Will experts survive the digital revolution?

This post  was originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/you-expert-emilio-mordini

In my LinkedIn profile, I define myself as an “expert”.  Not very original, isn’t it? Indeed, other 855.522 LinkedIn  users define themselves as experts. The world is definitely crowded by experts. What is an expert?

The dictionary reads that an expert is a person wise through experience.   The English word “expert” comes from Latin expertus, the past participle of the verb experiri, which means, “to try in different ways”, in order to overcome a challenge. Ancient Greeks used a similar word, empeiros, which ultimately derived from the verb peirao (to attempt).  Both Latin and Greek terms are likely to originate from an oldest Indo-European root *pe(i)r, which expressed the idea of “beyond”. In Latin, this root gave also origin to periculus (peril), pereo (to pass away), partus (that gives birth to, childbirth), porta (that takes beyond, i.e., gate, door), peritus (skillful), pirata (someone who trespasses the bulwark of a ship, i.e., a pirate). In Ancient Greek, the root *pe(i)r  generated  the verb peirao (to attempt to go beyond a problem, and thus, simply “to attempt”), and the verbpeiro (to pierce through, to spit).  In turn, peiro generated the nouns peran(across) and peras (end, extremity), which, by adding the privative pre-fix “a”, became a-poria (without passage, i.e, uncertainty) and a-peiron (without a beyond, i.e., infinite).

The idea of experience has thus to do with the spectrum of meanings related to the idea of “beyond”. In other words, the expert is someone who deals with a “beyond”. There are two types of “beyond”. There are big “Beyond”, written in capital letters, such as Nation, Offspring, Afterlife, Future, Progress, Humanity, or even Socialism (I must confess that I’m a bit suspicious of them). Then, there are “beyond” written in small letters: beyond my problems, beyond our pleasure,beyond that incomprehension, beyond your reproach, and so.  Big and small “beyond” are more essential to us than the air that we breathe, because they allow overcoming a present state of affairs.  They create horizons – small or big horizons – but always horizons.  Each horizon is indeed the joint between a “within” and a “beyond”. As the two faced Janus, the horizon looks both backward and forward. When it looks backward, it tells where you are, and, by using the horizon as a reference, you could locate yourself. When it looks forward, the horizon allows you to dream – sometimes to fear – of the unknown.  If the skyline were a complete conclusion, we would be walled up alive in our grave. If the horizon were unconditionally open, there would be only an infinite, endless, “here and now”. Human beings cannot put up both with the nothingness of complete conclusion, and with the infinite of unconditional openness.  The horizon is ultimately their sole possibility.  In fact, when the horizon comes unstuck, when “within” and “beyond” disarticulate themselves –  i.e., when the time is out of joint – nonsense infiltrates their life.

This is thus the third definition of expert, the expert is someone who keeps things in order, by preventing (big and small) nonsense from breaking out into life. By his very existence, the expert testimonies that – beyond problems, questions, uncertainty – there are also answers and solutions. No matter how the problem is complex, it would be somewhere an expert able to solve it. “When in trouble, call an expert” has been the mantra of most societies born with the industrial revolution. Would this mantra be still tenable with the digital revolution?

The digital economy removes the middleman from the buyer-seller relationship, and experts are often a peculiar category of middlemen. Consequently, the digital era promises to free the world from experts as well.  Who still needs an expert when most services, and  (almost) all relevant pieces of information, can be easily found online? One could argue that one cannot find “experience” online, so experience would be the true benefit offered by experts. Yet, for better or worse, this has become by now a false cliché. Actually, you canfind experience online, and it could even be much more valuable than traditional expertise. First, you could find experts, who offer online their services.  Vertical online markets, which are chiefly expert based markets, are likely to be one of the most interesting evolutions of the web.  You could also collect, from diverse experts, different opinions and experiences, and carry out a “meta-analysis”; so forming your own opinion, or simply selecting the best advice. Still more challenging, the Internet offers you the opportunity to exploit the “collective mind” of the web. Through social media, or by using specific platforms devoted to definite issues (e.g., food, health, business, etc.), you could exploit the Wisdom of Crowds. Brief, today we still need (less and less) lawyers, medical doctors, business consultants, accountants, and so, but changes are that tomorrow, we will only need a secure broadband connection.

Is there anything that could still make an expert valuable? This is a good question. To be sure, in the digital era, experts are hardly valuable for what they could explicitly teach. Some have answered that experts can be still valuable as far as they are able to reframe questions posed by their clients, which is a good response. Others have argued that people would need experts’ assistance toorient themselves in the wilderness of mirrors created by information overflow, which is true as well. I would like to propose a third solution, which aims simply to complement the previous two. Digital communication is by nature unable to teach delays. The logic, which rules the digital world, is “here and now”, the instantaneous satisfaction of any consumer’s demand. This is nicely expressed by the idiom “real-time”, which is one of the buzzwords of the digital era. For instance, it has been said that the rationale of the Uber business model is to connect real-time data with mobile payments, instant gratification and dynamic pricing. Yet  life, like music, is made up of sounds and silences, pauses and actions. Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven. Timing is critical to any human activity, and to any professional practice. In the digital era, a true expert is  thus he who masters, in his own field, what  the Internet ignores, that is to say, timing. The expert is, finally, he who could tell you  the right moment for acting, and, much more importantly, the right moment for waiting.

One thought on “Will experts survive the digital revolution?

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