Too many cooks, too many kitchens

Imagine a society in which kitchens are rare.  No one has one in their home.  Everyone has to go out to eat three meals a day.  As a result, the society employs quite a large number of professional chefs to work in the few large kitchens, cooking food for everyone else.Too many cooks

Now imagine that technological changes enable anyone to have a kitchen.  Suddenly everyone in the society has the ability to cook for themselves in their own home.  And so cook they do.  For themselves, for their families, for their friends and neighbors.

Sure enough, many of them find they greatly enjoy cooking and are quite good at it.  They happily cook for neighborhood barbecues and picnics, expecting nothing in return but the satisfaction it brings and the community it fosters.

Some people still eat out regularly; others do so occasionally.  Yet, unsurprisingly, the demand for professional chefs decreases sharply.

Perhaps also unsurprisingly, many chefs and former chefs start to complain.  It has suddenly become much more difficult to make a living cooking.  And they are skilled chefs, after all.  Don’t they deserve to be compensated for their talents and effort?

I raise this example because whenever I suggest that amateurs should play a larger role in the production of digital culture – and that I’m comfortable with a corresponding decrease in the number of professional writers or musicians – the notion is treated as not only radical, but heartless.  Those professionals are working hard!  Don’t they deserve to make a living?

Well I imagine most people don’t feel the same way about chefs and cooking, and I want to suggest a very simple reason why: status quo bias.  We’re used to thinking about cooking as mostly an amateur activity; eating a meal cooked by a professional is the exception.  But when it comes to music or magazine writing it’s the reverse.

Now it’s not quite an apples to apples comparison. For one thing, food, unlike digital information, is a rival good.

However, the error is in thinking that the arrangement we’re used to is particularly special.  It wasn’t handed down by the gods or even a philosopher-king.  It was merely the result of an arbitrary economic arrangement that no longer applies.

Incidentally, the cooking metaphor works nicely for arguments about quality of content as well.  A professional chef is more skilled, on average, than an amateur.  But would anyone deny that there are plenty of amateurs whose cooking far surpasses that of many professionals?

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1 Comment

  1. I agree – the shift from established(professional) organization of media to amateur contributions is a topic that certainly needs to be addressed. Apple has led the charge in bringing audio and video editing to the consumer. A similar trend of increased access has occurred in the world of literature with twitter and blogs like this one. This phenomenon has clearly been recognized by progressive companies such as Google and Apple who have, to an admittedly limited extent, invested in the contributions of the “amateur” by engaging in open-source development of their products. Many liberal arts institutions, such as my Alma Mater Colgate University, often reinforce the advantages of diversity(it is also comical how much many of these institutions lack the diversity which they tout as being so important). One of the major arguments for diversity is the ability to approach a problem from many angles, thereby increasing the probability that the most elegant and productive solution will be found. Now that technology has exponentially increased access to “amateurs,” it is not surprising that the most successful companies have recognized and tapped into this new resource. Yes, its true that there is a lot of garbage mixed in, but hey, its America, and as my incredibly conservative grandfather would say, the cream will always rise to the top. In this case I certainly have to agree with him.

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