Saturday, September 30, 2017

Dual belonging

Apparently I'm going to be on the radio in a couple weeks. The topic for the radio show is "dual belonging," or how to be part of two groups that differ. I think. Don't quote me on that.

The reason they called me is the essay I wrote a few years ago about being a Quaker and a non-theist. It seems like a difficult divide. And I certainly have run into a number of people who agree that I shouldn't be calling myself a Quaker and an atheist at the same time. But membership in a Quaker meting is decided by each local (monthly) meeting, and the three meetings I've been members of let me in even though I was explicit about my beliefs. They seemed to think it was "rightly led" for me to be part of the group.

Here's the weird thing: I actually feel more comfortable in the group I am in now, that was formed in part to provide a place where more overt scriptural and theistic language was not only tolerated but encouraged. It's my observation that the spiritual life of this group gains focus and clarity when we use less vague language. As I put it when I joined the Quakers in 1997, instead of going to the Unitarians, which I had been a member of with where I lived previously, it feels like there's more of a spiritual spine. There's more "there" there. When I was married the second time, there was always the option of coming up with our statement before the group that were specific to our situation, but I (and my wife) felt really comfortable and happy with simply using the language embedded in our yearly meeting's book "Faith and Practice." The fact that it was a time-tested tradition was not a minus. We were leaning on something large instead of depending on our four spindly legs to carry all the weight.

The phrase I am using this year is that I believe in the experience—religious experience—but not the conventional explanation of why and how it happens. And I believe in the power of some fo the "trappings" of that experience, of things like "scripture" and "prayer" and "congregation" and "sacrament." I think they are very strong juju. I also think that they fill places in us individually and corporately that are not disposable. Even when I do not believe that prayer is "talking with God," I understand that asking a question or expressing gratitude to persons and powers unknown is a really instinctive and powerful and important thing to do. Anne Lamott's book Thanks, Help, Wow is an excellent tool for getting at that. She's unapologetically theist, but also very much understands that prayer is not just about the being being talked to; it's about the shape of that conversation, and it what it does to have that kind of discourse.

So, I believe in the power and reality of what we experience as a group of worshippers, and I believe in the fact that something happens that gets described as a relationship with God. I do not think that explanation is accurate, but I do think it's true. And this is not such a paradox as it sounds. We all think things from fiction are true, just not in the same way that "I have eight eggs in the fridge" is true. No, wait. I went to confirm that hypothesis. There are five. The point is, that dependence on common, confirmable fact is not all we have to pay attention to in the world. And so I can belong among a group that explicitly believes something to be factually real, and not have that be the determining factor in whether I belong with them. I can find a way (and I have) to respect, and hear, and get great value, from their understanding, without making it literal. If I said otherwise, I would be telling my friends their experience was somehow a lie. And it's not.

We had a terrible mess in our group shortly after our family joined. About half of the group left. And there were a lot of things it was about, but one of the things was simple whether we beleived one another. Some of us, I think wanted to believe a promise of sacredness over the clear expressions of hurt and fear we heard coming from other people (Is that vague enough for you?). It took a long time for us to get through to that point, those of us who stayed in the group, but what we came back to was a kind of trust, a thing we needed to have. Believing the essential story people told, even if we didn't believe in the factual details necessarily.

It's very much like what I see in issues around categorical bias: there's believing and believing (for example) women's stories of what it's like to be a woman who is regularly catcalled and harassed on the street when she goes for a run (this is my wife we're talking about here), or black people's stories of what it's like to be black. We keep wanting to turn to factuality, and there is factuality there, but there's something viscerally different about believing a person's personal story abouf her experience.

I remember a few years ago, Ingrid telling me about how she expected (was pissed off at profoundly, but expected) shit from random passers-by, commenting on her body and what it should do. And how she had to very carefully plan her route for safety, in what I think of as a basically safe neighborhood. Because rape is something she has to plan around, and I don't. And that conversation, something clicked. It's not that I didn't know factually that women get harassed and raped. Duh. But knowing it was Ingrid, and knowing that this was her story, moved something internally in me. It really was like a click. The story went from accepted to believed. And believed in a way we've lost clarity about in our language. We used to have a clear set of social constructs described by words like loyalty, trust, truth, faith, obedience, and so on, that descibed a network of who and what was "with" you. Many of those words have been diluted in their meaning as more of our society becomes dependent on formal systems and rules over individual and corporate allegiance and "with-ness." But that doesn't mean the basic function disappears.

