Expertise and Democratization Reflections

Free and open platforms. Free software. Free hardware schematics. Freely sharing ideas about technology development. At the genesis of the personal computer was the infamous late 70’s “Homebrew Computer Club,” A group of DIY computer enthusiasts determined to move the computer from the mainframe and into the home [1]. The “free” ethos of this group allowed for the bootstrapping of newly available hardware and software free of charge, either via meetings in Menlo Park, or a subscription to their highly influential newsletter via the United States Postal Service. The newsletter would reflect on the club’s progress and provide explicit expertise. The personal microcomputer was born from this group, and most famously Apple Computer.  The personal computer is the penultimate example of how expertise can be shared to democratize technology for the masses. Concurrently, other technologists were interested in protecting access to technology and electronic interconnection. Ted Nelson, who conceived of the notion of hypermedia and hypertext [2] declared in 1974’s “Computer Lib/Dream Machines” that, “It is imperative for many reasons that the appalling gap between public and computer insider be closed. As the saying goes, war is too important to be left to the generals. Guardianship of the computer can no longer be left to a priesthood. I see this as just one example of the creeping evil of Professionalism, the control of aspects of society by cliques of insiders” [3]. He would envision an interconnected network of computer systems that used an open publishing network to manage the coming knowledge production revolution, planting the seed for Tim Berners-Lee to develop Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that is the backbone of the open internet as we know it today. Without the openly documented and shared tacit and explicit knowledge shared by these technology pioneers, I do not believe that we would have the open internet that we have today. 

Open hardware and software are still prevalent today in the form of open-source microcontrollers such as Arduino and open software protected by the GNU General Public License (GPL). Popularized in the book “Makers” by Chris Anderson, this combination of open hardware and software has allowed expertise to become a learned trait in technology development, democratizing innovation. When speaking to the popularity of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture and at-home 3D printer hobbyists in the late 2010’s he states, “Today we are seeing a return to a new sort of cottage industry. Once again, new technology is giving individuals power over the means of production, allowing for bottom-up entrepreneurship and distributed innovation. Just as the Web’s democratization of the means of production in everything from software to music made it possible to create an empire in a dorm room or a hit album in a bedroom, so the new democratized tools of digital manufacturing will be tomorrow’s spinning jennies” [4]. 3D printing, drones, and IOT devices are all innovations developed on open software and hardware platforms, with a bit of help from expired patents [6]. Before these technologies were commoditized, hobbyists built them at home, just like the Homebrew Computer Club 30 years before.  Although, unlike the Homebrew Computer Club, you do not need to live in Palo Alto or wait for the mail to have a discourse with “the experts”. Now all you need is an internet connection, and capable content creators worldwide will gladly share their professional artistry for free.

In the early 21st century, John Dewey and, later in 1984, Robert Schon developed and refined “reflective practice” [5]. This method was designed to help professionals create awareness of their implicit knowledge and learn from their experiences, improving problem-solving in design and other ancillary fields. Ultimately, Schon’s “Reflective Practitioner” advocated for using reflection in action and reflection on action. Reflection in action encourages practitioners to think about their behavior as it happens. In contrast, reflection on action asks the same practitioners to evaluate and analyze their situation after the act. This reflection during and after problem-solving creates mindfulness, “exhibiting the more that we know in what we do by how we do it” [5]. This recursive exercise values the insights derived from experience and involvement and “that knowing is in our action” [5]. To Schon, doing and thinking go together. 

Doing and thinking through reflective practice has supported the DIY movement and maker culture in many ways. The art of reflection and the process of doing can be shared a million times via the internet and through easily consumable services like YouTube. Creating and uploading a “How To Build a 3D Printer” video on YouTube, I would argue,  is a reflective practice for the content creator, reinforcing their explicit knowledge while at the same time visually documenting the tacit understanding that goes into transferring expertise to the learner at home. This shared reflection democratizes knowledge fields that require expertise. Furthermore, democratization is reinforced through affordable access provided by the myriad of technologies that host these platforms, including HTTP, Linux, open architecture, and open standards. As our culture creates open avenues for expertise to be affordably and easily transferred to international and local communities, the original ethos of hacker/maker/computer culture lives rent-free in practitioners worldwide. If well protected from corporate interests, the information machine will continue to evolve independently. We are its guardians.


[1] Levy, Steven. Hackers. O’Reilly, 2010.

[2] Nelson, T. H. “Complex Information Processing.” Proceedings of the 1965 20th National Conference on –, 1965, doi:10.1145/800197.806036.

[3] Nelson, Theodor Holm. Computer Lib / Dream Machines. Tempus, 1987.

[4] Anderson, Chris. Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Signal, 2014.

[5] Schön, Donald A. Reflective Practitioner. Taylor and Francis, 2017.

[6] Schoffer, Filemon. “How Expiring Patents Are Ushering in the next Generation of 3d Printing.” TechCrunch, TechCrunch, 15 May 2016,


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Unlike the Homebrew Computer Club, you do not need to live in Palo Alto or wait for the mail to have a discourse with “the experts”. Now all you need is an internet connection, and capable content creators worldwide will gladly share their professional artistry for free.