Experts and Amateurs in Communication and Culture
30 April-1st May 2011. University of Ottawa, Canada
Confirmed guest speakers:
• Pierre Lévy, Canada Research Chair in Collective Intelligence, U. of Ottawa;
• Henrik Örnebring, Senior Research Fellow, U. of Oxford (UK);
• Rukhsana Ahmed, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Communication, U. of Ottawa.
In their widely debated paper, Collins and Evans (2002) describe the ‘Problem of Extension’ as the most pressing intellectual problem of our age: with the increasing scepticism towards experts and expertise, to what extent should decision-making in science and technology be open to public involvement? In a effort to widen the criteria of participation in science and technology, scholars have addressed the ability of ‘experience-based experts’ – individuals possessing firsthand experience of a field but no formal certifications – to challenge the specialist status of certified experts in matters of public concern such as farming and agriculture, the management of nuclear energy and the production of genetically-modified food.
Now, major developments in communication technology and practice strongly suggest the need to expand debates around experience and expertise beyond hard science and into fields of media, communication and culture – where public involvement has comfortably reached the point of no-return and distinctions between expert and amateur are being tested, stretched or relegated to irrelevance. Such developments afford a fresh opportunity to explore an enduring question: who is a legitimate participant in cultural production and scientific decision-making, and on what grounds?
This conference seeks to address how distinctions between expert and layperson, professional and amateur, are playing out in the following fields:
1. Mass media and journalismThe rise of social networking (e.g. Facebook, Twitter), user-generated content (most notably on YouTube) and citizen journalism has prompted debates around the legitimacy and contributions of amateur producers in fields such as media production and journalism, with some of the more vocal Web 2.0 critics calling for the central role of professional – read: institutional – producers to be preserved in order to safeguard reliable information and ‘quality’ entertainment from empowered, narcissistic amateurs. What is the substantive expertise of the media producer in the first place? What is the role of experience in the production process? How are social networking and user-generated content impacting the form, practice and reception of both journalism and entertainment?
2. Cultural productionThe emergence and the constant improvement of new technologies are directly contributing to a more democratic - that is, accessible - process of cultural production. Indeed, one no longer needs to be a trained musician to make and release music (the right software and MySpace can now do the job) or a professional filmmaker to produce and broadcast a new film: think of, for example, Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003). The blurring of the amateur/expert dichotomy within the cultural is also having an impact on, for example, film narrative and aesthetic: one cannot ignore the place of fake home movies such as Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2009) and ‘mockumentaries’ (as Zak Penn’s Incident at Lochness (2004) and the series The Office illustrate) within popular culture as well as the direct influence of the many 9/11 amateur images on blockbusters such as Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008).
3. HealthThe rapid erosion of technical barriers to the mass broadcasting and exchange of information, access to specialist knowledge and mobilization of interest groups is stoking the public’s willingness – and indeed its ability – to challenge experts in matters of science and technology, where once there was a blind trust in their authority and competence. This is particularly salient in the health care context, where informed patients are engaging in a dialogue with health professionals, and concerned citizens are challenging public officials on policy initiatives – the recent H1N1 flu vaccination campaigns being the latest example. How are these developments affecting power relationships between health care providers and patients? Are they favouring the latter, or is the central importance of traditional experts and institutions being reasserted in a context of conflicting and sometimes confusing health discourses and information?
4. Work and the WorkplaceThe drive to increase performance and productivity creates tensions in the workplace, where the requirement of formal certification and the pressures of continuous training can mean the displacement of experienced workers with extensive know-how and tacit knowledge, by highly-trained, but inexperienced, individuals. Yet, the current economic climate is also conducive to retirees rejoining the workforce. Elsewhere, the migration of highly-qualified workers poses problems in terms of the recognition of credentials, experience and expertise gained in their home countries. How are knowledge-transfer and the acknowledgment of competence playing out across generational, disciplinary and cultural boundaries? More importantly, how are these issues being experienced by incoming, senior, retired, returning and migrant members of the workforce?
In addition to the questions raised above, we invite proposals addressing the following:
- When the technical barriers to specialist knowledge and tools are crashed, can reliable criteria for participation in decision-making and expertise be established?
- In matters of public taste, public interest and public concern, is it possible/pertinent/useful to distinguish between experts and non-experts?
- Do traditional distinctions between expert and layperson hold when one moves from science to media and culture? What are some of the key differences/similarities between both fields?
- How does technical knowledge interact with social/cultural competence?
- How are identities shifting and blurring and combining? (producer/consumer, experience-based expert, doctor/patient, etc.).
- Are hierarchies and gatekeepers disappearing in media/cultural production and scientific decision-making, or are they being replaced by new ones?