Archive • Speeches

For the love of it: in praise of the amateur

Remarks prepared for Media Studies Teachers, 2010.

Last year I wrote a piece about the nature of creativity, how to nourish it, and how derelict our institutions have become in this regard. I sent it, by E-mail, to three old friends. Within ten days, it had circulated throughout my industry and beyond. I was receiving E-mails from people I didn’t even know. Even some of you may have seen it. Any one can do so, now, easily. Because it’s on the internet.

My E-mail had gone viral, apparently. Aptly named. It whizzed round faster than swine flu.

I want to discuss some of the implications of this new technology for the young people you teach. I do so with some humility and very warily, because predicting the future is a mug’s game. It always surprises us. But if we look at the recent past, a clear trajectory emerges.

I have spent much of my working life helping to tell stories on the screen, as a Jack of all Trades – actor, script editor, screenwriter, director, producer. When I first started there were immense barriers to entry. Camera equipment was expensive and required great skill to operate successfully. Film had to be sent to the lab to be developed and printed. It needed a theatre, and projection equipment. Lighting was cumbersome. Many highly skilled, highly paid people were needed to get a story on to the screen. To show that story to a wide public involved the distribution of heavy prints to cinemas, or the help of one of the few TV institutions. Many were called. Few were chosen.

Artists were prisoners of the technology and of the social and economic constraints that accompanied the technology.

Contrast all that with now. Your students can pop down to Dixon’s for a camera, dear for many, cheap for some, but acquirable by most. It will be point and shoot, giving instant digital pictures. The technical expertise is built into the camera. It can work in most light conditions. Your students will edit on their laptops using cheap software. This is a world of bits, not atoms. There is no generation loss however many times you play with the material. A story on a screen appears. A movie. Showing it? No problem. Server space is cheap. A click or two and it’s up there for billions around the world to access and enjoy.

Well, there are two problems. The first is, who will know you are there? The internet is a huge, expanding universe of millions of destinations. You will be lonely and lost. You have a marketing problem. But there’s an old saying, “If you build it, they will come”. Means for creators to find their audience will be found. And audiences, particularly young ones, at home in this world, will find stuff they like.  Communication is so easy. Virally. Look at UTube. Look at the social networking sites. Look at Google. Ten years or so ago we didn’t have its algorithms. The people at Yahoo, for instance, thought they could link the whole web up manually. I cannot imagine life without Google. What will your students take for granted ten years from now?

The second problem is more interesting, because it involves politics, the assumptions of our society. We might for convenience call it the Rupert problem, after Mr Murdoch. It exercises him greatly. Rupert lacks a revenue model, poor chap. Creative content just escapes and roams round the internet, appearing on people’s screens, for nothing. It can be reproduced for nothing, it can be distributed for nothing and you just can’t catch the rascals who are doing it. Your students can’t see a problem. Rupert can. He is apoplectic. He calls it theft. Don’t tell him “ property is theft”. He sees that this runaway technology is undermining his whole political and economic philosophy. It is indifferent to the idea of private property. It ignores copyright laws. His businesses are built on the assumption that the goods created by his employees are his property and he has control over them. But people don’t want to play his game by paying for his goods. The economic system is about the allocation of scarce resources. But now they are not scarce. They are infinitely replicable and easy to access. The barriers are down. It’s just not fair. We have rules, dammit, and people should be forced to obey them. I finally knew he and his mogul friends were in trouble when I read that American TV shows were being downloaded free in the UK as soon as they were shown in America – by six year olds. I pay for SKY and for ESPN because I have to watch every Aston Villa game. Don’t tell me, yes, it’s sad. But I know very young Villa fans who see the same games for nothing by finding them on pirate sites, maybe in Albania. How they find them, I don’t know.

Technology tends to predicate social and cultural change. When a genie comes out of the bottle, you can’t stuff it back in. Not even Rupert can do that to the new digital technologies. So it’s going to be a merry fight for a while. He and his friends in Hollywood, and the music business and in publishing and TV will try to push it all back into their system. I don’t know how it will end. I don’t suppose that your students care. There are millions like them and only a few Ruperts. I imagine they will all coexist uneasily for a while.