And I think that's the root of any "belonging." That "with-ness" (etymological red herring: with and witness are not related), the sense of trusting loyalty and faithfulness, both to one another and to the thing that the group carries in the middle of the group, or that it sees as carrying it.

Saturday, March 4, 2017


I was walking along the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis in the summer of 2010, and the group that made this film was grabbing random people off the street to answer questions about why we live here. And I talked a little about how friends from the coasts (the ones who I didn't go to college here) sometimes think of this place in flyover country.

We don't live in a cowtown. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul are the urbane, artsy, funky, cosmopolitan hub for a big swath of the Upper Midwest. It's a city that people from smaller cities come to when their fish pond isn't big enough. But as a professional in a small and shrinking market, I am also well aware that I would be "in the mix" for bigger things if I moved. Many of my genuinely ambitious colleagues work in DC or NY or SF. They are Hotter Places To Be on a global level.

I've been reading about the staggering Brexit vote, and about Trump supporters here in the US. I was particularly struck by this piece by John Harris in today's Guardian. Essentially, it argues that the Leave vote (at least around Manchester) was a vote by forgotten backwaters. And this message, and the splintering of the major parties in both the US and Britain (and elsewhere in the industrialized world, presumably) should be paid attention. Backwaters vote.

People like to blame globalization, and the exporting of jobs is certainly a big factor in the rebel alliances that are making themselves felt this year. But more than that, people in backwaters are tired of simply being ignored. This is the era of flattening social media, but also one of globally concentrating culture and economies. We have ever more efficient markets that consolidate around more profitable production lines, and discard less profitable ones (like business has done since forever). And those efficiencies make it ever harder to live satisfyingly where the money isn't. There is less and less room for those quiet backwater eddies that Tolkien's Shire embodied: happily forgotten and largely satisfied with a closed economy.

Backwaters nest in other backwaters. My friend Derek moved about a decade and a half ago from St Paul to the small town of Springfield, Minnesota, which is maybe two notches back on the backwater totem pole. He runs a business from a room upstairs in a big house (one he couldn't have afforded here in the Cities) that uses practitioners from around the world to make maps. It's a field where he was able to make it work. But if you're a business that depends on local customers, in a field that is seeing internet competition (bookstores, for example, or shoe stores), backwaters are particularly problematic places to be.

Here's the thing I don't see people trying to sort out in the political arena: Lives are always local.

People like to say "all politics are local," but really not all politics are. Politics are built at the scale they cover, and international diplomacy is the least local, even if negotiations are always carried out in places where people are. National politics has always had one leg in a world of finding the best balance for the whole, while letting other places slide. I'm reminded of the kind of predatory attitude London had towards the distant North in centuries past: the press gangs described so heartbreakingly in the Yorkshire song "Here's the Tender Coming" were the tendrils of a careless cruelty. The song was a protest about men being taken away from real, deeply rooted lives like they were weeds, and from the standpoint of strategists at the Admiralty in London, they were like weeds.

Weeds are plants that don't fit your pattern, and human patterning ability focuses on a particular range of scale. And that's really the big problem with trying to organize big human systems and control them. Once we're past a certain point, the people who are that much of a mass, that far away, simply stop being people.

Friday, March 3, 2017

To build the bridge, first survey the canyon.

So there was this video, which pro wrestler John Cena did for the No Labels campaign and the Ad Council. It was released in July 2016.

I'm not going to tell you it's an any way a bad video. It makes the point that a love of country based on a limited view of what makes someone a "real American" is a problem, and it is a problem. It really gets to the core of what many liberals like me see as disingenuous about some of the rhetoric from the right: that Islam is un-American, or black people protesting are thugs but white people protesting are fighting for authentic American values. It pushes back against the idea that it's “American” to use freedom of religion to tell gay people or women or any group that they are not worthy.

