October 20, 2011

My kind of fanaticism


Nettchuujin is a fascinating "reality" show on NHK. The title loosely translates as "The Hobbyists." The meaning of nettchuujin (熱中人) makes it closer to "The Fanatics." Each fifteen-minute vignette documents the mostly solitary and very single-minded pursuit of some obscure avocational activity.

For example, making vacuum tube amplifiers (a different one for each artist in his record collection); restoring 1980s cassette boomboxes; tracking down and cataloging (often working) Edo Period wells; cataloging urban intersections; a 72 year old man who racks up "home run" records at batting cages.

This isn't the usual Nelson Muntz treatment ("Ha! Ha!"), but an honest appreciation of the singular obsessions of men (and the occasional woman).

In some cases, like the guy with an apartment stuffed with old boomboxes, even I think: Dude, there's medication for that. But there are also some who'd get "respect" as "real" hobbyists, like the guy who flies home-built airplanes, or the woman who puts on horse-mounted archery demonstrations.

The substance of these mini-documentaries jives with Seth Roberts's theory of art, technology, and human social evolution. He argues that

the specialized use of free time (resembling hobbies) created demand for hard-to-make "useless" things, [and so] shifted resources to skilled artisans, who innovated more than other people. Desire for novelty (fashion) and small improvements (connoisseurs) pushed artisans to innovate.

These amateurs additionally exemplify Roberts's contention too many scientists have abandoned the foundational tenants of true science, airily theorizing instead of collecting lots of data and experimenting. The hobbyist is a role model for good old-fashioned science, to a fanatical degree.

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