Random finds (2017, week 26) — On the case against thought leaders, the crisis of expertise, and “a building roughly the shape of a navel”

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Studio MK27 takes cues from Brazilian modernism for Osler House in Brasília.

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity.

The case against thought leaders

In his book The Ideas Industry (How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas), the political scientist and foreign policy blogger Daniel Drezner describes three major factors that have altered the fortunes of today’s intellectuals: the evaporation of public trust in institutions, the polarization of American society, and growing economic inequality. He sees the latter as the most important: the extraordinary rise of the superrich, a class interested in supporting a particular genre of ‘ideas.’

In an article for New Republic, titled The Rise of the Thought Leader, David Sessions writes, “The rich have, Drezner writes, empowered a new kind of thinker — the ‘thought leader’ — at the expense of the much-fretted-over ‘public intellectual.’ Whereas public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum are skeptical and analytical, thought leaders like Thomas Friedman and Sheryl Sandberg ‘develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.’ While public intellectuals traffic in complexity and criticism, thought leaders burst with the evangelist’s desire to ‘change the world.’ Many readers, Drezner observes, prefer the ‘big ideas’ of the latter to the complexity of the former. In a marketplace of ideas awash in plutocrat cash, it has become ‘increasingly profitable for thought leaders to hawk their wares to both billionaires and a broader public,’ to become ‘superstars with their own brands, sharing a space previously reserved for moguls, celebrities, and athletes.’”

“Drezner marks the differences between the traditional model of the ‘public intellectual’ and the relatively recent emergence of the ‘thought leader,’ using the fox and hedgehog terminology popularized by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in 1953: A fox (public intellectual) knows many things, whereas a hedgehog (thought leader) knows one big thing. He argues that as we retreat into like-minded bubbles, as trust in intellectual gatekeepers erodes, and as the wealthy bankroll more of the generation and promotion of new ideas, thought leaders are rapidly supplanting public intellectualism.” — Daniel J. Lee in A new kind of expert is flourishing in the modern marketplace of ideas. Should we be worried?

According to Sessions, “Drezner does his best to take an objective view of the thought leader as a new kind of intellectual who fulfills a function different from that of the public intellectual, though an equally legitimate one. ‘It is surely noteworthy,’ he writes, optimistically, ‘that a strong demand has emerged for new ideas and vibrant ways of thinking about the world. But he seems to portray this thirst for new ideas as a positive development even while conceding that the ideas currently thirsted for are at best shallow and banal, at worst deeply anti-democratic, and at times outright fraudulent.”

Illustration by Sue Coe for New Republic.

Sessions writes that the case against thought leaders is damning. “[S]ome of the marquee names in thought leadership are distinguished by their facile thinking and transparent servility to the wealthy,” he writes. Take Thomas Friedman’s bestseller The World Is Flat. According to Drezner, Friedman’s biggest idea is that “to thrive in the global economy, one needs to be ‘special,’ a unique brand like Michael Jordan.” This, of course, is more of a marketing principle than a philosophical insight. Yet, “businessmen adore Friedman’s writings on how technology and globalization transform the global economy,” Drezner explains, because his message reinforces their worldview.

“Like Friedman, thought leaders Parag and Ayesha Khanna proclaim the world-historical power of technological innovation, preaching that technology with a capital ‘T’ is replacing economics and geopolitics as the engine of global change. As Evgeny Morozov has observed, Parag Khanna believes that ‘democracy might be incompatible with globalization and capitalism,’ arguing that we should thus embrace authoritarian, Chinese-style capitalism. In his own review of Khanna’s Connectography, Drezner characterized his thinking as ‘globaloney’ and likened his prose style to ‘a TED talk on a recursive loop,’” Sessions writes.

