The Cult of the Expert   17 comments

An entry in The Household Economy

— ∞ —

“A system of specialization requires the abdication to specialists of various competences and responsibilities that were once personal and universal. Thus, the average—one is tempted to say ideal—American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturalists and ‘agribusinessmen,’ the problem of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself. He earns money, typically as a specialist, working an eight-hour day at a job for the quality or consequences of which somebody else—or, perhaps more typically, nobody else—will be responsible. And not surprisingly, since he can do so little else for himself, he is even unable to entertain himself, for there exists an enormous industry of exorbitantly expensive specialists whose purpose is to entertain him.”

— ∞ —

I suppose specialization is a feature, and not a bug, of the modern, industrial economy. To run such a complex and industrial infrastructure as we have come to rely upon, we need millions of people carrying out very specific and specialized tasks. This infrastructure is made up of uncountable widgets and devices and roles that all have their own particularity and that, thus, require their own particular machines or trained humans to be run and maintained. Broad classifications of generalized and necessary economic activity have been broken apart and splintered into much more specific niches, and then have been absorbed as a fraction into a far more sprawling beast we might refer to as the discretionary economy. In today’s industrial economy, the necessities of life—food, water, shelter, a clean and functioning environment, community—are now almost an afterthought to the vast and consuming industry of non-necessity: distraction, destruction, profit-driven specialization, a massaging of and attentiveness to human ego both impressive and horrifying. We have discovered an infinite number of economic niches driven not by the particularities of place and community—which would be the basis of niches in a functioning and sane economy—but on the basis of catering to the human ego by creating an infinite number of variations on conformity so that we might convince everyone that, no matter how much they immerse and then lose themselves in the base homogeneity of our culture, they truly are a unique human being, as proven by their particular combination of iPhone apps, or which of the many Nabisco snacks they prefer, or which Anheuser-Busch-owned beer they drink.

Of course, as we’ve created this insanely complex yet oddly generic economy and industrial base, we’ve come to worship at the alter of specialization. We know that we need years upon years of education and training so that we may be successful in today’s high tech, globalized economy. We know that to seize the bright future that is rightfully ours, we must *insert cliche here* so that *tribal term here* may compete in today’s *overtly positive economic buzzword here*. And we know this because we’re told it again and again, each time with slightly varying terms, and always emerging from the mouth of a respected “leader” or, even better, a certified expert.

For in today’s world of hyper-specialization, we have a never ending supply of experts always streaming across our television screens and popping up on the internet, ready and willing to tell us something that we desperately need to know but that we don’t know because we lack the training and intelligence and bottom-of-the-screen label that this particular expert does. In a world, after all, in which specialization reigns supreme, it only makes sense that we have an expert for every conceivable situation—and that we rarely have more than one expert for any particular situation. By embracing the idea of specialization, defining the industrial economy as the greatest economy that has ever existed or will ever exist, and celebrating every new fragmentation of our lives as a matter of great progress, we’ve created the necessity for this multitude of experts. By proclaiming that the height of human ability is to be trained in one very specific task and to be the sole person capable of performing that task—or to be the very best at that task, even if other people fumble through their own inadequate attempts at said task—then we condemn ourselves to, at best, being extremely good at one or two things and very bad at everything else. Or, if not very bad, then at least inadequate—unable to stake our claim to that task with the sort of legitimacy that a real expert would.

— ∞ —

“The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals—or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at the cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts.”

