Gotta have it ...

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am

The man with the latest electronic personal organiser on the train is suffering from it. The woman fiddling with the most up-to-date mobile phone has got it. The children playing on the portable game systems? They're hooked.

All of them, and millions more Japanese, are victims of neophilia. It may sound horrible, but it's a painless affliction that largely affects people of above-average intelligence. Neophiliacs are people who simply cannot be without the latest thing. And while that can in theory extend to any consumer product - from books to brooms - a group of Japanese scientists has identified electronic gadgets as the area with the largest neophiliac appeal.

They also say that, while all of us may be neophiliacs to some degree, there are some who are more prone to it than others. Medical researchers at Yamagata University, in northern Japan, have concluded that people with a specific form of a mitochondrial enzyme known as monoamine oxidase A are more in need of the new and novel.

In a paper published recently in the scientific journal Psychiatric Genetics, the researchers said the enzyme is 'significantly associated with higher scores of novelty-seeking'. In other words, neophiliacs can't help themselves. It's a fantastic excuse - if ever one was needed - for coming home with a new laptop computer when the previous one is still in fine working order ... but the rent hasn't been paid.

Neophilia may resemble addiction disorder, the researchers said. That makes sufferers fertile ground for any company plugging the latest version of its gadget. These findings were supported by a report from the Nomura Research Institute think-tank on the phenomenon of otaku - people engrossed in the fantasy world of manga comic books and movies. Nomura concluded that some people will always buy the newest release, no matter what the price, simply because they have to have it.

But not everyone accepts the theory. Critics suggest that the need for the newest is a relatively new craving, which means it cannot be genetic. Others say it is simply an expression of curiosity: popular culture, they say, is helping to strengthen a natural fascination, in turn pushing the evolution of capitalist society.

Whichever diagnosis is correct, Japan may very well be considered the most advanced neophiliac society in the world.

Step out of Tokyo's Akihabara railway station, into the so-called 'electric town' district, and one emerges into a world of gadgetry and gizmology that director Ridley Scott would have been hard-pressed to dream up when he was making Blade Runner just a relatively few years ago. Welcome to the future.