Archives: amateurs

I’m still a bit underwhelmed by the Tofflers’ Revolutionary Wealth. There may be better insight to come in it, but right now it seems to be lagging conceptually when compared to a couple of science fiction novels I’ve been reading.

One of the new-wealth concepts that the Tofflers’ mention is the idea of “prosuming”, by which they mean non-monetarily re-imbursed volunteer or amateur activity that either has an effect on the monetized economy or enhances the overall social wealth. An example of this might be online communities like youtube or flickr, or the extravagantly helpful digital art instructional forums of CGTalk. Very few of the content providers to these websites see any financial reimbursement for their time or personal expense in creativity. They do, however, enhance the general wealth by creating a vast, deep resource of images and advice for anyone interested in looking, and they have generated a tremendous amount of wealth for the individuals who invested in the structural creation of these forums.

Benjamin Franklin; Founding Prosumer

We can see this happening now. It’s not new however. You can look to any good biography of Ben Franklin to find out about some two century old examples of the same phenomenon:

…he formed a number of his colleagues into the Junto, “a Club for mutual Improvement.”

From this group, motivated by the wish to do good and an inclination for making profit, there was to grow a variety of public institutions…

…Franklin then proposed something more ambitious: a subscription library which could be joined by anyone prepared to pay an entrance fee and an annual subscription…

The next public innovation which he sponsored concerned the City Watch, which, he wrote, “I conceiv’d to want Regulation.” … (Franklin) proposed a regular force of watchmen who would be paid by householders, the payment being proportional to their property.

In 1736 he proposed the formation of a thirty-man (fire) brigade whose members would meet once a month “& spend a social Evening together, in discoursing and communicating such Ideas as occur’d to us upon the Subject of Fires as might be useful in our Conduct on such Occasions.”

Much the same practice of first sounding out informed opinion through the Junto and The Pennsylvania Gazette was followed when he proposed improving the paving, lighting, and cleaning of streets, the foundation of a city hospital and of the College which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. More important, however, was the American Philosophical Society, and inter-colonial Junto… “…formed of Virtuosi or ingenious Men, residing in the several Colonies… who are to maintain a constant Correspondence…” The members were to meet at least once a month and discuss the correspondence received. Their subjects, it appears from Franklin’s letter, covered almost the entire field of human knowledge, ranging from botany to geology, art and industry… Franklin himself offered to serve as secretary until someone else could be found.

– Ronald W. Clark – Benjamin Franklin: A Biography

Ben Franklin’s mad fit of colonial prosuming spawned police departments, fire departments, libraries, universities, hospitals, and learned societies. All of these things were begun as amateur volunteer efforts, but became the foundations of professional institutions as the colonies matured into a nation.

Part of the reason this could happen is, these things didn’t exist yet in colonial America. There was not sufficient centralized authority to impose solutions to these difficulties, so Franklin and his associates devised solutions on the fly.

Colonizing the Internet

The dramatically easier exchange of information made possible by the internet is kicking off another era of amateur volunteerism, as it provides a sophisticated and largely unregulated forum in which individuals can make the world over new. It fosters societies of like minded people to pursue objectives that might have been impossible a few years ago due to the improbability of them actual meeting and forming societies. It allows detailed, specific information on how to do things to be democratically distributed. It has much potential that has still not been tapped, with plenty of room for building new institutions from the ground up.

Again, I guess, it seems like this aspect of wealth creation isn’t really a new revolution… it really seems analogous to the amateur volunteerism required by undeveloped frontiers of the past.

I went on about Ben Franklin a bit more than I at first intended, so I’ll save the more innovative examples of new-era wealth creation from science fiction novels in the next post.

It didn’t start with Trading Spaces, but a minor addiction I developed to that show was maybe one of the first strong signs. Next came a fixation on the magazines Dwell and Make, and now there’s Craft.

I built a computer desk with the exact configuration of sliding keyboard/wacom trays I wanted, from scratch. After moving to my new apartment, rather than throw/give away the moving boxes, I made a bunch of custom slipcases for an otherwise ragged assortment of paperbacks.

I started drawing again.

Back in 2003 I had a slogan; “Debt free in ’03”. It was an effective organizing principle. I got out of debt that year. I’ve been looking for a new slogan, something catchy and simple, to focus life this year. The theme is making things, creating, instead of just consuming. I have nothing against consumption; it’s just that at some point you need to decide on which side of the equation you want to live most of your life. Production is better than Consumption.

P > C

There seems to be quite a resurgence of the ideal of the amateur – the person who follows a pursuit out of love, not strictly out of professional duty.

If all goes well, we might be looking at the beginning of what David Brin sees

“as a looming ‘Age of Amateurs,’ wherein a highly educated citizenry will be able to adeptly bring to bear countless capabilities and individual pools of knowledge, some of which may not be up to professional standards, but that can find synergy together, perhaps augmenting society’s skill set, at a time of need.”

Warren Ellis imagined something like this in his 2002 comic book series Global Frequency. He imagines a worldwide organization of first responders composed of ordinary people who have specialized skills, who might be called on at any time to head off catastrophe.

But, even on a more modest scale, everywhere I look these days it seems like I’m seeing the amateur ideal being held up as an worthwhile pursuit.

The title of this blog is a riff on David Brin’s book length essay The Transparent Society which explores the implications of ubiquitous survailance with regard to privacy and freedom. His argument is that in order retain freedom, the tools of survailance need to be available to everyone. His answer to the ancient question “Who watches the watchmen?” is “The watched.”

In making this argument, he advocates a robust role for an informed, amateur citizenry in building a free and resilient future. It looks in many ways like this is starting to form itself already.

For a quick example, consider what’s happening to the entertainment industry.

Advertisers, long demonized as the puppeteers of material greed, are now scrambling to find ways of inserting themselves into an accellerating diversity of user propelled media. Mass attention is no longer funnelled into very few monolithic one-way channels, and seems likely to never be aggregated so completely ever again.

Though the Internet itself started as a big government project, and has its infrastructure maintained by an assortment of large telecommunications companies, most of the profitable activities that are engaged in on that network were born out of essentially amateur endeavors. Users both provide and consume content, and advertisers simply ride along, hoping to be noticed.

In the old television model of media distribution, advertisers underwrote the entertainment produced by professional specialists in the hope of capturing the attention of consumers on behalf of their clients. Now, the model is shifting to one in which advertisers pay the consumer base directly to make their clients’ messages available in association with entertainment that the consumer base produces for itself.

In the early days of humaninty, all life was transparent. You lived in a small familial group or village, and everybody knew everybody else’s business, and everybody did everything. Civilization grew, accumulating large population centers, giving birth to annonymity, privacy and specialization, and eventually nobody really knew what anybody else was doing, and people relied on professionals for many of their daily needs. Now, enabling technologies have developed to the point that privacy and professional authority are diminishing again, and though we still live with tremendous population concentration, life is becoming essentially more village-like by the day.

I mentioned this idea to a friend, who countered that it might not be such a good thing, that a degree of privacy might be a necessary enabler of innovation, as it’s difficult to buck the system when everybody is looking over your shoulder. There are reasons pre-industrial life is dominated by unchanging tradition.

I wonder if there is a different quality to the loss of privacy in such a large population base, though… individuals will probably retain a level of annonymity simply as a function of the sheer number of other individuals. No one will have time to pester everyone.

That’s a fairly shallow dismissal of a good objection, though. I’ll think about it some more, and see what I can come up with in response.

In the meantime, I encourge you to tune yourself in to the Global Frequency.