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Does the web make experts dumb?

For information to have power, it needs to be held asymmetrically. Preferably very very asymmetrically. Someone who knows something that others do not know can do something potentially useful and profitable with that information.

Information can be asymmetric in a number of ways. The first, and simplest, is asymmetry-in-access. If you can make sure that no one else has access to information that you have access to, if you’re in a position to deny others access to the information, then you can do something useful with it. In the old days this was called keeping a secret. Keeping something secret is not wrong per se. But if that secret is privileged information, there are many things you cannot do with it. Like trade on it. Or blackmail someone as a result of it.

Nevertheless, for centuries, people have made money by having asymmetric access to information. And for the most part they’ve done it legally.

A second form of asymmetry is in effect a special case of asymmetry-in-access: asymmetry-in-creation. If you create/originate the information in question, then it is possible to prevent anyone else from knowing it. All you have to do is make sure that you don’t tell anyone. Kenny Dalglish, while managing Liverpool in the mid-to-late 1980s,  was asked how he’d managed to keep Ian Rush’s return from Juventus a secret. In answer he said ‘It was simple. I didn’t tell anyone”.

If you choose not to share something you’ve created, then you are in a position to be the only person in the world to enjoy it. Take a work of art or music or literature. As creator, you can choose to share whatever you’ve created with nobody; with just one person; with just a few people; the choice is yours. And you can charge for this access. Some people may think you’re being selfish, some people may consider you “sad” as a result, but you have every right. What you’re doing is legal. You’re protecting the scarce nature of what you’ve created, and seeking to exploit that scarcity.

For centuries people have made money out of creating unique things, scarce things, and then charging others when they want access or ownership.

A third form of asymmetry is really a derivative form, where the information is itself not of much use without some way of comprehending it, parsing it, interpreting it: asymmetry-in-education. Equality in educational rights may be a much-vaunted goal, but it’s not there. Equality of opportunity continues to be mandated, and may well happen in your lifetime. Equality of outcome cannot be legislated. Asymmetry-in-education has therefore continued to persist despite the efforts of well-meaning people over the past century or so.

This form of asymmetry has been exploited by experts in many guises: doctors, lawyers, priests, even IT consultants. And their theme song is simple. “You didn’t have to work as hard as I did to know what I know. It’s complex, you won’t understand it.”. In many cases, this situation was exacerbated by the use of foreign languages, preferably dead foreign languages. And, just in case that wasn’t enough, the smoke and mirrors of specialist terminology, jargon, abbreviation and convention was used to obfuscate the environment.

For millennia experts have exploited this asymmetry and wielded power and amassed wealth as a result.

There is a fourth, and final, form of asymmetry: asymmetry-by-design. This is where you take something that is essentially abundant and, through fair means or foul, get it redefined as scarce. Most implementations of Digital Rights Management are attempts to create asymmetric access, make something scarce by design. At a level of abstraction, iPhone and Android apps are essentially the same thing in disguise: thinly-veiled attempts to make abundant things scarce.

Creating artificial scarcity out of something that is essentially abundant is also not wrong per se. But there can be legal and moral implications. Building a dam near the source of a river and charging people for access to the water may sound reasonable; on the other hand, there may be strong grounds for “grandfathered” rights to that water. Society, through the ages, has seen fit to protect the view (as in “ancient lights”), walks (as in ramblers’ rights) and even open spaces (as in commons).

[Speaking of commons, permit me an aside. There appears to be a tendency for people to use the term "by hook or by crook" to mean the equivalent of "by fair means or foul". This is inaccurate. If you wanted to chop down wood for firewood, you were entitled to use your hook or your crook to get to branches and limbs of trees in the commons. Only fair means. No foul means.]

Asymmetry in access. Asymmetry in creation. Asymmetry in education. Asymmetry by design.

Asymmetries all of them. Asymmetries that allowed people to wield power and to amass wealth. For the most part legally.

Then, along comes the internet. Along comes the Web.

The world’s biggest copy machine, as Kevin Kelly reminded us.

Suddenly asymmetry of access was weakened, holed amidships below the waterline. One of the nicest things about the web is that it levels the playing field for access. More accurately, it is capable of levelling the playing field for access. And it is for this reason that “net neutrality” arguments tend to get most heated where there isn’t any true competition for access. Given real transparency and real competition for access, there would not be a need for legislation.

Copying machines are not designed to make things scarce. As a result, anything made available on the internet was relatively easy to copy. Which in turn meant that anything that was expressed as a digital object was difficult to make scarce. Many many industries have made money for many many years on the basis of relative scarcity; their concepts of pricing were based on scarcity models. So they tried to make the inherent abundance of the internet into something scarcer by using DRM or its more sophisticated new form, the App.

