Sunday, April 03, 2016

The A Word

Yesterday was Autisim Awareness Day and some people have suggested that “autistic” not be used as a derogatory term either for people or ideas. I՚m guilty of doing that, although not as often as I would have thought. They are probably right and I should stop.

In my defense:
  • I use it from within, since I՚m almost certainly somewhere on the spectrum myself, although not officially diagnosed. Like blacks have a license to deploy the n-word and queers have taken back the word “queer”, people like me ought to have a license to deploy the a-word. Of course, the cases are not completely parallalel in all sorts of ways.
  • I use it not to insult individuals, but to critique certain sets of ideas that seem like attempts of some aspects of the autistic personality to convert itself into political ideology or other large-scale systems.
There are obvious problems with labeling ideas or worldviews as autistic. For one, autism as a syndrome has an extremely wide variety of expression. Very few people with autism start political ideologies or movements around their thinking. But it՚s a problem, because I do believe that my non-medical usage of the word denotes something real and important, and I can՚t think of a better way to describe it. Roughly, what I mean is “disdain of or distrust of or incompetance at normal human social interaction, coupled with a fondness and competence for abstractions and artificial formal systems”. This is a common feature of autism but is not identical with it and deserves its own designation. I՚ll call it a* for now (not to be confused with the graph search algorithm of the same name).

Why is it so important to have a designator for a* thinking? It has informed computation since its origins (Turing had classic signs) and is obviously endemic in the present-day technology industry, and that industry is in the process of “eating the world”. We are all living more and more of our lives inside systems designed with a bias towards a*. So unless you are a digital luddite you owe a lot to a*, all the wonderful information and interactions you have on the internet can be traced to these weird obsessives plying their talents towards abstraction.

On the other hand, let՚s take two example of where a* thinking may have some negative consequences.

Facebook is now in control of a large fraction of our social lives, and Facebook is a* in spades. There՚s nothing inevitable that says that the complexities of social interaction have to be reduced to a formal graph of “likes”, but that՚s what we have now. It՚s not so much that Facebook is bad, but that we are allowing the very fundamental structures of society to be redesigned by people who may not be the best suited to it.

On a lesser scale, Moldbug՚s thinking is an exemplary illusstration of a* thinking and its pitfalls. If you study his work in-depth (not recommended) it is clear his primary motive isn՚t racism or ethnoationalism, but a horror of conflict and uncertainty. Ordinary society and politics involves both vague boundaries of groups, imperfect mechanisms of control, and internal and external conflict between different centers of power. Moldbug՚s dream is to replace this mess with something well-engineered and clear, so that for any resource x, there is always exactly one agent a who controls it absolutely. This is not the place to examine this idea on its merits, just to notice that it՚s exactly the sort of thing that would be dreamed up by someone who sucks at navigating actual social structures but is great at constructing abstract systems.

To summarize: I would argue that a* thinking is a real phenomenon and an important one. That it has deep consequences for society which need to be understood better. Finally, it is not necessarily a bad thing if social life is changing in an a* direction, given how fucked up the default world is, but we ought to have better awareness of what is going on.

[ and here is one of my better guest posts at Ribbonfarm where I dive a little deeper into the a* mindset and what it means. ]


Edward McLean said...

"has is a* in spades."

Just wanted to let you know a word might have past your proofing.

Other than that, great article. I can't help but be reminded of much of MeltingAsphalt's talk on the subject.

The add a random data point, while I do agree 'autistic' as it used in your pieces has a definite referent, I myself have something of a minor kneejerk negative response to the word. I come from the 4chan corner of the internet, where 'autistic' was second only to 'faggot' in the list of words channers used to insult things they don't like (this was before 'cuck' caught on).

I'm curious if you've put any thoughts as to how to design less a* social software. For completeness, I know Kevin of MeltingAsphalt has written something on Left-brained/Right-brained user personas and how they interact with UI, which I think parallels your thinking in some ways.

I'm also curious as to what a more a* world would look like, and if it's really the trajectory of modern society. Kevin has a theory of a* personality being like a mutation of normal personality, in the sense of emphasizing and de-emphasizing different things. A world split down a normal/a* divide probably isn't the weirdest prediction of the future I've considered but it's certainly interesting and thought-provoking.

mtraven said...

Thanks for catching the typo, fixed.

I don't think I'd presume to know how to design good social software. Even if I did, it would be a tough thing to build, because social platforms are businesses and they gain a foothold through network effects, not by being good. (eg, I am a frequent and semi-reluctant user of Twitter and Facebook, despite their flaws, because that is where the people I want to interact with are).

It would seem to call for the same sort of skills and sensitivities as the best architects and urban planners (Christopher Alexander and Frederick Law Olmsted are the people who come to mind, people who have given some thought to how to make public spaces that people want to inhabit.

Kevin's post was interesting. He didn't say much about how software gets built, but he could have: there are separate jobs for the left-brain engineers (who build the data models and pipelines and such) and the more right-brained UX designers who envision and sketch out what it looks like. I personally don't like this division of labor, but it seems to be how things are. In my own career, like in this post, I'm usually in a position of being a left-brained guy trying hard to incorporate right-brained values.