Long live experts….

Along with “liberal, metropolitan elite”, the word “expert” appears to have become a pejorative term. Well, I say, “long live experts”. Without experts, we’d still believe that the world was flat, that the sun orbited around the Earth, and that the universe is only 6,000 years old…. Without experts we’d also have no knowledge of ancient civilisations, no comprehension of languages, no awareness of scientific phenomena, no understanding of how to prevent and cure disease, no patience to engage with the human condition, and no appreciation of nature, technology, art or culture.

Just a couple of “experts”: Marie Curie and Albert Einstein

I read recently that, “Marie Curie and Albert Einstein went hiking together in the Alps”. At first, I thought this was some fantastic fiction, because I wasn’t aware they knew each other, let alone went walking. But the line didn’t come from a David Mitchell novel – I came across it in Alex Soojung-Kim Pang‘s recent book, “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less”. It reveals something of the way knowledge seeks out knowledge – how great minds (experts) often get together to collaborate, or just hang out and shoot the breeze. The expert mind is also an inquiring and creative mind, open to new ideas and influences, unlike the hermetically sealed personalities of many of our current leaders.

(According to Pang, regular physical activity, creative pursuits, technical mastery and planned rest are among the key traits for many experts – so much for the 35-hour working week, 9-5 routines, and a couple of weeks’ annual vacation….)

Maybe one reason for this increased disregard for experts is the fact that many experts tend to make us feel uncomfortable (about our own ignorance?), they challenge our assumptions (and highlight our personal prejudices?), and they tell us things we’d rather not think about (even if it’s probably for our own good?).

And while I accept some experts can be patronising, aloof and even smug, there is a breed of experts, like Demis Hassabis, who are brilliant communicators. They can explain complex ideas in straightforward terms, and through their enthusiasm and natural curiosity, they show how they continue to wonder about what they don’t yet know. They also manage to bring us on their journey into difficult topics and uncharted areas, such as artificial intelligence.

Finally, and in the interest of balance, the only thing worse than a recognised expert is a self-appointed one…. (a theme Laurie Anderson explored in her satirical work, “Only an Expert”.)

Next week: SportsTech and Wearables Pitch Night at Startup Victoria

The arts for art’s sake…

Last week I wrote about the importance of learning coding skills. This prompted a response from one reader, advocating the teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) in schools: “Coding and the STEM subjects are our gateway into the future.” I would agree. But, as other commentators have noted elsewhere, we also need to put the A (for art) into STEM to get STEAM to propel us forward….

Equivalent VIII (1966) Carl Andre (b.1935) Purchased 1972 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01534

Equivalent VIII (1966) Carl Andre (b.1935) Purchased by Tate Gallery in 1972 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01534

I recently attended a talk by renowned arts administrator Michael Lynch, as part of the FLAIR art event, where he expressed frustration at the state of the arts in Australia, the lack of a public arts policy, and the associated cuts to government funding. It can’t help that from John Howard onward, we have had a sequence of Prime Ministers who, while not total Philistines, have shown little enthusiasm, appetite or appreciation for the arts. And during Q&A, Mr Lynch referenced the conservative and “safe” nature of so much arts programming as evidenced by the lack of risk-taking and the stale and over-familiar choice of repertoire, although he did acknowledge some arts organisations were doing exciting work.

The debate then shifted to whether we need a new method to evaluate the benefits of a strong arts sector that is not purely dependent on economic terms or financial performance. It was not possible in the time available to come up with a suitable indicator, but I suggest we can derive a range of benefits from putting more emphasis on teaching, supporting and sponsoring the arts. This RoI might be measured in such terms as the following:

  • Enhancing creativity among students will benefit individual problem-solving skills and collective innovation;
  • A healthy arts scene is indicative of a balanced, self-assured and progressive society;
  • Participating in the arts can give people a sense of confidence and well-being;
  • Through art we can learn about culture, philosophy and history – especially of other societies;
  • Giving people the means to express themselves through art is an important outlet for their skills, talent and interests.

We agonize about the amount of investment in our Olympic athletes in pursuit of gold medals, and whether the money can be justified (goodness – Australia only just made the top 10!)  But no-one (yet) has suggested it’s not worth doing, even if we don’t win as many medals as is often predicted. And of course, together with the wider popular entertainment industry, professional sports attract more dollars, airtime and support through sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting rights, gambling revenue, club memberships and merchandise than the arts could ever hope to.

Part of the challenge lies in the popular notion that arts are either elitist, worthy, self-important, or simply frivolous – which makes it harder to build an economic case for the arts, but which can also lead to the worst kind of cultural cringe. Also, if the arts are really doing their job, they hold up a mirror to our society, and we may not like what we see. Populist politicians can’t afford to be associated or identified with such critiques – either as the targets or as de facto protagonists – so would they rather be seen shaking hands with gold medalists (or attending a Bruce Springsteen concert…) than maybe attending a cutting-edge performance by The Necks?

Next week: The latest installment of Startup Victoria pitch night