Of course, it will not have escaped your notice that another political and economic system would be quite at home with these new technologies. They would embrace. This is a fact, independent of whether you approve of this system for other reasons, or not. A socialist system would not protect the accumulation of private wealth. What Rupert sees as a problem, socialists see as a glorious opportunity. Creators want to reach out to people. People want to be enriched by others’ creativity, not in wealth and power, as Rupert is enriched by creators, but culturally. Most people want to earn enough for a decent life and have enough time to express their talents. They don’t want to be billionaires. They don’t want to be dependant on the small print of copyright law, or its enforcement. We have a need, deeper than money, to communicate, to create, to exchange, to connect, in order to validate our humanity.

With the barriers to entry crumbling, many more of us will be able to do what the professional artist has exclusively done. What we have delegated to them will now be possible for all of us. Our audience will be greater than at any time in history. We will all have the opportunity to create and to appreciate each others’ creativity, ratcheting each other up into a higher sensibility.

There will, of course, always be specialists, because those with the most valuable and distinctive creativity will be sought out and will spend more of their time doing what they do so well. Access for all does not make us all the same. We can all kick a ball around, but only a few can score for their country. Some would prefer to watch others kick a ball. But anyone who wants to play will be able to.

I am not diminishing the importance of our world of atoms. It is primary. We begin our life touching, in the womb. We need touch, to be in touch. We describe emotional moments as touching. Physical propinquity is life defining. Who is in touching distance from us helps to create us. Groups of people form critical masses – even in the land of virtuality, Silicon Valley, for instance, where ideas are exchanged and built upon. Great universities and schools are sought after because of the advantages of rubbing shoulders with talented others. Train every day with Man Utd’s first team and you will probably become a better footballer than if you run around once a week with the lads from the Rose and Crown. But few are able to join. Elites are exclusive. They exclude most people, including, I suspect, most of your students.

But there is another form of propinquity provided by the digital world. Not as good in many ways as the ones formed by atoms, but it allows you to choose from a wide universe, not just from your own physical space. And if your own space is impoverished, the virtual propinquity offered by the internet helps to level the playing field a little. There is already a new rich and poor – those with broadband and those without. “Only connect”, Forster said. Well, we’re now doing that on speed. I wonder what the old boy would have made of it.

All this is not new in kind, just in scale. I grew up in an artisan’s family in Birmingham. We had a wireless set, as they were called then. It entranced me. Books also entranced me, but there was not one book in the house. There were some in school and many more in the Birmingham Reference Library, thanks to the benefaction of good Victorians. I spent countless hours there in the company of writers I would never meet face to face. Many had been dead for centuries. This was my virtual world, thanks to Gutenberg. He exposed me to so many imaginations. He enriched me. Before him the world’s wisdom was owned by the priests. His technology allowed the word to be spread. But thanks now to Berners-Lee and to the Googlers and to the virtuosos of the algorithm, the virtual world has become a two way, magical highway, opening our constrained lives to a cornucopia of experience. A young person in a council flat in a provincial city has even more reason to be grateful now, than I had then.

But won’t the new technology kill off all the old ones we are so fond of? I doubt it. In 1845 it was thought that the electric telegraph would kill off newspapers. Fifty years ago it was feared that TV would kill off the cinema. Old technologies will adapt and make their accommodations. TV, for instance, is going digital and migrating. Its form will change. Consumers will decide when they want to see what they want to see. Reception will not just be on the family screen. It will be on many devices. This will affect attention span, and therefore programme lengths. In the days of spectrum scarcity the authorities made the rules. In a future of spectrum infinity there will be no rules. We don’t know what will work. Maybe with an unimaginable supply of content, big companies will continue to corral types of shows into what we used to call walled gardens, so we will know where we can find our wheat and avoid everybody else’s chaff. The people who choose may still be called Channel Controllers. People might even subscribe, as they do now to HBO.