And yet, as I look at the right-left split in our country, it feels like something is missing from the ad. It feels good to the left, and I can hear exasperated eye-rolls from the right... and here's where I think the problem lies: Diversity is not enough. Diversity is not the thing that makes us whole. Diversity is not, despite what the video seems to want to claim, the same thing as patriotism.


I had a conversation a decade or so ago with friend Marshall Massey. We disagree on a lot of things, although we are part of the same wider Quaker community. A point he especially wanted to make then, as I was looking at ways that liberal and even non-theist Quakers (yes, there are people who belong to our religious community who do not profess belief in God. It's complicated. In my case you can read more about it here), was that there is something fundamental and important about immersion in a religious tradition—something that in his case made it important that it was that specific tradition. It matters who and what you are faithful and true to. And the repeated return to that object of faithfulness helps train you to have a kind of moral and spiritual spine.

I grew up, as I like to say, nothing in particular. My spiritual touchpoints are all over the map. But I am also aware of and am drawn to that spine. It's one of the reasons I ended up among Quakers, and not just joining a book group. It's one of the things that drew me to Quakers over Unitarians, which is where my parents met and where my fathers parents spend the latter half of their lives. It just felt that there was more of a "there there" among the liberal Friends.

But I also inherited my parents' suspicion and even reflexive allergy to the merest hint of orthodox rigidity. So much spiritual tradition is rooted in faithfulness not just to a teaching but to a teacher. Again, this makes sense: to be loyal to a person is more hardwired into us that being loyal to an abstract idea. But the ways we've seen that charismatic trust betrayed in modern mass society—the demagogues, charlatans, would-be prophets who want power above all—are also hard to ignore. And a lot of a-religious and a-political liberals have learned this lesson as gospel: people with a religious message are trying to sell you something, and that something is probably a rip-off.

And so many of us gravitate to a kind of syncretism, a do-it-yourself judgment of the appropriate materials for a spiritual life. Instead of the Singular Book, we study the library. The whole library, or as much of it as we can manage. The liberal arts as a whole becomes the basis for our faith. And those who value singular faithfulness recoil in kind, and so we are left with this great cultural chasm that's been playing out now for well over two centuries: the universalist, pan-humanists and the Keepers of a bunch of True Faiths.


I think Jesus was way ahead of us. And I say this as one of those atheists I mentioned. Actually, it was my wife who pointed out to me that this divide between straight and narrow on one hand, and broad and all-encompassing on the other, was essentially restating what Jesus said about the two central commandments, in Mark 12:
28 Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving[a] that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” 
29 Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. 31 And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no other commandment greater than these.”
As Ingrid likes to say, doing these two things, and doing them both at the same time, is damned near impossible. "If I've managed it more than a few minutes in my entire life," she says, "I'd say I'm doing pretty well." And the two are twinned, that pattern repeating not just in our spiritual life, but in any activity in which we need in some way to follow someone or something, or in which we need to open ourselves to the experience of loving the strange. We need the singularity to hold us onto the world, and not let us become loopy floaters in the whatever-sphere; and we need the love of the other to keep us from becoming uptight, pious jackasses about pretty much anything.

It's tempting to try and just put these two into one soup. The video does that in a way. It was specifically written to argue against a straight-and-narrow conservatism that seeks not to "love your neighbor as yourself" but instead just to love "the country." But—and here's the problem—it fails to address that initial patriotism itself. Like so many liberal appeals to diversity, it doesn't really face the value of the unitary and disciplining love of country. It just argues that that unity isn't as unitary as the (supposed) viewer thinks.

And if we look hard, those of us who don't get why it's so important, may begin to understand why arguments over the Trinity end up feeling so important that you might break a church up over them. Without a sense of singularity of focus, of path, of leadership, the first part of the triad loses its power. It stops being as meaningful a counterbalance to loving your neighbor, whoever that neighbor is. And in a sense, that imbalance is exactly what liberals are experiencing when we try to make diversity a defining unitary principle. It's trying to make the yin and yang of this dynamic into a single thing.


