The Trouble with Thought Leadership

It is common to see the lament about the death of expertise. People don't believe in experts anymore, commentators say, and blame this tendency for the allegedly irrational direction that the Western democracies have taken lately. The trouble with this version, aside from the experts complaining about their own lack of influence, is that it subjects the experts to very little scrutiny. 

It's worthwhile to think, therefore, what's the right question to ask. Is it that people have lost faith on experts without any apparent reason? Or, have the experts failed and the lack of popular trust in them is anything but irrational?

To answer this, it's instructive to look at what has been happening with expertise over the last decade and a bit. As some commentators have pointed out, these were years of the emergence of an 'ideas industry', dominated by what is euphemistically called 'thought leadership'. If one has to put a date on the birth of thought leadership, it would perhaps be at some point of the late-Nineties, when the commercial Internet got really going. May be it would be the emergence of Yahoo, AskJeeves and AltaVista, the first attempts to package the free-floating wisdom of the crowds. This would have been the moment when free-spirited conversations on the bulletin board services finally became significant enough, dwarfing the million-dollar private wisdom that consultancies used to give to their fee-paying customers.

The history and the genealogy of that moment are yet to be written but one could imagine the existential threat the popularity of early Internet might have presented to monetised expertise. Suddenly, information almost got free and all sorts of ideas came floating out of the bottle. For that brief moment, Internet, powered by ease of use of WWW, looked poised to realise the vision of its early pioneers - information yawning to be free! Sneering at these conversations, which was the initial reaction of the credentialed and highly paid experts, didn't help: The expertise was disrupting the expertise business.

But then it changed, as that Internet of the free information got monetised. The supposedly open web of connections and exchanges went through a modern equivalent of 'enclosure', erection of private boundaries and an wide-ranging change in the conversation. Everyone who understood Internet was soon rushing to write business plans; everyone who didn't embraced the stock question, "but does it make money?" And, in the middle of this transformation of Internet culture, one gatekeeper dwarfed all others, dominating what should, and shouldn't, be called knowledge. Google, aggregated the wisdom of the crowds but mixed it with its own moral preference and commercial judgement, effectively becoming a global disembodied information broker. It challenged and won over not just the cacophony of multiple search engines, but also over the newspapers and commentators as information broker.

The scale of Google finally realised what started with Yahoo - creating space for private expertise to take over public conversations. Out of this emerged 'thought leadership', commercial wisdom pretending as universal truth, monetised at origin and motivation, shaped not by exploration but by sponsorship, driven by style rather than substance. The public-private information space was no longer following the online-offline boundaries of the old: Thought leadership emerged with its own ecosystem of conferences, publications and gurus. And, this took over our conception of expertise.

Do you remember who got pushed out? It's easy to answer if you are French (or Bengali as I) but perhaps not so obvious to everyone: The strange breed of people who held sway over public imagination for a hundred years, public intellectuals, who were really products of an earlier media environment - the newspapers! They originated at a fraught time, perhaps at the height of Dreyfus affair in France and Emil Zola's 'J'accuse', but were called upon to explain the world to body public! Of course, there was perhaps nothing to mourn them - the twentieth century public intellectuals got domesticated in university chairs and preferred not to challenge the status quo, and many of them did swimmingly well in the new era of Thought Leadership. But there was still a difference.

That difference is that the public intellectuals dealt in opinions. They were fallible individuals, with tempers and idiosyncrasies, and most importantly, beliefs. Unlike the Thought Leaders, they could be proven wrong. They were all too conscious of the limits of their claims and never pedaled self-evident truths. They were scruffy and often obscurant, but never lacked ambition. They fought their corner, yes, but never pretended that the world is itself their corner.

The Thought Leaders, however, presented a different vision of expertise. Instead of opinions, they had the equivalent of revealed wisdom; instead of enquiry, they had models; and instead of conversations, they had powerpoint. They had, often very narrow and very understandable, remedy to questions asked - and often one remedy for everything. These new Gurus were even more ambitious than their predecessors: They offered neatly packaged solutions for universal problems. Poverty had a catch-all answer in basic income, climate in carbon trading and education in cloud schools; and markets, markets, markets were their new mantra.

This is the idea of expertise that has now fallen short. Google's gateway is broken with the advent of walled gardens and fragmented Internet, but this time around, it's not the Commons that emerged in view but rather a world of 'daimyos'. The market-based dynamic of thought leadership has disrupted itself, as the catch-all cures have failed and the magic of eternal prosperity vanished within the lifespan of a generation. Should we now be mourning its passing?

The point is indeed this: There never was an easy solution. The experts self-appointed themselves, packaging their motivated formula to take over public ideas. They looked to dazzle and deceive - and the current resentment is really about being held accountable for their ideas. The marketplace they wanted to operate in was to be one free of consequences; they were never prepared to do the explaining. 


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