Excuse the extended pause. There was a little uncertainty about whether excerpting the book on Crowdsourcing.com, but that's been resolved and now we're back on track. The best argument for doing this is the quality of the comments I received on my first excerpt. So without further delay, I offer you another selection from my second chapter, after the jump.
The Reign of the Dilettante
Although the technologies behind this latest surge in amateur activity are new, the impulse itself has a venerable history. Before the age of television or spectator sports, recreation took forms scarcely recognizable to us today. So it comes as some surprise to learn that botany—the collecting, identifying and classification of all manner of flora—ranked as one of the most popular pastimes of the 19th Century. Calling themselves “botanizers ,” legions of amateurs fanned out across the abundant American forests, marshes, prairies and deserts armed with guidebooks and specimen cases. Amateur botanists discovered a vast number of new species, and were duly encouraged and mentored by the few professional botanists working at the time.
All that changed in the twilight of the century, when botany filled with ranks of professionals increasingly jealous of their amateur counterpart’s contributions and dismissive of their abilities. In 1897 the professionals succeeded in having “nature study” removed from the academic curricula of American high schools, resulting in an immediate diminishing of interest in the field. Amateurs, it was felt, sullied an otherwise upstanding academic discipline. By the early years of the 20th Century botany along with the other sciences, had become professionalized.
More than a century of a professionalized academy has helped obscure the amateur roots of the arts and sciences, which evolved through the accomplishments of men and women who wore the mantle of amateur with great pride, and would have considered being called a professional an insult. Francis Bacon is one of the founding fathers of modern science, the inventor of the scientific method. But science was really something of a sideline for Bacon, who was better known in his time as a lawyer, writer, politician, courtier and rumored pederast.
He was also an aristocrat, and in England as throughout Europe, the aristocracy abhorred the pursuit of any profession, the acquisition of money through labor being seen as a strictly lower class endeavor. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake—not particular knowledge but knowledge in the broadest sense—was commended and admired. Naturally, the only people who could afford to indulge in such time-consuming, and unpaid, intellectual toil, were the wealthy. To the extent scientific collaboration, so crucial to the progress of understanding, existed at all, it was in the form of gentleman’s clubs. Academic journals were nonexistent.
The progenitor of Britain’s prestigious Royal Society was known as the Invisible College. Inspired by Bacon’s crowning work, Novum Organum, in 1646 a group of philosophers, doctors and amateur astronomers and mathematicians formed an “institution of learning” they called “the Invisible College.” Colloquies were conducted via the mail, without benefit or need of the academies, which at any rate were largely devoted to preparing well-heeled young men headed for the legal courts or the parsonage. The invisible college’s purpose was to “acquire knowledge through experimental investigation,” and its members included some of the leading intellectual lights of the era, including Robert Hooke (inventor of the microscope), Robert Boyle (the founder of modern chemistry) and Sir Christopher Wren (whose fame as an architect overshadows his contributions to geometry and astronomy.) These men were dilettantes, a word that carried a positive connotation in their day. Today we would consider them amateurs. This state of affairs was no less dominant in the arts. To cite but one example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is remembered for the philosophical tracts that helped inspire the French Revolution, but in his day he was as well known for his comic operas, verse and works of fiction.
By 1660 the invisible college had become institutionalized, and was renamed the Royal Society. For the next one hundred years Royal Society members—amateurs all, by our contemporary definition—were responsible for some of the greatest advances in human knowledge. But the amateur ideal, embodied in the form of the gentleman scholar, was not to last. The death knell was sounded as early as 1776 when Adam Smith published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, a central thesis of which rested on the principle of specialization of the vocations. “The division of labour, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable (sic) increase of the productive powers of labour,” wrote Smith. Increasing industrialization led, as Smith predicted it would, to the reduction of every man’s business to “some one simple operation.”
By the 19th Century universities were beginning to replace the aristocracy as the primary source of funding for research, and a class of professional academic emerged in the growing American and European university systems. This process of professionalization led to the spread of more rigorous methodologies, and an animus developed toward the tradition of dilettantism in the sciences as well as in the arts, which with the emergence of a commercial market were also becoming increasingly professionalized. In 1830 the mathematician and philosopher Charles Babbage wrote a polemic entitled Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and on Some of its Causes that accused the Royal Society of slipping into decrepitude and philistinism by catering to its richest and often most indifferent members. By contrast, Napoleon had given France a flourishing system of academies that promoted merit and specialization. Divorced from its traditional patrons, these academies owed their existence strictly to government funds.
Babbage’s essay had a lasting influence. In 1831 the British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded to counteract the stultifying influence of the gentlemanly culture of the Royal Society, which was administered by unpaid (and generally untrained) men whose only claim to accreditation was a purported interest in the subject. The experience of Charles Darwin is more typical than not. At a young age Darwin had already become fascinated with botany, and carried this interest into college. But his father—an eminent doctor—insisted his son pursue a career in either religion or law. But times had already changed by the mid-19th Century, and the younger Darwin was able to convince his father to let him go on his fateful journey on the HMS Beagle by pointing to the increasingly respectable community of scientific professionals.
As the 19th Century progressed Smith’s theories concerning the division of labor manifested as the industrial revolution, in which workers migrated to the cities to perform ever more specialized functions, finally reaching an elegant, and stunningly efficient apogee on the Dearborn, Michigan assembly lines of Henry Ford’s automobile plants. But by the first decades of the 1900s a division of labor had appeared in the academy as well, culminating in the establishment of the modern research university. Now a clear distinction took hold between undergraduate education and the scholarship professors were expected to undertake in a rapidly multiplying number of disciplines.
Yet even as the arts and sciences found themselves Balkanized, undergraduate curricula continued to emphasize the Renaissance ideal of an earlier, pre-industrial era. Tailored toward the education of the upper classes, universities were expected to produce “well-rounded” young men who would proceed to white-shoe law firms and corporate offices. Our universities are still essentially artifacts from the Renaissance period, representative of a time when the model citizen could wield the pen, the plough and the protractor with equal aptitude. And that’s a good thing. It makes for interesting, and interested, individuals. But such individuals will seek out rewarding lives full of meaningful labor. Which is where crowdsourcing comes in.