It seems, however, that Drezner shrinks from the darker implications of his evidence. “For good and ill,” he writes, “the modern marketplace of ideas strongly resembles modern financial markets. Usually, the system works. On occasion, however, there can be asset bubbles.” And he illustrates this notion with the rise and fall of Harvard professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. Drezner argues that Christensen’s theory caught fire in Silicon Valley because it “conformed to a plutocratic worldview in which success favors the bold, risk-taking entrepreneur.” Until historian Jill Lepore found that Christensen’s case studies were ambiguous and overblown. Her widely read essay in The New Yorker sparked a backlash in Silicon Valley.

“Drezner seems to view this case study as a prime example of how the market for ideas regulates itself: A public intellectual checked a thought leader, popping an ‘asset bubble’ in the process,” Sessions writes. “The two types of thinker, in Drezner’s view, balance each other. But just as in economics, the market metaphor brings with it a quasi-theological belief that everything eventually evens out — an ideology that is deliberately blind to the way the largest players in the capitalist system rig that system in their own favor. After all, disruptive innovation survived unharmed for two decades as a theory of everything, and to this day disruption proceeds apace. Billions of dollars are still pouring into business schools to inspire similar claptrap, while university science departments — less-direct conduits to frenetic moneymaking — scramble for funding, and the humanities torturously ride out a planned obsolescence.”

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Illustration by Sue Coe for New Republic.

“The evidence in Drezner’s book contributes to a startling picture of a country in which the superrich actively seek to sabotage institutions that have formed the backbone of consensus and public trust for a large part of the twentieth century,” Sessions writes. “[M]odern plutocrats no longer use their fortunes to secure a legacy of contributing to public needs. Instead they weaponize their wealth, with the aim of creating even more capital and remaking society according to their own, unrepresentative political beliefs.”

“Surveying this new landscape, it is clear that the true role of the thought leader is to serve as the organic intellectual of the one percent — the figure who […] gives the emerging class ‘an awareness of its own function’ in society. The purpose of the thought leader is to mirror, systematize, and popularize the delusions of the superrich: that they have earned their fortunes on merit, that social protections need to be further eviscerated to make everyone more flexible for ‘the future,’ and that local attachments and alternative ways of living should be replaced by an aspirational consumerism. The thought leader aggregates these fundamental convictions into a great humanitarian mission. Every problem, he prophesies, can be solved with technology and rich people’s money, if we will only get our traditions, communities, and democratic norms out of the way.

[…]

[T]oday’s thought leaders all share a core worldview: that extreme wealth and the channels by which it was obtained are not only legitimate but heroic. This is why the Ideas Industry, as Drezner effectively shows, favors the thought leader over the more critical, skeptical public intellectual: Academics tend ‘to dismiss the Great Man theory of events.’ If the marketplace of ideas is flooded with hucksters evangelizing the next big thing and the importance of billionaires for ‘making the world a better place,’ it is because that’s what billionaires want to hear.”

The crisis of expertise

People have no choice but to trust experts as “a prosaic matter of necessity,” writes Tom Nichols in The crisis of expertise. “It is in much the same way that we trust everyone else in our daily lives, including the bus driver we assume isn’t drunk or the restaurant worker we assume has washed her hands.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that experts can’t be wrong. On the contrary. Nichols distinguishes several types of expert failure. “The most innocent and most common are what we might think of as the ordinary failures of science. Individuals, or even entire professions, get important questions wrong because of error or because of the limitations of a field itself. They observe a phenomenon or examine a problem, come up with theories and solutions, and then test them. Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong.”

But other forms of expert failure are more worrisome, Nichols says. “Experts can go wrong, for example, when they try to stretch their expertise from one area to another. A biologist is not a medical doctor but, in general terms, a biologist is likely to be relatively better able to understand medical issues than a layperson. Still, this does not mean that anyone in the life sciences is always better informed than anyone else on any issue in that area. A diligent person who has taken the time to read up on, say, diabetes could very well be more conversant in that subject than a botanist.”