— ∞ —

Such a world of experts is the wet dream of the industrial cornucopian. We are told constantly that the mark of a great economy is efficiency. We must grow our citrus only where citrus grows best, our apples only where they grow best, mine our metals only where they are easiest to mine, derive all our energy from centralized power plants producing the most possible energy with the least amount of human labor, build our machines where the taxes are the lowest and the energy is cheapest and most abundant and the labor is low-cost and compliant, make our butter and cheese in vast factories where machines do the work and every bit of wasted energy can be cut out, then ship that cheese and butter all around the world. We must take every meaningful human activity, load it into a spread sheet, determine how to transfer the activity to machines, cut out as many humans as possible, destroy as much of its meaning as possible, commoditize it, cheapen it, degrade it, divvy it up, and declare success. We must find wholes and reduce them to pieces, mechanize them, specialize them, burrow down into their specific depths and obsess over the details and forget always any inherent or overarching meaning, forget anything that the pieces might make together. We must never see the forest; only the trees, and then only the value in cutting them down. We must eliminate God or any semblance of God at every turn, for God only confuses the issue. We must destroy any sense of the sacred. It clouds our vision. Lastly, we must declare science and economy our new God, make them sacred, and then proclaim our vision finally clear. With this clear vision, we will specialize everything, reduce all we can see, proclaim our knowledge and wisdom infinite, and worship experts—all for the unequivocal good of humanity.

But where is this good? A life in the hands of experts is supposed to be the perfect life. That’s why we have all these experts in the first place—so we can avoid mistakes and engage our lives only in the most effective of ways. And yet, we seem in many ways a miserable and perpetually unsatisfied people. Things never are perfect but we yearn to make them so. It’s a paradox—our cult of the expert should provide us constantly expert advice, which should provide us the means to live our lives perfectly. But there’s nothing paradoxical about this at all. It makes perfect sense that in a society that worships experts and the idea that all tasks should be carried out to perfection that we find ourselves constantly unsatisfied, always searching for the perfection we can’t seem to grasp. And that’s because, rather than attain any kind of perfection, we’ve simply altered the expectations of our society, creating desires that are unfulfillable.

Seeing perfection as a possibility, we yearn for it and sense that if we can attain it, we will be perfectly happy. In our efforts to attain it, we pay attention to the experts who are supposed to know how to attain perfection—who are supposedly practitioners of it. Yet there are two problems with this approach. First and foremost is that perfection tends to be an unattainable ideal. Or, more specifically, it’s an unattainable ideal for humans. It’s a much more attainable ideal for machines, and therein lies one of our problems. Since we have allowed our thinking to be distorted by our industrial economic base, we tend now to think in mechanistic terms rather than in the animalistic terms that are natural to us as human beings—as animals. Our ideas of perfection are rooted in mechanical notions. They’re based on reductionism, strictly-defined variables and controlled circumstances. By homogenizing and standardizing the scenario in which we attain perfection, we should be able to homogenize and standardize the perfection. We define the scenario, define the desired outcome, and then use those defined realities to create the steps we need to take from scenario to desired outcome. This often works in the realm of machines. If we have a human-made screw that needs to be screwed into a human-made panel, we can create a human-made machine that will work within strict parameters to screw that screw into that panel. Every element of the scenario is controlled by us, the outcome is defined by us, and thus we are able to create the fulfillment of that outcome.

But that’s not how human lives work, now is it? If we want to raise our children well, there’s not an expert in the world who can define the full breadth of the scenario of raising children, define a final goal (what does it mean to “raise our children well?”) and then provide us the steps to get there. It can’t be done because the scenario cannot be defined and controlled by humans, nor can the outcome be so controlled, at least not completely. There are far too many variables, far too many elements, far too many other creatures involved, far too much unpredictability and lack of control. Human lives do not unfold within the same paradigm as our mechanistic creations do, and so attempting to attain perfection as defined in mechanistic terms is doomed to failure.

There is, however, an even bigger problem with our attempts to attain perfection and thus be happy, which is that perfection doesn’t make us happy. I suspect some people might argue that point, and I imagine there are even a few exceptions out there to this rule. But I firmly believe that perfection would lead to human misery—utter boredom. Even if there was some way to define and then achieve perfection in the realm of human life, why would we want to do so? How could that produce happiness? The happiness we feel as humans stems out of the inherent messiness of life. We need our successes and failures, our joy and pain, our horrors and contentments. Without these contrasts and these back-and-forths, we can’t appreciate any of this life. It’s a terribly old idea, but you can’t appreciate light without dark. We can’t be happy if we don’t know sadness and misery. We can’t enjoy our successes if we’ve never known failure.

