Amateurization of Academia

March 22, 2009 | 1 Comment

Category: Future, Society, Web

I’ve often talked about the horizontalization of society in these essays as I’m describing the influence of neoteny and matrifocal culture on contemporary times.  I’ve presented my view that the exponential growth of the web is a direct result of these social impulses.  Consider that we are about to begin a profound transformation of our academic institutions that will result in a surge of unique ideas.

A big positive of our academic communities is that they provide a space for like minds to congregate and integrate ideas.  That space offers opportunities for peer review, from which useful consensus can emerge.  That space is about to exponentially expand.

There are two distinct kinds of information that is gathered, stored and distributed as part of the services that academic communities perform.  First, there are data.  It is essential that data be of high quality and trusted.  Ernst Haeckel compromised a whole school of evolutionary biology with liberties he took diagramming animal ontogeny.  Several successive U.S. administrations have modified inflation and economic growth metrics to enhance the picture they wished to see described.  Not good.  High quality data are vital to good science.

The second kind of information has to do with the predictions that result from the data or information.  It’s how we make a story that usefully estimates how our world works.  Theory formation requires trusted experimentation to prove the theory’s usefulness.  Here again high quality data are essential.  Experiments performed by nonprofessionals can’t engender the trust that is necessary for academic consensus.  Once a theory is constructed from trusted data and predictions are made, experiments to test those predictions must be of high enough quality that they can be relied upon.

We need professionals to create and store data.  We need amateurs to help make things up.

We are observing an amateurization of society that is disconcerting to the professionals, those that Kos calls the gatekeepers.  Media and entertainment are experiencing a surge in nonpaid or low paid, highly competent writers, critics and artists that are creating, posting and distributing high quality content.  The web now offers to amateur and professional alike almost unlimited access to high quality data, thus blurring the lines between those elevated by access to what was formerly limited information and the rest of us.  In other words, the surge in transparency, diversity and horizontal communication is not only toppling hierarchies but amateurizing information control.  The web is reconstructing professions formerly in the exclusive control of the professionals.

Musicians and their listeners are deciding between the two of them what they like without the professionals of the music industry controlling creation, production and distribution.  Amateur artists across the world are experiencing a feeling of elevation as the former hierarchies collapse.

Traditional news media, formerly the collectors, producers and distributors of information, have been transforming into almost exclusively interpreters of the news.  They have been letting go of the expensive news gathering machinery–foreign bureaus and local reporters working on unique stories–and instead providing opinions.  The amateurs have stepped in.  Blogging sites such as Kos and TPM are offering high quality information and opinion.  It’s becoming less clear with time what the professionals still offer that is within their exclusive control.

With escalating unemployment, we’ll see a surge in the amateur domain.  We’ll have amateur commerce with street vendors proliferating outside the brick and mortar context.  We’ll see amateur agriculture with co-ops and individuals growing their own food.  We’ll see amateur health care with a proliferation of interventions occurring outside a health delivery system that is breaking down.

We’ll see amateur finance funding nonbanking loan solutions that will provide money to lubricate the economy.  Watch for web-based community financing and micro loans from micro sources, with web-based barter systems using web units as an efficient amateur currency.

If it can be imagined, it will be tried.  With the new social networking tools, the chances of things tried receiving attention exponentially increase.

With the amateurization of society will come the amateurization of academia.  Professional data determination will still be required, but the theory construction that makes sense of the data will become the domain of any or all interested parties.  The trend will be encouraged by professors publishing works on their blogs or personal websites because they can’t easily or quickly find space on peer-reviewed pages.  Immediate response by a multitude of interested professionals and amateurs inside and outside the author’s area of expertise will encourage a proliferation of theorizing unconnected to professional journals.  Finally, the non-PhDs will start making unique contributions to domains formerly populated by pieces only appearing in rarified enclaves protected by peer review.

Experiments will still require a professional’s intervention.  Professional consensus will still be required to make sure information is of high quality.  But the theory formation?  Anybody can make up and tell a story.  An amateur can create a theory.  Watch for the amateurization of academia as web vehicles are designed that allow for the most erudite of the amateur ideas to emerge.  Consider what it would look and feel like if there were an integration of online academic journals and social networking software that allows for ranking as in Digg or Stumbleupon.

The neuroscientist and dolphin researcher John Lilly used to say, “Whatever you believe to be true is true or becomes true, experiencially and experimentally.”  In the new horizontal amateur society, what we can imagine can come to be.  Imagine academia invested with the imagination of a child.  Consider what our world will look like with imagination and knowledge allied at last.


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This entry was posted on Sunday, March 22nd, 2009 at 6:28 am and is filed under Future, Society, Web. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
1 Comment so far

  1. Andrew on July 7, 2009 1:49 pm

    For fascinating further information on this subject go to http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/is-scientific-publishing-about-to-be-disrupted/

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