5/20/2020 06:32


Some beliefs about the world are so fundamental to our thinking that we seldom think of them. I may sometimes ask myself, "What if 2 + 2 made 5? Or, even better, ambiguously yielded any of a small set of values like {2, 5, 17}?" Whether or not the sky is blue is a differential question; I will ask about the blueness of the present moment to discriminate current conditions from a general default blueness. I will notice when a science fiction movie makes unwarranted assumptions about the existence of "up".

Almost never do I question whether expertise is respected. That is a fundamental postulate about human nature without which any thought about civilization becomes impossible.

Except in actual reality.

Let me posit myself as the archetype of my own experience. When I was young I was better in a number of skills than most of my schoolmates, for which I got some respect, and worse in others, for which I was the object of puzzlement or derision. Better in mathematics and language, for example, and worse in sports and social interaction.

In the last years of high school I gained fundamental expertise in computer programming. That knowledge increased the respect in which I held myself but didn't seem to have much impact on the views others had of me. Computers were rare, expertise was more rare, and I assumed that most people didn't have any criteria with which to evaluate my expertise.

I did notice that most people weren't particularly envious of my computer abilities.

Eventually, I joined the ranks of the employed. (At the time I didn't question the belief that every adult male wanted to be employed, should want to be employed, and would be employed.) By accident and by design all of my employment turned on this expertise in computer programming. I was most often working in the company of others who also had an atypical familiarity with computer programming. Among them, my expertise was accorded a mild respect or a bemused acquiesence.

As the years went along, computers became ubiquitous -- first at work and then even in homes. In this period, people tended to misconstrue my mastery of computer programming as skill in navigating commercial tools. "How," they would ask me, "can I make WordPerfect generate a printed document that looks as if it were the document I imagine?"

The best way is to throw out WordPerfect, skip printing the document, and tell the computer what you really want it to do for you. It turns out that nobody cares about fundamental solutions to real problems. In that context, my expertise was superfluous.

Today nearly everybody has a computer in their pocket or, even more likely, in their hand. (Nearly everybody is something like 80%, I think. Not really everybody; enough that the exceptions can be dismissed as eccentric and out of touch.) Most of these people adapt their understanding of the world to conform to the solutions available on their smartphone. People with expertise add to that a lonely crying in the wilderness, warning of lost privacy and of the selling of liberty for a plate of beans.

Real expertise is considered archaic, like the ability to knap stone spearpoints.

Faced with this reality, long relieved of the burdens of paid employment, and pondering life from the vantage of decades, I am now prepared to examine whether my postulate about expertise corresponds with actual reality. Is it possible for a person to think about a civilization in which factual expertise does not engender an automatic respect?

My answer remains the same. The respect given to expertise is fundamental. Yet experience shows that such respect is often lacking. Therefore, the social structure within which we live can not properly be called civilization.

And in my imagination people from across the land are eager to discover the fundamental truths upon which I myself have based my delusions since I was a child.