Finally, there is outright deception and malfeasance. “Sometimes, experts aren’t experts. People lie brazenly about their credentials.” When they do, “they endanger not only their own profession but also the wellbeing of their client: society. Their threat to expertise comes in both the immediate outcome of their chicanery and the erosion of social trust that such misconduct creates,” Nichols argues.

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“Sometimes, experts aren’t experts” — Frank Abagnale, popularised in the movie Catch Me If You Can (2002), starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, became one of the most famous impostors ever, claiming to have assumed no fewer than eight identities, including an airline pilot.

One of the questions Nichols raises is not not whether experts should engage in prediction — they will — but rather, when and how, and what to do about it when they’re wrong.

In his book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, Philip Tetlock gathered data on expert predictions in social science. He found that “certain kinds of experts seemed better at applying knowledge to hypotheticals than their colleagues. Tetlock used the British thinker Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between ‘hedgehogs’ and ‘foxes’ to distinguish between experts whose knowledge was wide and inclusive (‘the fox knows many things’) from those whose expertise is narrow and deep (‘the hedgehog knows one big thing’). While experts ran into trouble when trying to move from explanation to prediction, the ‘foxes’ generally outperformed the ‘hedgehogs’, for many reasons,” Nichols writes.

Hedgehogs, for example, tended to be overly focused on generalising their specific knowledge to situations that were outside of their competence, while foxes were better able to integrate more information and to change their minds when presented with new or better data. The foxes’ self-critical, point-counterpoint style of thinking, Tetlock found, prevented them from building up the sorts of excessive enthusiasm for their predictions that hedgehogs, especially well-informed ones, displayed for theirs.

“There are some lessons in all this, not just for experts, but for laypeople who judge — and even challenge — expert predictions,” Nichols says.

First and foremost, failed expert predictions don’t mean very much in terms of judging expertise itself. “The goal of expert advice and prediction is not to win a coin toss, it is to help guide decisions about possible futures.” Besides, experts “usually cover their predictions […] with caveats, because the world is full of unforeseeable accidents that can have major ripple effects down the line. History can be changed by contingent events as simple as a heart attack or a hurricane.” Yet, despite their importance, most laypeople tend to ignore these caveats. And whereas professionals must own their mistakes, laypeople must exercise more caution in asking experts to prognosticate.

And this …

“Ask Norman Foster what if anything he would like to change about Apple’s recently constructed headquarters in Cupertino, California, and he’ll need a moment to think,” Liz Stinson writes in Apple’s Architect Says the Future of Offices Must Be Flexible. “The famed architect, whose firm spent the last eight years perfecting plans for Apple’s glassy Campus 2, is mostly pleased with the results. But there is one thing: ‘The only hesitation I have is in terms of the changing patterns of transportation,’ Foster said at the WIRED Business Conference.”

“For Foster, the future of workplace design is dependent on this kind of flexibility. […] It’s easy to assume a strict adherence to vision would stifle flexibility. ‘The reverse is actually true,’ Foster said. The best buildings, he contends, require a strong point of view. They must be thoughtfully designed to adapt to the ways humans and society will inevitably change, and that requires more than just building open-plan layouts.”

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Norman Foster’s sketch of the building’s evolution, from propeller shape to circle.

“Ultimately, the most enduring workplaces will take into account the deep-rooted desires of the people who spend time there. They’ll prioritize smart paths of circulation to help people connect with one another. Instead of sequestering employees into glass boxes, they’ll encourage them to connect with nature. To be truly competitive, architects and companies have to think beyond productivity. ‘From the very beginning, I’ve protested the idea that an office headquarters, whether it’s mega or micro, is only about work,’ Foster said. ‘It’s about lifestyle.’”

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“The glass fins that protrude from the ‘Ring,’ as Apple calls the main building, at every floor are sloped at a slight downward angle to regulate light and glare. They also prevent rain from streaking down what Ive describes as the ‘miles of glass’ that make up the Ring’s walls.” — Steven Levy in One More Thing. (Photograph: Dan Winters)

Earlier this month, Adam Rogers wrote a scathing review of Apple’s new headquarters, titled If You Care About Cities, Apple’s New Campus Sucks.

