Consultants and Confused Apes
Where do internet “experts” come from? How can there be so many and how can they know so much?
The fast moving digital business disfavors incumbents. Companies with long histories of success can be brushed aside with startling ease. Legacy companies know this and want to do all that they can to achieve some kind of enlightenment, which inevitably leads them to “experts”. Unfortunately, hiring expensive “experts” very rarely translates into digital success.
The core of the problem is that experts are people that know things and there are relatively few things that one can know about the digital business. There is very little data, because most of the experiments haven’t been completed yet. The jury is effectively still out.
Even if one has expertise, it won’t last long. The situation is fluid and the facts are constantly changing. Any formula for success would have many variables but few constants.
The Nobel Prize Winning Ape
The physicist Richard Feynman once compared himself to a confused ape who was trying mostly unsuccessfully to put two sticks together. He said that most of the time he was unsuccessful, but every once in a while he could figure out how to get the sticks together and he could get a banana. (See video below.)
Feynman valued the process of discovery because he felt that it was the only way he could ever know anything. He decried people he called “Cargo Cult Scientists” who asserted and evangelized knowledge that they really didn’t have.
He compared the process of discovery to watching a chess game without knowing the rules. One can observe that a bishop always stays on the same color and not know why. Later, the observation can be made that the bishop moves diagonally, which would confirm and improve the understanding of the first rule.
Eventually it might be observed that a bishop had changed colors, which would put the first rule in doubt until one discovered that pawns can be promoted and so on. Information can be gained through observation but ultimate knowledge is elusive. Our knowledge progresses slowly as we muddle through newly discovered evidence and try to figure out what it means.
Great Apes in History
Feynman was part of a long tradition of great thinkers who doubted what they knew, vigorously and with rigor. In the 17th century, Rene Descartes imagined that there could be an “evil deceiver” and so doubted everything he experienced. Quite famously, the only thing he didn’t doubt was his existence, but only because the fact that he could doubt proved he must exist in some way.
Around the time of the American Revolution, Immanuel Kant caused quite a stir when he argued that it might be possible to know some very basic things (mostly mathematical theorems) without experiencing them (he called them synthetic a priori truths). It was quite controversial then and still is now, despite the fact that he was borrowing somewhat from medieval Augustine who himself was borrowing from Plato of Ancient Greece.
Kant’s contemporary, David Hume, was skeptical. He argued that experience, although necessarily flawed, was the only path to knowing anything. Therefore, uncertainty is something we are simply stuck with. Most modern scholars seem to agree with Hume (as do I).
20th Century Apes
Thought on knowledge and uncertainty permeated the 20th Century. Ludwig Wittgenstein ended his seminal work, The Tractatus, with the admonition, “Whereof one cannot speak, Thereof one must remain silent.”
He held the belief so strongly that he once famously pulled a red hot poker out of a fireplace, shook it at Karl Popper and demanded that he supply an example of a moral rule (“not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers” Popper quipped).
Popper himself argued against “verifiability.” His student, George Soros, makes billions by betting against people who are certain. He believes that once a kernel of truth produces mass belief, the original truth disappears. He says, “I’m only rich because I know when I’m wrong”
Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, described technology itself as an ongoing process of uncovering rather than a process of building up. His essay on the subject is now a classic. Information may want to be free, but knowledge hides itself pretty well.
A Simple Question
For me, all of this begs a question: If the greatest minds in the history of civilization not only doubted what they knew, but felt strongly that doubt was an essential part of the discovery process, then how can all of the “experts” be so certain?
The simple answer is that they can’t be. Despite self serving rhetoric, there is a substantive difference between accountability and metrics, value and price, knowledge and supposition, sound advice and hogwash.
To be successful in the digital business one has to be constantly learning and adapting to a changing context. For that, we need less “experts” and more confused apes.