Imagine the happiest moments of your life and tell me whether or not you understand them without contrasting them against other moments of your life. I’m not saying you always think of dichotomies when you think of happiness, but I do think it’s lurking there in the back of your mind if it’s not in the forefront. When I think about the joy of waking up in the morning next to someone I love, then maybe having some coffee and a leisurely breakfast, I understand the joy of that in contrast of waking up alone on a cold morning, knowing I have to go to work. Now, that first scenario may not be perfect and that second one may not be horrible. Perhaps I like my work, even if I really don’t want to get out of bed and prefer the idea of sleeping in. Perhaps the breakfast with my significant other isn’t that satisfying or we get into a small argument, or there’s a clash of desires. But whatever form of perfection I might see in the first scenario, I need the second scenario to appreciate the first. This is simply the juxtaposition of comforts I’ve written about before. We need a wide breadth of experiences to better understand those experiences. We need to be able to compare and contrast, to work different sensations off each other so that we may better learn those sensations.

We’ve attempted to eliminate the messiness from human lives, but in so doing we only are making ourselves less happy. Our joy comes from that messiness, even if our misery does as well. It’s the point of being human. What could we possibly have to do here if we were here only to live a perfect life? Why even bother?

— ∞ —

“The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstance and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties.

It is rarely considered that this average citizen is anxious because he ought to be—because he still has some gumption that he has not yet given up in deference to the experts. He ought to be anxious, because he is helpless. That he is dependent upon so many specialists, the beneficiary of so much expert help, can only mean that he is a captive, a potential victim.”

– Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, (p. 19-21)

— ∞ —

The industrial, globalized economy is the attempt at perfection. It’s the height of our mechanistic dreams, our specializations, our worship of experts, our attempts at control. It’s us not figuring out how to live well within the messy realities of life, but our attempts to control and purify that life, to make it work well no matter what. It’s our attempt not to find our happiness and satisfaction from within, but to impose perfection upon ourselves from outside—to control our outer environment so that we don’t have to concern ourselves with our inner environment. As such, it is an outer economy. We go to work. We leave the home. We tap outside forces to guide and maintain that economy and then we insert ourselves into it, into our very controlled and defined niche.

The household economy is much more messy, at least in terms of how we think of messiness. The household economy necessitates that we deal with ourselves, that we work within the uncontrolled variables of life. We don’t go to work in the household economy. We live there. We don’t leave the home to engage in the household economy. We stay in the home. We don’t give control of the household economy to outside forces. We control it ourselves. We don’t standardize the household economy. We make it our own and each household economy exists only in one specific home.

Similarly, the household economy is a complete affront to the cult of the expert. We should not be making our own butter; a machine should be making it, and it should be strictly controlled. We should not be making our own cheese; a machine should be making it, or a master cheese artisan should be crafting the finest cheese. Our households are not efficient. In fact, the household economy is necessarily inefficient, at least in the insane way in which we define efficiency in the industrial economy. Rather than trusting our livelihoods to machines, the household economy is about bringing our livelihoods back into our homes and into our own hands. It’s about replacing machine labor with human labor and embracing all the messiness, variability and lack of control that entails. It’s about embracing that lack of industrial perfection in the pursuit of human perfection—in that animalistic mix of trial and error, of frustration and success, in the inherent joy of creating things with our hands, of making our own life and living with the contradictory results of that process. It’s about working with the outside world rather than controlling it, and instead finding our joy in the inner familiarity and satisfaction gained slowly through good work and a life well lived.

The household economy rejects perfection in favor of experience.

