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The Danger of Becoming an Expert

 

Photo: Courtney Vinopal CJS ’17

Photo: Courtney Vinopal/CJS ’17

By Joshua Oliver

The first thing I have learned at journalism school is that reporting often requires you to become an expert in 15 minutes. It sometimes feels like I’m being told to walk into a room, spin around once, leave the room, and then describe what I saw. We certainly need reporters who are effective generalists, but we also need journalists who become experts on their beats — not just 15-minute trainees.

As one seasoned editor told me: You need to know enough that you can tell when your sources are lying to you.

This is especially important when it comes to reporting on the internet. Fundamentally, the internet is an infrastructure system: Roads handle cars. Pipes handle water. The grid handles electricity. And the internet handles information.

But reporting on infrastructure isn’t easy; it is complicated by the fact that so many people don’t have a basic understanding of how the web functions. For more familiar systems, like roads, people have a sense of how they are supposed to operate and what failure looks like. Traffic jams or bridge collapses are obvious. That doesn’t guarantee that people will care about traffic flow or deferred maintenance. But at least we know what we are talking about.

The same is not true about the internet. I don’t have polling data, but I would imagine most Americans think the Border Gateway Protocol is a team of Marvel superheroes and that Distributed Denial of Service is a new policy at the post office. In fact, some people even find it surprising to learn that the internet is really a physical system.

The marketing of things like “cloud” services suggests that the internet is something nebulous and ethereal, rather than a big, heavy net of metal and plastic that has been quietly wrapped around the planet.

Perhaps my favorite reminder of the network’s physicality comes from 2011 when, as the BBC reported, an elderly woman accidentally took the nation of Armenia offline for 28 hours by damaging some cables while scavenging for copper.

Now I have to admit that it was only embarrassingly recently that I learned the basic realities of the internet myself. If you had asked me two years ago, I would not have anticipated that I’d end up studying the internet. A student newspaper colleague once affectionately told me that I am “a non-person” online, and I have earned a reputation for being a cranky luddite and Twitter recalcitrant. Still, curiosity about how the web was changing journalism led me to a course about the internet at the University of Toronto taught by Professor Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab, a research group that combines academic and technological expertise to study human rights and security issues online.

Not only did I learn about the hardware side of the internet, I also realized that studying the web isn’t exclusively, or even mostly, about technology. It is about people and how people interact with technology. From that class, I went on to work at the Citizen Lab researching web censorship.

I’m not close to being an expert in this field. In fact, I am a beginner. But I am a thousand times better informed than I was or ever knew I needed to be.

What I’ve found is that for every bit more expert I get, I find it one bit harder to explain things to people who don’t share this specialty. That is the danger of becoming an expert. From all appearances, it is hard to be genuinely knowledgeable about something and explain it accessibly to a general audience.

This is a problem in many fields, but it’s very relevant to reporting on internet technology. It requires a lot of discipline and intellectual empathy to explain the basics every time. People who master this art deserve a lot of praise. I’m not close to mastering it yet; but I’m working on it.

Joshua Oliver is an M.S. candidate in the Columbia Journalism School Class of 2017 and a graduate of the University of Toronto. He is also a former research assistant at Citizen Lab. He can be reached at jco2132@columbia.edu.

Editor’s Note: For more about technology criticism and coverage, please read our newest report by Tow Center fellow Sara Watson.