"I don't want to read blogs by political extremists, listen to podcasts recorded by droning amateurs, or watch videos produced by talentless would-be directors - even though the Internet makes all that possible.
I want to get my news from highly skilled professionals, listen to music by the world's most brilliant performers and composers, and be entertained by big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas.
Of course, I'm biased. I make my living writing this column, and my paycheck is threatened if everyone decides freely available blogs -- even at lesser quality -- are an acceptable substitute.
Carr concludes: "The layoffs we've recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can't imagine anything more frightening.''
Amen." - Mike Langberg, "An Internet fed mostly by amateurs is frightening", San Jose Mercury News, October 23, 2005
Or does the granting of a degree from an accredited film school or art school or journalism school now stamp one with the Good Housekeeping seal of approval?
Should Bill Gates or Steve Jobs meekly crawl back and complete their professional degrees?
Or does it sometimes come from passion, gumption, inspiration, and the sheer love of it?
Why whine that the talent pond got bigger? What ever happened to that little old adage, Let the market decide?
There's probably too much Kool-Aid and hype over Web 2.0 to be sure. It's the disdain for amateurs that riles me up. Making sure we're on the same page: amateur, definition from Wikipedia (he, he):
The other, perhaps somewhat obsolescent usage, stems from the French form of the Latin root of the word meaning a "lover of". (See amateurism.) In this sense, retaining its French inflexion ("am-a-tEUR"), an amateur may be as competent as a paid professional, yet is motivated by a love or passion for the activity, like a connoisseur. In the 17th and 18th centuries virtuoso had similar connotations of passionate involvement.
SILICON VALLEY IS WRITHING WITH AMATEURS
And they are the heart and blood coursing through the economy. I didn't feel the need to respond to Carr when I read a reference to his piece (again I'm focusing on the "cult of the amateur" aspect) over at Om Malik's blog. But this was too much. Langberg writes from the Valley!
Yesterday Dave Winer waxed on about openness and spoke of Silicon Valley exuding a "sense that this place is come as you are, no invite required". Dave nails precisely why I moved here myself from an invite-only state (which now that you mention it, invite-only events were the rage there):
This is why I came to Silicon Valley in 1979, when I was 24 years old. In Madison there were people writing software, smart people (some) but I wanted to make software at a different level. I wanted to make stuff that changed everything, that opened closed doors, that gave people power that used to only belong to the rich and old. Like an open conference, I needed to give something up to get there. But there was no gatekeeper at the door to Silicon Valley telling me I needed an invite. The door was open because not only is that a value of the web, but it's also a value of Silicon Valley, even if some people usurp that. - "Like a Bloggercon", Dave Winer's Scripting News
At the recent Accelerating Change Conference, Steve Jurvetson shared his emphasis on biological metaphors in technology and science. And how it's infiltrated the way venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson funds companies: new ideas are on the emergent edge, on the fringes. So they make sure they have an open call model. They actually read every single business plan they get, with or without a social tie, because by definition their social hub isn't the fringe.
At the same conference, Mark Finnern of SAP shared they'd just hired their #2 contributor to their online SAP developer network in-house. "He'd have never made it through our HR filters," Mark confessed. But his raw talent and passion for what he did and the community was exposed for all to see.
The so-called "cult of the amateur" means one fed up with their stultifying day job can start doodling cartoons on the backs of business cards. And upload them online. And after a few years people seek you out to doodle for them. For Kim Polese and Budget Rental Car.
So it's an Open Call age. But the cult of the amateur isn't anything novel in the Valley. It precedes Web 1.0.
Don Valentine (think financier behind Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, Electronic Arts and Oracle) reminesces in an oral history of the Valley about one particular amateur:
We financed Steve in 1977 at Apple. Steve was twenty, un-degreed, some people said unwashed, and he looked like Ho Chi Min. But he was a bright person then, and is a brighter man now. - from Silicon Genesis oral history site's 2004 interview with venture capitalist Don Valentine
Public relations guru Regis McKenna recalls that first meeting because he put the two visionaries in touch:
[T]he first time he met Jobs, a long-haired, brash youngster who wore t-shirts, cut-off jeans and sandals... McKenna recalls: "Valentine called me afterward and said, `Why have you sent me this renegade from the human race?'"
