Note : most of what I say here could be characterised as Cultural Gifting. So should be read with / and considered as evidence for GiftParadigm
Some time ago I sketched a scenario I called TheHilariousTragedy as a response to worries about the growing gap between the information-rich and information-poor. It was a quick and dirty intuition, inspired what I saw as the success of amateur projects such as the free software / open source movement, the explosion of weblogging etc. It boldly asserted that in the future, the world would be divided into the information-rich and information-poor, but with the twist that the poor would be those who relied on paid for, commercialized information products, while the rich would be those who luxuriated in the higher quality information provided by amateur communities.
Since then I've been encouraged by reading of further phenomena that seem to support my suggestion, and reading other commentators who's assessments and predictions seem to be in accord. So I think it's time to revisit the idea and give it a bit more substance.
First, to be clear. This isn't meant to be a blanket excuse to get out of worrying about access to information and information technology for society's dispossesed. (See DigitalDivide)
But it seems to me that there can be two worries about access to information for the dispossessed.
- the cost of the physical equipment
- the cultural cost
I think caveats about the cost of the physical equipment are overstated. The cost of communicating and processing information is lower than at any time in history, and consequently available to a larger section of society than before. True, not everyone has it. But the trend is moving in the right, ie. democratic and progressive direction.
But the cultural barrier to entry is extremely high. To take advantage of this technology you need to have education, a suitable personal disposition, and free time. Typically requirements that are beyond those who would most benefit from it.
I'm particularly interested in how this stuff might work in places like Brazil. And here, it's true, the expansion on the use of technology comes up against the hard boundary of illiteracy. Although I've fantasized about a HandheldDeviceToTeachChildrenToRead, it's clear that more social groundwork needs to be done before technology can even start empowering people who are poor and illiterate.
Communities of Amateurs vs. Professional Institutions
Now, to the heart of the claim. I maintain that communities of amateur enthusiasts can, and increasingly will, supply better information products and services for free, than groups of professionals can for profit. As this becomes more commonly understood it will spell the end of companies and institutions which currently provide these products and services, and their replacement by communities of amateur volunteer enthusiasts.
Why should this be?
The principle is that, once a large enough community arises which is interested in solving a problem, and has resources to apply to it, the community can operate more efficiently if this is its only purpose - if it treats the problem as an end in itself - ; than if it has to divide its efforts between several ends such as making a profit, or preserving its institutional integrity.
Dynamically organized, free associations of amateurs can devote more of their energy to getting stuff done.
I know this, because all my life I've worked in companies, and non-profits, where compromises eventually had to be made to suit the customer's budget, or produce something within the period of the funding. These constraints on an organization are necessary to help it preserve it's integrity. If it's a company it needs to stay in profit. If it's a non-profit, it needs to continuously impress it's supporters such funding bodies and and political champions. But these other efforts must take priority. The preservation of the institution is relatively costly.
Of course, an association of amateurs must also impress it's members sufficiently to stick with it. And some, perhaps the majority, of such amateur groups will fail. But for the succesful ones, the success in achieving it's ends is all that's necessary to impress the members to remain.
- The defence of hierarchy in TheMarketLogicOfInformation may also support traditional "commercial" companies
- Weblogging as discussed in EditorializingIsParallelizable
- Interest groups working against rare diseases : http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.09/disease_pr.html
- Amateur birders brought into conservation data gathering : http://www.ebird.org/
- Could an amateur "open source" style, "free" music culture replace our existing commercial one? FreeMusic
- The amateurization of hotels? FreePlacesToStay
- Optimaes is the amateurization of economic research
- ThinkCycle - also talked about here : http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.11/opensource_pr.html
- Society of Amateur Scientists : http://www.sas.org/
- Distributed Proofreaders : http://www.pgdp.net/c/default.php
- The maverick society of investment researchers : http://msir.jot.com/WikiHome
See also :
- GiftEconomy, LazyWeb, NewMediaIsSymmetricalConversation, AgainstFinishedness, AlternativesToCompanies
- A nicely written new essay on PlasticBag about mass amateurization: http://www.plasticbag.org/archives/2003/09/weblogsandthemassamateurisationofnearly_everything.shtml
- Gerhard Fischer, Beyond Couch Potatoes : http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_12/fischer/index.html
- Peer2Peer manifesto : http://noosphere.cc/peerToPeer.html/
- There's now a weblog on amateurs : http://www.corante.com/amateur/
- Augmented Capitalism (IoB?) : http://www.headmap.com/archives/000187.html
- Robert Patersons : http://smartpei.typepad.com/robertpatersonsweblog/2004/01/ourfuturethe_.html
- Of course, now (Oct 2004) everyone's catching up : http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/87/open_essay.html,
http://www.demos.co.uk/projects/currentprojects/proam/ (nice point about amateur astronomy though)
** and continues (June 2005) http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_25/b3938601.htm
- UmairHaque has an interesting argument : http://www.bubblegeneration.com/2004/08/hi-folks-heres-draft-of-fresh-piece.cfm
- Social markets : http://web.mit.edu/ariely/www/Papers/2markets.pdf
- NickCarr says that TheLongTail means we're all going to be working for free, and only the big aggregators like Google and Amazon will get paid and make money off us : http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2006/05/wherethemoney.php
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