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unWEIRDing Autistic ways of being

In the cult of busyness the simplistic logic of finance acts as a universal linguistic and psychological security blanket.

The world of finance feels comfortable because it conjures up the illusion that all eventualities can be calculated and quantified, satisfying the human need for certainty. The more obscure the financial tools, the more layers are added to the cake of financial instruments, the more complex the algorithms, the greater the feeling of being in control for those who benefit from the simplistic logic of finance, and the greater the level of detachment from the biophysical and ecological world that we are part of.

The delusion of continuous technological progress, which is baked into the foundations of the religion of the invisible hand in the form of universal fungibility adds another layer to the linguistic and psychological security blanket.

The cult-ivation of cognitive dissonance

The self-preservation instinct of powered-up institutions is a virtual guarantee for persistent cognitive dissonance between published statements of intent, priorities and commitments, and executive summaries of results and the actions undertaken and the results achieved.

Like “maturity” and “reality” and “progress”, the word “technology” has an agenda for your behavior: usually what is being referred to as “technology” is something that somebody wants you to submit to.  “Technology” often implicitly refers to something you are expected to turn over to “the guys who understand it.” This is actually almost always a political move.  Somebody wants you to give certain things to them to design and decide. Perhaps you should, but perhaps not.

– TedNelson’s Computer Paradigm, Expressed as One-Liners, 1999

Andreas Malm provides us with an excellent overview of “Climate Politics When It’s Too Late” from a European perspective. Our institutions have become the drug of choice for people addicted to social power.

While lying is an attempt to conceal the truth, bullshit is to talk without reference to the truth. ‘It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit’. Underpinning this is a ‘motive guiding and controlling’ the bullshitter meaning they are ‘unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are’. Recent psychological research considers the targets of bullshit by examining how some people with an ‘uncritical open mind’ are particularly receptive to bullshit. More sociologically oriented research has pointed out that in some social settings ‘bullshit’ is expected, enthusiastically embraced or silently tolerated.

Bullshit is a form of linguistic interaction. It involves characteristic patterns of communication such as evasiveness or not being held to account for one’s claims. Bringing these three aspects together, I define bullshit as empty and misleading communication. A more substantive definition of bullshit is that it consists of evasive and/or persuasive communication involving an indifference to the truth or attempts to pursue the truth which are driven by epistemically maligned intentions.

The bullshitter falls short of lying because they make use of insincere and misleading statements rather than outright falsehoods. Recent psychological work has found that established measures of everyday lying are sufficiently distinct from bullshitting.

The most intuitive explanation for why bullshit exists is the individual bullshitter. Many philosophical accounts assume that particular individuals have questionable motives or moral flaws which predispose them to bullshitting. For instance, Frankfurt points towards questionable motives of bullshitters such as intention to mislead their audience for personal gain. Others point out that bullshitters are driven by Machiavellian motives like deceiving their audience to gain power and resources. More recently, Cassam has argued that bullshitters are plagued by ‘epistemological vices’ such as carelessness, negligence, dogmatism and prejudice. Perhaps the most important of these is ‘epistemic insouciance’. This entails ‘a casual lack of concern about the facts or an indifference to whether their political statements have any basis in reality’. Some have argued that bullshitters suffer from cognitive failures. Finally, a recent study of school children found that bullshitters shared demographic characteristics; they were more likely to be males from better-off socioeconomic background.

Mats Alvesson argued that wider socio-cultural concerns with ‘imagology’ (looks and appearance) has encouraged organizations and individuals to generate clichés and bullshit. In my own book on the topic, I explored how the changing nature of bureaucracy created ideal conditions for bullshit. The rise of ‘neocracies’ which are obsessed with constant change and novelty has led organizations as well as people working within them to produce a large stream of bullshit.

– André Spicer, Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations, 2020

How did we get here?

The old Daoist thinkers can teach us a lot about how we’ve ended up in this situation.

71. 1. To know and yet (think) we do not know is the highest (attainment); not to know (and yet think) we do know is a disease. 

2. It is simply by being pained at (the thought of) having this disease that we are preserved from it. The sage has not the disease. He knows the pain that would be inseparable from it, and therefore he does not have it.

