A press release on a book that’s just come out gave me pause for thought: The future of the professions: how technology will transform the work of human experts. OK, so press releases aren’t the best way of appraising books, but it was an interesting piece of writing in its own right – so I’m offering here a few reflections on it from the perspective of someone interested in history as a profession and a form of expertise ‘in public’.
The main argument in the piece was that technology will dismantle the professions and ‘feasible alternatives’ will take their place (enabling people to diagnose health problems, access the news, enforce the law online…) The internet enables expertise to be shared, rather than held by the few.
The authors, Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, give a range of examples of the power of the internet. The rise of email, and the transformative effect this has had on how lawyers and clients communicate, seemed unconscionable in the mid-1990s but is now unremarkable. A ‘technology-based internet society’, they argue, has replaced a ‘print-based industrial society’.
The print/internet distinction seems to me to work only if you focus on ‘content’, so, the provision and communication – the display – of knowledge. That’s the currency in which the traditional professions trade. For sure, ‘content’ is becoming increasingly accessible to the ‘recipients and beneficiaries of the work of the professions’, but is it truly available?
So what’s the difference? The argument that the internet is an inherent democratiser has been applied to the public history/digital history interface. It seems a self-evident truth. But having access to online worlds is not the same thing as being an active, reflective, engaged, productive, creative navigator of them – as many academics teaching students about digital sources and methods will know. By content being truly available, I mean: can it be understood, assimilated, interpreted, manipulated, appropriated, adapted and put to effective use?
If the expertise of the professional were just the possessing of content knowledge, then the ‘technology-based internet society’ would constitute a major challenge. But the expertise of the professional is surely not content knowledge in itself, but instead the cognitive capacity to acquire, process and make meaning from it (so, to be active, reflective, engaged, productive, creative navigators of content).
It’s understandable that we tend to emphasise ‘content’ – after all, it is visible in a way ‘process’ rarely is. This is particularly true for historians. The intellectual labour of research has tended to be largely hidden from view and it is the final product – the book, journal article, film or exhibition – that is published, discussed, reviewed, acclaimed (or otherwise). Perhaps the most important dimension of public history has been the emergence of co-production, whereby people are actively involved in this labour of making history and take ownership of their own pasts.
But this shared authority doesn’t undermine history as a profession, rather it strengthens, expands and animates it. Rather than be threatened by this brave new world, perhaps historians and other professionals have a vital, dynamic role to claim – if we can see expertise not as a possession, but as a quality (a public good?) that develops in relationships through the exchanges and engagements we have with others in pursuit of a collective endeavour.