Interaction Designer
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Essays

Through a concentration in Nature, Culture, and Sustainability Studies, Peter brings an eye for psychology, sociology, and the natural sciences.

The New Professional // 'Pro-Am' Collaboration

The history of design is typified by a small list of standout individuals. From Loewy to Jony Ive, Le Corbusier and Philippe Starck, the design profession has been built and defined by an elite few. As Ivan Illich points out, in the context of design, “people tend to relinquish the task of envisaging the future to a professional elite” (Illich, 13). However, in the modern, connected society, non-designers, individuals who blend the role of professional and amateur (‘Pro-Am’s’), have begun creating unique and innovative products and services which challenge the historical status of the professional designer (Leadbeater). Even beyond the design disciplines, communities of ‘Pro-Am’s’ have, across the boards, broken down many traditional professional barriers. From the open-source, user-developed Linux operating system, to online retail platforms like Ebay or Etsy, even sharing economy staples AirBnB and Uber, these services give individuals an opportunity to practice a trade at the professional level, whether retailer, hotelier, or cab driver, while distinctively maintaining status as an amateur. While the rise of the ‘Pro-Am’ promises distinct social and societal benefits, from revitalized communities to accelerated innovation, the importance of the design professional will remain paramount as both an instigator and agent of change in the development of a new, communal envisioning of society.

Coined in his 2004 book The Pro-Am Revolution, Charles Leadbeater sees professional amateurism as a status in which individuals, purely defined as amateurs and often involved professionally in careers outside of any ‘Pro-Am’ activity, actively participate in traditionally professional disciplines at a professional level. In many contexts, “formerly amateur activities”, such as stargazing, in comparison to the professional discipline of astronomy, in the hands of the ‘Pro-Am’, have become more organized, with knowledge and procedures codified and regulated via community platforms often involving online social networks (Leadbeater, 12). Citing many examples in which communities of enthusiasts and ‘Pro-Am’s’, especially in scientific disciplines, have been instrumental in furthering discipline knowledge (the over 100-year-old Christmas Bird Count being a stellar example), Leadbeater insists that “when Pro-Am’s are networked together they can have a huge impact on politics and culture, economics and development” (Leadbeater, 12).

While, historically, ‘Pro-Am’ activity has indeed impacted society as a whole, the development of the internet in the modern context has vastly augmented the possibilities of disparate networks of individuals to collaborate and organize to form a unified social force. While the activities of networked ‘Pro-Am’s’ have, in the cases of the Grameen Bank, Linux, and the Jubilee Debt Campaign, rivaled professional organizations, the potential of the internet is furthermore blurring the boundaries between amateurs and true professionals (Shirky, 17). With Blurb.com, an online self-publishing service, anyone with $20 can become a published writer. Instagram has fashioned semi-pro photographers of us all. According to Clay Shirky, social networking and online community platforms, “by making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management, these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised effort” (Shirky, 21). While overlooked by Leadbeater and Shirky, the internet has also brought previously professionals-only knowledge to the public light, allowing anyone to acquire professional skills through platforms such as Codecademy, Coursera, or Lynda. In just the past two decades, the internet has catalyzed the abilities of ‘Pro-Am’ individuals to both attain specific professional knowledge and training as well as broadly connect and form meaningful communities with the power to impact even the lordliest professional disciplines.

While networked ‘Pro-Am’s’ bring newfound possibilities, breaking down the barriers of professional disciplines while enhancing collaborative potential, the concept of a ‘Pro-Am’ lifestyle postulates even greater impacts on society as a whole. Citing the vast poverty of social capital in developed nations, Ivan Illich affirms that humans “need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others” (Illich, 12). The involvement of ‘Pro-Am’s’ in the Design and Manufacturing disciplines allows for such freedom, returning meaningful power from the Design elite to the general public. In order to obtain the described, more just, distribution of power, Illich believes that “society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy human needs which it also determines” (Illich, 12). These cited enlarged contributions will come from budding groups of ‘Pro-Am’s’. While in the past, organizing such a “decentralized movement” especially “without a blueprint” or centralized administrative power, would be nigh impossible; however, with the growth of the internet, “we now have communications tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordinating action that take advantage of that change” (Schor, 181) (Shirky, 20).

