Amateur thoughts and ambitions

One of the better things I’ve stumbled across this past year is Larry Lessig’s talk, How creativity is being strangled by the law.

The piece makes his usual argument that copyright law stifles innovation in the age of new media. Most striking to me, though, was the part where he uses the phrase “amateur culture.” He explains, “…I don’t mean amateurish culture, I mean culture where people produce for the love of what they’re doing and not for the money.” He uses the term to describe the activity of “kids” (?) creating their own remixes from existing media.

I can remember another amateur culture that’s now largely disappeared. Back in my teens, modem-based bulletin board systems (BBSes) fostered a rich “read-write” culture for amateur programmers. Most of us did not work in technology; after all, the commercial Internet hadn’t been born yet, so the computing industry was much smaller and more obscure. A career as a programmer seemed like a mysterious and rarefied thing to me back then. The coders you met on BBSes were often people who simply liked to do programming in their spare time.

These systems allowed us to circulate public domain source code for fun games and useful applications written in BASIC, Pascal, C, even assembler. We hacked on existing code to get it to do what we wanted, trying to figure out ways to push the limits of our little 8086 processors and 640K of RAM. We mingled regardless of our level of knowledge, beginners and experts alike. We had friendly user meetings in diners in Brooklyn and Manhattan (I lived in NY at the time), where we chatted about home-grown upgrades and discussed how to link up to the nation-wide discussion networks that existed then.

It was amateur culture at its best: lots of exchange, circulation, and cooperation happened all the time. But it was definitely not amateurish. Many were extremely capable and knowledgeable coders.

Today, there are still people who code just because they enjoy it, but the amateur culture and its community hardly exist anymore. Beginners on web forums are more interested in what they need to know in order to land a job, rather than in coding itself. Even open source projects tend to be dominated by career professionals; read any public mailing list and you’ll see how unhelpful they often are to amateurs who want to get involved. One reason I like python is that the project makes a genuine effort to connect to the sensibilities of amateurs. But even its forums are littered with snarky individuals.

All of this is largely due, I think, to the ideology of professionalism, which convinces us that having a stable career is the pinnacle of achievement. It damagingly equates amateurs with dilettantes. That’s why one of the first things we ask in this country when meeting a stranger is, “So what do you do?” By which we really mean, “Tell me what you do for a living so I can know who you are and whether you’re worth talking to.”

In 2008, I resolve to be more wary of this ideology and its negative effects. I want to embrace being an amateur in the various things that I do. I want to think less about careers and focus more on how to best spend my time doing what’s important to me. And I want to find more amateurs to hang out with as well.

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