The Age of Amateurs

Amateurs are winning: is it a bad thing?

No taxi driver is more professional than a UK taxi driver. Theirs is by far the toughest taxi exam in the world. To master the Knowledge, at least three years of intensive cramming are necessary. The Knowledge is the in-depth study of all London street routes and places of interest that future cab drivers are required to complete to obtain the licence to operate a black cab. It was initiated in 1865 and has barely changed since — except London has gotten bigger! The prestige of UK black cab drivers was immense. Such intimate knowledge of the city ensured taxi clients a reliable professional service and the safest form of transportation. Not everyone can memorise so much information.

Has this form of professionalism become completely obsolete? With just a smartphone and a driving licence (and a car), Uber drivers offer a service that leaves nothing to be desired, is cheaper and more widely accessible. Earlier this month the proposal by Transport for London to require Uber drivers from non-English speaking countries to pass a basic written English exam was heavily criticised by Uber: why should drivers be expected to write English when they only need to be able to speak to their clients? It will, Uber managers claim, “put thousands of drivers out of work”.

The fact that a basic English test can be regarded as a bureaucratic rule to curb the growth of a digital platform is evidence that we have entered a new paradigm. “Professionalism” as we have known it is dead. Digital is transforming all of our professions — lawyers, teachers, doctors, accountants, consultants, journalists, taxi drivers etc. — the same way that Fordist industrial firms transformed craftsmanship. Sophisticated applications empower amateurs to provide a high-quality service without what used to be regarded as mandatory professional qualifications. Widely available information empowers motivated amateurs to get access to expert knowledge that used to be the protected property of professional experts. Everywhere amateurs are now winning…

The old paradigm of the professions used to make sense

Since the nineteenth century, the professions have flourished. Groups of workers have made “professions” out of every discipline, ring-fenced and regulated them so as to protect bodies of “professionals”. These bodies are the legacy of a paradigm largely invented by the medieval guilds. Like the guilds, the professions don’t just ensure the preservation and transmission of precious knowledge, they also promote social order and political stability. Every profession has representation and visibility. To be part of one means existing socially, politically and economically. In short, the professions are a protection against political chaos.

Being knowledgeable about a specific discipline is not enough to make you a “professional”. Professionals are not only characterised by their specialist knowledge, they must also have the right credentials to belong to a closed group, whose activities are regulated and who share a common set of values. Most professions are generally given exclusivity over certain activities by law. Often, as is the case with doctors, the effective monopoly is justified by the protection of the public.

In The Future of the Professions, Richard and Daniel Susskind analyse the way technology is transforming the work of experts of all professions. They explain how the protection of the professions are the result of an implicit (or sometimes pretty explicit) “grand bargain” which provides regulation and protection for the professions in exchange for high-quality of service and protection against charlatans.

“In return for access to their extraordinary knowledge in matters of great human importance, society has granted them (the professions) a mandate for social control in their fields of specialisation, a high degree of autonomy in their practice, and a license to determine who shall assume the mantle of professional authority”.
You CAN judge a book by its cover

But now the professions are largely failing

In the old paradigm, the expertise of the best benefits only the few. Because their services are not scalable and more often offered in-person and face-to-face, as with doctors and lawyers for example, the number of clients / patients who can have access to the most talented professionals is fairly limited. Most will have to make do with average professionals, or worse. But with Internet and high-quality scalable services, consumers have gotten used to demanding only the best because the knowledge and experience of the very best can be made more widely available.

The development of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) doesn’t only make knowledge available to those who can’t afford university (namely young people in developing countries), it also makes the work of the most talented professors scalable and increases the expectations of all students. Why make do with an average professor when you can enjoy the best classes? Most university students are already combining the best of online MOOCs with the best of what they can get offline. It’s not easy to regulate that!

Should the terms of the Grand Bargain be revised or should the agreement be terminated? That is the question that Richard and Daniel Susskind aim to answer in their book. Their answer is largely yes, because, they say, the professions are failing on many fronts:

  • the professions do not want to change; they resist reform or revolution and therefore aren’t innovative enough to satisfy ever more demanding consumers;
  • they have increased the level of bureaucracy and jargon in a desperate attempt to better control distribution;
  • very few people actually have access to professional services: increased regulation has made them less accessible;
  • professions discourage “self-help, self-discovery and self-reliance”, which is incompatible with ordinary individuals’ unprecedented access to and desire for knowledge.
“In most developed economies health service costs are spiralling, schools are lamentably under-resourced, and middle-of-the-road lawyers are beyond the pockets even of other middle-class professionals. (…) Small businesses are disenfranchised. Their owners do not have the resources to retain management consultants, tax advisers, or accountants”.

The rise of amateurs is not all bad news

Consumers now impose the pace of change. Both expertise and professional services can be made available to many more people, as taxi rides have been made available to more passengers. Broader access to knowledge and critical services is what is making amateurs win. In fact, the democratisation of knowledge and professional services like professional medical advice via a smartphone app or Harvard classes via MOOCs is the only good news in a global context of growing inequalities. It is fundamentally the only force that counters the increasingly unequal distribution of revenue. Wealth inequalities are not as big as they are said to be if one also takes the distribution of knowledge and expertise into account. After all, knowledge and expertise are also wealth — what Gary Becker called “human capital”.

Indeed consumers need protection from quacks and charlatans, but the old forms of protection have sometimes become obsolete. It’s quite easy to forge a degree! New forms of control and validation that rely on big data or blockchain are showing what protection can mean today.

Catch Me If You Can!

Many professionals — lawyers, consultants and the like — are so busy accumulating billable hours, they don’t spend much time curating content, reading new studies and updating their skills. Because you got a degree twenty years ago doesn’t mean you’re not a quack today if you’ve never updated your expertise! What if amateurs were better? Because they’re not automatically “legitimate” and not protected by a mantle of authority, amateurs can only make it if the quality of the service they provide is actually better and cheaper.

After all, in some sports, it used to be that the amateur was regarded as superior to the professional because the amateur did what he/she did only for the sake of it, which made his/her pursuit all the more noble. Can the word “amateur” still be used as an insult today?

Last but not least, technology is making expertise obsolete increasingly fast. The more we encourage the young to become ultra-specialised full-time professionals in certain fields, the higher the danger they’ll lose everything when tech makes their craft obsolete. Amateurs are far more flexible and resilient. The “multipotentialites” can embrace change easily and hop from one field to the next.


Of course that leads us to the question of money and livelihood. If amateurs aren’t in it for the money and amateurs are winning, how will we all live?

That is THE question we will have to answer in the 21st century as we will be looking for ways to decouple work / passion / revenue / social protection. New institutions will have to be created to make this possible. But for many talented professionals the only way to protect their livelihood is to embrace the new paradigm, not to fight it with more anachronistic regulation.

Many professionals and entrepreneurs are finding new (lucrative) ways to increase both the quality and scale of professional services. What’s certain is they can’t only be for the few. Expertise belongs to everyone.