One of the great heroes of history was John Wycliffe, the 14th century English philosopher and politician responsible for the first common English language translation of the Bible. "This book shall make possible," he said, "government of the people, by the people and for the people." He was one of the most important founders of the Protestant Reformation, and there are fascinating parallels between his life and times and our own.
Wycliffe fought the authority of the Pope and the institution of "The Church" by challenging Rome's assumed right to tribute from foreign lands. He railed against what he viewed as dictatorial oppression of commoners by church elitists, and he likened the Pope to the antichrist of the Bible. So heretical was his attack on the hierarchy that decades after his death, church leaders had his body exhumed and burned simply to make a statement.
By placing the Bible in the hands of commoners, Wycliffe destroyed the secret weapon of the church hierarchy: protected knowledge. His opponents responded with the statement, "The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity."
So it is today as the personal media revolution undercuts the institution of the press, but the energy behind it all is actually much larger. Knowledge is empowering the commoners once again, and the jewel of the elites has become the toy of the masses. It is and will change our culture beyond even that of the Protestant Reformation, because it reaches into every aspect of life.
What happens when the jewel that presents itself as expertise is shared by all? The knowledge=expertise equation is coming apart under the postmodern weight of experience and participation. "Who are the real experts?" we're beginning to ask, and increasingly, we're finding that "they" are us.
Jay Rosen, journalism professor, author of PressThink and a brilliant observer of life, noted at a recent gathering of Big Media executives and bloggers in New York that the nature of authority is changing in our culture. He used the example of a person who goes to the doctor and gets a prescription for an ailment. The doctor explains how the medication will work, and the patient nods and proceeds to the drugstore to get the medicine, along with (perhaps) an explanation from the pharmacist about how the medicine will work. What's new in our world is that the patient then goes home and gets on the internet to research the thoughts of others who've used the medicine in order to discover what THEY think about how it works. This impacts the doctor's authority. The doctor is still the doctor, but gone is the automatic acceptance of his or her words as gospel. This is due, in part, to a breakdown in the modernist, knowledge=expertise equation.
Corante President and COO Stowe Boyd says people increasingly view the institutions that are supposed to serve them as suspect, so they're turning to each other for authoritative perspective.
We look to ourselves, through the Internet, our third space, to find the answers to our questions. Individuals, through first person perspective, command authority in such a context, not large organizations. It is the organizations, and their chronic failures of trust, that have led people to look elsewhere. As a result, the trappings of old style authority — association with a national newspaper or media network, government agency, or other professional associations — does not confer trust or credibility as it once did: on the contrary, it may arouse distrust and even contempt. In the postmodern era, it is the individual, true voice that is trusted, and that trust is the result of hard won respect arising from a long period of open public discourse.
Modern institutions were all created to serve the common good. That calling has been replaced, however, by self-preservation, something that's becoming increasingly obvious to everyone except the institutions. Each now seeks to create an artificial sense of dependence through the lure of success and happiness.
- Government: "You are unable to take care of yourselves, much less govern yourselves. You can find success and happiness only if we make it happen. You need us to make legal that which will make you happy and successful."
- The Law: "There are bogeymen out there to rob you of your success and happiness, and you need our protection. Besides, itís a complex society in which we live, and you need our help to simplify it for you."
- Business: "We provide the means for success and happiness. You need us to make the 'things' and services that will make you happy."
- Religion: "Only God 'out there' can provide success and happiness, and you need us to bring Him to you."
- Education: "Only an educated mind can bring success and happiness, and you need us to give you that."
- Media: "Only we can make you aware of what will make you happy and successful. You need us to entertain, inform and enlighten."
- Medicine: "You cannot be successful and happy without a sound mind and body, and you need us to give it to you."
- Finance: "You can buy whatever you need to be happy and successful, and you need us to show you how to get it."
The response has been the creation of a participatory culture, one wherein we share knowledge and experiences with each other in the hope that we will better our lives. Since the institutions have an ulterior motive (self-preservation), we're increasingly trusting ourselves. Technology is providing the means, and the economy, in many ways, is providing the demand. If I don't have health insurance, for example, I'm more likely to run my symptoms up the flagpole of my network than to march willy-nilly to the doctor's office, and that's because the cost comes out of my pocket, not some 3rd-party insurance provider.
This is a profound threat to the modernist world view and especially the knowledge=expertise equation.
A friend of mine is the head of counseling at a large drug and alcohol rehab facility in the South. As insurance companies began to put the squeeze on paying for the treatment of alcohol and drug abuse in the 90s, these institutions had to comply with increasingly restrictive accreditation requirements. Threatened with losing all those patients, my friend's facility became more interested in pleasing the insurance companies than in treating the problems of alcohol and drug abuse.
This was demonstrated when the place was forced to terminate a man who had led family sessions there for over 15 years, because he didn't have a Master's degree in psychology or therapy. According to my friend, this fellow was the best in his field. He had a gift for reconciliation and was able to restore the families of thousands of suffering individuals. Insurance company rules, however, said that such a person had to meet certain academic requirements, and if the rehab facility wanted to be eligible for insurance company patients, they had to replace him with somebody more "qualified."