That’s not to say, however, that the household economy is devoid of craft, care or expertise. Indeed, I would say the household economy features care as a matter of course, very commonly features greater craft than the industrial economy, and will often, as a matter of course, feature expertise. It takes all of these elements as part of a broader experience, though, and is not afraid to mix and match. The household economy, again, is messy. In that messiness, it’s beautiful and it’s sacred and it’s fulfilling in a way that the industrial economy almost never is. The household economy, after all, is run by humans. The industrial economy is run by machines.

As I write and advocate for the household economy in this series of posts, one of the core values is going to be a rejection of the cult of the expert. This is necessary for the household economy. If we constantly seek the sort of mechanistic perfection advocated by this cult, then the household economy can never be successful. It functions only under different ideals, different pursuits, different goals. It functions only in the real world of human care and experience, not in the mechanistic world of industry. And so one of the foundations of this series is that we all get dirty without worry of perfection, that we all be willing to make mistakes, and that we all find joy in the experience as much as in the outcome—and that we find joy in the experience regardless of the outcome.

The projects won’t always be successful when defined strictly under the terms of the desired final outcome. But they’ll always be successful when taking into account experience, the pleasure of the work, and the sense of ownership that comes from an act of making one’s own living. And while I’ve dared to throw some religious terms in this post, I’ll say once more that they also will be successful in the sense of engaging in something sacred, however you define that term. Peter Berg, in an interview in Listening to the Land quoted a woman from Mexico City who said that “the kitchen is the place where you worship the earth.” I dare say much more good can be done in the kitchen than in a factory—and that God, in whatever form, can much more easily be found in the kitchen, as well.

In the household economy, we become generalists. We may occasional stumble upon something that makes us, in that particular instance, want to become a specialist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If we find we love making cheese, we may want to delve deeper into that craft and work to become a craftsman cheese maker. But in general, the household economy is about working as a generalist and finding our love of the work and its outcomes not necessarily in the perfection of the final product, but in the perfection of the work, in the meaning of creation, and the satisfaction of each bit of self-reliance and personal care.

In that sense, each of us has the potential to be an honest expert—someone whose expertise is rooted not in ingraining pervasive dissatisfaction but in caring for ourselves and making our own small satisfactions and moments of true perfection, seen only in the inherent and sprawling messiness of our humanity. Someone whose expertise is rooted in work, not in theory. Someone whose expertise recognizes the folly of perfection and strives instead for joy, good work, and care.

17 responses to “The Cult of the Expert

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  1. Very profound and astute post, Joel – couldn’t have put it better.

    • Thank you, Martin.

      • You’re very welcome, Joel. By the way, I’ve operated as both a generalist and an expert in my life and far and away prefer the former. These days I’m just an Old Guy trying to figure out what’s next….

        • I don’t know that I’ve ever reached the point of expert in anything, though I have my skills. But I like the life of a generalist. Doesn’t mean I won’t keep open some pathways toward craft, but I enjoy getting a range of different experiences.

          And hey, these days I’m just a Young Guy (I think I still count as young) trying to figure out what’s next, so I understand you there.

          • Not to flog this to death, but….

            An ‘expert’ is often called upon to prove that he/she knows what he/she knows with stand-up testimony, charts, diagrams, photographs & etc., whereas a generalist just does what a generalist does and offers the result as ‘proof’.

            • Consider me happy you flogged. I like that as a definition and clarification. Your one sentence is quite an excellent and succinct summation of much of what I was trying to say in this post.

  2. There’s a reason why armies are led by GENERALS…. Excellent post.

  3. Hi Joel. Nice to see that you are a generalist. The skills that you are developing in your work will be across all sorts of areas too. Only the generalists will achieve what the Greeks call Arete:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arete

    Specialists can sometimes have trouble assembling an IKEA bookcase, which is nothing to be proud of!

