The Economics of Amateurism

Today’s online reading included a paper trailed by this post at Crooked Timber. Titled “Money Ruins Everything”, it is an analysis of the rise of “amateur” produced content in the Internet age, covering everything from open source software to YouTube. Pontification follows.

One of the obvious issues here is the different ways in which people use the term “amateur”. We’ve been through this once already this year with the “fan” v “pro” debate. The comments on the CT post exhibit exactly the same sort of confusion. The paper’s authors, Quiggin and Hunter, knew this would happen, noting:

The term “amateur” is originally French, meaning “lover of.” Indeed, a central characteristic of amateur activities is that they are performed, in some sense “for love,” or, at least, not in expectation of a material reward. On the other hand, and particularly in opposition to “professional,” the term commonly has the connotation of “second-rate” or “unskilled.” This negative usage came to dominate during the Twentieth Century, as professionals displaced amateurs in a wide range of cultural, scientific and sporting activities.

The paper tends to use “amateur” in the former sense, though that hasn’t prevented commenters from using it in the latter sense.

The purpose of the paper is to advise government on ways of fostering a supportive climate for this new type of creative endeavor, and certainly Quiggin and Hunter have their hearts in the right place:

rather than seeking to drive people harder in the search for increased productivity, government macro-economic policy should be oriented towards making room for creativity and facilitating its expression

What they are short on is practical advice (beyond the obvious area of not giving in to the increasingly strident demands of copyright owners to criminalize any use of their material). Given that convention running and fanzine/blog production are most definitely amateur activities, this ought to be of interest to us.

It seems to me that this is essentially a problem of barriers to entry. Amateur innovation is not new. Back in the Nineteenth Century much practical science was done by gentlemen scholars. These days fewer people have huge amounts of spare time, but good work could still be done (take Einstein, for example) if it were not for the fact that in most cases doing science these days requires a lot of expensive machinery. Doing art, on the other hand, is relatively cheap. Even high quality TV episodes such as “World Enough and Time”, the Star Trek episode that has been nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula this year, can be produced by fan groups on limited budgets, if they happen to be the right fans.

The ultimate end point here is, of course, The Culture. In Banks novels everything (even espionage) is done by amateurs because Culture citizens don’t have to work. We don’t (all, yet) have that luxury. However, things can be made easier. Tax policy is an obvious target area. I have probably complained before about how US fans can claim work on conventions as “charitable”, making expenses incurred allowable against tax, whereas a similar claim would be dismissed with outrage in the UK. Indeed the whole US concept of non-profit organizations could be very usefully applied in other countries.

Another major barrier to the staging of amateur events in the UK (and probably the rest of Europe) is health and safety legislation. Things like con suites are pretty much impossible in the UK, because the effort required to comply with the relevant legislation is too onerous. It would not surprise me in the slightest to see, in the near future, UK conventions having to bar children from attending for similar reasons.

Fortunately we still have the Internet, and to date efforts to curtail its usage have succeeded only countries with strongly authoritarian governments. Here’s hoping that things stay that way, and that barriers to entry for creative endeavors stay low.

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1 Response to The Economics of Amateurism

  1. Lee says:

    ‘Doing art, on the other hand, is relatively cheap.’

    In one sense, yes; in another – if you count the 10,000 hours needed, roughly speaking, to achieve competence in any sort of craft – then not at all.

    Barriers to entry are certainly one problem, but my own experience has taught me that we indies need to think a lot about gatekeeper issues as well.

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