It won’t be so much new wines in old bottles, as old wine in new bottles.

The crucial change will be the return of the amateur. Orson Welles said that the difference between the professional and the amateur is that professionals do it when they don’t feel like it. I’ve been a pro all my life. So are all of you. We know what he meant.

We are used to a world where there is a great gulf between the two. “He’s a pro” we say, and it is a compliment. It signifies competence, reliability, even excellence. “Amateur” suggests the opposite. It goes further, implying self indulgence, the dilettante offering of the hobbyist. More fun to do than to witness. The phrases “amateur dramatics” and “holiday videos” have this effect. A great gulf is assumed between the pro and the amateur. There are few pros and the best, or luckiest, get paid and do nothing else. It is their job. The more pretentious say it is their profession. They might be trained, have been on a course, or just got a break. They do it for the rest of us. That is their specialist role in society. Our assumption of the pro’s superiority makes us forget that the amateur does it because he or she loves doing it.

The lowering of the barriers to entry will release creative talent into the public domain and change our attitudes. Remember it’s not only the cost of making things, not even the dissolving of technical difficulties; the very means of distribution and exhibition are becoming cheap and available. Those expensive gateways are being breached. All this is allowing the amateur to encroach on the hallowed ground of the professional. It is as though the high priests are not the only ones allowed to preach from the pulpit. The people can too. They can also set up in the market square, and compete for the ears of their fellow citizens. It only takes a soap box and something to say.

It is already happening. Go to YouTube. Your students are already there. Even the redoubtable TV news has mobile phone footage, some of it very informative and dramatic, from the front line of a newsworthy event, all shot by an amateur and sent to the BBC or ITV in an instant. Teenagers are composing songs in their bedrooms, playing them on electronic devices, and posting them on the internet. Other teenagers find this stuff, I do not quite know how, and the most appealing of it has a huge audience. Some of them will be making what we used to call music videos to accompany the songs. It is a small step to more sophisticated dramatic fiction.

Computer graphics get cheaper. Editing on home computers gets more sophisticated. The technology facilitates. Talent will be the only constraint. Not everyone has anything to say. Not everyone can tell involving stories. Or act in them. Or shoot and edit them. “Everyone can do it” is merely a statement about opportunity. I suspect we are moving to a world where there are dedicated pros at one end of the spectrum, most people as consumers at the other, and in between a large, shifting population of enthusiastic amateurs and semi pros. They will be enriching their lives, and ours. The pro will no longer be on a pedestal. Earning a full time living as a pro will be harder. But why shouldn’t we all be enthusiastic artists, some earning a little from it, a few earning more, but all amateurs, in the true meaning of the word?

The publishing business is in a panic because Gutenberg has a competitor. But publishing is not in crisis. The publishing business is. Bookshops are closing. Tesco only wants to sell celebrity memoirs, and few authors are offered advances. The old publishing houses, now owned by large conglomerates, are in a Rupert funk. It’s not fair. Technology has changed the rules. It’s the end of the world. Well, it might be the end of their world, although I suspect they’re making a drama out of a crisis. It certainly isn’t the end of the writer’s world. Writing a book is a long, arduous, painful process. Getting it published is easy. Put it on the internet. For a small sum you can pay experts to do it for you. They will even help you market it. This used to be called “vanity publishing” and was disdained, like the amateurs who used it. Not now. Electronic publishing cuts out the huge costs of printing and distribution. Atoms are expensive. Just think what it costs to have a book waiting on the possibility of a buyer in expensive real estate like Waterstone’s near Piccadilly Circus. With one click I can download it to my E-reader, which is the same weight and size of a paper back, and it can join the dozens of other books on the same E-reader. Another customer? No problem. Here’s another copy. More atoms cost money. More bits don’t.

Which brings us to film, a subject dear to the hearts of many people here. Particularly the art film. Hollywood will find a way of taking care of itself. It is already merging with the computer games business.