This approach, asymmetry-by-creation, and its alter ego, asymmetry-by-design, are about creating artificial scarcity. This is fundamentally doomed. I’ve said it many times. Every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. And, over time, the abundance will win. There will always be more people choosing to find ways to undo DRM than people employed in the DRM-implementing sector. Always.

So when people create walled-garden paid apps, others will create unpaid apps that get to the same material. It’s only a matter of time. Because every attempt at building dams and filters on the internet is seen as pollution by the volunteers. It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. No pollutants.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. There’s been a lot of talk about the web and the internet making us dumber.

I think it’s more serious than that. What the web does is reduce the capacity for asymmetry in education. Which in turn undermines the exalted status of the expert.

The web makes experts “dumb”. By reducing the privileged nature of their expertise.

I have three children born since 1986. One has finished her Master’s and is now a teacher. One has just finished his A Levels and is taking a “gap year” before starting university in a year’s time. The third is still in school.

The web has made them smarter. They know things I did not know at their age, and I had privileged upbringing and access. They know things more deeply than I did. Their interest in things analog is unabated, they think of the web as an AND to their analog lives rather than an OR.

Many of you reading this are experts; I myself am considered an expert in some things. And the status bestowed upon us by our expertise is dwindling

So what?

We should rejoice that access to the things that made us experts is now getting easier, cheaper and more universal.

We should rejoice that generations to come will out-expert us in every field we care to name.

We should rejoice that we continue to enter a world where the economics of abundance is displacing the economics of scarcity.

We should rise up every time there is an attempt to pollute the path of open access.

The web is not making us dumb. It is the expert in us that is being made to look dumb. And that is a Good Thing.

Views? Comments? I suspect this post might attract a few flames….

Posted in Because Effect, DRM and IPR, Education, Generation M, Maker Generation, Stupidity.


35 Responses

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  1. Bruce Stewart says

    No flame from me, JP, this is a century of sixes. Great article. Now, to deal with another remaining asymmetry — with feeds, social networks, etc. what you write ends up in many places, each with its own string of comments accruing. Those are temporary asymmetries in who knows what, or is introduced to whom.

  2. Mary Pat Whaley says

    I liked it.

  3. cyberdoyle says

    great post. totally agree. The web is leveling the playing field.
    All we need now is fibre to the home, and then the telcos can’t continue to use the scarcity model for bandwidth, once we have fibre there will be an abundance of access eh? ;) equal abundance.
    chris.

  4. Jo Jordan says

    Not a flame but there is another asymmetry that creates value – I think. That is the the ability to do something well.

    Let’s take, for example, Obama’s speech writer who I believe may be the youngest person reporting directly to the POTUS and also the most highly paid. Whether these detail are perfectly accurate or not, let’s look at what he does.

    He (and the people reporting to him) take down a draft of what Obama wants to say. Then they tidy it up using standard speech writing techniques but not losing what Obama was trying to say or his own style. They get this ready, sometimes at very short notice and ready for streaming to the cue system.

    This is an honest act of labour that is repeated again and again. They play one part in a giant network of highly skilled people. They don’t own the process. It they didn’t perform, the network would simple ‘heal’ over them.

    There are plenty of jobs like this where highly specialized division of labour makes sense. The ‘competitive edge’ comes about because of practice. That is hard to catch up without putting in the same amount of practice. Skill that resides within the individual is not captured quite so easily by the internet.

    Otherwise I agree. Sadly in UK, one of the commonest jobs is sorting out the mess caused by ecommerce systems. We have entire industries of people trying to sort out the messes made by the litterati and disseminated widely via computerised systems!

  5. JP says

    @bruce, now that’s an asymmetry worth discussing. Think about food. Some places we have an excess. Some places we have too little. The existence of the excess and the shortage is one thing. What we do about it is another. And how we do it. Which is the subject of a book I’ve just finished.

  6. JP says

    Thank you for letting me know. I appreciate it.

  7. JP says

    Open access is critical in so many ways. It’s not just connectivity. It goes way beyond that. But then you know that already…. thanks for the feedback.

  8. Hamish MacEwan says

    > For information to have power, it needs to be held asymmetrically.

    Perhaps to have power over others, it needs to be held that way and I think that is your point about “experts.” They may be no dumber than they were before, but they certainly have less power as their exclusivity is weakened and their errors exposed.

    There is power in information that is open to all:

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,710976,00.html

    Which makes intellectual monopoly, another facet, all the more repugnant.

  9. Conscious_ness says

    Wicked write-up JP. Excellent antithesis to contained notions in ‘The cult of the amateur’. The web indeed does a profound job of breaking down expert colonies and their gated communes of information. Viva access for all!

