Amateur Revolution

From astronomy to computing, networks of amateurs are displacing the pros and spawning some of the greatest innovations.

Rap inflects global popular culture from music to fashion. Linux poses a real threat to Microsoft. The Sims is among the most popular computer games ever.

These far-flung developments have all been driven by Pro-Ams -- committed, networked amateurs working to professional standards. Pro-Am workers, their networks and movements, will help reshape society in the next two decades.

The 20th century was marked by the rise of professionals in medicine, science, education, and politics. In one field after another, amateurs and their ramshackle organizations were driven out by people who knew what they were doing and had certificates to prove it. Now that historic shift seems to be reversing. Even as large corporations extend their reach, we're witnessing the flowering of Pro-Am, bottom-up self-organization.

Rap, for one, started as do-it-yourself music among lower-income black men from distressed urban neighborhoods, recorded by artists on inexpensive equipment and distributed on handmade tapes by local labels. Yet within two decades, rap has become the dominant popular music across the world. In league with Pro-Am music distribution made possible by Napster and Kazaa, it has turned the entire record industry on its head.

Linux is the product of mass participatory innovation among thousands of Pro-Am technologists. Many of them program commercial software for a living but work on Linux in their spare time because the spirit of collaborative problem solving appeals so powerfully. Likewise, according to one estimate, 90% of the content in The Sims is created by a Pro-Am sector of The Sims' playing community, a distributed, self-organizing group whose players are constantly training one another and innovating.

Passionate amateurs, empowered by technology and linked to one another, are reshaping business, politics, science, and culture.

In the developing world, Pro-Ams are solving a historical scarcity of professional resources. The Grameen Bank, founded by Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economics professor, trains barefoot bankers to deliver loans to people earning less than a dollar a day. This Pro-Am workforce makes it possible to cost-effectively administer 2.8 million loans worth more than $4 billion. Had Grameen relied on professionals, it would have reached a tiny proportion of the population.

The transformation of astronomy captures the dynamics that will change other fields. Amateurs laid the foundations for modern astronomy; Copernicus, who moved the sun to the center of the universe, was only a sometime astronomer. By the 20th century, though, the pendulum had swung decisively in favor of professionals for one simple reason: They had access to much bigger telescopes.

But in the past two decades, as science writer Timothy Ferris points out, three linked innovations have turned astronomy into an open-source, Pro-Am activity. First, there was the disruptive innovation. John Dobson, a onetime monk and full-time stargazer, built a crude but powerful telescope using inexpensive materials. Observers armed with their own Dobsonians can now invade deep space, previously the preserve of the professionals.

Then came the CCD, a highly light-sensitive chip that could record very faint starlight more accurately than a photograph. With Dobsonian telescopes and CCD sensors, the Earth acquired hundreds of thousands of new eyes, probing space and recording events that would have gone unnoticed by the few thousand professionals. The Internet multiplied the power of this distributed capacity for exploration: An amateur who has found something interesting can email the image to friends, colleagues, and professionals within minutes.

Astronomy used to be done in national "big science" research institutes. Now it is also done in global, Pro-Am, open-source collaboratives. There is still a huge gulf between amateur astronomers and theoretical astrophysicists. But the line between professional and Pro-Am astronomers has become fatally blurred. Much the same will happen in other fields.

Some professionals will find that unsettling; they will seek to defend their monopolies. The more enlightened will understand that the landscape is changing. Knowledge is widely distributed, not controlled in a few ivory towers. The most powerful organizations will enable professionals and amateurs to combine distributed know-how to solve complex problems.

Pro-Am activity will continue to expand. Longer healthy life spans will allow people in their forties and fifties to start taking up Pro-Am activities as second careers. Rising participation in education will give people skills to pursue those activities. New media and technology enable Pro-Ams to organize.

Pro-Ams could fuel mass participation in formal politics and in social entrepreneurship. They will play important economic roles as coproducers of services and sources of ideas. Democracy will be livelier, innovation more vibrant, social capital stronger, and individual well-being more securely grounded. After a century in decline, amateurs will rise again. And they will change the world.

Charles Leadbeater's report "The Pro-Am Revolution" is available on the Web (www.demos.co.uk).


Discussion Guide

Interested in further exploring some of the ideas and issues in this article? Consider starting a Fast Company reading group. Here are some possible conversation catalysts:

Are you involved in any formal -- or informal -- pro-am groups? If not, how and where might you get involved in a pro-am, whether as a student or mentor? How might you evolve your profession outside of the workplace, such as the people who work to improve "The Sims?"

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