So this I think is where we find ourselves as a country, divided into yin and yang, dependent on each other but insisting in large part that we each can be a closed-set solution: that diversity will give us spine, or that our patriotism will be loving and just in and of itself. It's just not so. We need to have a central guiding thingie. "Conservatives" know we need that root source of patriotism, and "liberals" know we need the sense of diversity and openness. What we can't seem to figure out is a kind of strong patriotism that liberals can trust, or a way to frame justice and diversity in a way that conservatives can trust. Without a monarchy, or a unifying religion or language or Ancient Nationhood, without those things that satisfy us that something unitary is in place, our job is cut out for us. But other nations in a sense are living the same dilemma, propping it up with illusory commonalities. We don't have that luxury. That specific bridging of the two halves of our national culture is, I think, our biggest national task.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Voices, late 2014

The fierce voice that argues. Eloquently laid out thoughts crystalizing hard and unswerving. Experience laid out incontrovertible. An argument between two giants, prizefighters offering up a spectacle of dialectic, and between their verbal punches, a diamond of pure truth is created.

The quiet voice, almost silent, that doubts itself, water running out of cupped hands: drink from it now and it’s gone back to ground. Evidence shifting, hiding like a rabbit that knows from birth what it is to be hunted. Nothing is certain, nothing is safe, except the dark place, which no one has discovered. Not yet.

Which voice wins? Which voice is correct? Which voice needs our attention and listening? Which voice will lead us to success? Which voice are we called to be faithful to?

What does it mean to win? Is accuracy a kind of voice? Do we follow our instincts in who we pay attention to, and how are those instincts formed? How do we define success? What does it mean to be faithful, and how is that different from being loyal?

What then must we do?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mapping the Holocaust

The keynote speaker at NACIS 2014 described (along with her students) a recent project to map Holocaust survivors stories, and in so doing to “tell stories” with maps. This has been a catch phrase in mapping circles the last few years, especially with ESRI’s Story Map product. But when presented with stories that demand to be told and interpreted inn there own terms—where respect for those stories and storytellers is paramount, telling the story with maps has turned out to be a challenge.

It was a striking presentation, Two comments in particular stuck out. The first was that early drafts of the obvious sorts of maps that might illustrate the Holocaust: showing where camps were located, transportation networks that connected labor and extermination camps, even the routes that survivors recounted, were reviewed by survivors, and that a persistent comment was that they were “like the maps Nazis would have made.”

The second resulted from attempts to map the survivors’ stories in time: it was that narrative—good narrative—does fit in a strict, measured, linear sleeve. Real stories linger in some places, gloss over others, They are specific about geography sometimes, too, and in other times the intimate spaces of a habitual life stop being geographic and the spatial relationships stop being part of the story.

I think these two comments are telling, and reflect back on critiques of cartographic thinking I’ve discussed here over the years in a number of ways.

Godwin’s Law is had to enforce when you are actually talking about the Nazis and the Holocaust, but I would assume that saying someone’s descriptions of the Nazi era are themselves “like something the Nazis would do” is not a comment made lightly. And I can see how the stark diagrams of the Reich and its huge network of detention and extermination facilities, printed with abstract symbols on a white background, would produce this reaction. Because the Nazi crimes were in part grounded in dehumanization: the branding of prisoner numbers, the shaving of hair and wearing of uniforms all stripped outward individuality away from the individuals detained and murdered by the Nazis.

One reaction occurred to me. I’ve been holding Richard M Kelly's essay on riding a train in Switzerland, watching two Jewish man arguing over their religious text, and this arguing is a part of narrative that is missing from maps, Mark Denil says that maps present an argument, but it’s not an argument with anyone. One of the defining characteristics of the monstrous political regimes of our era has been that they brook no dissension; their arguments are one-sided. And so it is with most maps: even if there is a counterargument to be made, it isn’t made on the map. The map, after all—a good map—is supposed to be a well-supported statement of fact.

What if the map of these survivors stories was a series of enactments on a stage-sized base map of Central Europe, an argument with different survivors stories bumping into one another and disagreeing, funny and unembarrassed, as art of a holy search for the elusive truth? What if the best way to map this kind of story was as a performance? What lies would be traced? How much of the argument would be scripted? What would remain of the map when the performance was over?

