Take Off Your Tinfoil Hat Before You Read This Book

Reading between the lines.
June 1 2012 11:34 PM

All About the Love

In Bunch of Amateurs, tinkerers, putterers, and ham-radio enthusiasts can change the world.

Illustration by Dan Zettwoch.

Illustration by Dan Zettwoch.

When I meet someone and the first thing they ask me is, "What do you do?," I don't think that's weird. But I live in New York City—the city of 24-hour professionals. What we do defines us, and we like it this way. We eat, sleep, and breathe our work because we love it. Otherwise we would live somewhere else, doing something else.

To some, this embrace of our professional selves is troublesome, conjuring up a world of closed-minded, money-hungry zombie workers who have lost sight of their passions and "what's important." But to New Yorkers, our jobs are what’s important. We get gratification and validation from being professionally successful; the idea of being an office drone by day and by night being, say, an amateur astronomer is completely bizarre to me. Why wouldn't you just be an astronomer?

That said, it'd be nice, I think, to live in the America that Jack Hitt portrays in Bunch of Amateurs: a good-natured, cheerful place where people—amateurs—tinker in their garages and wear funny hats (always with the funny hats!) and manage to upend received wisdom on a daily basis. It's an America of robot clubs and bird-watching societies and kitchen-based DNA extractors and lowly transcribers who discover things about Benjamin Franklin that the historians missed, and Hitt argues that the amateur's dream is, in fact, the American Dream. Particularly the garage, which he describes as an "outpost of joy, love, and freedom."

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But I wouldn't know, since a) I am a woman and b) I live in New York City, land of few garages. To the first point, how many women do you know who have taken over the garage as their own? Very few. So this image that Hitt puts forth, of the amateur as the embodiment of the American Dream, is also a gendered one. He offers a couple of examples of female amateurs—one is a badass kitchen DNA extractor in San Francisco with a tattoo of a steampunk-style X-ray of her lower tibia and fibula—but overall, this world comes across as a man's domain of tinkerers and putterers and ham-radio enthusiasts. Hitt's stories are mostly rooted in science and technology, and maybe society needs to do a better job encouraging our young Stephanie Jobses to hang out in the garage. But it seems incomplete that these narratives are the only ones held up as emblematic of American society's embrace of the amateur.

So it's probably not a coincidence that my America bears almost zero resemblance to the one that Hitt describes in his paean to the nonprofessional. And I feel indignant at his conflation of this world of amateurs—the birders who proved the snooty Cornell scientists wrong, say—with the "American Dream": "To walk away from everything that one is—whether it's fleeing a repressive nation for this new place or simply out the back door for the garage—that is real freedom," Hitt writes. "It's a story that everyone who lives here or comes here recognizes in their gut is true, that the amateur's dream is the American Dream." But why do they get to lay claim to the American Dream? Why is Hitt so consumed with locating the American Dream in a garage?

The amateurs that Hitt does find in their garages and at their kitchen tables are a likeable, occasionally fascinating bunch, who Hitt convincingly argues have made a real impact in their fields. That kitchen DNA extractor, Meredith Patterson, has rigged up an ingenious home lab by using disposable insulin needles as pipettes, an old floppy-drive motor as a centrifuge and a mini-fridge that can cool or warm as an incubator. And Hitt's an engaging storyteller (he's a frequent contributor to This American Life and the Moth, and is currently touring a one-man show); Hitt's retelling of the debate over the discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker is a dramatic, intrigue-filled tale involving secretive scientists and plucky amateur birders and bloggers.

But in order for Hitt's romantic, amateur vision of America to exist, it has to be in conflict with the rest of us—the professionals. "All the assumptions of even the best experts are infected with their own prejudices and biases," he declares. (All the assumptions!) Indeed, this conflict between amateur and professional is one he identifies as being central to American identity: "The two need each other, feed on each other, and … find themselves squaring off over and over again." But a new, less conflict-driven narrative is now emerging: a constant crossing back and forth between amateurism and professionalism, a coexistence that falls more on the side of easy than uneasy and exists in large part thanks to the Internet.

There's no mention in Bunch of Amateurs, for example, of Etsy, a site that allows amateur crafters and designers—most of them women—to make money from their hobbies. Or Kickstarter, where inventors can fund their innovations in the blink of an eye and go directly from idea to product without all the tinkering-in-obscurity that Hitt so diligently chronicles. Wikipedia, perhaps the greatest amateur creation in the history of human knowledge, merits a few passing mentions, nothing more. Right now, someone is uploading to YouTube a video shot in an apartment (or, OK, a garage) that will get her hired by a Hollywood producer. Or take the artisanal food movement, which is populated by people who decided to turn their passion for jam-making and moonshine into full-time jobs. That dichotomy inherent in the American character—the one Hitt argues goes back to the conflict between jolly, creative, playful amateur Ben Franklin and humorless, uptight, narrow-minded professional John Adams—is dissipating.

It's easier than ever for the amateur to become the professional. Recently at the company where I work, BuzzFeed, we hired two editors who had never before worked in professional media. Writing funny stuff on the Internet—on Twitter and Tumblr, mostly—was just what they did. We only cared about their professional experience insofar as it assured us that they weren't weirdos who wouldn't know how to work in an office. Otherwise, we hired them based on what they did in their spare time, for jobs that barely existed three years ago. But to Hitt, these editors might as well have become prostitutes. He writes that "the word 'amateur' comes from the ancient word for 'love'—which, when encouraged with money, becomes a profession, a form of the oldest profession."

Author Jack Hitt.
Author Jack Hitt.

Photo by Aaron Harrow.

Hitt isn’t unaware that the Internet exists. His passing mention of a "blogosphere" that "rose up and challenged, mostly, calcified newspapers and magazines" makes me think that he's not totally comfortable among the new amateurs and their "open-source wiki-ism," as he puts it, whatever that means. But even in his own world, he seems unaware of the huge and growing world of self-publishers—authors who have written books, usually e-books, without the imprimatur of a major (or even a minor) publishing house. So it's not that we don't live in a country of amateurs. It's that the nature of amateurism has changed, and will continue to change, long after the last member of the Robot Society of Topeka puts away his robots and hangs up his tinfoil hat.

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Bunch of Amateurs: A Search For the American Character by Jack Hitt. Crown.

Doree Shafrir is the executive editor at Buzzfeed.

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