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Book Review: In Praise of Expert Amateurs & Passionate Hobbyists

Key Words: Book review of Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything; the role of amateurs and hobbyists & volunteers in social innovation, bottom-up versus top-down approaches to knowledge-creation, implications of web, long-term projects, short term metrics, knowledge economy, implications for worldchanging.


You see things as they are, and you ask “Why”?
But I dream things that never were, and I ask “Why Not?”
- George Bernard Shaw

Over the December holidays, in the sticky summer Brazilian heat (and partly a reason for my posting hiatus), and before the horrors of the Boxing Day Tsunami sucked up our collective attentions in its wake, I found myself drawn to a quirky story so completely removed from my surroundings and current events, a tale told in the delightful little book, The Meaning of Everything: Oxford English Dictionaryby Simon Winchester, (Oxford University Press, 2003). Here are a few reflections and connections which I'm writing, passing the transit time away, in Rio de Janeiro's GIG airport, the first step in my re-entry into a Northern European winter, with its landscape full of shades of grey in lieu of the South's resplendent greens, reds, and frangipani white, which I'll soon miss.

Fortunately there is nothing colourless about the polymathic author, Simon Winchester, who has the rare gift of bringing life to seemingly arcane subjects. A curious reader's dream, Winchester makes what would seem to be the prospects of chronicling the history of a dictionary -- potentially a seriously tedious yawn -- interesting.

But this shouldn't be surprising, since he has done this before: The Professor and the Madman, The Map that Changed the World, and the amazing Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883which was about the infamous volcano in the Indonesian "ring of fire" whose eruption literally changed the world. And, come to think of it, in light of the recent seismic tragedy in southern Asia, this is a timely read: a penetrating reminder of how exogenous (outside-in) ecological events can create permanent social and political shifts -- a pattern for the future that's likely predetermined if not timeless. As Jon Lebkowsky, a fellow WC contributor, put in an email thread, "Humans have the gift of potential foresight yet we're in denial about our fragility and vulnerability to exceptional natural forces. I think that's the real story here." I agree: our anthropomorphic bias is so strong that we're seduced into thinking that big changes that matter are social, yet at the end of the day these may be insignificant, if not irrelevant, compared to environmental disruptors. (Also see Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World by David Keys, with a book review here.)

But I digress. Let's recalibrate our mental compasses to Victorian London circa 1850s when increasing prosperity and England's industrial prowess was breeding a great sense of optimism and courage to tackle hard problems (while also breeding a great deal of hubris and other social problems of course). This was a time when men (alas no women) in long white beards and smoking jackets spent their days being learned, thinking both broadly and deeply, individually and together in societies or clubs, which were all the rage at the time. (See Philosophical Laughing for a blog on one of the most famous of clubs, The Lunar Society. I argue we're in need of another forum for us to "laugh out loud" about impossible things, but then again, this is what we're doing on WC, aren't we?) And like many big ideas then, the idea of cataloguing English, in its sprawling entirety, occurred in one of these newly formed groups, the British Philology Society, and soon became the obtuse obsession of a small group of erudite hobbyists, convinced as they were that the existing resources (only two dictionaries existed, Samuel Johnson's and Noah Webster's) were grossly inadequate given the growing (self-)importance of the English language.


The Creative Force of Amateurs, Hobbyists, and Volunteers

Which leads me directly to my first observation: this massive and sustained effort that turned into the Oxford English Dictionary or OED (it was originally called the New English Dictionary and only switched names late in the game) would never have happened if weren't for an active and dedicated group of amateur philologists and lexicographers and other supporters who turned their passions into their life's work, not to mention thousands of volunteers from around the English-speaking world who dedicated much time and effort to supplying the OED's editors and staff with important content. Using a methodology called "historical principles" (what a word meant and when it mean it) this included everything from identifying words, both old and new, together with their illustrations, etymology and history, to even correcting proofs. While a far cry from an modern open source approach, there are some parallels in motivation and this was indeed a collective and distributed effort with the OED team being its kernel.