There is something oddly cowardly about trying to map the numbers of the holocaust, or any of the great disasters of the modernizing world. When professed objectivity becomes a mask for greed, violent hatred, fear and murder, it feels kind of off base to the seek to redeem that objectivity without first offering a ritual obeisance. Maybe there are things that are offensive to map, ot the same time wen wish to celebrate the humanity of.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Commodities and Experts, Part 2

[Edited for clarity, October 11]

It’s respectable—a mark of prestige—to say you are a professional. We still talk about “the professions,” practices that require advanced education and licensure. Like the last vestiges of the medieval guilds, they are meant to ensure quality, but these professional bars also serve to create elites.

Not all fields that aspire to this kind of professionalism achieve it using formal licensure. Accountants, teachers, doctors, nurses, architects, and lawyers do, and so do the trades: bricklayers, plumbers, electricians... but cartographers? journalists? graphic designers and printers? When it comes to the communications fields, our desire for an open public forum has meant we haven't put restrictions on professional practice we take for granted in the “professions.”

And yet, here we are, practiced and respected professionals. We are hired on the basis of our portfolio, and we pride ourselves on satisfies clients and audiences, and on the technical qualities of our work. Much of our “quality,” as with experienced practitioners in any field, is simply consistency: when you you go to a doctor, you may not be looking for the next mad genius; you want someone whose is consistently trustworthy, knowledgable, and understanding.

This is very much like the standard we might call “commodifiction” in the industrial world. Any product becomes a commodity when there is little difference in quality from example to example. This can occur within a brand: a Toyota Corolla is a Toyota Corolla, or it should be. It can also be true of a type of material: a bag of flour is a bag of flour, more or less, though any given mill may want to differentiate their product in the marketplace. Do you really choose one gas station or another because their gasoline is "better?"

I want to be treated as a professional whose work is consistently of high quality. But I do not want my products to be treated as commodities, though I also want them to be of consistently high quality. This is because, in a commodified world, price rules all, and in a global economy if my maps are just maps and I am paid for them accordingly, I cannot hope to earn a living wage in Minneapolis, competing with cartographers in the Philippines or Bangladesh.

Professions are a way of maintaining elites. What is the difference between the uniform standards of quality a lawyer must maintain to be admitted to the bar and the uniform standards a McDonald’s line cook must maintain? The major difference is the amount of education the lawyer must put in to achieve a legal standard, and the complexity of the system they must exercise their experience within. The degree of uniformity, of conformity to a standard, is virtually the same.

And so, what happens when a field no longer requires the accumulated knowledge it used to? When machines do more of the knowing and balancing and precision that it used to take an apprentice years to acquire? What happens, in short, to the cartographers of today?

Fifty years ago, map makers were a mysterious little cabal. We've never lived on gilded perches, like doctors or lawyers, or teachers in some parts of the world. We've always been a kind of hodgepodge, even when we tried to reach a more uniform respectability in the academy, coining ourselves "cartographers." We included people with backgrounds in printing, surveying, drafting, and the arts. One of the things that unified us was the specialized tools used to make published maps—whether abstract like the mathematics of map projections, or concrete like the scribers and scribe-coat, the rubylith, and the vacuum tables that road map publishers of my youth used. Today there are still specialized tools—GIS and graphics software—but they are ever more broadly used by fields outside cartography.

You didn't see cartographers on talk shows, but you saw maps, and these maps told you about the world in an omniscient, distant, authoritative way.

Today, and for a while now, anyone can make a map. They may have power and use, but they are hardly mysterious. And so, we cartographers—old-fashioned static cartographers—find ourselves in a gradually shrinking field.

Our situation is not new, nor is it hopeless. Expertise has been replaced by commodification over and over in our continuing industrial revolution. In my college years, it happened to graphic design. What was typographically sophisticated in my youth—this blog for example—is commonplace. It's templated, standardized, and those templates and standards come with the software. For many purposes, you don't need a professional.