This is an outrage, and yet these kinds of stories are everywhere. When self-preservation becomes the dominant behavior, institutions are revealed for what they are, not what they say they are. And as Steven Covey wrote, "You can't talk your way out of something you behaved your way into."
The status quo would argue that the restrictions provided by accreditation are necessary to prevent genuinely unqualified people from getting into such positions, but this belief assumes much and most often comes from the guardians of the hierarchy — the American legal system. Testifying in court, for example, on any matter that can seemingly be quantified always brings about the question, "What qualifies you...?" Any system that follows a set of rules — whether they are good rules or bad — demands accountability in the form of expertise. This seems wise, but it often produces an assault on common sense, because no set of rules can take that which isn't quantifiable into consideration. Live by the rules, die by the rules.
In a participatory culture, however, experience takes its rightful place alongside knowledge, because the validation of expertise comes from the bottom, not the top. If my doctor prescribes a medication that I learn is highly suspect among people who use it, I'm going to question the prescription, regardless of what any "expert" says.
The modernist mind argues that all of this is absurd — that truth exists in absolute realities that can be dissected and studied. Everything is cause and effect, they say. There's no room for randomness or, God forbid, chaos. But this view is directly challenged by the participatory culture.
Television stations spend a fortune on equipment for the weather department, because weather is often the most important news franchise in any market. The meteorological "experts" then spend hour after hour teaching the community about weather, including what to look for on a radar image and how to track a storm. I've long been an advocate of creating hands-on access to this type of equipment for Internet users, because it fits with the participatory culture concept. This view was challenged during a roundtable discussion at Ball State University by a man from Florida who said that when the chips are down — and a hurricane is approaching — he'd rather hear from the institutional expert.
I would too, but I'd also want to see for myself. If Katrina taught us nothing else, it's that our hierarchical systems can and do fail.
Participatory culture will take down the economy unless current institutions wrap themselves in it. What's needed is a vast economic overhaul in order to save capitalism — if it needs to be saved at all.
What happens when participatory law releases the grip of lawyers on the law — when a plaintiff or defendant can stand in a courtroom armed with a legal "brain" capable of analyzing facts and providing legal expertise? Or when this brain can respond tit-for-tat to the volumes of paperwork with which law firms attempt to drown the little guy in protecting the status quo? Will we one day have a "lawyer-in-a-box" computer?
What happens when participatory medicine — funded by the insurance industry — releases the grip that doctors have on medicine? Will we one day have a "doc-in-a-box" computer? (Not if the AMA has anything to say about it.)
What happens when all aspects our culture become genuinely participatory? Who makes the money? Where does it go in the economy? These are difficult and troubling questions, because our modernist minds cannot grasp such a world.
And for the news media, these questions are enormous. Rosen writes:
...journalism is trying to protect itself while the public is saying "we don't need you anymore." So while the revolution invites them to participate, the reality is it doesn't need them to participate. The institution doesn't control the societal role it used to control, and this is a significant change in culture. If you think today's cultural wars are nasty, wait until we get further downstream with all of this. The people may, in fact, build their own institutions, but they won't be the same as the ones that exist today. The biggest problem with journalism -- and any institution today -- is that it has lost its authority.
Author, philosopher, educator and blogger Dr. David Weinberger is actively exploring the roots of knowledge. He writes that "knowledge is literally a matter of conversation. It's disagreement with people who stretch you. Knowledge is the continuing conversation, not the result of it." In this view, knowledge is ever-evolving and changing as humankind searches for truth.
In these billions of conversations, we attempt to work out what's true. But, especially as the conversation goes global and involves people with deep differences, we (= I) have no hope of ever resolving issues and creating anything like an eternal tree of knowledge. That dream of Reason is gone. (Appropriate exceptions admitted.) Instead, for the rest of our time on the planet, we will be iterating differences, hopefully on an increasing ground of commonality. But we're never going to all agree and fall silent. That's not even a desirable outcome.
This is radical thinking and another profound threat to modernism, because it takes into account the role of experience in the production of similarities and differences. It also forecasts commonality rather than lock-step agreement.
The longer people are exposed to computers that assist in their thinking, the greater the likelihood that they will resist blind faith in the institutions of humankind. The Internet accelerates this and the architecture of the Web itself — with its deconstructive links and references — produces a thirst for knowledge through experience. So in the application of the jewel of knowledge, the new equation is knowledge/experience=expertise, and it's very much a bottom-up phenomenon.
But the status quo will not easily let go of its jewel. Just as Rome did during Wycliffe's day, we can expect — as Jay Rosen predicts — escalating and nasty conflicts. And while it may take generations, we can also expect that the reformation will win out in the end, because people united against tyranny — regardless of how it's dressed — will always come out on top.
After all, the jewel, as Wycliffe taught us, belongs to everybody.