Of course, linguistic cannons and efforts to codify things like this can be tools for power and social control, and many efforts to create dictionaries had this in the background. For instance, the French and Italians to this day have a formal government-sanctioned body that tries to regulate and vet, from the top-down, their languages. The OED decided to take a very different and far-sighted approach that must have surprised the intelligentsia at the time. The early founders of the project, visionaries to be sure, wanted to see how the language was being used from the bottom-up -- in magazines, in newspapers, in comics, and even in common conversation (perish the thought!) -- and not just within high brow literature and within elite milieus. They recognized the futility of trying to control English, which draws much of its power and success to its protean fluidity and flexibility, an enduring insight without question. (See an earlier post on The Future of English.

As an aside, Winchester does an admirable job summarizing in one short chapter the history of the English language, all 1500 years of it, which when juxtaposed with other languages -- e.g. Chinese, Sanskrit-based languages, German and Celtic languages -- one realizes that English isn't an old tongue at all, but more like a 20-something. Anyway, given the many-part BBC series on The Story of English, this seems excellent economy indeed (both in time and money, the video series is almost $100).<./p>

Another observation that stood out: as class-ridden as Victorian England may have been, the story of the OED reveals that it was also surprisingly open to motived intellectual entrepreneurs who proved their worth, something that is hard to imagine today with an equivalent project even though we purport to have a more egalitarian society. Provided manners were gentlemanly (and they were the right colour), amateurs could self-educate themselves and gain entrance to learned societies without, necessarily, formal credentials.

The most famous editor of the OED, a Scotsman named James Murray (1837-1915) -- possibly the most instrumental person in the project's completion -- came from humble beginnings and didn't complete even his grammar school education. Henry Bradley, another important editor, was a mere freelance writer before the OED and thus also lacked an upper class Oxbridge pedigree. This is not to say that credentials and connections didn't matter; of course they did. For instance, Murray's friends within the philology society contrived to get him an honorary LLD from Edinburgh, partly to boost his morale and more pragmatically as way to give him enough publicly sanctioned gravitas to head the project. (This was before he "made it" and eventually received a legion of honours, albeit with Oxford being the last to bestow one). But he did win the job without credentials to start, with having just the support of his peers and a firm conviction that he could do it. It also helped that there was a crisis to find someone suitable who could take on the project which was gravely floundering at the time.

For some reason, the OED seemed to attract these types: the self-educated, self-appointed, follow-your-bliss folks. (We even learn that celebrated author Julian Barnes, as a young man, was an OEDer.) Perhaps this was, in part, the key to its success? -- why the OED developed a novel methodology and took a different path than the norm? Amateurs, people without the homogenizing influence of a formal education which can engender group-think memes, people who can thus think out-of-the-box and have the time and energy to follow their curiosities, may in fact be the best people to start new enterprises. The computer industry, the Web, and Open Source were all started by driven hobbyists wanting to create something they could use. Indeed, the passionate force of amateurs has always marked breakthrough innovation and invention, a recurring theme in Daniel Bornstein's The Creators, his epic surveying the best artists, writers, and inventors in Western history. Leonardo Da Vinci, the Wright Brothers, and the renegade abbot who had no formal training in architecture but who nonetheless gave birth to the Gothic cathedral design are just a few examples.

But does the world today still permit these amateur experts and hobbyists to influence events, society and innovation at this level? The answers are unfortunately not clear cut: both yes and no. To start with the upside, a web-based, globally-connected world changes the scale and geometry of this phenomenon qualitatively and irrecovably. Kevin Kelly really puts it best in his prescient book, New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World(Viking, 1998), which was originally dismissed by some as hype at the time (and there really was lots then) but should be reread today for many excellent gems. To quote him at length:

The network economy has set into motion the power of hobby tribes and informed peers. Amateurs, plugged into the net, discover comets, find fossils, and track bird migrations better than the pros. By networking their interests and passing tips around, amateurs also create software in languages so new that they are taught in no classrooms. These self-organized communities, unleashed from their obscurity by the net, are the new authorities. (p. 105)A user group is a peerage of responsibility. Group members take education into their own hands, and distribute the job of keeping up among themselves...

