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Tuesday, August 5, 2003

A rant on Domain Experts, Backchannels and the Hecklebot

(this rant was first drafted on july 26, with a nod to Joi Ito (JoiIto), Richard Soderberg (crysflame), Ross Rader (Ross), (yonderboy) and the existence of #joiito)

It starts (innocently enough) with a comment. “i don’t really understand hecklebot, and this is not a request to help me change that.” (Richard Soderberg/crysflame)

Well, request or not… (it is, after all, the prerogative of experts to explain things).

Joi has offered (threatened) to take the Hecklebot to the various conferences and events that he attends to heckle speakers, including Bill Clinton. I have proof ( I’m going to hecklebot Bill Clinton I think.)

The intent of the hecklebot is to provide a direct backchannel to a speaker. Not just a running “sidechannel” commentary on the speaker or the material, but a direct in-your-face response. Speakers are generally selected (or invited, chosen, whatever) because they are in some respect a “domain expert.” The audience expects knowledge, insight, erudition, maybe even wisdom from people chosen to speak on a subject that interests them.

In six months, it’s going to take much courage to speak anywhere Joi Ito might show up. Actually, in six months, there may be a dozen or a hundred hecklebots roaming the conference and event circuit, and it’s going to take a lot of courage to speak on any subject, anywhere. I’m not willing to predict the adoption curve on this one, but the game has changed. Just the potential of having a so-called domain expert called “bullshit” mid-sentence is going to intimidate anyone who thinks they know everything (because deep down, we all know we don’t).

The era of the domain expert is over. The beast is extinct. They don’t realize it.

With the extinction of the domain expert, I predict the emergence of a million forms of “I think…” “I believe…” “It seems to me…” It will take time, but the language will adapt. Proclamations of Truth are going to become rare things indeed. (Joi observed, “Usually the audience knows more than the speaker.”)

The most interesting insights generally come from the “outsiders” that approach the material with a different set of assumptions and semantics.

Perhaps this is because they are willing to ask the “stupid questions.” Unburdened by years of accumulated (and shared) assumptions, the outsider is willing to look at a situation and say “so what?” or “that is crazy” or “what if?”

There is a value in asking questions. There is great value in asking questions that are relevant in context. Context always matters. In his paper, “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy: Social Structure in Social Software,” Clay Shirky comments on the merits of learning by experience,

The most charitable description of this repeated pattern is “learning from experience.” But learning from experience is the worst possible way to learn something. Learning from experience is one up from remembering. That’s not great. The best way to learn something is when someone else figures it out and tells you: “Don’t go in that swamp. There are alligators in there.”

While I agree, as far as it goes, the more valuable skill is the ability (and willingness) to ask “Is the swamp safe?” and then marshal available resources to find the answer that is relevant to your context. Is it safe for swimming? Since I’m here can I substitute alligator in this recipe for stew? I don’t know if this is a skill that can be taught.

There is significant inertia in education, and it will not change quickly or easily. Knowledge was compartmentalized effectively through several hundred years of development in “higher education.” Now the compartment are so small and so focused, that they directly impact relatively tiny groups. It will be the intersections of domains that is interesting in the future. Domain experts are valuable, but they will increasingly be challenged by outsiders, and their larger contributions will be in areas that span domains.

Any expert that is really deeply invested in knowing The Truth is going to be heckled to death, or at least off the stage.

I’ve never been a President of the United States, but boy, do I have some questions for you, Bill. And at least you’ll know I am listening.

Let the heckling begin!

For more on the Hecklebot, a quick diversion to Hecklebot Wiki and UcHeckle Wiki is in order.

( this rant is also on the wiki and is available in non-wiki-form here. )

posted by roj at 11:26 am