DRMacIver's Notebook

Non-Experts and Status in Expert Communities

Non-Experts and Status in Expert Communities

From Talking About Machines by Julian Orr, page 93:

the use of the machines causes some ambivalence for the technicians. On the one hand, the only reason for having the machines is to use them, and the only reason for having technicians is that when machines are used they break. [...] On th eother hand, while technicians have a certain amount of their identity invested in the machines, the customers do not, yet the customers have the machines. Figuratively speaking, the technicians machines are in the hands of the heathen.

I think this is a common problem for people with technical expertise: Technical expertise is useful more or less only to the degree that it serves the non-expert, but the non-expert stubbornly refuses to understand your expertise.

It is very easy to go from this to holding the non-expert in contempt: Looking down on the non-experts precisely because they are non-experts, despite the fact that your community of expertise is supported by the needs of the non-experts it serves.

I think this problem is particularly exacerbated by the fact that any area of expertise is a community of nerds whose social bonds and status are centered on their area of expertise. Status in an expert community is primarily (though not exclusively) defined by how good you are at the subject.

From this perspective, a lack of expertise is low status. Non-experts, more or less by definition, are not experts and thus do not do well by these stats metrics. They are outgroup.

This necessarily creates a deeply ambivalent relationship between the expert community and the non-experts on which they are dependent: The people who are essential for their survival are also people who they have to adopt a different mindset from their usual one in order to properly respect.

I think this feeds in to why usability work and user experience is so often considered low status within these communities: They force us to confront the congitive dissonance intrinsic in our dependence on those who are not one of us.