Citizen Exploration: An Amateur Revolution

Citizen Exploration: An Amateur Revolution
Roger Hayward, “Reproduced illustrations from The Scientific American Book of Projects for the Amateur Scientist, by C. L. Stong.,” Special Collections & Archives Research Center, accessed November 29, 2013,
Roger Hayward, “Reproduced illustrations from The Scientific American Book of Projects for the Amateur Scientist, by C. L. Stong.,” Special Collections & Archives Research Center, accessed November 29, 2013,

The amateur has a bit of an identity crisis. Not any specific amateur, more the idea. Just look at the Merriam-Webster definition:

am·a·teur noun ˈa-mə-(ˌ)tər, -ˌtu̇r, -ˌtyu̇r, -ˌchu̇r, -chər

: a person who does something (such as a sport or hobby) for pleasure and not as a job

: a person who does something poorly : a person who is not skillful at a job or other activity

If the two meanings were any more divergent, they’d completely contradict themselves. And looking at the origin of the word – French for “lover of” – it seems they both miss the mark. The Wikipedia explanation goes in a different direction, citing Leonardo Da Vinci as an amateur artist and Charles Darwin an amateur scientist (which is pretty decorated lineage to be considered “not skillful”).

My personal interpretation of the word has evolved over the years, too, and has been equally confusing. Growing up, I always thought it meant shoddy or second class. But as I delved deeper into the maker world, and now the citizen science world, my perspective has changed. The idea moved closer to the “lover of” meaning, driven by the motivation of “pleasure and not as a job”. And has since evolved into an even broader understanding, one that spans the blunders of a beginner to the genius of Darwin:

An amateur is someone who works outside of the established institutions and formal guidelines. They work on their terms. Not necessarily without compensation, but always in pursuit of a bigger idea: beauty, truth, pleasure, etc.

They’re the people who find the other way. Sometimes it’s out of necessity; a lack of resources, credentials, or approval. Sometimes it’s just because they can; newly acquired access to technologies or persistent curiosity. More broadly, though, it’s because they simply don’t have a use for the established institutions. It doesn’t mean they won’t ever make money. In fact, many times they do figure out an novel way to support their efforts.

It’s always been these rule benders and breakers who push the boundaries of possibility. And the current surge of amateurism is particularly exciting. It’s moving from an amateur tradition to a full-on amateur revolution.

It isn’t marked by one event, rather a steady stream of waves that have rippled through different industries and institutions. It tends to play out differently in each case, but the overall trends are similar enough, and it’s always caused by the same driving force: the internet (and networked communities of enthusiasts). It’s the long tail, again and again, as Chris Anderson has consistently reported. Movies and music were the first to feel it. Youtube, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and Spotify drew up entirely new rules for who could produce and distribute entertainment media. Journalism, too, has felt the squeeze, with blogs and Twitter challenging the incumbent industry players. Most recently, the maker movement is turning manufacturing on its head and creating the “long tail of stuff.” We’ve seen this story unfold countless times over the past decade. Next up: discovery*. In the guise of citizen science and exploration. And, again, makers are on the front lines.

Roger Hayward, “Reproduced illustrations from The Scientific American Book of Projects for the Amateur Scientist, by C. L. Stong.,” Special Collections & Archives Research Center, accessed November 29, 2013,
Roger Hayward, “Reproduced illustrations from The Scientific American Book of Projects for the Amateur Scientist, by C. L. Stong.,” Special Collections & Archives Research Center, accessed November 29, 2013,

Of course, it’s much more complex than that. Painting a broad-brush term over everyone who draws outside the lines is problematic. Not all amateurs are created equal. And, in fact, it’s exactly this diversity that makes an amateur revolution in discovery possible. In his novel Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut writes about the three types of specialists needed for a revolution:

The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius — a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. “A genius working alone,” he says, “is invariably ignored as a lunatic.”

The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. “A person like this working alone,” says Slazinger, “can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be.”

The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. “He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting,” says Slazinger. “Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.”

The citizen exploration movement has amassed this cast, not in individual characters, but in different flavors of amateur. Here are the types I’ve noticed:

The “Zero to Maker” Amateurs

With an admitted confirmation bias, the “Zero to Maker” Amateur is the quintessential amateur – the closest comparison to the “ordinary Americans” that the White House described in its call for citizen scientists. Driven by curiosity and an ever-increasing access to new tools and resources (makerspaces, Zooniverses, MOOCs, etc), this growing category of amateur is fattening the long tail of discovery. Just because they can, really.

Included in this category is Eri Gentry, who studied economics in college only to realize she was more interested in science and biology. Instead of going back to school, she paved her own way. She started hanging out with the small (but growing) DIY bio community in the Silicon Valley, and organizing meetups. Her meetup group, BioCurious, eventually became large and active enough to warrant their own physical location, becoming one of the first community biolabs in the country.