“Whether you call it the Ring (too JRR Tolkien), the Death Star (too George Lucas), or the Spaceship (too Buckminster Fuller), something has alighted in Cupertino. And no one could possibly question the elegance of its design and architecture. This building is $5 billion and 2.8 million square feet of Steve Jobsian-Jony Ivesian-Norman Fosterian genius. WIRED already said all that,” Rogers wrote.

“But … one more one more thing. You can’t understand a building without looking at what’s around it — its site, as the architects say. From that angle, Apple’s new HQ is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general. People rightly credit Apple for defining the look and feel of the future; its computers and phones seem like science fiction. But by building a mega-headquarters straight out of the middle of the last century, Apple has exacerbated the already serious problems endemic to 21st-century suburbs like Cupertino — transportation, housing, and economics. Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood.”

“Steven Levy wrote that the headquarters was Steve Jobs’ last great project, an expression of the way he saw his domain. It may look like a circle, but it’s actually a pyramid — a monument, more suited to a vanished past than a complicated future.” — Adam Rogers in If You Care About Cities, Apple’s New Campus Sucks.

Rogers pointed to the almost-complete Salesforce Tower in San Francisco as a comparative model for successful office development. Apple’s ‘Ring’ provides 2.5 million square feet (230,000 square metres) of workspace on 175 acres (71 hectares), while the skyscraper offers 1.5 million square feet (140,000 square metres) on just an acre (0.4 hectares), is directly connected to major transit station, and cost one-fifth of the price to construct.

“A more contemporary approach to commercial architecture builds up instead of out,” Rogers argued. “But putting form factor aside, the best, smartest designers and architects in the world could have tried something new. Instead it produced a building roughly the shape of a navel, and then gazed into it.”

The names of a company’s conference rooms can reveal a lot about its self-image, says Leah Fessler in One tiny detail at companies like SpaceX, Google, and Airbnb speaks volumes about their culture.

“Two weeks ago, in an act of somewhat desperate symbolism, Uber board member Arianna Huffington announced that the ride-sharing service was renaming its ‘War Room’ the ‘Peace Room’ as part of a broader effort to reform its tarnished image. Name swaps alone won’t help Uber recover from allegations of widespread discrimination and harassment. But the change does highlight the way that the names of conference rooms can reveal a lot about a company’s culture.

Sarah Brazaitis, an organizational psychologist and senior lecturer at Columbia’s Teachers College, says that themed conference room names are tied to the rise of open-office layouts. Both elements of office design aim to inspire collaboration, innovation, and happiness among employees.

‘In contrast to cold, hierarchical, spaces where labor happens, village-like offices are designed to tie individuals closer to the organization’s identity,’ says Brazaitis. ‘Companies that name their conference and meeting rooms according to themes are doing so to communicate their values and organizational culture to their employees, customers, clients, and all who enter.’”

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“And another important symbol of change, the War Room has been renamed the Peace Room. Because as everybody knows, peace is a lot more productive and sustainable than war,” said Arianna Huffington in her recent speech to Uber staff. (Illustration: Kristen Boydstun)

“Much like kitchen cleanliness and desk decor, conference room names are an easy way to gauge a company’s priorities — and an opportunity to assess whether the organization is actually living up to its aspirations. To that end, we took the opportunity to compile a list of the conference-room names at leading companies in tech, media, and more — from Google and SpaceX to HBO, Yahoo, and Goldman Sachs.”

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“Change agents discuss their inflection point.” (Photograph: Rosie Scott/Ikon Images/Rosie Scott)

“The received wisdom in both business and self-help is that change is always good, which of course is rubbish. Change is often extremely bad. Yet you cannot be a modern, thrusting executive unless you are a ‘change agent,’ daringly leading whatever change it happens to be. Otherwise you are an enemy of change.” — Steven Poole in From decks to moats: the complete guide to modern office jargon

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