  10. Rajnesh Singh says

    Great post, JP. Couldn’t agree more with your assertions on “asymmetry”. I like to call the Internet the great enabler, and I hope we can ensure it continues to enable for the generations to come.

  11. Alec Muffett says

    @JP – Dude, you missed one: asymmetry of expertise. What I do is apply common sense everywhere, relentlessly, and with an eye for detail. In the information security world you can be paid well for knowing a huge corpus of war-stories and technical issues all of which are known in the public domain, but you get paid _very_ well for also having the experience to know what not to do, and/or where to make the design calls.

    The clique of “security through obscurity” – cf: asymmetry through education – certainly does exist and it’s a burden to be overcome, but even complete openness seems to do nothing to flatten or improve the development of wisdom; the best we hope for is that openness promotes more knowledge of how to deal wisely with security and that wisdom bubbles-up from that.

    Another way to look at this is: there exist people who will continue to do the wrong thing even when any number of attempts are made to cram the right idea into their brains; just look at the TSA and what conflicts happens when power is held disjoint from understanding.

  12. JP says

    @hamish information, particularly digital information, is an extreme nonrival good. Attempts to make digital goods rivalrous are doomed to fail.
    @conscious-ness @rajnesh thanks for the comments. I’ll follow up in a post today or tomorrow.
    @alec good to hear from you. I tended to think that the asymmetry of expertise is similar to asymmetry in education. But you may be right, let me think about it. I am, however, reminded of the Einsteinian observation that common sense is the sum of the prejudices one collects by the time one gets to eighteen. He didn’t quite say that, but I think the paraphrase is accurate.

  13. darius says

    I agree with what you’re saying about the value of expertise, Jo. but I think there’s a difference between expertise and “expert status.”

  14. Oliver Marks says

    ‘Online No One Knows You’re an Expert…’
    http://www.zdnet.com/blog/collaboration/online-no-one-knows-youre-an-expert/1561?tag=mantle_skin;content
    discussing this post on ZD Net

  15. Ed Manlove says

    This is a barrier to “community enlightenment”, asymmetric conversations dispersed across virtual locations. As an example, in talking with someone, he reflected how he wanted to review his past blog posts, pull out bits and pieces, combine it with portions of author’s book and then host a conversation with the author which could lead into other threads of conversations.

    It was my thought that the concept of Google Wave could be used for such an asymmetric conversation. Take away maybe the hype of it being a Google product, I saw the idea of bring together various threads of conversations (feeds, social networks, books, etc.) as a useful application for Wave. The Goggle Wave product is no longer but this “Wave” concept can leads to better communication tools.

  16. Andy Havens says

    I understand artificial scarcity. It is possible to take something (or many somethings) and restrict access in a variety of ways, even to the point of destroying things to create the scarcity.

    How can you have artificial abundance, though? If it’s abundant… it’s abundant. Producing lots of something, even for free, isn’t artificial, is it? It’s just “more of the same.” So if an abundance is artificial, wouldn’t even the sufficiency be artificial? And the term “artificial sufficiency” is wonderfully self-contradictory and typing it may be the most fun I’ve had all day.

  17. Hiten Samtani says

    Another related point that Kevin Kelly makes is the notion of ‘Liquid Thinking’, which is to say that the internet has transformed not only his ideas and thoughts, but also his own attitude towards these ideas and thoughts. An attitude that is increasingly being defined by the principles of uncertainty, fragility, feedback, and iteration.

    Due to the instant connection to 2 billion minds that the Internet provides, ideas are archived, remixed, and challenged constantly. The objective truth falls away from the limelight to be replaced by subjective, contextual, and dynamic truths. The ‘Big Idea’ takes a backseat to a framework of multiple ideas, constantly being generated, tested, and iterated. And this framework is to be applied in a highly social environment, thus subject to constant scrutiny and modification.

    It’s not dumber, it’s just different. But in a very exciting and promising way.

  18. Colin Henderson says

    I think this misses a point that experts are not (just) knowledgeable. Experts are trained in the use of information and forming conclusions, theories and ideas based on the information that other lay folks could not. The web increases availability of knowledge but not expertise.

  19. Simone Brunozzi says

    Wonderful post, JP.
    My comments:
    1) You’re optimist in thinking that education always makes people smarter; come visit Singapore, a place with one of the best education, and where, despite that, a lot of people love shopping, don’t enjoy nice walks, are on average not curious about life: would you call these people smarter? They are intelligent, educated, etc… But they really make their life worth living? Not sure. (I might be wrong about Singapore. But take this as an example).

    2) To me, language is the biggest barrier. Yes, you can have an education, but if you speak a strange language, your scope is limited. You can go online, but if you can’t read English…

    Thanks.

