Web Citations September 1998

Neurodiversity

On the neurological underpinnings of geekdom.

NT vs Autistic theory

If you've happened across Jon Katz's columns on "Geek Force" in recent editions of HotWired, you're likely to have read pronouncements like the following: "The idea of geek pride [is] stirring, ascending. The rise of the geeks has an epic feeling." As Katz describes them, geeks are nerds plus modems; they have the nerd's affinity for technology plus a wired sociability nerds lack. In the Information Age geekdom is ascendant, and the Internet the medium and the meeting place of choice. But Katz focuses exclusively on the social and political ramifications of geekdom. Readers interested in the possible neurological underpinnings of Geek Force on the rise might stop in at the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical.

The ISNT is a parody of the many institutes and journals devoted to the study of autism. The site gives geeks space to emerge from the neurological closet and declare themselves to be high-functioning autistic (HFA) as opposed to neurologically typical (NT). Until recently, NTs have had the privilege of believing that their form of wiring was the standard for the human brain. ISNT wants to make it clear that this will no longer be held to be self-evident. Muskie, the site's Webmaster and herself a high-functioning autistic, declares: "Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity."

NT vs Autistic theory

In other words, NT is only one kind of brain wiring, and, when it comes to working with hi-tech, quite possibly an inferior one. This sentiment, expressed in the form of pity for the poor NT, is common in remarks left in ISNT's guest book. According to one visitor to the site, NTs have terrible difficulty adjusting to "the predictability and logic of computer technology, instead, expecting the machine to conform to their wishes." Another visitor complains: "My parents are NT, and my brother and sister are NT.... They can't even work the VCR!... Hopefully there will be a cure soon."

The common assumption in cognitive studies these days is that the human brain is the most complicated two-and-a-half pounds of matter in the known universe. With so much going on in a brain, the argument goes, the occasional bug is inevitable: hence autism and other departures from the neurological norm. ISNT suggests another way of looking at this. Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favor a somewhat autistic cast of mind. That would lend neurological significance to Jon Katz's foregrounding of Geek Force. And it would make ISNT's argument for neurodiversity not only timely but quite possibly irresistible.

Harvey Blume

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