On Expertise

[Note: This post originally appeared on Terra Nova.]

November 18, 2008

(Or, Notes from the Ludocapitalist Front)

No, not the melee dps (and tanking) stat, beloved by my feral druid though it is. This is a post about competence, and the shifting status of it as the twentieth century has turned. And it was all prompted by my ludocapitalist car.

We bought a Camry hybrid on somewhat short notice this summer (the computer on one of our cars had failed quite spectacularly), and it wasn’t long before we saw just how differently the Toyota’s makers had imagined the relationship between vehicle and driver compared to the more conventional cars we had driven before. Immediately obvious was the large variety of display options. The car is happy to let you know precisely whether the coasting (or braking) wheels are charging the battery, whether the engine is driving the wheels, or the battery is (or both) — this with the help of little icons for each and shifting arrows updated every second. In addition there are multiple displays with principally numeric information about miles driven, driving range, and so forth.

Another display is the stair-stepping one pictured above. Tracking your mpg since the car was last turned on, it begins to fill from the left once your mpg exceeds 25. With this display you can see from moment to moment just how your actions contribute to gas mileage, and before you know it (if you’re like me), you’re engaged in trying to inch it up ever further. You coast just a bit more, you moderate your speed, you avoid jackrabbit starts. And, if you’ve really done well, by the time you turn the car off you may have topped 35 mpg. What does the car do then? It flashes, in all caps, “EXCELLENT!” I half-expected it to ask me to enter my initials for the high score list.

That Dibbell character’s stuff has drawn our attention to the ways in which our work and consuming life seem to be increasingly game-like, and our Camry certainly fits the bill. What I want to muse about here is less the worthy ramifications of these developments for our Western conceptions of work and play, and more what they tell us about changing ideas of the human under (and maybe out from under) modernity in the American context. (I’m going to range a bit in the course of that, and I hope you’ll stay with me.)

We can see how complicated American ideas about competence are in several vastly different contexts. In the political realm we’ve recently endured another election season here in the US, and without getting too partisan I think it is safe to say that yet again an American ambivalence about expertise was on display. The cultural competence of performative command over a given subject or area can raise suspicions about “elites” and thus in such contests expertise can often be intentionally obscured (one is reminded of the contrast in the previous decade between Bill Clinton’s “Bubba” persona and his far less often-broadcast ability to do the Sunday NY Times crossword in pen), while populist claims about ordinariness are amplified. In popular entertainment media, and closer to our subject matter here, one might also notice the Pixar films of Brad Bird, The Incrediblesand Ratatouille, both of which seem to be meditations on this broad social problem with excellence. (I think it’s for this reason that they feel so different from the Pixar films of Lasseter and Docter, which are virtually all about relationships.) Where does the ambivalence about expertise seen in both of these domains come from, and how might the current moment’s broad incursion of games into the previously routine help us to sort that out?

I would like to suggest that, on the whole, the imagined user of technology (and imagined worker in a factory, or technician in a lab) in the past was quite different from what we are seeing today. The driver of a car from the 1970s was, yes, expected to apply competence to drive the car, but in some sense this competence was assumed to be pretty uniform. Its basics were disseminated through standardized driving instruction, and drivers were generally not asked to “perform” their driving to maximize things like mileage. Even efforts to respond to the 1970s gas crisis were broad recommendations, or universal speed limit adoptions, or simply more fuel efficient cars. The focus was on changing the conditions for a universal user.

This modern idea of interchangeable individuals, not asked to bring any specific competencies to the situation, was (and still is) reflected in many other domains. In the lab, a properly written lab report for an experiment is supposed to allow any schmo to come along and perform the experiment, with invariant results. Yes, there are broad assumptions of cultural competence, such as literacy, here, but those are qualities which are again defined by their sharedness. Individual distinctiveness here is suspiciously subjective, and collides with the positivist effort to have “neutral” experiments. Never mind the fact that critical expert observation and evaluation saturates scientific work. The modern idea of the individual gets bound up in some pretty silly claims about things like science.

In the factory, individual difference is not only politically suspect, but also often contrary to the material design of the space, as well as management strategies for imagining available labor. Consider the category of “rate busters,” in midcentury American manufacturing. These were workers who were able to perform tasks at a faster rate than their peers (or than their peers were willing to perform, an important point), and who were subject to abuse by their fellow workers for running the risk of raising management’s expectations for all.

The post-WWII American imagining of individuals and technology has slowly moved away from this model, beginning with the ideas of people like Norbert Wiener, who began to see participants in technological systems not as undifferentiated actors relatively independent of the technical systems, but instead as having the potential to affect those systems variably. Here are the roots of a specific version of homo ludens — the “gamer” we see rising to prominence today. But there is a modernist faith that persists even here, one that presupposes that, while there are performative differences among those users, they will in aggregate contribute unfailingly to optimal emergent effects. The digital hand at work, as it were.

What games do is complicate this picture in several ways. Incorporating game design into the making of technology reflects this new imagining of the human, one which makes performative demands on users. But it pushes against the ambivalence toward competence that has marked American social life. What is more, it disguises the emerging social distinction between the users, who have agency to act within contrived and complex systems, and those with agency of a different order — to contrive those systems themselves.

I’m not sure where this will all lead, of course. Perhaps de Tocqueville was right, and the drive for equality in the US (which began as the anti-aristocratic drive for equal treatment under the law) always tends to push aside and devalue liberty, in the sense of the distinctive or different individual view or ability. But I am more concerned that the rise of users as gamers leads us away from asking difficult questions about, for example, how the locus of governance and public policy may be shifting away from government — public policy under the hood, as it were. In a post-bureaucratic world, are we liable to mistake our agency within an array of game-like systems for all the agency we’ll ever need?

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