72. 1. When the people do not fear what they ought to fear, that which is their great dread will come on them. 

2. Let them not thoughtlessly indulge themselves in their ordinary life; let them not act as if weary of what that life depends on. 

3. It is by avoiding such indulgence that such weariness does not arise. 

4. Therefore the sage knows (these things) of himself, but does not parade (his knowledge); loves, but does not (appear to set a) value on, himself. And thus he puts the latter alternative away and makes choice of the former.

Nate Hagens does a good job of explaining the implications for our immediate future to people in WEIRD societies. To understand the specific role of our modern global digital media and communication environments in the social construction of modern culture, the theory of media and society developed by Niklas Luhmann has a lot to offer. Hans-Georg Moeller provides an excellent introduction:

Luhmann argues that the system of mass media is a set of recursive, self-referential programs of communication, whose functions are not determined by the external values of truthfulness, objectivity, or knowledge, nor by specific social interests or political directives. Rather, he contends that the system of mass media is regulated by the internal code information/noninformation, which enables the system to select its information (news) from its own environment and to communicate this information in accordance with its own reflexive criteria.

Despite its self-referential quality, Luhmann describes the mass media as one of the key cognitive systems of modern society, by means of which society constructs the illusion of its own reality.

Life is no longer experienced as an ecological process, it is transformed into a performance before an audience that is measured and rated according to social expectations that are increasingly codified in and evaluated by abstract algorithms owned by technofeudal lords.

Luhmann’s theory is a framework that allows us to articulate how global corporations in the digital era have not only seized the means of production, but also the means of communication, as well as large parts of the means of education, turning much of education into a form of corporate obedience training.

The open question is how humans will treat each other and our non-human contemporaries on the journey towards being composted and recycled. 

We live in WEIRD times – Autistic people don’t belong here

Autistic people are amongst the canaries in the life denying coal mine of WEIRD societies.

The acronym WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic—aims to raise people’s consciousness about psychological differences and to emphasize that WEIRD people are but one unusual slice of humanity’s cultural diversity. WEIRD highlights the sampling bias present in studies conducted in cognitive science, behavioral economics, and psychology.

WEIRD people are highly individualistic, which means we are overconfident, self-obsessed and even more suicide-prone. WEIRD people also tend to be highly analytical in their thinking. That is, we focus on individuals and their properties at the expense of relationships and backgrounds. But, of course, sometimes mending a friendship or spotting a problem requires attending to the contexts and to the social ties involved. Similarly, WEIRD people are, relative to many other populations, less willing to help their family and friends at a cost to themselves or strangers. WEIRD people also have some irrational decision-making biases—such as what’s called “the endowment effect,” which explains why sellers are so often disappointed in how much their home is worth—we overvalue our own stuff.

The original academic definition W.E.I.R.D. referenced above stays clear of a deeper critique of the religion of the invisible hand and the delusion of technological progress. I use the term as a shorthand reference to the group of societies that think of themselves as Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic, and to the associated cultural bias that is baked into Western cognitive science, behavioral economics, and psychology.

In my writing I highlight how the collective behaviour of WEIRD societies is best understood as WEIRDT : Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic Theatre. Everything in this theatre is about perception – there is no substance or connection to the biophysical and ecological context outside the theatre. Niklas Luhmann’s theory of society is consistent with this notion of WEIRDT, and already the Daoists perfectly understood the critical importance of theatrical perception management in all powered-up empire building endeavours.

The effects of living in a hypernormative performance-oriented culture are profound, affecting everyone to varying degrees in terms of:

  1. Lack of trustworthy human scale social agreements
  2. Lack of confidence in first hand experience
  3. Lack of education in critical thinking and reasoning
  4. Lack of experience with creative forms of collaboration in genuinely safe environments

None of this is new.

Whilst many organisations give lip service to the benefits of diversity, a number of marginalised and vulnerable groups still experience discrimination. The disabled and particularly those considered ‘mentally disabled’ are amongst the most disadvantaged groups despite attempts to use policies to change social attitudes and behaviours.

Diane Babak, Management of People Weird and Feared, 2013

In contrast to culturally “well-adjusted” people, Autistic people are consciously aware of these ubiquitously present factors. We have openly talked about them since the earliest days of the internet, we don’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance, we feel dehumanised, we refuse to be assimilated, we withdraw from bad company, we collaborate in atypical – Autistic – ways to co-create good company.