In Plenitude, Juliet Schor criticizes the current patent system, citing how “past discoveries are the building blocks for further innovation”, while Leadbeater opines that “amateurs have a long track record of innovation, especially in emerging fields which are too young for there to be an organized professional body of knowledge” (Schor, 150) (Leadbeater, 16). Combining the ideas of these thinkers, the rise in power of ‘Pro-Am’ communities, in tandem with open-source modes of knowledge sharing and networking via the internet, could instigate both a new wave in distributed social and technical innovation, such as witnessed in the Maker movement, while also giving individuals the new sense of purpose and freedom which Illich sees as vital to existence. Such a ‘revolution’ would furthermore allow leisure to extend beyond the banality of “passive consumerism” towards an active and participatory engagement in re-envisioning the physical and societal characteristics of the world, as individuals spend their time outside of professional work actively engaged in ‘Pro-Am’ interests and creation (Leadbeater, 20). In theory, growing ‘Pro-Am’ communities will not only meaningfully contribute to professional disciplines, sparking innovation, but also revitalize community relationships, restoring purpose and individuality to individuals compulsorily defined as mere consumers.

While the arguments of Leadbeater, Schor, Illich, and Shirky paint an incredibly clear picture of the future for ‘Pro-Am’ communities, they fail to address the new role of professionals, including designers, in the equation for future innovation, overlooking a potential asset in the rise of a new design and manufacturing paradigm. Beyond attaining specific design related skills and abilities, professional designers have laboriously trained their powers of observation and synthesis, in short, design professionals are experts of action. When it comes time to put an idea to practice, to begin producing a concept generated through ‘Pro-Am’ networks, even in a distributed form of production, the moment of manufacture requires all of the disparate concepts to be united under a single design direction. The world needs professional designers to critique, analyze, and combine the ideas of the ‘Pro-Am’s’, to weed out concepts which only the professional can immediately recognize as inefficient, lacking direction, or otherwise useless. The ‘Pro-Am’s’ need the professionals to share knowledge and provide direction, to indicate where ‘Pro-Am’ efforts should be spent. Furthermore, as witnessed in the case of AirBnB, designers and more broadly professionals are often the instigators and creators of the platforms which ‘Pro-Am’s’ utilize to collaborate. Leadbeater cites The Sims as a prime example of ‘Pro-Am’ collaboration in building a virtual world, however, it was professional game designers who, in the first place, built the platform for said collaboration.

The concept of a ‘Pro-Am’ revolution is not only promising but attainable. Beyond instigating innovation through collaboration with professionals, “social Pro-Am activities in particular, bring important benefits, over and above individual satisfaction. They can build community spirit, capacity for cooperation, spread skills and promote trust” (Leadbeater, 61). Furthermore, “wider access”, as Schor point out, “is also the basis of a fairer distribution of property, income and by extension, political and social power”, a necessary transition in a society with immense and consistently growing wealth and power inequality (Schor, 163). It is beyond time that professionals and enthusiasts, designers and ‘Pro-Am’s’, collaborate through distributed networks to instigate a new paradigm for design and manufacturing, wresting power from the true giants of industry, the corporations benefiting from obligational consumerism.

"the rise in power of ‘Pro-Am’ communities, in tandem with open-source modes of knowledge sharing and networking via the internet, could instigate both a new wave in distributed social and technical innovation, such as witnessed in the Maker movement, while also giving individuals the new sense of purpose and freedom which Illich sees as vital to existence."


Bibliography

IIllich, Ivan. Tools For Conviviality. n.p.: New York, Harper & Row [1973], 1973. Fleet Library at RISD/Providence Athenaeum Catalog. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Leadbeater, Charles, and Paul Miller. The Pro-Am Revolution : How Enthusiasts Are Changing Our Society And Economy / Charles Leadbeater, Paul Miller. n.p.: London : Demos, 2004., 2004. Harvard Library Bibliographic Dataset. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Schor, Juliet. Plenitude : The New Economics Of True Wealth / Juliet B. Schor. n.p.: New York, N.Y. : Penguin Press, 2010., 2010. Harvard Library Bibliographic Dataset. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody : The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations. n.p.: New York : Penguin Press, 2008., 2008. Fleet Library at RISD/Providence Athenaeum Catalog. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.