Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Casual Advice

In theory, friends should be best placed to give advice. They should know you best and be able to apply your context to whatever problem is being solved.

Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution talks about the rise of Opaque Intelligence. As things get more and more complicated, there is distance between our various specialities. We may struggle to talk to each other about work related issues because we simply don't have the shared vocabulary and understanding. Experts talk in chunks. As they push to the lonely edge of knowledge they need those they are engaging with to have done some work simply to be able to understand a little of what they are saying. An idea that takes years to conquer may be summarised in a sentence. They may also have forgotten what it is like to not understand. Tyler Cowen wrote a great (short read) book on the subject called Average Is Over.


This makes asking a friend who knows something about something you don't know for advice awkward. There is a catch-22 situation. We need to trust people or machines that we don't understand, but we are wary of blind faith. If we don't understand something but it feels wrong, I think we are fighting a beast if we just try to go with it. If a friend gives advice and then things go wrong in the eyes of the advice taker, the friendship may be at risk. The very source of trust that may enable blind faith may be the thing not worth risking.

This is additionally complicated by the fact that those best placed to make decisions are still those on the front lines. Whether it is medicine or finance, our individual circumstances are complicated and it require someone to really get to know us if they were to make the best decisions for us. You can't just casually show a friend who is a doctor a mole and ask for a diagnosis. On the outside chance your buddy has specialised in the relevant area, a doctor needs to do a full examination to get a good picture of what is going on. The same is true for friends who are lawyers, accountants, architects or whatever. Even in their relevant field it would be hard to choose a King or Queen to make decisions for us. This means someone has to spend a lot of relevant time with you to help you. Casual advice over a beer is dangerous.

I think the tug of war between trust and communication will be interesting to watch as we choose which way to go. Less blind faith is needed if you keep things simple enough to wrap your head around. But letting go of control may let you lean into the magic.

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