"They were the renegades of the computer industry," recalls [Regis] McKenna. "It was a grassroots movement, with a social dimension not unlike civil rights or the environment."
The microcomputer revolutionaries believed big business - which they equated with big computers - was not to be trusted. McKenna attended computer club meetings: "They had discussions around not connecting microcomputers to the mainframe because then they would be controlled by them." They didn't need to worry. Few in Silicon Valley paid attention to them.
...A lot of companies in the Valley didn't see it coming [microcomputers, personal computers]," recalls McKenna. "Many people at Intel didn't even believe in them." - "A time, a place, a mystique: How the Valley of the Heart's Delight became Silicon Valley", Electronic Business, 10/15/2000 (free reg required)
My observation on what's happening in media resembles the personal computer revolution: LSD, Litmus Tests, Hackers and Blogging for Dollars. (Please note that Apple didn't kill IBM. They co-exist in the market. And with Taligent they even partnered together once; ok, now defunct but when do any of these joint ventures work?)
THERE'S ONLY SO MANY TALENT MYTHS IN THE WORLD
"[Barry] Diller made what I consider to be some obvious statements, like, "there's only so much talent in the world," suggesting that there are limits to what amateurs can accomplish, says the OnoTech blog in "Web 2.0 -- amateur vs. professional."
If we keep telling ourselves that, well, we might just believe it. "Artmaking has been around longer than the art establishment. Through most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art," say authors David Bayles and Ted Orland in Art and Fear.
I'm with Dan Gillmor, "Web 2.0, Journalism and Nicholas Carr": "I celebrate the amateur, meanwhile, because the amateurs are rediscovering their voices after a dark age when they were assumed to be nothing but consumers."
This past Saturday I met a credentialled filmmaker (film school, works as videographer, blah blah) whose working on a documentary film - on her own terms. Asked about her distribution plans, she says she'll cross that bridge later. She's self-assured although she quips: "Even if we just a few DVD parties to show it, that's fine." Even 'talented' people get fed up watching their original, signature voices squashed. Even 'talented' people get fed up watching their talent squandered.
We'll not take away your King Kong or The Matrix. Sure, I watch big-budget. And gritty low-budget independents. I'm an avowed Sundance junkie (hmm, this film fest post is called Democratization of Creativity). And when one thinks Sundance has gone too mainstream, there are a half-dozen other film festivals piggybacking on their heels. Most of these films will never be seen in any other theater.
Far too many sketches, scripts, photos, films, and journal scribblings lay completely hidden privately because the book agent didn't call back, or they didn't have an 'in' to Hollywood. It's not necessarily about making it big, the thing is just dying to get out.
Making art is a common and intimately human activity, filled with all the perils (and rewards) that accompany any worthwhile effort. - Bayles and Orland, Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
I've been blogging and writing continuously for 21 months (not counting a few months at an abandoned blog). I feel as I've not hit my stride - yet. If you throw enough pots, you will be a master potter.
So where does talent come from? Mastery? In a post on art, Taos and brands, titled Signature Voices, I begin:
I first admired R.C. Gorman's work when I first moved to the West, to Salt Lake City. You can spot his unique work in any line-up. Walking into his gallery tucked on Ledoux Street last week, there was a particular painting, Woman in Canyon de Chelley, that struck me. Damn, I should have bought his work 12 years ago. The price tag: $65,000.
In the gallery, I flip through a cookbook (the theme: food and nudes). It's Gorman's early work. More like you might notice in any talented art student's sketchbook. If you pay attention though, you can begin to see a trace of his style, his stamp, his voice emerging.
In the same post, I mention I was caught off guard by a nondescript 1903 painting by Georgia O'Keefe (that's classic O'Keefe left and not the oriental cherry blossoms painting). It's identical to any rank amateur just fresh out of art school's attempt at cherry blossom branches with a Zen flair. Not distinctive O'Keefe. Judging by dates on her other work, I surmised: "She clearly came into her own in the next decade."