And yet, there are professional designers. They create templates, they put a unique spin on products for high-paying clients, they engage in stylistic antics in the name of creativity. And they perform like consistent professionals. They deliver what is requested, without fail.

Plumbing isn't really mysterious. But it takes skill. I can now do very simple plumbing, but we still call the pro when it comes to leaks in hidden places. The risk of my being an inconsistent amateur and messing up is too big. Our spongy kitchen floor is a result of my thinking I could hook up a new dishwasher, for example. So, there are still places where you want a professional cartographer.

The question is (and this is not at all clear): where is that line for us? What are the things that cannot be reliably automated, or figured out by the equivalent of me with a wrench? When is it important, even where there is a consistent system in place, to have someone experienced behind the mapmaking wheel? When the constant change of geotechnology slows, what will it look like to be a "professional cartographer"? And will I want to do that work?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Commodities and Experts, Part 1

Hearing Sandeep Jauhar interviewed by Terry Gross yesterday about the changing world of being a physician got me thinking about something that's been on the edge of my awareness for a while now: the conflict in our society between what I'll call "commodification" and "expertise." It's not strictly speaking an economics argument, though economics do certainly play a central role. It actually has to do more with the creation of a commons, the kind of thing I ascribed to "the grid" and other pidgin mindpaces, several years ago here.

Jauhar's point, or at any rate the piece that grabbed me, was that doctors are being steered from private practice into larger, integrated environments like hospitals, so their care will be more integrated with other specialists, and can be shared instead of overlapping inefficiently. And these arguments from efficiency really do make a lot of sense. I don't want to have doctor one take a full medical history and draw blood only to have doctor two do the same exact thing two days later. Talk to each other, people!

But doctors also feel a lot of stress. Jauhar ascribes this to the mechanical, no-time-for-hands-on-medicine life doctors have to lead these days, but I also think part of it is related to what Atul Gawande referred to in his book and article about the need for checklists in modern medical treatment: in essence, medicine has now gotten complex enough and the consequences of forgetting a step (especially in regards to infection) so great, that seat-of-the-pants reliance on a doctor's orderly mind is not enough. You need to conform to a system, rigorously, in order to be as good a doctor as you can be.

I know why doctors get nervous about this. It's not just the adrenaline rush, the cowboy scalpel-jockey thing. It's that their own aura of expertise disappears, the more dependent that they become on an external system. I know this because I'm a cartographer. It's kind of hard to imagine today, with ubiquitous data and maps, that maps used to have a kind of mystery to them, and the making of them was kind of an arcane skill. Like being a scribe in an age of illiteracy. It's not that we were superhuman, but we had a kind of mysterious cabal going: we knew how to make these elaborate, complex things. And you didn't.

Except, now you do. Or you can. It's not that hard. And there are fewer of us as a result.

But something interesting happened on the way to this glut of cartographers: maps got noticeably better, especially bad maps. It used to be there were companies that made terrible, hard-to-read, really almost illegible maps, but they were cheaper, and so people used them. Now? The cheapest map is a screen-shot from Google Maps (not legal, but lots of people do it), and you know, they don't look half bad.

At my former employer, we made a point of not entering what we called the "commodity map" market. This was a situation where a map retailer or distributor just wanted a generic "road map" or "street map" and didn't actually care how good it was. Like selling milk or windshield fluid: get something in the rack that people will buy if they just want a map. We specialized in a cut above that: maps for people who actually cared about which map they were buying. Selective buyers...

And it's not a bad niche to try and fill, if you can persuade people your product is better. You can get it placed, and maybe you can sell it for a little more. Not always, but sometimes.

The thing is, the way you persuade anyone that your product is better, is by comparing it to those products that are not as good as yours. And so the rising quality of the worst maps has made it harder to market oneself as a "premium" map publisher. The gap just isn't as dramatic as it used to be.

