Thursday, February 2, 2012

It's Not About Money (Part II)

This is, of course, a continuation of "It's Not About Money (Part I)". I left off having speculating about the possibility of large groups producing results for free becoming a more fundamental part of our economy. Of course, since that time, I have been thinking about this subject a lot and my thoughts have changed on a few things. However, I still have some food for thought on the issue.

Now, we view things in our society through the lens of our society. In other words, our perception of individual concepts, actions, people, and so forth is generally determined by the degree of connection or separation from what is the norm today. This is very natural. We are accustomed to that with which we are familiar and anything not similar to that will seem exotic and strange.

For those less well-versed in history, it may be very strange, then, to know that most professions today did not exist just a short time ago. I will focus, for example, on learned professionals (and scientists in particular). Rewinding about 350 years to the time of the Scientific Revolution and the post-Renaissance, the history books will tell you that some learned societies of scientists, philosophers, artists, and so forth had organized.
But did you ever wonder how organized science and other groups all started? How did this new career choice suddenly emerge? Who was paying?

The answers: they didn't emerge suddenly as career choices. No one was paying. Many of the early scientists did science for free, as a hobby. That is what will probably sound strange to some people. The first scientists were people that had some extra time on their hands and liked to think. They were generally educated people of the upper classes who had enough scientific background to see what needed to be done. Artists were of a similar vein, but there was admittedly more lucre in the field of art thanks to commissions, portraits, and the like. Now, there was also money to be had in the development of science, but that was only through university work; the organization of societies was a reflection of large scientific expansion not contained by university walls.

Moments prior to discovering gravity.
Thus we see that some of the early foundations of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of all time, being developed by gentleman scholars like Galileo, Newton, and so forth, were not produced for personal profit. Newton didn't go work on his theory of universal gravitation or on the laws of motion or on calculus because someone was paying him to do it. He worked on it because it was a subject that fascinated him, in which he could think freely, develop new ideas, and contribute to the rest of the world. It should be mentioned that he was one of those paid to do work in science at a university; however, much of his work was independent of that position. The image of Newton under the tree and the falling apple may not be historically accurate, but it might portray accurately Newton's tendency to sit and ponder, just to do so.

I submit that there is some part in everyone that would be more content to create and master, to contribute and decide, than to submit, obey, and make more money for it. But the discussion of money is never as simple as we wish it could be. Getting back to those gentleman scholars, they were able to take on science, philosophy, and so on as hobbies because of their affluence and the extra time it afforded them. Such is not to say that they were entirely idle; they simply had access to better, less labor-intensive jobs, and their superior education gave them the ability to advance the field. Nevertheless, they still had to be supported in some way.

Through the outbreak of scientific societies associated with the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and specialization thereafter, the position of "career scientist" slowly became a true profession in and of itself. However, this happened specifically because the "hobby scientists" had found out what could be accomplished through science. To put it into perspective, if planking (a somewhat odd and pointless hobby of our day) were empirically seen to benefit society in some great way (e.g. it reduces global warming) then there would be career plankers soon enough. Thank goodness that isn't going to happen, but the benefit of science was found in the same way.

Let's look a little closer at today for a moment. The primary barriers between the common man and the productive pursuits of the gentleman scholar back then were lack of time and lack of education. For many today, neither is generally a problem. Einstein's revolutionary concept of relativity, published while he worked as a patent clerk, proves that it is still possible in a more modern age to contribute with one's own time, independent of pay. Should we be seeing more great advancements from people on their own, without regard for personal profit? This is nearly the same question I posed last time, and I believe in my next post I will be better able to address it.

(To be concluded, hopefully, with part III)

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