Authority, Competence, and Relevance

Who’s in charge here?

That’s a natural question to ask in an industrial context, like a traditional classroom.

And most classrooms are set up to answer the question by design: the person at the front of the room (the “sage on the stage”) is obviously the one in charge.

Before pressing on, let’s press back for a moment: how did the person in charge get that way — at the front of the classroom, in the corner office, in elected office?

By and large, it’s because they are or were expert in something, or at least presumed to be. The professor knows the material, the boss knows what to do, the representative knows where we want to go and how to get us there.

And then — at last — comes what Seth Godin calls “the question to every answer about the culture: what about the internet?

Who’s in charge of this Zoom room, this chat room, this press conference? How come?

Universities are physically and habitually set up to transfer scarce knowledge from one person’s tenured head to as many heads as a classroom can hold captive. Trouble is, knowledge isn’t scarce, and now the room’s broken.

And this begs the question, If you’re expert in Plato but not in Zoom, who’s really in charge here? Why shouldn’t I vote with my attention, just as I would anywhere else on the internet?

[“Because someone’s paying $10,000 for this credit hour” isn’t a great answer. After all, how much of the assigned reading was that argument buying beforehand?]

Most of those in charge of our most august (and necessary) cultural institutions are still pre-internet people. And the institutional and cultural moats that have protected them thus far are finally cracking.

Watch closely the arguments they’ll make for why they ought to retain pride of place. The first round will likely be shouting at cross purposes — “Since 1636!” versus “Because 2020!”

But sooner or later, we’ll hear the tree falling in the forest argument: if you know everything that counts except for how to reach the people who need to hear it, does it actually count?

If your authority rests heavily on the enormity of sunk costs, just remember that Hyatt’s did, too.