Amateur Hour with John Quiggin and Dan Hunter

http://www.bdars.org/genesis/Techspot/enisradio2.gifJohn Quiggin and Dan Hunter have written a very interesting survey article on Web 2.0. They characterise the new innovation on the web as the innovation of the amateur. Their choice of word is deliberately provocative, and also rehabilitative. As they note, at least in the wake of a couple of centuries of industrial revolution, amateurs have a bad name – as opposed to ‘professionals’ who didn’t exist as a class when the industrial revolution got going.

So the basic analysis is that we’ve come full circle. Innovation was not conceived of as a professional thing, or even a particularly capitalist or self-interested thing when Adam Smith was writing at the beginning of the industrial revolution. The authors note a couple of places where Smith’s inherent sympathy with the people at the bottom of the hierarchies of the time is made manifest – as when he gives anecdotes of young children and workers innovating with simple ideas that make a big difference over time. (See footnote 17). And remember that this is one of Smith’s great economic arguments against slavery – with all surplus stolen from him the slave has no incentive to suggest improvements to the way he works, and indeed has an incentive not to propose improvements so as not to appear lazy.

Now after a hiatus in which innovation was corralled into the image of capitalist rationality we find that there’s an explosion of pre/post capitalist innovation of the amateur, motivated in multifarious ways, but often not for money, and in ways that money might actively get in the way of. So it’s well worth reading.

Now for a bunch of concerns. I hasten to add before going on with them over the fold, that the fact that I’m articulating concerns is that, as is often the case in academic discussion, the fact that one’s eye mostly goes to what one thinks of as weaknesses shouldn’t be taken to suggest that I’m not a fan of the paper. I think it’s interesting, convincing at least in its central message about the (re)new(ed) importance of amateur production and recommend it for your attention.

The article is too damn long. Why are international legal journals so long winded? Most other disciplines prize concision. But legal articles – particularly in US journals – are a nightmare. It should be 20 pages but it’s 50 odd. There are footnotes that are completely redundant. Apparently we need a reference to be told that people produce blog content with little economic motivation. I blame the lawyer (or rather his discipline, since I guess if I was responding to the same incentives I’d do the same)!

More importantly I think the authors overdo ‘love’ as a motive. Of course, providing the authors intend a generous definition of this word, which they mostly seem to, there is no great harm done. But I think it’s important to guard against naivety. They way they describe the motivations of open source production is a little too generous I think – in the way I was a little too generous in something I wrote on open source production (pdf). They mention some of the less noble motives – like self advertisement in blogging – but I think they should emphasise this a little more. And the motives for contributing to wikipedia? This entertaining article seems to suggest that obsessive compulsion is no small motive.

But much more important than these things is the question of how we treat the profit motive? I agree with the authors that too crass a focus on the profit motive will not only miss a lot of the action, but could easily misguide policy in numerous ways – for instance in getting intellectual property responses completely wrong, and antithetical to collaborative production. But the impression created by the article is that the profit motive is somehow irrelevant, if not antithetical to the kind of production that the authors celebrate.

Perhaps that’s true for ‘amateurs’ but then it would be true by definition – amateurs being necessarily not motivated primarily by profit. But to the extent that the article is making claims about Web 2.0 I think it’s important to note that most of the big architectural, infrastructural building of Web 2.0 has been done in pursuit of profit. The only exception I can think of is Wikipedia, though I expect others will come up with other examples in comments.

In many ways Google’s algorithm is the foundation myth of Web 2.0. It allowed people to invisibly and indeed involuntarily collaborate in identifying the most important content on the web. Then there’s the sites on which all the collaboration takes place – My Space, Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster etc. All these things were got going by people who loved the idea of making money, even if they may well have loved other things (at least once upon a time!). And they’re still making money – lots of it.

So my take out of the whole Web 2.0 story is a bit messier. I think self interest is in there working its magic and its trouble. But then again competitive and collaborative activity have, like yin and yang, always been in some symbiotic tension balancing each other. Perhaps a new phenomenon is the extent to which competitive motives have produced the architecture while collaboration has taken place within that architecture. Generally it has been the other way round, with competitive provision within markets only made possible by the collaborative provision of public goods as their architecture – standards, languages and rules and mores of conduct.