  20. Joe Andrieu says

    JP,

    I like the breakdown and I mostly agree with your core conclusion. Having more well informed people just makes experts less “special”… it doesn’t make us dumb.

    However, I have two quibbles in your setup discussion about asymmetry.

    First, I’m surprised that you focus on “power” as the lens through which to analyze this dynamic. While I agree power is vital–and often either inappropriate blamed or naively ignored–there is often huge systemic value created through abundance of information. When everyone knows the clearing price in a market, the market can be more liquid, more efficient, and most of the time, be a better clearinghouse for finding the optimum price. While individuals may use power to gain transient advantage, it’s the /systemic/ abundance of symmetric information that creates level playing fields and vast opportunities for new innovation.

    Second, I, politely challenge your claim that asymmetry by design is inherently doomed. I realized I might be thinking about another category of asymmetry that I called “asymmetry-by-choice”. So I wrote it up in a blog post: http://blog.joeandrieu.com/2010/08/24/asymmetry

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  21. Andrew Wahbe says

    The problem I see is that there is no way to discern information from misinformation in a symmetric world. Before, the “truth”, at least in scientific/academic circles was determined by consensus of “experts” on a subject. Peer review was the means for establishing “fact”. Is popular opinion the new “truth”? On multiple occasions I’ve encountered topics I’m knowledgeable in where the top hits on Google were not good sources on the subject. But is Google the new metric for authority on a subject? Is SEO a means for altering the “truth”? Asymmetry had value that we’ve yet to replace in this brave new world.

  22. John Dodds says

    I think Alec above thinks as I do. It is not just the experts knowledge that we seek, it’s their critical distillation of it. In some sense, it’s not just the many years of medical school that constitutes a doctor but their ability to get into medical school in the first place by dint of their earlier education. The internet is wondrous in its ability to destroy assymmetries of access, to information but learning to learn has also to be instilled somewhere. I wonder if that can be self-taught and I equally wonder present day education systems do so sufficiently and if it is that which lies at the root of the specious dumbing down argument?
    If you don’t know how to read, a library is useless to you.

  23. Hiten Samtani says

    Simone, to your point about language:

    Maurice Benayoun, the Algerian new-media artist, says it best in his installation, Emotional Traffic (Link: http://bit.ly/cocoXV)

    “As a metaphoric organ, the Internet plays the role of the World nervous system, the transmission system for all sensations, either positive or negative, pleasures or pains. Nevertheless, this entity is schizophrenic. Excluding or denying parts of its own body, forgetting to take into consideration continents, languages, communities, because they don’t respect to the world press (Media) code: English speaking net connected communities. The language, the location, and the technological level of development determine the accuracy of the Internet feedback of the planet. Thus the Internet is a highly filtered culturally oriented nervous system.”

    However, I do believe that dynamic translation services are becoming more powerful and allowing non-English speakers to play a bigger role. Google in particular has taken on this challenge quite seriously (http://nyti.ms/by4b0a).

  24. Tom Foremski says

    I’ve held a similar view that you express here. But it changed once someone pointed out to me why remote education doesn’t work well, education works best in situ. There is tremendous value in sitting in a class room or collaborating with others in learning something. It takes people to help other people understand things. Experts aren’t easily created and the Internet isn’t helping to create a glut of experts — if it were we would see them.

    I could go out and buy the text books for a university course on any subject. But could I gain the same expertise by just studying those text books and skipping the classes and the university tuition? In theory, it would seem the answer is yes. But do we see that in practice? No, and that’s because experts aren’t created by providing people with access to information.

  25. JP says

    @john I agree with you and Alec in this context. Please see Part 3.

  26. JP says

    @tom please see my follow-up post part 3. I’m not arguing for non-invasive remote isolated education either. Moderators, facilitators and mentors make a huge difference. my issues are more fundamental.

  27. sriyansa dash says

    I disagree with the final view expressed here (not the whole post). If anything the web will make the “asymmetries of education” even more prominent and visible.

    In the days pre-web, depending on one’s access and effort, the range of knowledge held by an individual on any given topic would be a continuous variable. With almost instantaneous access and ubiquitous availability internet does collapse the middle band into the lowest. Everybody is an so-so expert. In other words the incentive to grind out for any marginal knowledge gain is low. And as lesser people climb up the stairs, lesser get to the very top.

    The ones who reach the top, though, are now in select company and will be able to command a premium for their prices.

    This situation will evolve to web making us (the society, and not a specific individual) dumb, if the falling incentives for climbing up the starting blocks prevent anyone from reaching. On the other hand, internet has the capability to raising the lower bar so people at the top will have to strive harder to retain their position and hence making us (again society) smarter in the process.

Continuing the Discussion

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