... The most fanatical of user groups can be thought of as "hobby tribes", a phrase coined by science fiction writer David Brin. Hobby tribes are very informed, very connected, very smart customers. They band their enthusiasms together and become the experts. In some smaller niches they become the market too.

Expertise now resides in fanatical customers. The world's best experts on your product or service don't work for your company. They are your customers, or a hobby tribe. (Original emphasis)

Companies need user groups almost as much as users need them. User groups are better than advertising when customers are happy, and worse than cancer when they are not. Used properly, aficionados can make or break products. The network economy has the potential to enable a civilization of aficionados. As customers get smarter, the locus of expertise shifts toward affiliates and home-brew groups, and away from large corporations or the solo academic professional. If you really want to know what works, ask a hobby tribe. And not just in the realm of high technology. All knowledge is pooling into aficionados. Because shared obsessions amongst horse lovers, there are more horseshoers working today than a hundred years ago, in the age of cowboys. There are more blacksmiths making swords and chain mail armor this year than ever worked in the medieval past. A network of aficionados is already here.

The net tends to dismantle authority and shift its allegiance to peer groups. The cultural life in the network economy will not emanate from academia, or the cubicle of the corporation, or even prime time media. Rather, it will reside in small communities of interest known as fans, 'zines, and subcultures. (131-132)

I think Kelly is right in his assessment, more or less, and Peter Drucker pointed this out ages ago: watch the amateurs and hobbyists to know where the world is going. However, as the old cowboy adage goes, "never mistake a clear view for a short distance." There is still so much that needs to be done before we ween ourselves from credentialism, which Robert Fuller painfully describes in Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank.Or at least we have yet to develop the sophistication of knowing when to use traditional experts and when not to. For it would be silly to say that qualifications don't matter; clearly, they still perform an important social function of reducing the "evaluation costs" (as economists would say), the time and energy spent deciding who's good and who isn't. So the social progress that has to be made is:

  • 1) not to abuse "rank" which often happens with insecure people who have been legitimized by paper qualifications without much substantive merit instead of experience and earning it, an entitlement problem Mintzberg ably talks about with MBAs in corporations these days in Managers, Not MBAs(hugely recommended) but could also be found in plenty in organizations like the OECD, UNESCO and World Bank.
  • 2) to know when experience is not applicable to the problem at hand. As Jonathan Koomey sagely says, experience is two-edged. It helps eliminate unnecessary detail, and helps us focus on important aspects of the problem, but many problems today (especially) are out of the zone of people's experience and indeed fundamentally new in nature. This is why employing traditional experts in a traditional way to unconventional problems can be a big mistake.
  • When discussing how to deal with "disruptive innovation" Christensen and Raynor point to similar conclusions in The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth (Harvard Business School Press, 2O03). They argue that in situations where real innovation is needed, such as creating a new market or product, high performers in core businesses -- people with "right stuff" -- may be the last ones who should lead the project. This is because "graduates of the school of experience are trained for stable, operational environments, not new market environments." They argue that "It's often better to look for people who bounced back from failures... because this happens a lot in new market creation." Of course, this rarely happens in practice, the dilemma being: leaders want trusted managers to lead new projects, yet they only become trusted because they have delivered results within core businesses. A Catch 22. To overcome this, Christensen and Raynor's suggest two thing, both requiring significant process and mindset shifts:

  • Stop assuming that the competencies of today will be the competencies of the future (yes please!), echoing Koomey's observations;

  • In disruptive situations, develop a process that focuses on people's ability to learn as opposed to whether they have the qualifications for the job, which almost by definition, they will not have. Past performance doesn't mean future success when new business territory is being forged.
  • Again, these are tall orders. Recognizing a disruptive situation -- a reality which many organizations are in denial about -- is an important first step that many companies never make. And then measuring or developing a process tracking someone's ability to learn is hard and time-consuming stuff (although the private sector has pioneered some of the best practices here as well.) At a higher level, part of the problem is the current climate of uncertainty, which has engendered much paralysis and "stuckness" and thus risk aversion to letting young people learn, even though this are exactly the kind people and context where this should happen, where out-of-the-boxers should be given a chance.

