who occupy the higher rungs on the hierarchical human ladder. They do not lead by innovation; they lead by managing existing systems. Order and safety are their public goals, but maintaining the status quo is their real purpose.

Let me refer once again to the profound statement by Henry Adams at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: “The way of nature is change. The dream of man is order.” The order of the management culture produces a governor on everyone except the super rich, for they are the ones who demand (and need) the equilibrium that comes with order. Meanwhile, nature moves us forward, whether we like it or not.

What may seem like a political disagreement between well-intentioned activists is actually a profound struggle for preeminence in the reinvention of liberty for us in the West. Life (nature) is taking us into the unknown, and our response has been to elect a guy who knew how to ping all that fear in the name of authoritarian dominance. Since order benefits the wealthy, it’s also the core mission of the Silk Stocking Party, a.k.a. the GOP. Their law & order platform cares about nothing or nobody else, and it has driven our culture to the brink of collapse under the weight of trying to take us backwards in the name of order.

Therefore, one of the great enemies of postmodernism is this contemporary view of expertise.

Licensing based on one’s expertise is the purview of the haves, who believe they’ve earned the right (as in paid for it) to make the rules, because, through their expertise, they know better than others. Once one acquires status, one wishes to make sure one keeps it. Consequently, we’re forced to follow a set of rules that favor only those who have the resources to compete for positions of expertise within the culture.

This is one of the most difficult of concepts of modernity to deconstruct, because it seems so logical and reasonable. Logic and reason, however, are the twin gods of modernism and cannot be trusted as anything other that a self-centered method of “managing” one’s life through education. And then there are those whose credentials include a family name or famous roots. It’s the American way to struggle against the odds in achieving success, which is why the first job upon entering the secret handshake crowd is to prevent others from coming in behind you. No where is human nature more on display than with those who push their modernist expertise in other people’s faces. Such folks will trample all over everybody else to be first in line.

Expertise is not only easily corruptible, but it’s corrupt on its face, for one man’s expertise is another man’s homelessness. It’s why celebrities end up in prison for “buying” their children’s entry into Ivy League or other “good” schools. The only “why” that matters is to separate oneself from those beneath one’s place on the ladder.

Expertise requires a paradigm that’s always increasingly complex, ‘lest expert knowledge become common. Experts will always strive to expand and obscure the complexity for which they provide clarity (h/t Clay Shirky). For the consultant, it’s a paradox, for the more expertise they gain, the less they can share with their clients, because renewal of the expert’s contract is always job one. If their expertise becomes common, then their place in the world crumbles. Expertise will always defend itself, so as to never lose its fatted calf.

Credentials given by higher ups are what fuels expertise and governs it at the same time. Getting inside the protection of credentials is the number one path to success in our capitalist culture. And, some people will go to great lengths to acquire even the appearance of credentials. I know a woman who was trying to develop her own consulting and life coaching business, but she didn’t have recognized expertise to be taken seriously by potential clients. She knew that if she could only introduce herself as a doctor, everything would fall into place. Don’t get me wrong. This woman is very smart and has a big heart for women and girls who’ve been through sexual trauma. She’s naturally gifted when it comes to helping such people, and her work deserves to be acknowledged by our society. Why not? Because she lacked the proper credentials. So, she researched the easiest career path for which she could legally be called “doctor” and settled on a health doctorate in Global Health and Wholeness. Bing! Now, she’s “Doctor” in the world of trauma consulting. It’s a great story of how important those credentials are in the marketing of oneself as an expert.

Of course, experts will defend their credentials by stating the many ways people benefit from them, as if the rest of us don’t ever thank them for being so special. It’s a great argument to state that if you’re going to have brain surgery, you want the very best expert there is, but these kinds of obvious arguments are designed to dissuade ANY thinking to the opposite. Fortunately,

TV commercials have been known to pick on credentials for humor’s sake. The Holiday Inn overnight experts were funny, but my favorite is FedEx involving a new employee with an MBA who thinks he’s above doing shipping when asked by a coworker to help out. “Oh you have an MBA? I see. Well, in that case, I’m going to have to show you how it’s done.” We’ve all met or known people like this, because easy is very often the expectation of people fresh out of school. Education provides the idea of expertise, but it doesn’t take into account the innate ability in all of us to observe and learn.

Access to power became the private playground of expertise and is another reason the situation is so volatile today. Thus, our government and our press became servants of the haves, those who could buy influence through marketing and propaganda. This is the life we’ve lived ever since, until the internet.

People are better and more experienced at using the web every day, and that’s a big problem for modern expertise. The geeks built it, and that’s important. They were not controlled by big business and essentially built what they wanted for themselves. While it’s true that these people can build whatever you’d like, the problem is that once it’s in use, the copycats will follow. Humans are always better at copying than innovating.

And, today, everyone is marketing. Everyone is pushing and pressing the envelope of their place in the world. The coronavirus has exacerbated this by taking jobs away and forcing new players into the market. These new players have no choice, and they’re discovering completely new ways to support themselves. Who knew that Instagram Influencer would be an actual job description that anyone could attain? Who knew there were so many women (and men) willing to take their clothes off for people and get paid (rather well) for it? When you’re a single mom who just lost her job, it seems a reasonable way to feed your kids and pay the rent. This is all new under the sun, and every day that goes by with this virus makes more and more fertile ground for innovation.

Let’s face it. No mass marketer came up with YouTube. No existing expert ever saw the value of free. In 1995, the American Medical Association launched a new initiative to assure that only THEY could “practice medicine” online. Their site — WebMD — provides no medicine but lots of referrals to seeing “your” doctor instead. This is just one way that Western Institutions are fighting back, and it’ll work for awhile. Meanwhile, patient sites keep popping up, places where patients can meet other patients and talk about their treatments. It is arming patients with knowledge but causing problems for certain doctors who prefer that THEY be the only expert in the room.

Another word for expertise is authority, and when it begins to slip, there will be new authorities that rise to take their place. Always remember that we are on the leading edge of a change of eonic proportions. Like Dylan sang, “The times, they are a‑changin’.”

Autodidacts will have their day. They may have to prove their worth to us, but postmodernism favors experience over learning anyway. It’s going to be an interesting evolution to watch, because expertise isn’t going away; it’s just being redefined. The doctor is still the doctor, although his authority is not as absolute as it once was.

Just as movable type was coming into its own in the 15th Century, John Wycliffe was finishing his common English translation of the Bible, which brought forth this mysterious statement from him: “This book shall make possible government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” There followed the Reformation, and Wycliffe’s belief never really materialized, because newly-created hierarchies became, once again, the governing bodies of the faith. The era that followed was dedicated to the processes and systems of culture, dragging us all into the elevation of logic and reason, science and math, computers and technology.

The dawn of the web is often referred to as the “Second Gutenberg Moment” of Western Civilization, for as modernism was to the faith culture, so postmodernism will be for us today.

It will continue to change everything.