Wednesday, July 8, 2009
The end of expertise
The web and computers democratize so many things that were once left for experts. That's wonderful for countless reasons, but there's aspects of it that are not, particularly for those who are indeed experts.
As a non-professional writer, I, of course, love that I can write this blog without an editor, and that you can read it. But I can imagine that seasoned writers may bristle at this, and I understand that.
Part of this is because many people have "paid their dues" in their fields and wish others would do the same, thank you very much. But the other reason is that suddenly we are all experts, and this is, in fact, not true.
We all have graphic design programs on our computers, but that does not make us designers. We are surrounded by both fine design on the Web and the worst imaginable. Just being able to manipulate the commands of a computer program does not make one a designer, not by a long shot.
I saw this play out as a tattoo artist, where once almost all custom work was drawn up by me. In the last two years I worked in the field, this had become uncommon, and it was frustrating. People got tattoo designs off the web, or would bring in their own or their friends' drawings. Even though I enjoyed pushing the boundaries of what a tattoo looked like, it was at times more than annoying to me. These drawings were not informed by a knowledge of what works as a tattoo or not. Even the "official tattoo designs" from the web were sometimes useless, as people printed them out (often) at sizes that were impossible to tattoo, and would protest when I said, "impossible!" with "but they're official tattoo designs. I paid 10 bucks!"
Seeing (and feeling) the respect for one's expertise slip away was disheartening. It also took a lot of fun out of the job (or more precisely, turned it into a job).
Dick's working with a designer right now on a logo and I can see his frustration, even as I agree with Dick's decisions. Type designers really know type (hopefully). They've studied it. They know what kerning is and how to use it. Typography is an art.
As I've said, it's wonderful that we all have access to being our own designers now, but with that has come a dismissal of expertise, which is a shame. Being an expert is now akin to being an elitist, which has itself become an epithet, nearly a dirty word.
I am an unabashed elitist. I do think that people who have studied long and hard in their fields know more than I do, and I respect them for that. Of course, that doesn't mean I have to agree with them. Sometimes expertise carries the toll of being insulated from anything else, or even knowing too much, which sometimes can suck the life out of art (for instance). The graduates of some music schools create lifeless musicians who make music that is purely referential, calculated, smart, and doesn't move any one except other schooled musicians.
Yet, in spite of my writing the above, I think this current climate of denigration of expertise is not a good thing. Folks love Palin simply because she doesn't know much, and I find that more than a bit scary. As I wrote about at some length during the election, I want people who wield political power to know much more than I do. Power is dangerous in anyone's hands, but it most dangerous in the hands of the ignorant.
If you think it's a big leap from talking about graphic design to politics, I disagree. The personal computer and the Web have made everything accessible to all. A great thing, truly, for, on the Web, we are equals, to some extent. But, there's certainly a downside to this democratization. Bad graphic design does nothing but offend (me), but the celebration of knowing nothing is more than offensive, it's potentially dangerous.
Image note: "Anatomy of type" from the website Thinking With Type. Great site.