Rogue Waves

The Pro-Am Revolution

Yet another in the small pile of shorts essays I wrote for the “Year in Ideas” issue of the New York Times Magazine. This one is about Charles Leadbetter’s recent report on “The Pro-Am Revolution”:

Professional Amateurs

by Clive Thompson

In January, a man named Jay McNeil peered into his telescope and discovered a nebula — a developing young star — out near the Orion constellation. Professional astronomers worldwide hailed the discovery. But McNeil himself is no credentialed scientist; he installs TV satellite dishes for a living. Today’s backyard skygazers, it seems, use equipment so sophisticated that they can beat out the world’s biggest, well-financed observatories.

And that, according to Charles Leadbeater, a social critic, should be no surprise. In a report titled ”The Pro-Am Revolution,” published by the London-based Demos policy center, Leadbeater argued that a new breed of demi-expert is evolving, collapsing the distinction between an expert and a tinkerer. Cheaper technology offers amateurs increasingly powerful tools; the Internet allows them to collaborate globally and train themselves more rapidly. The upshot is that amateurs are increasingly holding themselves to professional standards and producing significant innovations and discoveries. The Linux computer system was created by geeks working without pay in their spare time, yet it now rivals Microsoft’s best products. Patients arrive at hospitals sometimes better informed about their diseases than their doctors. And amateur lobbyists promoted the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which helped persuade Western nations to cancel more than $30 billion in third-world debt.

In a way, pro-ams represent a return to our past: until the 20th century, much science was conducted by amateur societies. But the rise of pro-ams also reflects recent social changes. We’re living longer, which gives us more time to grow bored with our cubicle jobs and to hunger for a richer life. ”You find people in their 40’s and 50’s going back to the things they always wanted to do in their youth,” Leadbeater says. ”So they’re becoming musicians, gardeners, astronomers. Normally, we regard leisure just as ‘nonwork.’ But these people treat their leisure very seriously. They want to get things out of it.”

Leadbeater says that governments ought to find ways to encourage the higher amateurism. After all, he claims that pro-ams live healthier, more satisfied lives — to say nothing of all the cool stuff they create. Professionals, too, should get used to sharing the stage. Because if Leadbetter is right, the future belongs not to the pros, but to the weekend warriors.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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