The availability of consumer software in this century has democratized the production of ... well, everything. Parts of the current creative landscape seem no different than Marxist philosophies of workers owning the means of production, with one exception: the workers aren't doing it for money, they're doing it for fun.
I recently watched Be Kind, Rewind, that's what has inspired this post — at least the spark behind it. In the movie, two video store employees recreate popular movies using a video camera when the original tapes get erased by a mysterious magnetic force. Their videos were, of course, of very low production quality, but the general idea was still valid: that amateur-grade equipment is approaching professional grade equipment.
That made me realize how easy (or at least, possible) it is to create movies with affordable software on consumer hardware. When things were still in the analog domain, you would need specialized hardware to be able to shoot on film, capture audio on expensive multi-track recording equipment, and edit it all by splicing film together. Now, all you need is a digital video camera and a general-purpose high-end computer (which, incidentally, can also be used for other tasks, so is cheap.) The barrier to entry for amateur film-makers has almost been removed.
Ditto with music production — it is possible for a musician to set up a studio in his/her basement with cheap equipment that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. The quality of recordings made with these tools is comparable to what the studios churn out.
Publishing is no longer the domain of the publishing house — Gutenberg's printing press now inhabits every single computer that has a printer attached to it. High quality design tools and cheap reproduction has made publishers out of everyone: flyers, posters, announcements, articles, books — all of them required professional assistance in the past. Newer genres such as wiki articles, blog posts and Usenet postings have been made possible by the Internet.
An entire "prosumer" grade of still cameras has made its way into the hands of millions of photographers. Shooting digitally has minimized the variable costs associated with photography, thus unshackling the amateur from budgetary constraints that professionals never had to bother about. That brings them one step closer to competing with professionals, e.g. by selling their shots as stock photos online.
As the economy turns digital, distribution is also taken care of democratically. Earlier, it would take a promoter, someone who could invest the initial millions, to take a creation to market. Today, it's as easy as uploading it to YouTube or selling it on iTunes or printing a book on Lulu or making a shirt at CafePress. If it's good, it will go viral. Simple as that.
Nowhere is this change more apparent than in the recently-concluded Presidential Election in the United States. Barack Obama is spoken of by many as the first YouTube president. Indeed, the numerous amateur videos posted by his fans to YouTube and Twitter and on their blogs played a major part in spreading the word about his ideas — in a way that pre-Internet generations could never have.
If I were an anthropologist circa 3000 AD, the last three decades would show up as a significant inflection point in a graph of human achievement and creativity.
Here's to software!