But what will happen to the serious cinema? It will survive. Like museums, art galleries and the theatre it will adapt and thrive. Celluloid will have problems. I was brought up on celluloid. I have a sentimental attachment to it. I like the images, the texture. I like the feel of it. But with a wistful glance behind me, for the last few years, I have had no use for it. I would sooner deal with the difficulties of the future, than lose traction and relevance by wallowing in the familiar comforts of the past. The cost savings may just rule out celluloid. Even after the laborious film and lab processes, think what has to happen before a movie can reach an audience. A big opening in the USA is maybe 2000 prints. Because of the fear of pirating, maybe more around the world in simultaneous premieres. Each print is expensive and heavy. It has to be shipped thousands of miles and delivered to a cinema, where a projectionist puts it into a machine which pushes light through it, making pictures on a screen. But now, why bother with prints at all? Bounce the master off a satellite, straight to the cinemas and up on to the screen. No contest.

Your students probably don’t much care whether a film was shot on film or digitally. The next generation won’t care at all, because they will have no means of knowing. It will all be a matter for historians, then the archeologists.

Not everything in the future will be on the internet, but most things will have a digital element. I am excited by this. I wish I were twenty again. I would be playing on the Internet, trying to find out what it could do. It’s the not knowing, the promise of possibility, which is exciting. I might even be an amateur. In my day you couldn’t get the technical facilities without becoming a professional, and you had to convince the money men to part with big sums of it. We were the paid, chosen few. But the pressures to make what they wanted, rather than what you wanted, were onerous. Professionals pay, as well as get paid.

Do I want to see the breaking down of barriers between the amateur and the professional extend through society? Would I, for instance, welcome enthusiastic amateur brain surgeons? On balance, no, not inside my head, for sure. But the history of medicine is a salutary one. It is a good example of how activities for sale become professions, specialising and claiming privileged skills. A priesthood is established which cannot be entered without permission, qualification and ritual. There are many motives behind the impulse to exclude. Some of them are for the wider good –  Heavy Goods Vehicle Licenses would be one, open heart surgery another – but many medical practices are not so clear cut. The history of medicine is partly the hijacking by professional males of amateur female responsibilities, especially in pregnancy and childbirth; the pharmaceutical industry over herbal folk medicine; and the discrediting of all healing which did not conform to the modern post 19 C scientific precepts. The medics are now highly paid high priests, with long, arduous training, a rigid hierarchy and their own language. Other occupations have taken note and tried to emulate this rewarding example. They invent professional societies and entrance exams, with pretentious titles. My favourite is The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. BAFTA runs it close. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Note “Academy”. It’s actually a bunch of pros trying to scratch a living in TV. It has all got out of hand and is rather silly. In the arts and ideas and our wider culture it is unnecessary and inhibiting.

Which is why I welcome these new technologies. I know there are dangers as well as opportunities in them. I do not know if we will lose our freedom because of them, even whether it will be an Orwellian loss or a Huxleyian one: that is whether it will be because of what we fear or because of what we love. Certainly we fear the enormous power they give to governments. They are also so seductive that we are tempted to give so much of our freedom up to them voluntarily. But these are political questions. Technology itself is neutral. We have to decide collectively who controls our privacy, them or us. Despite the dangers, I hope we will grasp the chance to break down opportunistic, restrictive practices,  and enable people to communicate directly with each other, bypassing the gatekeepers, offering creative possibilities to your students. I trust that whatever any of us do for a living, that we can also be artists, for our own souls, and for each others’.

Why can’t we all, if we wish, take turns to tell stories as we sit together around the fire? When I was a child, in the days, as they say, when you had to make your own entertainment, at family parties, everyone did a turn. Well, the party just got bigger.

The arts, particularly the narrative arts, are ways of telling each other what it feels like to be human. They remind us that we are not alone. They allow us to live outside our own skins. Why should that be open to a few? Why should everyone else be a passive consumer?

I want everyone to have a chance not only to experience but to create. To listen but also to speak.

The atoms facilitated some of us.

The bits will open the world up for all of us.

Tony Garnett.

January 2010