    Anyway, we had the first hint of winter over the past two days. You’ll probably laugh, but it got down to 3 degrees celsius overnight (37.4 fahrenheit) after a very cold day which is pretty cold down under here. The mountain range here is too low to have received any snow, but much higher up and further east of here they had about 10cm (4 inches). The herb garden is coming along nicely and all the chooks (except for one) have started to regrow their feathers after the summer moult. I spent the day building under cover firewood storage using some corrugated steel sheets which I picked up at the tip (all 12 in perfect nick too) for $5 for the lot! I couldn’t believe someone had chucked them out, what were they thinking? They were all exactly 2,400mm (8 foot) long.

    The herb garden is part of my journey to avoid the specialists too as so many common ailments can be addressed with nothing more than the produce from a cottage garden. Not that a doctor would give you that advice. If something serious were to occur I would go to the doctor though. Still it amazes me that a herb that I picked up about the place for $3.50 and is a perennial and will probably self replicate has more medicinal product than a use once box of cold and flu tablets which costs about $8.00. I’ve just had a cold myself for a couple of days so it’s on my mind.

    Off grid power is another area where people shake their heads and wonder about whats going on. I’ve set a big challenge to get through the year without having to start the generator and it’s involving all sorts of goings on here. We’ll see how it goes.

    I have a new article which should be posted on the web shortly about soil which has lots of photos from my place. Even if you don’t get a chance to read it, I’d appreciate it if you clicked on the link and had a look at the photos, even better if you could leave a comment! I’ll let you know when it is posted.

    Regards. Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the reference to Arete. I wasn’t familiar with that term and always enjoy adding some new knowledge to the ol’ repertoire.

      I won’t laugh at your low, though it’s only been recently that that’s stopped being a fairly standard temperature range for our overnight lows. But here in the northwest, our winters are mild compared to the midwest or northeast, so dropping down into the 20s or teens is mighty chilly for us. That would be pretty casual for those places. While I wish we saw a bit more snow here, I don’t mind that single digit temperatures aren’t the norm in the winter. There are quite a few benefits to living in a place with mild weather, even if it does involve a significant amount of rain.

      Those steel sheets sound like a steal! Nice work. It’s amazing what people will throw out without even thinking of other uses, or of what a resource it is in terms of material and embodied energy. Good work on covering your firewood, as well. A worthwhile endeavor indeed.

      While the expertise of western medicine does have its uses, it seems very poorly designed to handle quite a number of the mild maladies that are far more common than the occasional tragedy and disaster. If you have a cold or the flu, it seems to me a trip to the herb garden and then a good long sleep is a far better option than a trip to the doctor. I’m always a bit dumbfounded by the many people who feel compelled to rush to the doctor at the slightest hint of discomfort. It has to get pretty bad before I’m looking for a doctor and not just trying to get some extra sleep.

      Definitely keep me updated on the generator challenge and on the new article. Post the link here once it’s up. I look forward to the reading about soils and would be happy to leave a comment.

  4. IMHO. the issue with specialization is complexity – communications must be instantaneous, which means electrical power must be ubiquitous and robust, which means that fossil fuel or nuclear or other electrical supply must also be ubiquitous and cheap. Complexity presumes tomorrow will be similar to today. Complexity, to be robust, must include redundancy at many levels.

    These things do not exist today. We have over-reached in many technological arenas, stretched limits to maximums in an effort to make, well, to make more profits. The redundancy is missing to support highly complex systems. All of these things presume that our days will be roughly the same, and that our environment will be similar to the previous decade. Nature does not function like that – Nature is not static but very dynamic. In short, it will not take much of a disruption in any major system to start the domino run.

    For example, lets say that a hurricane wipes out Texas City, TX and that diesel is in short supply. Military has their first dibs on this, and then it is portioned out not by computer, but by those with influence exercising their options. With two days of gorceries on most urban store shelves, what will it truly take to feel hunger in an American metropolis? Just an example, but one I became aware of during hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike in the last few years. When one of these hits the northeast, what happens?

