Thursday, January 18, 2018

Being professional

Every so often the debate flares up in online communities around a certain audio recorder, microphone, or other piece of equipment. Someone will state that Product A is "not professional". Others will jump to its defence. The debate then focuses on the product and its uses.

All of this is wrong. There is no such thing as professional gear.

There is no such thing as professional gear.

The word "professional" only has meaning when applied to a person, where it denotes a code of ethics and conduct. An engineer or doctor can be a professional because they are bound to certain standards. These are held to be greater than their own self-interest. These standards serve to unite a community of practice.

For example, I hold myself to be professional because, for some decades, I have been a member of the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery). This status is entirely voluntary. In practical terms, all it means is that I pay dues every year, and get a monthly journal for my troubles.

But for me the meaning is non-trivial. As a member I swear to uphold the ACM Code of Ethics. To quote the first few points...

As an ACM member I will:
1.1 Contribute to society and human well-being.
1.2 Avoid harm to others.
1.3 Be honest and trustworthy.
1.4 Be fair and take action not to discriminate.

And so on.

Now, upholding the code doesn't mean following it blindly. For example, the very next principle in the list says "Honor property rights including copyrights and patent". I have certain problems with property law. But I am not alone in this community. The ACM itself has conducted legal battles against the unreasonable extension of patent law, for example.

A code of ethics must be continuously tested against the evidence and context of each situation. It is not a passive creed but a process. All of this takes time, energy, perception, and commitment. That's what it means to be professional.

Gear cannot be professional

"Professional" is a tag applied to equipment by marketers, as an aspirational incentive. If an audio recorder is labelled in this way, people who use it might consider themselves professional by association. Those who cannot afford the item are excluded from this elite. Practitioners can debate which tool makes them truly pro.

But your gear can't and won't make you professional. It's not that easy. Membership dues notwithstanding, professionalism cannot be bought.

Neither can not using certain gear remove professionalism, since it's an operating principle, not contingent on circumstance. A professional photographer is still professional using an iPhone.

Income doesn't make you professional

It's sometimes said that you are a professional if you make most of your money in a certain activity. To take one example, photography societies generally use this metric to distinguish their members. If the majority of your income is generated from photography, and you meet certain other criteria, you can be deemed "professional".

This is a convenient way of classifying membership, but is wrong-headed. Economic imperatives must always be secondary to ethical considerations. Governments want to know whop are the "pros", so they can be taxed differently. Arts councils want to know you are a "professional" artist before funding you. But this is a definition made by accountants.

I consider myself to be a professional audio engineer, even though I make little or no money from the activity. I was professionally trained and I abide by a code of conduct. This sometimes involves telling potential clients that they are better off taking their business elsewhere. Anyone not willing to sacrifice their personal gain for the betterment of the work itself is not professional.

Or sometimes (often) I might work for free. This does not mean my work is of a lower standard. It doesn't mean I suddenly change my ethics.

I disagree with installing economic barriers to membership. This sort of "professionalism" does the term no favours.


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