This series got rolling with comments in my previous blog from two cognitive scientists, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. In The Knowledge Illusion, they wrote that our minds are configured to assess and analyze information from our environment far more than they are configured to retain information. The result is that we are often unaware of the extent to which our environment influences our thought. I have the tendency to think of my participation in the hobby (personally, not professionally) as the kind of thing where I go down into the basement, and I work on a project, and the whole affair is disconnected from anything but me and that moment. Even though the instinct to like trains seems spontaneous and organic, are there specific trends about what and how we model that are influenced by environmental inputs more than what we give credit to?
Insofar as this may be the case, how? and in what ways?
In the nascent period of the hobby, models weren't readily available. The emphasis of one's modeling activity was focused on creation of the equipment itself, and the layout was about having the rail to see that equipment in action. Conceptions of scale were fluid and inchoate. Far more than otherwise, layouts weren't adorned in scenery. There wasn't the inclination to scenic layouts because hobbyists were operating by a different set of values and objectives. The principle of action was the mechanical challenge of creating dynamic models that resembled the prototype. This was model railroading.
As the hobby grew, the will to establish systems of conformity grew. The National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) was organized in 1935, it served the valuable role of making a set of recommended practices explicit. This is an extraordinary step forward for the hobby because these standards are the framework which set into play the conditions for the possibility of robust commercial enterprise. It also allowed people to collaborate on more than shared interest alone.
In 2017, the NMRA is an institution. It is comprised of a president, officers, and a board of directors. There are hundreds of volunteers that organize at a local level. As of January 2017, NMRA membership approached 18,000 people. Among other things, it hosts and organizes and provides insurance for the National Train Show and many regional meets. It makes significant contributions to the railroad libraries and other media. And, it established a national standard for modular layouts whereby people can collaborate in large, multi-person or group layouts.
In some sense, NMRA modular layouts are the material realization of the NMRA ideology. That is to say, by way of organization and through shared standards, communities of model railroaders result. These communities have the potential to be learning centers, engage in outreach, serve as community sites, and provide fellowship of other railroaders. And, this happens insofar as people buy into these shared standards. For many, this kind of organization serves their interests very well.
However, the NMRA is not without critics. There are some who would say that the impetus for inclusion is too strong and the recommended practices are too constrained to allow the kinds of expression that they are looking for in the hobby. In recent decades, the emergence of Free-mo and RPM meets are an alternative (and for some people and in some sense, a rejection) of what they may describe as bureaucracy.
The Free-mo organization is minimalist in its mentality. Where NMRA modular layouts are highly constrained so to construct a loop of track, Free-mo operates on the premise that constraining module endplates is sufficient to allow for modular operations. Free-mo layouts can take on irregular shapes, and they don't need to regulate the number and type of modules so to close a loop. Where the NMRA has governing body of officers, Free-mo is an affiliation of participants without the offices of a governing body whatsoever. The idea is that people come together out of a shared philosophy, and the outcomes are mediated democratically vis-a'-vis a flat organization.
RPM meets are similarly minimalistic. They grew out of round-table, show-and-tell dinners where modelers would meet and talk about recent projects. I have heard participants describe RPM meets as events framed specifically with the content to help modelers be better modelers. Although it should be recognized that NMRA events also have clinics and seminars, in my blog entitled 'Model Railroading is Sophisticated, Vol. 3', I wrote about how these meets represent different paradigms. I will only add to those comments with an additional thought: In my opinion and in some sense, RPM meets look like a return to the kind of modeling from where this story began, i.e., the emphasis of one's modeling activity is focused on creation of the equipment itself. Where the earliest layouts didn't have scenery, RPM meets often don't have display layouts or displays with scenery at all. In many cases, they consist only of display tables for equipment and break-out rooms for clinics.
This dialectic (i.e. the hobby being an affiliate of unorganized modelers, the hobby adopts robust standards through the NMRA and the NMRA institutes a system of governance, the emergence of new associations of people who want to operate outside of that system) is the interplay of ideas and environments such that ideas spring from the environment in which we reside. If you were involved in model railroading in 1930, the thought may not have been more than "Hey, you are working on some great stuff. I am working on some great stuff. It takes a long time to build this, and I would like to see a real train come together. You know what, it would be cool if..." Or, for those who attended the first RPM round table dinners, the thought may not have been more than "Hey, you are working on some great stuff. I am working on some great stuff. For whatever reason, we don't feel like the de facto organization is a good home for what we are trying to do. You know what, it would be cool if..." And the point is, if one views these developments in the context of their time, the environmental influences become more perspicuous. [insert saying here 'necessity is the mother of invention' or something like that.]
As cognitive scientists, I am confident that Sloman and Fernbach mean things that are more specific in a neurological/scientific sense than what this blog describes. But in terms of our question, how and in what ways is our modeling influenced by environmental inputs, these are my first thoughts.
For my next blog, I am going to apply a more forward-looking concept of the dialectic to current states of affairs, and I will share my thoughts on how, I think, these trends could be important to going forward. I hope it is a good ride.