Another comment, not really a complaint, is that the authors tend to speak of public goods as if they need to be ‘funded’ in some sense. I’ve tried to distinguish between what I’ve called Mechanical, Collectively Funded Public Goods (like law courts and lighthouses) and Ecological, Privately Cultivated Public Goods (like language and social mores). [Postscript: I’ve subsequently referred to these as ’emergent’ public goods. I expect there’s alternative jargon somewhere which will catch on before my coinage, but I would have liked to have read the thoughts of John’s fertile mind on the distinction and the policy implications of seeking to vouchsafe the protection and/or adequate production of each different kind of public good. The paper is not unaware of the issues, but doesn’t explicitly make the distinction, which I think is important for policy thinking.

Sometimes I think the authors’ antipathy to the profit motive and to ‘neoliberal’ ideology gets in the way. In contrasting the profit motive with amateur production they say “in market contexts, the first rule is never to give more than you get” (p. 231). As a participant in several markets, that’s news to me. I’d say the rule of market interaction is the same rule that Pareto proposed for welfare gains – of those involved in the deal, someone has to be better off and no-one can be worse off. Lots of market transactions involve people doing each other favours for nothing much (‘you owe me’) and sharing the spoils of some mutual adding of value according to whatever formula works.

The main rule is ‘don’t leave money lying around on the pavement – pick it up and work out a way to share it round enough to motivate the necessary collaboration’. It’s true that the old ‘share and share alike’ is the standard rule for such bargains as one would expect, but it’s varied on entirely pragmatic grounds wherever bargaining power differs – viz Woolies and a grower. And then there are what I argued are a new(ish) class of ‘do-good’ capitalists like Google which must have left a trillion dollars or more on the table in terms of the value it’s created, only to pick up a measly $4 odd billion a year in profit.

I particularly liked a brief note on how ‘bureaucratic rationality’ dosn’t work too well in Web 2.0. You can say that again. In fact I’ve said it myself, but not quite in that way. But it’s a compellingly simple way to make the point. How can we improve this sorry state of affairs?

Anyway, like I said, the article is well worth a squiz. And the policy proposals also got me thinking. More on that if and when I get the time.

And the picture of Einstein? Well it's loosely related to the subject matter - don't you think.  Well if you don't, I'm afraid I went hunting for pictures to illustrate 'amateurism' and I just liked it. Radio is just like the telephone, only there is no cat.
This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, IT and Internet. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
5 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
James A
James A
13 years ago

The Pro-Am Revolution covers much the same ground. It’s been a while since I read it, but IIRC they used the term “pro-am” as some of the amateurs put in serious amounts of effort, sometimes more than the professionals they supplant.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
13 years ago

A nice review, though I didn’t think we overemphasised love – we tried to discuss a wide range of motivations, pointing out that all of them were rendered problematic by monetary incentives.

As for in market contexts, the first rule is never to give more than you get the definition of a Pareto improving trade is one where both parties get more (in their own valuation) than they give, so I don’t see that there is a contradiction. You’re not the only one to object to this, though, so I’ll give it some more thought/

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
13 years ago

On the first point, if you want to be absolutely correct, say “never give strictly more than you get.”

On the second, of course I’m not denying the existence of gains from trade or (therefore) the benefits of markets. I’m just saying that if you go into markets with a willingness to enter transactions that make you worse off (for reasons of altruism, friendliness, desire for display, failure to calculate correctly or whatever) that willingness creates an opportunity for other market participants and they will take advantage of it to the maximum possible extent. Hence, you will end up *a lot* worse off. The same opportunities for arbitrage don’t arise in other contexts, so giving more than you get is not such a problem. Hence, people learn to behave differently in market contexts.

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

The same opportunities for arbitrage dont arise in other contexts,

What, so love is a market now? Because this comment applies absolutely to love:

Im just saying that if you go into markets with a willingness to enter transactions that make you worse off (for reasons of altruism, friendliness, desire for display, failure to calculate correctly or whatever) that willingness creates an opportunity for other market participants and they will take advantage of it to the maximum possible extent.