    From my POV, being an authentic ‘expert’ in my field, has netted me additional required working hours rather than the free time which you observe in your expert capacity. I am on-call 24/7 due to the internet and smart phones and all manner of complex devices spread across time zones. I never truly have time that is my own due to these devices. I work more hours solving problems and addressing issues related to systems and their complexities than in my earlier years. There is no “off button” any longer – if the internet and cell services are working, I am expected to work even when on vacation overseas. Inability to reach me is now grounds for termination. If my company car (with GPS) arrives too soon, I can be terminated for driving needlessly fast – thus my ‘perk’ has become a shackle. This is not increased freedom. I do not feel more free, but more burdened.

    I do not have all the answers, but I do know that all our lives are all terribly out of balance.

    I am rebalancing my life – shedding complexity and opting out from overt complexity. I want the slower pace and natural rhythm inherent in things like daylight and darkness. I want to hear another human voice, not read texts or emails which are devoid of nuance. I want the time to watch stars wheel overhead as they have done for eons, even if there is a new space station flying overhead in counterpoint to the view my forebears had….

    • We do have a massively complex system and I agree with you, that’s much the issue here. Complexity and specialization go hand in hand—complexity needs specialists to maintain it and specialists need complexity to justify their existence. I agree that the complexity of our society and economy is a weak point and one that could have some real consequences to it. I don’t tend to think we’re in for a sudden and complete collapse, but I do think we’re in for a collapse—I just imagine it’ll be more of a drawn out, stair step affair, generally speaking. That doesn’t mean there won’t be particular shocks that bring the downward curve into stark relief, even if only temporarily.

      While I’ve worked unsatisfying jobs tied to the industrial economy, I’ve never had the misfortune of being tied to one 24/7 like you speak of. I have seen plenty of others in such a situation, though, and it seems quite terrible to me. The way that we’ve given over practically every moment of our lives to technology, whether for work or play, is really very disturbing. (And I include myself in that. I lose so much time on the internet. I know I have to be more disciplined in that regard, and really should start devising limits to help with that.) It’s amazing how much of our lives we just give away because it’s expected or because we’ve never done it a different way.

      The natural rhythm is a good rhythm. My goal is much the same of yours, this shedding of complexity. I think it’s a good path to take and I imagine its rewards will only become more pronounced with time.

  5. One of the things that forced me to realize how “technolized” I had become was the purchase of some very rough, rural land an hour from my home where there is zero cell service. Unhooking was kind of a shock, but has become a refuge now, pursued every weekend. I do not think the current generation will get it – they have grown up wired, and have no idea that not answering a phone is an option. But at least MY kids have now learned that unhooking is amazingly relaxing.

    Just try making the net and cellular unavailable and have something else you want to do at hand. Make wine or beer, grow veggies, hunt, build something – just do it. You can always catch up later. I actually use the internet like my newspaper time used to be when I was a young man. Read it, rifle though parts of it, check the funnies and then on with the day. That outlook made it balance more equitably in my brain.

    • It’ll be interesting to see what happens with some of the current, younger generations if things do start to fall apart in the near future. I think an adjustment away from the technology-driven and distraction-laden lifestyle will be rough, but I also have a lot of hope that it’s a transition that many will prove capable of making. As someone who has been very distracted by technology in my life and has also gone through the transition of getting away from it (and then falling back into it, and getting away, and falling back in . . .) I did find that it was a change I could make, and that I quickly was able to see the benefits from it. I think once you get out of it and direct your attention elsewhere, to the actual physical world, a lot of positive feedback loops can start to kick in that make it increasingly easy to move away from technology.

      Then again, that’s probably going to vary person to person. I don’t know that everyone will be as receptive to some of those positive feedback loops that I ended up being. But I imagine many will.

      I’m going to have to work out some good limitations to the internet. The change in my living situation has thrown everything out of whack and I’m going to have to put in place some systems to help correct what I think has become an imbalance. It’s kind of fascinating to figure all these things out—though also frustrating at times.

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