How often do other humans help you do things like find out what the weather will be tomorrow, figure out a good place for dinner, book a flight, or buy a sweater? In the Information Age we take for granted remote, rapid access to data. That access has made many processes much more efficient (catching a ride, balancing a checkbook, recalling who won Super Bowl XXVI, etc.). But in addition to making things faster, the Information Age has fundamentally altered our landscape. Arguably, the most profound changes have come as a result of disintermediation.
What is “Disintermediation?”
Direct information access allows users, consumers, and citizens to do things that used to require a mediator of some sort. This removal of the middle “man” is known as disintermediation. Mediators or intermediaries have taken many forms: salespersons, travel agents, librarians, lawyers, meteorologists, genealogists, medical professionals, and so on.
In this on-demand world we do much more for ourselves than people did only a generation ago. Again, this has greatly increased efficiencies. But what have we lost? Intermediaries provided something of value: expertise. In fact, expertise was a big part of what we paid for when we had to use intermediaries, in contrast to the disintermediated status quo.
“Everyone’s an Expert = No One is an Expert!”
Take the travel industry as an example. I am old enough to remember the days when travel agents were ubiquitous and important. I would never have imagined booking a trip, especially a complicated one, without the guidance of an expert. Travel agents helped me find the best deals, accommodations, and itineraries. Now I can do all of that on my own. I have become my own travel expert.
Like travel agents, record store salespersons were early causalities of the disintermediated economy. I’m also old enough to remember going to record stores all the time. Workers in those stores often provided me guidance in finding specific music I was looking for, but also gave tips on hot releases or artists I might like based on my preferences. Now Pandora does that for me and I can go on-line to search and buy music from anywhere. I have become my own music expert.
Brick and mortar stores of all types have taken huge hits due to disintermediation. When was the last time you bought a book in a bookstore? Had a salesperson help you find good-fitting jeans? This phenomenon extends beyond consumerism. It used to be that when we had questions about our health we saw physicians or talked to them on the phone (and I remember the days of house calls). Now we have become our own medical experts. We don’t have to wait for the evening news to get the weather forecast; but not only can we find the hourly or daily forecast anytime we want, we can look at the radar map for ourselves. We have become our own meteorologists. Who needs brokers anymore? We have become our own day traders.
Disintermediation has led to the co-opting of expertise in numerous aspects of modern life. I believe that this has cognitive effects that now extend beyond technology interfaces. Because we see ourselves as experts of all types, we have a different perspective on a range of intermediaries, including institutions.
A dramatic example is how science is valued (or disvalued) in contemporary culture. Disintermediation provides the false sense that our expertise rivals those of trained, seasoned scientists. Because we see ourselves as experts, we dismiss the institution of science. We now think for ourselves! Science is about the uncovering of truth. But skepticism is now rampant, even about such accepted truths as the earth being round. Why is the compelling and overwhelming evidence about human-made climate change derided? Political agendas and the fossil fuel industry are culprits, but the public would not have taken the bait had the disintermediation of science not occurred. We’ve lost science as a lodestar for truth.
Another example is the fake news calamity. For decades news consumption took the form of evening network broadcasts, municipal daily papers, and weekly magazines. News organizations, with their editorial boards and teams of journalists, were institutions that helped us make sense of our world. But now we can digest news in 140-character chunks and short video clips found through social media. To be fair, mistrust in media outlets was in some instances self-inflicted (see Brian Williams and Jayson Blair). But disintermediation is the major reason that news organizations are dismissed. We’ve lost journalism as a lodestar for truth.
Trump, the Ultimate Disintermediator
Finally, politics have been turned inside-out because of disintermediation. During the 2016 presidential campaign, much was said and written about the political establishment and how Trump, in particular, was succeeding as an outsider. More than any other candidate in our history, Trump is a disintermediator. He by-passed the Republican party and took the White House. He communicated directly with voters through bombast, invectives, falsehoods, and provocative tweets. He never would have gotten the party nomination in the days before disintermediation because the Republican establishment would have been strong enough to derail his candidacy. The powers that be (or were) would have seen the truth about his fitness for office. But we’ve lost political parties as a lodestar for truth.
The irony is that in the on-demand world, where we can so readily connect to anything and anyone, we are now on our own. We don’t have intermediaries to guide us with their expertise like we used to have. We don’t have institutions in which we trust for judgment and direction. This is the new normal, and the truth hurts.