    The sad reality is that James Murray wouldn't have a chance to be editor of this great project if it was started today. Lacking mainstream credentials, he wouldn't have got in the front door. Having said that, common sense within business does prevail in some cases. How many of you have made your big professional leap precisely because you've done things which you had no business in being qualified for in the first place? I would suspect a great many of you fall in this category, as indeed I have repeatedly throughout my career. (By the by, a fascinating piece of research by two British academics describes the glass cliff phenomenon, that is, the pattern in big companies where women are being promoted into risky, difficult jobs where the chances of failure are higher. The reasons are not pleasant, but the positive outcome, if they succeed, is that these women also make the best top executives because they've handled more unconventional experiences.)

    However, from a big picture view, I think this reality is an indictment of people working within the dominant systems, corporate or government. Outside of the system and at its edges, this really isn't an issue. People are valued by what they do more than where they went to school. (In fact, my partner who is a software engineer has the reverse pathology: discounting PhDs when they come interviewing.) And alternatives/supplements to a credential-driven world are possible (and emerging) with peer-to-peer processes enabled by the web. However, these will only work effectively if supported by corresponding social norms. Clearly, trust becomes even more important in the land of mediated hobby-tribes where face-to-face contact is rare, if never. Indeed, in lieu of qualifications and gatekeepers, what enabled Murray to get his job as OED editor was the trust that he fostered with his colleagues and fellow society members. But these white bearded folks spent a lot of time hanging out with each other drinking port and smoking cigars. Then again, early users of the WELL probably spent the same about of time online with each other, and we can't vouch for the other activities.

    The good news? An over-reliance on credentials and gate-keeping is a sign of ossification and rigidity of the dominant system. Elites become stagnant gene pools this way. Meaning, this is a time when worldchangers can make a huge difference. Our degrees of freedom are highest when creative destruction hits. And to the edges is where many of the best and brightest may be heading. Indeed, this a trend to watch, which started over the past decade: smart people starting to leave their mainstream jobs and turning their passions into their life's work, or smart young people realizing they had other socially cool and interesting options besides the usual career flavours: doctor, lawyer, teacher. Social entrepreneurship courses in all the top schools, for instance, are way oversubscribed. In addition, some of the CEOs I've worked with over the past eight years have confessed this to me as well. When I ask them the "what keeps you up at night, the answer is often about losing marketshare in the talent pool. I have no figures to measure this at hand (some would be handy so please forward!), but I sense this is a very significant shift, as Daniel Borstein has written in How to Change the World. As Bornstein argues, the proliferation of social entrepreneurship around the world is filling some of the institutional voids. And together with the blogging phenomenon, these new developments are providing new opportunities to empower passionate hobbyists and amateurs to launch amazing projects. The incredible post-Tsunami actions and activities is just one example of thousands of what can happen. For example, SEA-EAT (South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami] was a project heroically launched just last week by WC contributors, Rohit Gupta and Dina Mehta, which was reported in the Asian Times. Efforts like these are truly inspirational and hopeful.

