Too much time on his hands

Too much time on his hands. This is just a Sunday afternoon rant, nothing newsworthy or necessarily noteworthy, but something I'd like to say, anyway.

"That guy has too much spare time" is one of the most odious, intellectually dishonest, dismissive things a person can say. It disguises a vicious ad-hominem attack as a lighthearted verbal shrug. The subtext of the remark is that the subject's passions — this remark is almost always directed at someone engaged in some labor of love — are so meritless that their specific shortcomings don't even warrant discussion. The subtext is that any sane person who considers these passions will immediately see their total worthlessness. To direct this remark at someone is to utterly dismiss their personal fire and so their ability to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy.

It's a substitute for thought. It's a uncompromising line between art and junk, between personal enrichment and navel-gazing. Whether it's directed at some model-train otaku who has reproduced, in miniature, a fantastic landscape that she brings to life with the flick of a switch or an obsessive collector of breakfast cereal packaging whose house is wallpapered with gaudy enticements to tooth-decay, the slur brooks no possibility that the speaker has failed to appreciate some valuable, fulfilling element of the subject's hobby.

Maybe this irks me so much because everything I care about is dismissed as a waste of time by most of world, or was, until recently: Science fiction, the Internet, blogging, gadgetry, vintage tchotchkes, Disney parks, etc. Really, is there anything fulfilling about life that didn't start out on the fringes, didn't start out as a waste of time? We love to trot out hoary chestnuts from history where some long-dead expert predicts the imminent demise of computers, or radios, or cars, or public transit, or bicycling, or television, or indoor plumbing, or microscopy, or the space program, but we never seem to notice that our modern world is full of similar dismissals of fun, fringey pass-times: robotic Lego, Versus MP3 mixes, TiVo, fanfic, blogging.

Of course, some of this stuff will surely be relegated to the scrapheap of history. Some of it will "fail." But who can say what? Who can say which technologies and movements will be the enduring delights of generations to come, subject of PhD theses and documentary films, and which ones will be merely charming but obscure footnotes?

The genuinely disruptive, novel artefacts are by definition unpredictable. This fact is at the core of the doctrine of Fair Use: We don't know what innovations the world may come up with in the future, but we know that the fewer restrictions we put on tomorrow's innovators, the higher the likelihood that they will come up with something marvellous that will be to all our benefit.

So, let's cut 'em some slack. The next time you meet some person who is utterly captivated by some undertaking that completely mystifies you, give him the benefit of the doubt. Hold back on your instinctive imputing of excess spare time and hang the obsession in a tickler-file in the back of your brain to pull out and think about in the shower or the post-office line. If you're very lucky, a little of that delight may rub off on you, too.