Entire classes of intermediaries have been wiped out, or severely stressed, and replaced by software. We use travel agents and stockbrokers less; we look up crappy cars on the Internet ourselves and day-trade. Kill the editors! One of the underlying arguments of ubiquitous digitalization is that nearly everything can be democratized; there are few areas of expertise that cannot be penetrated by iPad Man, including law, medicine, investing, wine sipping and dog judging. Access to information proverbially levels the playing field and drives out the fee-taking middleman. And yet we miss the buggers when they're gone. Experience, training, nuance and perspective depart with them, leaving Google. This is odd because if there's one thing nearly everyone can agree on, it's that the world, fueled by pyrotechnic technology and science, grows ever more complex. Go no further than derivatives, which in terms of comprehension seem as arcane as quantum physics. And yet we'll go out and buy "Derivatives for Dummies" and some value-at-risk software to finance the local sewage plant. Then we'll buy "Bankruptcy for Dummies."
The plight of the middleman is such that we can easily calculate our savings from eliminating his fee, but we can never know the gain if he remains. An intermediary is like a tax or a stimulus. Psychologically, ridding ourselves of intermediaries means we no longer have to look at someone we hired for advice and think: Are you smart, shrewd, honest, or a fibber and a fraud? Are you Bernie Madoff? Let us not diminish the difficulty of dealing with intermediaries. They know more than you; that's always unsettling. Now it's true, in an earlier age, the intermediary relationship was often sealed by retainer, and there was accountability for failure or double-dealing; loss of retainers has had a bad moral effect on both sides. Today, retainers are nearly as retrograde as taxes. There's no doubt that certain trends -- corporate gigantism, diverse customer bases, short-term grabs for efficiency over effectiveness, big-footing interests such as shareholders -- have eroded the relationship. But if handling intermediaries requires judgment, insight and care, then doing without means wrestling with the greatest mystery of all: your infinitely fallible, lonely self.
This goes deeper than just eliminating a glib consigliere who may offer good value or not. Mentally, as we drive intermediaries away, we also turn that middle space with its opacities and ambiguities into a wasteland. It's for fuzzy-minded relativists and bourgeois sellouts. In an age devoted to quantification, we demand certainty; we disdain compromise ("to be compromised" is an insult) and complexity, which we associate with duplicity. The extremes are simple; the middle is a swamp. The middle is where qualifications, discriminations, exceptions and anomalies gather; the middle exists because the future is uncertain. Nothing is ever perfect in the middle -- perfection being either utopian, totalitarian or divine. The extremes do not require unsettling thought, close attention or sensible empiricism. They're like ancient monuments in the jungle: Offer a sacrifice and move on. The middle demands tolerance, compromise, horse trading, balance: thought. It's often unsatisfying. It easily produces conflict and corruption, and solutions emerging from it will prove wrong as often as right. It's the mess of democratic politics. Like the intermediary, we won't know its worth until we lose it.
Todd P. Kelly joined the Dallas Office of Jones Day as a partner in the healthcare and life sciences practice. For other updates launch today's Movers & shakers slideshow.
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