Ariel Waldman is another example. As a graphic designer, she didn’t think she was qualified to work at NASA. But after landing a job there, she realized that space exploration was a diverse and collaborative endeavor. To expand upon her discovery, she created Space Hack as a way to show others all the different ways that anyone, regardless of education or experience, can participate in space exploration.

One of the hallmarks of this type of amateur is their infrastructure-building tendencies. They’re drunk off the possibilities, and seem hard-wired to scream it from the rooftops; to try and get everyone else involved. Eri and the team at BioCurious (and the entire DIY bio community, really) didn’t just set about making biology more accessible for themselves, they wanted to make it accessible for everyone by creating a community biolab. Same with Ariel. She didn’t stop when she herself got a job at NASA, instead she went about creating ways for more people, regardless of prior experience, to play a role in space exploration. These are the “explainers” of Vonnegut’s triumvirate.

The Cross-Disciplinarians

This type of amateur is tough to describe, but once you’ve seen them, they’re impossible to mistake for anything else. They’re Vonnegut’s “authentic genius.” I’ve met a handful of these types over the past few years, notably my friend Josh Perfetto.

I still don’t know what Josh does. I know bits and pieces. I met him at my first Maker Faire, and was fascinated to learn about the OpenPCR machine he developed. Trying to learn more, I invited him out sailing on the SF Bay (the only thing I knew how to do at the time). That was his first time sailing. Now, after three years, he’s a much more accomplished sailor than almost anyone I know. That’s the type of guy he is. He doesn’t learn about subjects. He absorbs them.

Before OpenPCR, he didn’t have a background in biology. He was a software programmer. Biology, and the tools that power biotechnology, was something he picked up out of curiosity. He took what he knew about programming, learned how to program Arduino boards, and created a tool that changed the way the world views garage-based biotech. (He’s now shifted his focus to synthetic biology and building more tools, which I’ll be writing about on a later date).

I call this type of amateur the cross-disciplinarian. With dropping barriers to entry, this new world of unbridled curiosity is a playground for people like Josh. Eric Stackpole, my OpenROV partner, is the same way. Before OpenROV, Eric was designing small spacecraft. It wasn’t until a story of lost gold inspired him to apply his brain power to building inexpensive mini-subs. I never would have thought of that on my own. It takes a special type of mind to dream that up.

The Opportunists

The third category of amateur, or the “highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community”, is much more exciting than Vonnegut would let on.

Take Cory Tobin for example. Cory is a smart, driven plant biologist finishing up his masters at Caltech – a very promising trajectory in the professional sense. But Cory is also a passionate amateur, having helped start the LA Biohackers group in his spare time. His motivations for the group weren’t entirely altruistic, he wanted access to the tools and space so he could work on projects that didn’t fit into his grad school curriculum. LA Biohackers was really an outgrowth of his own garage experiments.

Cory had been reading some older research papers about early work on an enzyme that converts nitrogen into ammonia – a promising development that, if the right genes were isolated, could reduce the need for fertilizer. After a wild and windy path, including soil samples from old charcoal factories and a hacked together biolab from parts from Target, Cory’s project has drawn the attention and collaboration from scientists at Harvard, The Imperial College of London, RWTH Aachen University, Michigan State University, and Universidad Nacional de Rosario**. Not too bad for a bio experiment with humble, garage-based beginnings.

Cory Tobin's garage experiment.
Cory Tobin’s garage experiment.

OpenROV is crawling with these types of amateurs, The Opportunists. Their resumes (and, even better, their stories) are full of underwater robotics wisdom. They would make these things even if nobody paid them. They’re tickled by the new possibilities afforded by the new digital fabrication tools and low cost, open-source microcontrollers and miniature linux computers. They’re excited, as we all are, to be pushing the boundaries; going deeper for cheaper. And everyone in our community benefits from their experience.

“So, who exactly builds an OpenROV kit? Just, like, hobbyists?”

After a full year of nearly daily practice, I still have a terrible time answering that question.

“Yes, hobbyists, sort of. But… But it’s so much more than that.”

With the types of people who are building OpenROVs, it seems wholly inadequate to say they’re “just hobbyists.” Many of the folks in our community have incredible skill and experience. For every new maker (like me), we have someone who has a full-time job as an electrical engineer. For every high-school student who’s just learning about underwater robotics, there’s a retired ROV engineer or deep sea biologist. They’re people with incredible skill, or passion, or knowledge. Many times all three. The underlying thread is the idea that everyone should have access. We should all be exploring our world.

Vonnegut continued:

“He says that if you can’t get a cast like that together, you can forget changing anything in a great big way.”

We’ve got all of them. Not just OpenROV, but the entire citizen exploration movement. And thank goodness, too. We’re going to need everyone.

*I hesitate to use the word science, because it doesn’t quite fit. In the same way you wouldn’t call a cat video on Youtube a film, citizen exploration will be the same sort of feral pursuit, full of terrible junk and spectacular gems.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!

View more articles by David Lang