The “Mary Ann Mantel” Revolution

Chris “Long Tail” Anderson of Wired points to this interesting piece on the pro-am revolution. The gist:

From astronomy to activism, from surfing to saving lives, Pro-Ams – people pursuing amateur activities to professional standards – are an increasingly important part of our society and economy. For Pro-Ams, leisure is not passive consumerism but active and participatory, it involves the deployment of publicly accredited knowledge and skills, often built up over a long career, which has involved sacrifices and frustrations. The 20th century witnessed the rise of professionals in medicine, science, education, and politics. In one field after another, amateurs and their ramshackle organisations were driven out by people who knew what they were doing and had certificates to prove it. The Pro-Am Revolution argues this historic shift is reversing. We’re witnessing the flowering of Pro-Am, bottom-up self-organisation and the crude, all or nothing, categories of professional or amateur will need to be rethought. Based on in-depth interviews with a diverse range of Pro-Ams and containing new data about the extent of Pro-Am activity in the UK, this report proposes new policies to support and encourage valuable Pro-Am activity.

While the Internet and widespready information availability is playing a major role, what is particularly intriguing is how this change is really just a throwback. Accomplished amateurs used to play a major role in scientific advancements, at least until intellectual castes formed around disciplines and information became too dispersed and difficult to obtain.

Consider: Before the early 1800s people had no idea that dinosaurs ever existed. Back in 1824, however, an English amateur naturalist named Mary Ann Mantel found a sizable tooth stuck in a rock. After showing the tooth to her husband, a physician and fossil nut, the two decided that the tooth came from a heretofor unknown reptile — and the dinosaur hunt was on, thanks to an amateur.

Note that is different from the ongoing prosumer frenzy. The latter is an aspirational issue — people want the best toys and are willing to pay for them, whether it is stainless home appliances that blow fuses & wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan restaurants, or cameras that could be used by Sports Illustrated photographers — while pro-am has more to do with people’s dogged pursuit of their own preoccupations without regard for supposed professionals.


  1. speaking as someone with a kitchen filled with massive stainless appliances…i feel they’ve become an overrated commodity. no you won’t cook any better with that viking range. for most people they better splurge on a microwave, its where they will be cooking their dinner 99% of the time.
    the biggest scam is expensive knives. i worked in many good restaurants as a teen, and none of them did the expensive knife thing. obviously, employees would steal these. also knives in restaurants get treated like crap, so my experience has been that many chefs treat them as disposable.
    pro-am equipment is just people with too much money splurging on items they do not need to fulfill their hobbies. what next, luxury screwdrivers???