    Making the Long View Sexy Again

    But can we sustain this kind of activity over the long term? Sure we can get things going when a disaster strikes, but can we continue this over years and years -- and possibly far beyond our life spans? The OED took over 70 years to complete, starting 1857 and after many crises which threatened the whole project and a major lack of funding and pressure from its funder, Oxford University Press, it was completed in 1928. Murray and its original founders never lived to see it finished. The interesting thing, of course, is that no one expected it to take this long. The original estimate, I think, was ten years. But no one really knew. It was an open-ended problem that had to be sorted out through the act of doing of it. As the editors confronted the enormity of the challenge, they adjusted the time horizon in increments -- "just another ten years, we promise" and so on -- until it finally got enough public (and importantly, royal) support, making the prospect of it not being completed untenable in the eyes of its principle sponsors, "the Delegates" (the name of the committee overseeing this) at Oxford University. Fear of disgrace then, as now, is a powerful force. To satisfy the publishers, the OED team also decided early on to publish their work in batches or in "fascicles" as each letter was being completed. This did much to keep the effort sustained, visible proof that something was being manifested.


    Like GBN cofounder Stewart Brand, musician Brian Eno, and others at the Long Now Foundation, (which I've written about in Patience) I worry that we don't have enough people with the will and means and mindset to work on long term projects, especially since it's these kinds of projects that the world needs the most. The Long Now Foundation was created because of a noticeable absence of these projects in business, government, science and art. Their goal is to build a coherent, compelling body of ideas about long-term thinking, and to help nudge civilization toward "making long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare" as Brand said in his book The Clock of the Long Now

    Indeed, it's hard to image an OED-like project starting today and surviving given all the setbacks they experienced. Please let me know if I'm wrong about this -- I would be happy to be --but as Brand and others have documented long term projects are getting harder and harder to fund and sustain. However well-intentioned, a obsessive focus on "results" and "return on investment" for funders, regardless of sector, is precluding a whole range of projects from being initiated. So most projects' time horizon are measured in years, if not shorter. Forget anything that takes ten years or more. ( Similar themes in blog, Learning from Nuclear Waste.)

    What would it take then to make the Long View hip again? And is there early evidence suggesting that it might be returning to the agenda? I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this, especially any indicators that it might be so. I personally think we need to catch up from the temporal exhaustion we incurred during the go-go 1990s and the fast-moving decades before that. We’re already hearing CEOs and leaders talk again about long-term visions that go well beyond the narrow bottom line and the importance of “slowing down to go fast,” to paraphrase an old Zen koan. “The more the speed of change accelerates,” said the senior vice president of ABN Amro recently, “the more we need to slow down and reflect on what’s ahead.” The CEO of HP, Carly Florina, said the job of the chief executive is to look out a decade and not focus unduly on the present.” I haven't heard this publicly in a long time from a business leader, so fearful as they've been of Wall Street myopia. And this is more than CEO-speak, with certain actions speaking volumes: like HP’s merger (which was a long view bet) and investments in their e-inclusion program which aims to help the 4 billion people currently struggling in the world’s poor markets.

    We’re also seeing bright new agents of change investing in projects that may take several lifetimes to complete. “The most interesting things take 50 years to complete”, said Peter Schwartz quoting someone else. A young social entrepreneur concurred, saying “and I think there is something kinda sexy in that—in being part of something much better than you.” Could this be the pendulum swinging? Could the pressures of an uncertain future— a better awareness that we live in an unpredictable world— be breeding a new mindset and consciousness, a truly post-modern way of seeing the world? Perhaps. But there are many more people with a vested interest not to span these temporal boundaries and defend a simpler status quo. And these people come equally from Wall Street as they do from fundamentalist camps, people who continue to maintain that the world is predictable, even preordained, and full of black and white truths. This, in my view, is the real clash of worldviews that transcends any cultural or religious divide.

