the emergence of post-professional society.

200902021136.jpgOn January 16, 2009, world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma has announced the grand prize winners of “Celebrate and Collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma” competition that he ran in collaboration with Indaba Music. Ma invited musicians of all kinds to join him in performing Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace). He made the cello track of his recording of the song available to the members of Indaba Music community, a social networking music site that allows members to virtually collaborate to record music. Out of about 250 entries made by some professional, semi-professional and amateur musicians, two musicians – Toshi O. from Canada (although originally from Japan) and Kevin McChesney from Colorado Springs, CO, won the first place prize. They will be performing with Yo-Yo Ma for his next album. The movement of open innovation that started software has found its way to classic music industry.

In his book Remix, Lawrence Lassig has the following quote from American Composer John Philip Sousa.

“When I was a boy … in front of every house in the summer evening you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cords will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”

A common thread that connects these two stories, separated more than 100 years in history, is the concern about the dominance of professionalism in the society at the expense of richness of everyday life experiences. This is the same concern that was expressed in the writings of John Dewey on art. In Art as Experience, he wrote:

“The collective life that was manifested in war, worship, the forum, knew no division between what was characteristics of these places and operations, and the arts that brought color, grace and dignity, into them. Painting and sculpture were organically one with architecture, as that was one with the social purpose that building served. Music and song were intimate parts of the rites and ceremonies in which the meaning of group life was consummated. Drama was a vital reenactment of the legends and history of the group life.”

But he further notes, the arts that were so intimately integrated into everyday life experiences in neighborhood were slowly removed from the realm of everyday life and transformed into “fine arts” to be stored away in museums. Arts are taken away from common folks and safely guarded and sanctioned by professional curators and artists. In this case, the vocal cord was not devolved. It was emasculated. Dewey notes imperialism and capitalism as two driving forces behind this professionalization of arts.

“The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and in the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life. The nouveaux riches, who are important byproduct of the capitalist system, have felt especially bound to surround themselves with works of fine art which, being rare, are also costly. Generally speaking, the typical collector is the typical capitalist.”

Last century was the period that was marked with the scientific rationalism and the industrialization of economic activities in the society. The development of industrial technology and later information technology were the engines that carried out these two forces, which led to the emergence of large and complex organizations such as multinational corporations and mega churches. These large organizations as represented by General Motors and Wal-Mart require a large number of professionals who are specialized in a particular task. The emergence of professional class inevitably led to the separation of production function and consumption within the society. In a traditional society, producers and consumers were typically members of the same local community. A farmer buys meats from a butcher, who in turn buys furniture from a local carpenter, who relies on the supply of bread from a baker, who gets his eggs from the farmer. This is the time where Sousa saw young people singing together in the corner of streets.

With the emergence of a modern industrial society, all of this changed. Consumers only consume products and services that were produced by these large organizations managed by professionals. Consumers consume products that were produced tens of thousands of miles away. At work, their roles were radically reduced in scope and skill in the name of specialization. Their vocal cords were emasculated.
Now as we move deeper into the 21st century, we are experiencing yet another fundamental change in the society. We are seeing a profound reconfiguration of the production functions and consumption activities in the economy. The development of information and communication technology fundamentally altered the production cost so that virtually anyone with an idea and will can participate in the production functions. As we see in YouTube, Wikipedia and Linux, consumers are no longer satisfied with mere consumption of products and services. They want to actively engage in the production process. An individual now can easily learn a basic knowledge necessary to design a product through Google, use SketchUp to design the product and send the design to a Chinese firm that can quickly produce a product prototype and ship it back to him. In addition, the proliferation of “higher education” for everyone in the developed countries produced over-educated population who cannot be satisfied traditional jobs and mere consumptions of products and services. They want to be a part of value creation. So has the post-professional society emerged.

What is interesting here is the changing role of technology. At the dawn of industrial revolution, the invention of steam engine and the development of modern communication technology led to the emergence of professionalism. Now, the Internet and mobile technology is turning the tide the other way, empowering non-professionals. One technology brought in the era of professionalism, and the other its demise.

Now, the question we must ask is what is the role of professionals in this post-professional society. The work of professionals — whether they are doctors, lawyers, MBAs, or professional musicians — will not wither away in the post-professional society. Certainly, we will not go back to pre-industrial age. But, as the knowledge and tools once available to those with professional educations increasingly available to everyone, we will certainly see the changes in the role of professionals. The significance of the work by Yo-Yo Ma, therefore, is that it might be a foreshadow of a professionals might work in the post-profession society. What he did was architecting innovations by others. He produced intentionally incomplete track and put it out there. He, then, invited others to complete his work. This incomplete architecture of innovation led to the multiplicity of innovations. And, the incompleteness invites the dynamic changes in the innovation.

Professor | Writer | Teacher Digital Innovation, Design, Organizational Genetics Case Western Reserve University

2 thoughts on “the emergence of post-professional society.

  1. It’s great to see the discussion that Yo-Yo Ma is generating around remixing! As a founder of, the biggest online remixing community, we’re fascinated by the movement.
    Our approach on Jamglue has been to make the music as accessible as possible. We’re open to musicians and non-musicians alike, and the result has been a very high volume of participation.
    As we commemorate our one millionth Jamglue user, it’s becoming more apparent that even casual remixing can harness fans’ energy and get real exposure for the original artist. On Jamglue we’ve found that a remixing tool that’s simple for even non-musicians to use can attract millions of people who get hopelessly addicted, and go on to provide free publicity for any artists who welcome the participation.
    On some remix contest participants go on to enjoy direct attention from the original artist and label, but many others simply enjoy their contribution among their friends on and off the site, as they develop their mixing skills.

  2. It will be interesting to see what attributes (contents, authors, etc) affect re-mix and how the collective behavior emerge through distributed interactions. A possible research topic?

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