I was listening to a CD of the Cars on my car stereo this week, and thinking about the incredible time and technical expertise that went into their work and some of the other top acts of the 1960s through 1980s. When I was growing up, in the mid-1970s, the technical difference between the music of thirty years prior and then was enormous: Glenn Miller vs the Eagles. That same gap doesn't exist today. Recordings aren't really all that different from 30 years ago, c 1984. Heartbeat City, which apparently took months of excruciating work to get to sound like Ric Ocasek wanted... to sound like a lot of pop records today. And that's the difference: you don't have to be a genius or have tens of thousands of dollars floating around to make a pop record that sounds like a top-quality recording. The bottom bar has raised.

And in a lot of ways, this is a really good thing. The overall technical quality of our stuff is better. Cars routinely last for way more than a decade and 200,000 miles is not freakish. I remember our old Volvo was old at ten years and 100,000 miles back in 1976. And that was a Volvo. They would run forever.

Commodification—the creation of standards—also allows things like recipe books. A cup of flour is a cup of flour now, in a way that it wouldn't have been before flour mills became national operations in the late 19th Century. What variance there is in gluten or moisture content is the kind of thing an epicure, or a commercial baker, might care about. If you want to make a cake yourself? Pillsbury, Gold Medal, King Arthur... all will do the job just fine.

But this commodification also meant that the hands-on tinkering that local millers engaged in, the learning and re-learning what this machine will do at that time of year, and how to adjust to make the best flour from the local fields... this kind of expertise is now put into a context where responsibility is given to a higher order. That miller, now working for ADM or General Mills or whatever, is working in much less forgiving conditions, in a marketplace where there are seemingly faceless competitors ready to wipe you aside in the unlikely event that you should fall off of the pretty precise standards for "flour" in todays market.

About 15 years ago, I abruptly learned from a fellow actor what "professionalism" meant in his world. He had worked in the professional world, and was now doing high-end community theater. He was good at his craft, but what he defined professionalism as was not quality but consistency. It was his employer knowing that he could be called upon to show up on time, and deliver the same quality of performance he'd demonstrated previously. Obviously, he'd be paid more and get better gigs if the quality was better. And there are plenty of examples of performers whose performance is anything but consistent... except that even these are mostly consistent in their eccentricity. Robin Williams and especially Andy Kaufmann would deliver a surprise. That was their promise. And they did.

And speaking as broadly as possible, that kind of genius is one end of what I mean by expertise. When you are selling your ability to solve a problem and deliver a finished result—whether it's by a doctor or a plumber or a comedian or a cartographer—what you are selling is expertise. But it's harder and harder to escape the fact that you are also selling the consistency of the results you deliver. So much of our economy is now based in comparison shopping for equivalent results within a narrow range of acceptable standards, it takes an effort to carve out a space where expertise is actually valuable.

In some fields (writing for example), this has been true for a long time. "Everyone's a novelist, and anyone can sing/But no one talks when the TV's on," as Moxy Früvous sang. Writers who work for non-publishers regularly face the fact that "lots of people can write." Not as consistently, but most college educated people can put together a letter in written English that will be understood by the recipient. 500 years ago, this was not so true. Also way fewer people went to college.

Others of us are just getting used to this mode of working for pay in a technology that "anyone can do." But more and more of us are living in a data-rich world, where our special knowledge isn't all that special anymore. And as the distance between what anyone can do and what only a few can do continues to narrow, will we really end up with experts anymore? Those of us who grew up into an expertise really want to find a way to hang on to that, but is it really necessary? What happens to the place experts hold in our society?

We're seeing some of that now in America, with the declining respect given to experts: scientists, doctors... what do they know? This anti-elitism is nothing new, but it's backed up now by a diffusion of knowledge—not wisdom, but knowledge—that gives those expert elites less to stand upon.

I think those elites—the knowledge and technical cabals of old—are really evidences of imbalance. I'm not sorry to see them go, except that I kind of like it when people say, "Oooh, you make maps?!?!" at dinner parties. I like it, but it gets kind of old, honestly. I'd rather focus on what makes a humane way to be "professional," in the sense that actor meant. There the expertise was not black-box magic hocus-pocus. It was a practiced skill, an ability to perform consistently. That is valuable and it's healthily sustainable.

So why then does commodification sound so unpleasant, like The Prisoner's "I am not a number, I am a human being!"? What is the difference between professionalism and commodification? I'll discuss that in the next post.