I’ve expressed this as variations on “the deeper the specialization, the more those specialists feel they’re experts on much wider subjects”. Megan McArdle‘s formulation is rather neater than that:
Amid the chaos, I got a call from the secretary of a very senior executive at the firm. His new voice-recognition software wasn’t working, and he needed me to come up right away.
I had servers that weren’t working right and a bunch of workstations that couldn’t access the network. “He should call the help desk,” I told her.
Her tone was arctic.
“He doesn’t deal with help desk personnel,” she said. “Please come up here right away.”
So I went to the office of Mr. Senior Executive. He was not at his desk. I played with his new software, which seemed to be working fine — a bit slow, but in 1998, voice-recognition software took a while to become acclimated to your voice. I told the secretary it seemed to be working, and I left my pager number. It went off as I got to the elevator bank. I trekked wearily back to the office, where Mr. Senior Executive gestured at his computer. “It still doesn’t work right,” he said, and started to leave the office again.
“Hold on, please,” I said. “Can you show me exactly what’s not working?”
“It’s not doing what I want,” he said.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“I want it to be,” he replied, “like the computer on Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“Sir, that’s an actor,” I replied evenly, despite being on the sleepless verge of hysteria. With even more heroic self-restraint, I did not add “We can get you an actor to sit under your desk. But we’d have to pay SAG rates.”
Now, when I used to tell this story to tech people, the moral was that executives are idiots. No, make that “users are idiots.” Tech people tend to regard their end-users as a sort of intermediate form of life between chimps and information-technology staffers: They’ve stopped throwing around their feces, but they can’t really be said to know how to use tools.
And, of course, users can do some idiotic things. But this particular executive was not an idiot. He was, in fact, a very smart man who had led financial institutions on two continents. None of the IT staffers laughing at his elementary mistake would have lasted for a week in his job.
Call it “the illusion of omnicompetence.” When you know a lot about one thing, you spend a lot of time watching the less knowledgeable make elementary errors. You can easily infer from this that you are very smart, and they are very stupid. Presumably, our bank executive knew that the phasers and replicators on Star Trek are fake; why did he think that the talking computer would be any more real?