    But Knowledge Economy Doesn't Always Equal Knowledge Society

    Having studied and written about the "knowledge economy", I've always hoped that it would, in the fullest of time, produce a knowledge society which would start placing greater value on things like wisdom -- the end point on a continuum of data, information, knowledge and wisdom. The idea of a "wisdom economy" sounded very nice to me. And it made sense in theory because knowledge is produced and reified through social processes and knowledge is housed in the human brain. This differs profoundly from other economic eras which were driven by capital or land as the primary agents of wealth creation. I still carry this hope, but something in Winchester's prologue made me question such a continuum, a doubt triggered when he placed the OED's incubation in its social and historical context. The offending passage I'm speaking of is this:

    If these were rather carefree and prosperous times, for very many they were also cultured and learned times besides. Since the story that follows concerns the crafting of a monumental intellectual enterprise, it is perhaps worth recalling just how very well educated people in fact were those days -- or at least to recall how very well educated the educated classes were, for this (like it or not) is a tale of a leisured undertaking that is necessarily and intimately involved with the complexities of British social stratification... and many will say that it was undertaken, and completed, and duly celebrated, mainly because people, or people of a certain kind in the Britain of the day, were quite simply possessed of much time and much learning, and in far greater abundance than many like people possess it today." (xix, Prologue

    But is this really true: were people more educated then? We often hear this from older colleagues with noticeable tinges of nostalgia, making us want to dispute this claim as lacking perspective. We point out that we have more information and knowledge than ever before, with powerful tools like the Web and IT to make sense of it. We argue that more people in absolute numbers are being "educated" around the world than 150 years ago. And of course, all of this is true. Yet it's also true that Winchester is probably right in terms of the quality of knowledge people had at the time. He illustrates his point by delving into The Times and picking out an average article, a report of some obscure tribal conflict (in Africa, I think). No context was given in the reporting, all of this basic knowledge was just assumed. Contrast this to today's newspapers, where nothing can be assumed, when complex and obscure subject matter are the exception not the norm.

    The morale of the story perhaps is that more is often less. More information has not translated into a more knowledgeable public. In fact, the reverse might be true as Don Michael points out in his overlooked and prescient classic, Planning to Learn and Learning to Plan

    According to conventional wisdom, more information makes learning new answers easier, and decision-making more decisive. Ironically, just the opposite happens: the human condition is such that more information generally leads to more uncertainty…. More information just increases the uncertainty regarding where the boundaries should be set.

    In defense of the Present, Victorian times were more certain. Being educated was a much clearer concept with standards, norms and attainable boundaries in that it was possible to be a fairly comprehensive generalist in the late 1800s. They say that Goethe was the last man to know everything -- before the exponential growth of knowledge and increasingly high barriers to entry in the sciences emerged, making such august personages extinct if not exceedingly rare. Perhaps cognitive science advances and augmented intelligence technology will correct this, but for now, this is how it is: we know more, but this is fragmented and specialized and cordoned off in silos; but also know less, or we know less broadly speaking.

    And herein lies the biggest difference between today and the late 19 century/early 20the century: time scarcity and perspective of time. Most people no longer have the time to read extensively. To frequent societies and clubs. Or to learn and be educated in the old sense -- i.e. knowing how to learn, knowing how to ask questions and think critically and be curious -- versus the contemporary "technical" and instrumental meaning, as means of qualifications rather than way of being. Most people can don't even have time to surf the Web. Perhaps as the knowledge economy puts greater pressure on our social systems and the Web opens up new hobby tribes and values start to catch up to these developments, we may return to this older sense of education and really focus on it as a key driver of change.

    As for our perspective of time, our short termism makes it hard for us to be hopeful and optimistic because we lack distance from the present. Because the present is always a blur, and as the pace of change speeds up, our picture of the future and sense of the now will be increasingly distorted and over-determined. The bad will be amplified and favoured over the good and positive. So this is another big difference between today and the Victorian era. For better or worse, the British Empire had big plans and a very long view, and were thus willing to make some big investments and underwrite certain risks that had a long social pay-out. We desperately need that today.

