Session Description: Once, sages had authority based on their expertise or institutional rank. But now everyone’s an expert. And soon AI may trump us all. In the future, who (or what) has authority and the power to make decisions?

Here is an excerpt from the Authority in a Networked World panel. The full transcript can be downloaded here.


Hempel: Hi, I’m Jessi Hempel. I’m pretty sure Simone loves this panel because she hates authority and would like an impressive discussion on how to tear it apart and rebuild it. But let me tell you who we have with us. We have Rachel Maguire from the Institute for the Future, we have Eli Pariser from Upworthy, and we have Gary Marcus, currently affiliated with NYU, always affiliated with NYU. I am Jessi Hempel from Backchannel and when Simone and David were first thinking about this topic and thinking about how to have a conversation about authority, we began to think about how authority in the twentieth century was prescribed. It came from institutions, it came from experts, we universally decided who those were and it was top down, and we’ve seen that become entirely disrupted over the last twenty, thirty years. And I think that we’ve hit peak distrust in authority but, even as I say that, I worry that I actually don’t know anything, like we’re going way up over the mountain, and that’s what we want to talk about today. But in order to talk about that effectively, I think we have to start by defining our terms. Guys, what is authority?

Rachel Maguire: I am. I am the authority on authority, clearly. [LAUGHTER]

Hempel: I’ll take that, Rachel.

Maguire: So, I come from—I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of health and healthcare, so the lens I’ll bring often to this conversation will really be about what’s changing in authority when it comes to how we pursue and produce health. But broadly, I’d say we’re moving from where authority was conferred or authority has the right to command—historically, I think it’s been structural in nature. That we had structural authority, which is that you had the right to command by your position so to your point, institutional, but it was also what scholars call sapiential authority, or knowledge-based authority, and certainly in healthcare one of the key transitions that we’re undergoing when it comes to who has authority, not necessarily power, but authority in healthcare is really around that changing knowledge around what in effect actually does produce good health and so do the institutions or the entities that have authority in health today actually have sapiential or the knowledge that’s needed to maintain that authority over the next decade.

Hempel: I know that you have a framework for how to think about it and I want to talk about it that but before we do I want to ask broadly, do you agree, both of you, that authority to date has been, and tell me if I’m getting this right, largely about who has the knowledge and that has been mostly determined by your affiliation with an institution?

Eli Pariser: No, just the negative. I’m not a social scientist but from what I understand of how trust in authority, what it does for us psychologically. It’s helpful to go back a couple thousand years, or a couple of tens of thousands of years, and say what are our cognitive structures built around and a lot of them are built around making very quick assessments of who is on my side, who is not on my side, who has my interests at heart, who doesn’t have my interests at heart.

Gary Marcus: And who knows what they’re doing.

Pariser: And who knows what they’re doing but I would argue that the question of competence is an interesting one to interrogate because it’s not about access to knowledge per say as much as who is going to protect me when someone’s attacking me. I still think that that is the primary lens through which many bonds of authority are created and then I think there’s a sort of technical domain that you’re speaking about where we have a totally different way of conferring authority. In our normal lives trust is built through your being on my team or not on my team, and acting in my interests or not in my interests. That’s all kind of playing out as we see authority decenter because we’re replacing a procedural way of building authority with one that is actually much more familiar, which is person-to-person, do I trust the person who shared this piece of information rather than do I trust the process by which this piece of information was made.

Hempel: There seems to be you’re not that far off. This centralized version of authority

Pariser: It’s more interesting if we disagree.

Hempel: Yes, it is, I appreciate that. We need that in the middle of the afternoon, too, maybe you don’t have coffee in front of you.

Pariser: Yes.

Hempel: Maybe you’re adding a historical lens, which is it feels like this centralized notion of authority is being disrupted then we have to keep in mind that authority hasn’t always worked this way and maybe, in reality, it doesn’t work this way.

Marcus: I’m with Eli in thinking that the brain can be shortcut. We evolved in an environment where we wanted quick information about all kinds of things. For a very long time no individual has been able to do everything so we’ve been in a position where we’re reliant on others and we have to make snap judgements about who to rely on. Maybe we get some data over time: this is the person, the leader of my village, or something like that, are they reliable? But we often use shortcuts to say “I can’t do this myself.” I’m a scientist, among other things, and as a scientist I have to do this so I can’t do every single experiment myself. I have to decide which other scientists are doing good work or maybe not doing good work. I make decisions like this all the time. We almost never make them on the basis of enough data.

It used to be, not too long ago, that I could trust, say, The New York Times or something like that. Now, I get a lot of my information, say, from Facebook, and maybe there are different standards there but the brain is still kind of grasping for that quick fix about, “Okay this is where I get my information from, I’m good to go. I’m not going to analyze every single piece of information individually. I’m going to be comfortable because Google or Facebook gives it up to me.” I think that probably part of why we’re talking today is that we have a new kind of centralization of authority which comes from places like Google and Facebook. They don’t pronounce, “Hey, I’m the authority,” but we implicitly assume as we visit their sites that they are authorities and, of course, this has come into question, as well it should in last few months.

It should have come into question for longer but I think part of the question is that there’s a new regime here for where people get their information from and what they trust and how they decide what they trust. I’m not sure we’re that well equipped as a society to know. I remember a study I reported in a book I wrote a few years ago called “Kluge.” The study looked at children and websites. This was about 2008 I think. Children trusted the sites based on how good the graphics were. The implicit assumption is that if the graphics are good, they must have money, they must have put this together right. We all know that this is not actually a good metric but what are adults using now? I’m not sure they’re so much better. It’s like, “Well, my friend posted on Facebook.” They’re not even thinking about that Facebook has some algorithm to serve up the things from the friends that most agree with them.

Pariser: And there’s plenty of research that says adults make those same snap judgements when it comes to fake news and if the website looks credible just from a design perspective, then they’ll buy in. My point was, as a group of highly-educated rationalists—I’m going to go out on a limb and guess—it’s easy to forget how non-rational authority is in many domains. In fact, many of the shortcuts you’re describing are actually the opposite of what we know empirically about where competence comes from. There’s a Harvard Business Review study that was circulating about leadership and it turns out that the most effective leaders tend to be kind of quiet, consensus builders, tend to have a lot of traits that female leaders have that men may have less but that we think of leadership, our cognitive schema for leadership is kind of a hard-charging narcissist. I’m not making a political comment here. What we think competence looks like and what it actually looks like are two very different things and our brains mislead us on that.

Marcus: The simplest version, very quickly, is that usually the presidential candidate that is taller wins. This is a short—sorry—a simple metric that you can use and it’s not a very good one, it’s not correlated with reality.

Hempel: This does not bode well for women in presidential elections.

Marcus: It doesn’t. We have brains that do that. There’s a question that if we know that our brains keep gravitating toward these superficial cues of what we’re going to do about it, which really brings you into things like education.