The mental health crisis, which is best understood as a crisis of pervasive cognitive dissonance, and which affects large parts of the population, creates plenty of profitable opportunities for ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approaches. The second order social effects of performance-oriented societies that cult-ivate and reward bullshit manifest in terms of a serious learning disability:

  • Inability to discern valuable scientific insights from pseudoscience and scientism
  • Vulnerability to being influenced by arbitrary opinions, a trend that is being amplified by mega scale social media platforms as well as by the propaganda machines of corporations and governments
  • Indiscriminate lack of confidence in the reliability of any beliefs, resignation to relativism – anything could be true and anything could be false, the feeling of being lost in a world of illusions
  • Loss of imagination, as all confidence in collective action and possibility of community co-creation is lost
  • Increasing levels of detachment from most of the human and non-human living world, the entire world seems unsafe and unreliable
  • Inability to understand the world
  • Paralysis, loss of agency

The inmates are locked into a system of busyness as usual that feels deeply familiar, where deviation from absurd performance expectations is associated with a fear of the unknown, where the dread of being seen as a deviant routinely gets in the way of exploring the unknown territory that lies beyond the culturally impaired capacity for imagination and creative collaboration at human scale.

In concrete terms, the suicidal collective learning disability of our powered-up society manifests as a ten to twenty year lag between the time when specific social and ecological problems become obvious to those on the margins of society who are educated in critical thinking tools and who are close to the problems at hand, and the acknowledgement of these problems in the public media. By the time social and ecological problems become part of public discourse, often unimaginable harm has already been done, and further, even more severe problems have emerged, which are not yet deemed acceptable for public discourse.

This state of affairs suits the cult of busyness just fine. Devoted disciples who have mastered the art of bullshit like to reframe the obsession with busyness as a continuous drive for efficiency. In such an environment it is easy to pathologise Autistic people who refuse to pretend that everything is fine, who refuse to go along with the flow, who dare to question conventional “wisdom” and perpetual techno-optimism.

The norms of our society can be understood as a projection of social ills onto neurodivergent people, including the emergence of an Autism Industrial Complex, and a proliferation of pathologising autism research. A society that systematically desensitises all its people to social inequality and that instead celebrates individual success based on material wealth and social vanity metrics creates a sick social environment that disables society as a whole. 

Autistic people don’t play social games, instead we actively resist them. We are primarily guided by our principles, our egalitarian sense of fairness, and are less prone to being corrupted by monetary rewards. And for this we are pathologised and vilified. It is not an accident that Greta Thunberg is Autistic. A growing literature suggests that Autists display reduced susceptibility to cognitive biases and exhibit more rational and bias-free processing of information.

The enhanced rationality of Autistic people has valuable implications for the understanding of human rationality and for understanding the role of neurodiversity in cultural evolution. Within the bigger picture of cultural evolution Autistic traits have obvious mid and long-term benefits to society, but these benefits are associated with short-term costs for social status seeking individuals within the local social environments of Autistic people. In the digital sphere enshitification of platforms is one of the glaringly obvious symptoms of catabolic capitalism.

Reactivating the reservoir of human imagination

Neurological and cultural diversity is the reservoir of imagination of the human species. In a time of existential crises the collective creative potential of neurodivergent people and marginalised cultures has become more important than ever.

Marginalised people have a conception of life essentials that differs from the WEIRDT mainstream. Letting go of spurious, i.e. non-essential complexity will only be devastating for the few who need to be weaned off their addiction to social power. It is well known that all major social change originates on the margins of society.

We have to realise that in our hypernormalised global consumer culture transformational change can only emanate from indigenous cultures, from systemically marginalised and sometimes criminalised groups, and from pathologised neurodivergent people. The implications for co-creating good company are profound.

The only way to reactivate the reservoir of human imagination is by fully re-humanising all neurodivergent and otherwise marginalised people. The WEIRDT world has a lot to learn from those who are non-compliant, from those who refuse to be trained in the art of bullshit, and from those who prefer to educate themselves in creative collaboration and critical thinking tools.

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