On Expertise

exquisite corpseExample of Exquisite Corpse
The Online Oxford English Dictionary defines expertise as: “Expert skill or knowledge in a particular field: ‘technical expertise’. An expert, accordingly is, “A person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area.” The origin of the word originally flows from the past participle of the Latin verb meaning to “try.”

David Weinberger spends much time in the early chapters of his book, Too Big To Know, speaking about changes in expertise coming from ‘networks of knowledge’ created by the internet. While he makes a compelling case for some positive outcomes of the internet’s ability to connections of crowds, long-term accumulation of information, diversity of participants, clusters of individuals, and ability to utilize networks at various levels of scale, I question whether his use of the term expertise is accurate, useful, or meaningful. The idea suggested by the Latin origin of ‘expert’ as one who tries does seem to incorporate two important points made by Weinberger. First, that it is the “quality of one’s participation,” rather than one’s rank that makes someone an expert via digital networks. Second, like Weinberger’s example of the individual who discovered a means of dealing with the Exxon Valdez spill even though oil was not his area of knowledge, his creative attempt/try developed the means to actually deal with the problem—that is, to guide action.

However, regardless of their worth, the types of instances that Weinberger presents as examples of expertise strike me as lacking something key. They seem to present positive support for the idea that groups that are open to creativity and to interdisciplinarity allow for dynamic moments of analogizing from a discipline or thought that exists outside of the question at hand. However, this is clearly not the same as having a deep understanding of a particular discipline. Why is distinguishing between expertise, creativity, and interdisciplinarity important, particularly within the study of history?
Consider the introduction to Tosh’s Chapter Five, “Using the sources,” in The Pursuit of History. Tosh states that there is a difference between the “source critic” and the “historian.” This difference sheds light on the difference between an internet expert and a more traditional type of expert and the reasons that I believe internet expertise is overrated. The source critic looks very closely at the source materials, and while the historian starts out at the same level, he or she goes beyond this to contextualize the materials within a particular era related to the materials. Historians, qua experts, must be able to analyze what is in a record, what is left out, and also, often, to uncover assumptions behind the material.

It seems to me that while there is multi-directional responsiveness via digital networking, most of it is completely decontextualized, therefore, is very superficial, as well as hardly what one could call expertise. Instead, it appears to resemble the Surrealist process, exquisite corpse.
“Exquisite corpse, also known as exquisite cadaver (from the original French term cadavre exquis) or rotating corpse, is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule (e.g. “The adjective noun adverb verb the adjective noun,” as in “The green duck sweetly sang the dreadful dirge”) or by being allowed to see only the end of what the previous person contributed” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exquisite_corpse ).

While these collaborations could be quite fascinating, they lacked a certain deliberateness that an expert, such as a contextualizing historian could provide. What Weinberger’s first four chapters make me hope is that the inclusiveness of networks—the fact that they base inclusion on quality of participation—outweighs the lack of contextualized knowledge about an issue. Additionally, while this inclusiveness can lead to lively interactions, it also removes all parameters constituting a group…not always a good thing. There may be times when studying Heidegger with anyone who wants to say anything about it may be like trying to lull a baby to sleep at a bar. There are reasons, after all, why different rooms in the world have different uses—sometimes we don’t all fit in one.

2 thoughts on “On Expertise”

  1. It is difficult to see how the internet can provide us with expertise, since anyone can comment on anything and there is no way to examine their background. However, the collaborative efforts mentioned by Weinberger do attain their goals. In the case of the concrete expert, he was an expert in a different field of the people trying to solve the Exxon disaster. If we assume that the scientists, trying to find a solution to clean up the oil trapped on the bottom of the ocean,are experts in their respective fields, then we need a different kind of expertise, in this case a concrete expert. Without using a large network the solution may never have been proposed. There are benefits to using a large network to collaborate on a topic , but it is not without faults. I would like to think the benefits outweigh the concerns. Once again thanks for making me think of a topic from a perspective I never would have thought about pursuing.

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