That's a decade, hmmm. Take a peek at this research:
Andres Ericsson is a psychologist who studied Expert and Exceptional Performance in individuals as diverse as chess players, musicians, computer programming, bridge, athletes, and physicists. He has brought a remarkable new insight to the age-old question of whether expert performance is because of exceptional talent (or nature) or because of long hours of effort usually led by parents or adults (or nurture). His conclusion covered areas as broad as motor performance in sports, music, and medicine with the conclusion that, regardless of talent, expert and exceptional performers achieved that status by effort. All have put in about ten years and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in their development. How does practice improve talent so much? We adapt to domain specific restraints. We develop anticipatory skills. You know as a diagnostician what is possible or likely and learn to anticipate what we will find or do. Soccer and hockey goalies, for example, do not have better reaction times than other players. Constant practice and accumulated knowledge allow them to anticipate shots. Their expertise is not a natural gift but a learned mastery of their craft.
Ten years and 10,000 hours of practice—that means three hours of practice per day. In addition, practice is not defined the same as performing what we already know. Lounge musicians who simply play are not getting better unless they are deliberately practicing, that is, doing work may be not considered fun but a deliberate and concentrated effort to improve skills. - from 2004 AOSSM Presidential Address
10,000 hours, whoa. Gulp. That's a big daunting number. Sans passion (or a hefty enough paycheck) it may be insurmountable. Entrepreneur Will Allred writes in his FireBlog post "Are You Playing or Practicing?":
I've been reading The Extraordinary Leader by John H. Zenger and Joseph Folkman. The authors make a brief reference to a study by K. Anders Ericsson and Neil Charness published in 1994 called "Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition". The article, which talks about sports and music prodigies, is summed up by the following:
The traditional view of talent, which concludes that successful individuals have special innate abilities and basic capacities, is not consistent with the reviewed evidence...More plausible loci of individual differences are factors that predispose individuals toward engaging in deliberate practice and enable them to sustain high levels of practice for many years.
While the frontal lobes may be important for providing the judgment and flexibility of thought that underlies talent, structures in the temporal lobes and limbic system supply drive and motivation, which [neurologist and writer, Alice] Flaherty believes are more important parts of the creative equation than talent itself. This applies not only to writing, but to all kinds of creative ability.
"To be truly creative chess player," she says, "probably just loving the game and playing it ten hours a day may be more important than having some special pattern recognition ability in your brain." (from March 2005 National Geographic, "What's In Your Mind?" issue)
Voila! The formula, please: Passion + Practice = Artiste. I don't think that's the precise formula exactly, but it's a close enough approximation. Passion is the fuel that drives amateurs (insert French inflection and accent yourself).
And the Internet is our open studio to throw pots, take up a brush, collaborate on jam sessions, squiggle cartoons and practice, practice, practice. Anyone can drop into the studio without an appointment. Sometimes it's a work in progress. And sometimes you walk into a masterpiece.
As a renowned documentary filmmaker (once an amateur whom trained herself by getting her hands on a camera and just-doing-it) once shared with me, "There's a secret. If you put in the effort, the universe has a matching grant program. And it'll meet you halfway every time."
Related: Much of what I write in this blog, and this post: We're All Journalists in the Age of Ordinary Art.
Photo credits? You mean besides O'Keefe's Oriental Poppies? It's only an amateur. Amateur's story (via Wikipedia):
He became interested in photography when his Aunt Mary gave him a copy of "In the Heart of the Sierras"  while he was sick as a child. The photographs in the book by George Fiske piqued his interest enough to persuade his parents to vacation in Yosemite National Park in 1916, where he was given a camera as a gift.
[Ansel] Adams disliked the uniformity of the education system and left school in 1915 to educate himself. He originally trained himself as a pianist, but Yosemite and the camera diverted his interest toward photography.
[T]he shadowcatcher Ansel Adams, who believed that his camera was a combination of machine and spirit, wrote in his autobiography about one afternoon that shaped his destiny. He was married in his twenties and still living with his mother and his aunt. The time had come when he had to choose between his two great passions - photography and piano. His wife, Virginia, told him she would support him in whatever he believed to be his true calling, but his mother pleaded in anguish, "Do not give up the piano!" The camera cannot express the human soul!"
Adams paused for a moment, then replied with the confidence of the moment, "Perhaps the camera cannot, but the photographer can." - from Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker's Guide to Making Travel Sacred