    But to do this we need to recapture some civilizational patience. We need to slow down, on some fronts, to go faster and further as a species. And we can start at a micro scale as well. In response to the question, "how has working on a 10,000 clock changed your perception of your own life-span?", Brian said some things that helped explain my attraction to this project. He said when you spend part of your day living 10,000 years (a more modest 50 or 150 years will do it, I figure) into the future, the rest of your day is quite different. Your perspective is quite changed, and indeed, this is the whole point of this exercise. Changing scale makes a difference. It also takes the pressure off a little when you feel like you are part of a more longer continuum of human life. This reduces the pressure to be constantly performing, to be in action all the time, which ironically might improve the likelihood of doing something that matters.

    Long term project or short term project, I think there is more potential than ever to unleash the power of amateurs and passionate hobbyists in worldchanging efforts. I see it all around me. As Brain Eno argues, the critical thing we need now is to understand the difference between the projects that need to be done slowly, and the projects that need to be done quickly. I also think there are many more people out there -- incredibly erudite, smart, learned, wise people but nonetheless un-credentialed -- who just haven't found a way to leverage or channel what they know. Intellectual smart mobs may not be out of the question, as I see this happening amongst WC contributors and within scientific communities under select conditions. (Like when the SARS genome was trying to be cracked.)

    I'm sure James Murray and other early OED collaborators would be dazzled and amazed to see efforts like Wikipedia et al. emerge out of the web-bases, digital medium. But changes in social values need to catch up to technological innovations. Namely, we need to change the metrics of what's an acceptable use of people's time. To take a year off and "read" is still considered to be a silly and a wasteful use of one's time, yet I found it the best thing I've ever did. Most people are astounded I have the time to write these blogs, while I tell them I can't afford not to make sense of what I'm thinking; I can't afford not to learn from the people that I blog with and for. Having said that, I am fortunate enough to be able to spend my time as I please without too many material threats, albeit there is still a certain amount of juggling and emotional and economic uncertainty I have to bear living this life.

    Similarly, the OED pioneers were constantly under financial duress and lacking in funding, but that didn't deter them. They just did it! (Napier, these are your words, I know) And as providence would have it, the money eventually followed because the idea was compelling enough and, well, they had some luck. As for me, this has been a learning journey, but I think I will follow suit, embracing the life of an professional amateur and passionate hobbyist whose hobby is worldchanging, someone who follows her bliss, and this bliss invariably will involve foci which are all 50 year projects at least. Now that seems pretty cool to me. Perhaps there is hope for other long term projects and long term innovators like the OED pioneers? Future Notre Dames, Pyramids, and the cataloguing of the species in our midst? Perhaps these are just below the radar, something that we can't see yet. So let me know if you're out there and what you're working on...

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    Interesting essay, Nicole! The Pro-Am Revolution discusses this amateur-professional spectrum, with an appreciation for the value of "professional amateurs". (As it becomes clear that such contributions are valuable to society, they should be accounted for in measures of how well-off a society is. It then becomes easier to argue the benefits of the shorter work-year that much of Europe sensibly aims for...)

    Re the Long View returning to the agenda, there are a lot of small-scale projects going on with a long-term vision, some of which have become large-scale, like everybody's favorite example Wikimedia. Many longer-term interests (space exploration, environmental restoration) generate huge amounts of interest and involvement from "passionate hobbyists", despite not paying back directly for several decades.

    As you suggest, one key is interim achievements. We can work on chapels for centuries, or we can work on more concrete goals within a long-term framework. I think that's how many of us live our lives - evaluating each new opportunity both for its own sake, and as a brick in a grander edifice.

    Posted by: Hassan Masum on 6 Jan 05

    That's a good way of putting it Zaid, "more concrete goals in a longer-term framework." But so many people are confused or paralyzed by what's going on around them, or not even conscious of these frameworks. I have often thought a high leverage thing to do would be to develop a point of view about our shifting context, a set of stories about this moment of systemic change, to help people create for themselves their own. I'm sure this has already been done... perhaps you have some suggestions. My question is this: how do we make this sense-making challenge more accessible and appealing to more people inside and outside the game? In particular, I struggle within people inside the game.

    Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 6 Jan 05

    wow nicole, your writing brings up such a rich reaction in me as i read this essay.

    i was a 'problem' child of the 60's, very narrowly escaping being permanently institutionalised for my incapacity to see the point of 90% of the activities i was called upon to practice, and the consequent self-hatred, rage and alienation this produced in my adolescent soul.

    i scraped 3 a-levels and at 17 was living in squats, corridoors, foyers etc. in london england, my birthplace.

    the hippy thing swept me into my first properly positive social emotions, and by 23 i was still intellectually unprimed (abused is more like it) but massively curious, especially at the disconnects between mysticism, religion, spirituality, art and 'foreign' cultures.

    by this time i had overlanded to india, seeing turkey, iran, afghanistan, spending 6 months living hand to mouth there, and spent 6 months living in morocco, very close to the ground.

    these travel experiences effectively deconstructed any european sense of superiority in me, as i was reading ronald laing and seeing the folly and paradox of 'modern' life ever more clearly as well as feeling through my skin the relative serenity of less tech around, how more people had more time to be human, and spent less time on the futile treadmill of the going nowhere fast machine my parents' world had wanted to conscript me into.

    i realised my euro-angst, and felt a need to continue wedging new experiences into my mix, so by 24 found myself in hawaii, via canada, nebraska, california and oregon, a voluntary refugee/social observer, gleaner/pollinator of cultural pixie dust, whole earth catalogue dreamer, with no qualifications for anything except running away and snatching peace wherever and whenever i could find it.

    i lived in hawaii 16+ years, mostly penniless, but almost masochistically, oh-so-righteously glorying in my ability to navigate a u.s.a.-grafted-onto-a-polynesian reality compromising as few principles as i could.

    planted trees, built a cabin, raised 3 children, studied jazz guitar, read widely a steady 8 hours or so a day, and learned what polymath means.

    then public tv kicked in, good documentaries, some great mags in the eighties like mother jones, mothering, east-west journal and whole earth review pointed the way forward, and i became by my late thirties a happily self-educated person, adding more facets daily to a compendium of mostly unintegrated information, but finally understanding what an intellect is FOR, and how to have the maximum FUN while allowing its sticky-diamond to attract the cosmic dust, rewiping clear, consolidating, archiving, diarying, songwriting, poetising, narrating, commenting....etc etc

    now with the web, i'm the proverbial pig in 'la merde', gluttonously awestruck by the Amazing Expanding Menu syndrome which led to you and your wonderful essay.

    in the sahara they say 'to hurry is to die'.

    someone told me back in the seventies that the biggest problem of the future is what to do with all the leisure time.

    recovering the delight of unhurried perusal, the freedom to savour timelessness, the cerebral loft to fathom, the collective unconscious churning daily revelation, lateral thinking, the ability to synthesize and see humanity cross-culturally: these are the medicine for euro-angst in my experience, and your very well-written piece captures perfectly the points in history where scholarship and enlightened dilettantism were their own rewards, and just how wedded to a future of discernment and true veneration for our ancestors and the staggering inventions we have been graced with.

    now for the wisdom to handle them well!

    i will be watching for what else you write, and this whole wonderful group of geniuses you are lucky enough to hang out with.

    intellectual stimulation at its finest, complimenti!

    hope i haven't bored you with my joyous outburst of appreciation for the fine quality of your writng, and thus your mind!

    all the best

    Posted by: Michael Dunkley on 7 Jan 05

    Boy, your story is worthy of an Evelyn Waugh novel. Consider writing an contemporary version of Razor's Edge perhaps?

    I love this the best, though: "in the sahara they say 'to hurry is to die'." I want to write an article, or book, called "slowing down to go fast." That quote will have to be in it. Isn't it interesting that every culture has a similar proverb or saying? "Make Haste Slowly", etc.

    Be well.

    - Nicole

    Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 7 Jan 05

    Going over all WC posts, I found a relevant posting, "Flight of the Creative Class". Creatives are the passionate hobbyists and professional amateurs of the present.

    Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 7 Jan 05



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