The power of outsider influenceMay 25, 2012: 8:40 AM ET
Is the hobbyist the heart (and soul) of American innovation? A review of Jack Hitt's Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character
By Ryan Bradley, senior editor
FORTUNE -- Knowledge -- the deep, institutional kind gleaned from years at the grindstone within a certain industry -- is a curse. Or at least it can be. At any rate, outsiders are sometimes capable of cognitive leaps that elude insiders. Also, there's something particularly American about the form of outsider barnstorming. These are the core premises of Jack Hitt's new book, Bunch of Amateurs.
Hitt lays down his argument early: "It turns out that ignorance is bliss and, in many cases, a more productive perch to start from. Not knowing anything about something is often precisely what's needed to see something new. And then the cycle starts over."
The cycle is innovation. When it's truly radical, innovation creates a market that didn't exist before. Being on the outside and unburdened, innovators are able to see things that the entrenched cannot. That's why we call them visionaries. Hitt mentions Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Dave Packard, Bill Hewlett, and Walt Disney -- garage dreamers, all. Then Hitt, who prefers that his visionaries also be characters (the book's tagline is "A Search for the American Character") goes back to the source, to "the first American," Ben Franklin.
Franklin, he of the key and the kite and the lightning rod, is the template for all other American amateurs. He's the complete package: inventor, sure, but also statesmen, author, celebrity, impresario, and party animal. Hitt is an ace yarn spinner, and his stories have a pleasant way of rolling back on themselves. He's in no rush and, besides, there are too many delightful rabbit holes to explore.
The years that Franklin spent as U.S. envoy to France, popularizing the coonskin cap and generally honing his frontiersman act, is one such rabbit hole. But then it turns out it isn't! In Hitt's retelling, Franklin understood better than anyone why the French were fascinated by this giant upstart nation in the New World.
For them, the American frontier was literally a place on the outside. Those who made it to the frontier got to make their own way in the world. They received the gift of reinvention and were unburdened by the curse of knowledge. So Franklin wasn't just the first great amateur, but the guy who promoted it as an especially American quality.
The obsession with the frontier is as true in the 2010s as it was in the 1790s -- only the obsessed aren't Parisians wearing raccoon pelts. We have a name for outsiders today. They're hackers. The coonskin cap has been replaced by a hoodie: The ultimate hacker of this moment in time is Mark Zuckerberg.
Hitt describes the limitations imposed by "those instruction manuals that came with the computers of the 1990s. They were written by the computer programmers who had lived deep inside the vast world of alt-shift ..." et cetera. Well, the guy reading those manuals -- or at least the ones a decade earlier -- was Zuck's dad. It took a critical mass of in-home computing for a standard programming language to emerge.
Here Hitt's argument hits a speed bump. Who drives standardization and mass production? Entrenched industries. Without them, and the cheap goods that follow, how could the garage dreamers even start up without first winning the Lotto?
Hitt nods at the power of standardization, mentioning William Sellers, an engineer who created a formula that established a standard proportional size for all nuts and bolts. Standardization led to predictability, which sped progress.
Today, at California Polytechnic University, a similar standard is maintained for cube-shaped satellites no bigger than a softball. MIT maintains a Registry of Standard Biological Parts, where new functions of lab-grown bacteria can be cataloged. Increasingly, the labs growing these organisms aren't funded by universities or corporations, but individuals known as biohackers. Most are passionate, some are just curious.
Last weekend, inspired by Hitt's book, I visited one such lab in Brooklyn and became, if only very briefly, a biohacker. I was one of the curious ones, me and about nine others. We didn't do anything fancy, just extracted some DNA from the insides of our cheeks and readied it for sequencing.
The lab, called GenSpace, is the first nonprofit community bio lab in the country. It takes all comers, including ragtag flip-flop wearing journalists who need to leave early because it's Sunday and they have a BBQ to get to -- which I did. But the power of the place is spending an afternoon doing science that until very recently only existed in entrenched institutions, and the possibility of going back, empowered, to try to, oh I don't know, engineer a new kind of bacteria.
GenSpace is part of a larger movement called DIYbio, which is itself part of an even larger movement of doers and makers (think of the magazine called Make; or the fairs called Maker Faire). These are the curious folks who enjoy taking things apart to put them back together. Call them hackers or makers or tinkerers or amateurs. Hitt calls them real Americans. It's hard to disagree.
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