Is the world becoming more autistic as an effect of the way life has become organised by network computers?

Neurodiversity is “the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome” (Elder Robison, 2013), thereby rejecting the idea that people with these conditions need to be cured and instead arguing they should be celebrated and supported in living their lives. It has been noted that “until the 1980s, many people with autism were institutionalised, rendering them effectively invisible” (Durkin, 2017) but since then they have slowly made their way into mainstream society which has become more aware of the symptoms and how to manage them. This has coincided with people who are neurotypical turning to “isolated connectivity” where society moves towards solitary enjoyment when individuals use technology such as smart phones to communicate even when in social environments. These are ways in which autistic traits are becoming more normalised and in a way “the world is becoming more autistic.”

To understand if the world is becoming more autistic we must first discuss autism itself and what this means both in a general sense and in terms of societies’ behaviour. Autism is described as “a lack of contact with other people, the need for sameness and routine, a fascination with objects and a language that does not seem intended for interpersonal communication.” (Kanner, 1943) These qualities all point towards a brain and thought pattern that does not mimic what we would consider “normal”. This essentially creates the divide between what we consider neurotypical and neuroatypical, however as society has developed we are led to question if the line between these two patterns of thinking has blurred and we are just left with neurodiversity. The National Autistic Society outlines guidelines for companies with autistic employees which include providing quiet spaces for them to work as well as providing instructions tailored to their needs and using a different method to regularly review their work. This can support the idea that the world is becoming more autistic, or it may be that it just recognises it better and is attempting to accommodate peoples’ needs in ways that had not been done previously. Furthermore, wider recognition of autism and the potential of those with the condition has led to more autistic people in the workplace thereby making them appear more prominent in society than before. This could be due to the fact “that life has become organized by network computers” with the huge advances in technology that have been made in recent years, the consequence of which is we need a workforce with different skills than have previously been required and those with autism fit these criteria. An example of this is that Microsoft have recently started running coding workshops for children with autism, identifying the most talented who are then mentored and sponsored. However, companies such as Specialisterne are opening doors for those with autism by setting up a n employment scheme for those with autism to work in agriculture. This supports the idea that there may not necessarily be a rise in autism but a rise in opportunities and encouragement for them to enter the workplace.

There is some evidence that the world is “becoming more autistic” because our lives have “become organized by network computers”. For example, we have seen a rise in the popularity of those involved in tech in mainstream culture, as brands such as Topshop produce tops with words such as “Geek” and “Dork” on them and we see the popularity of television sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory. This leads us to ask what has caused this sudden acceptance and celebration of the “nerd”? Modern day life is “organised by network computers” as we receive almost all of our information through them and our society is now built upon receiving information and communicating with others through interconnected devices.  As “YouTube and other Internet video channels have become a significant source of video for mainstream TV news” (Castells 2000) we have moved away from traditional forms of media and turned to sites or platforms which house user-generated content. We are therefore becoming more enveloped in the world of technology as we are wanting to produce, share and collaborate with each other on content. We increasingly prefer to receive our news from video sharing sites rather than regulated newspapers which lead us to become more dependent on our technological devices. We allow our lives to be organised by network computers as this is where we find the information which guides our actions and lives. We can observe this emerging network society through how our society has changed, for example in the workplace we now have virtual offices and online remote working which support more flexible work patterns such as job sharing. We value this flexibility but the price is that most communication is being made through online platforms and servers. These are characteristics of a network society which are extremely different to how society worked before the arrival of technology because they require less face to face communication and less emotional intuition which were the cornerstones of how people used to collaborate. As we begin to adapt to this new society and significant changes to our way of living we may appear to be different and arguably “more autistic”. The importance of media and information technology to our society and why we need them is evident as Castells suggests “any political intervention in the public space requires presence in the media space.” (Castells, 2010). Nowadays crucial parts of the functioning of our society such as politics must engage with technology in order to reach the public showing how our lives have become organised by network computers. Political parties now place an increasing amount of weight on reaching voters through social media compared to visiting people door to door or holding local meetings. This can be seen where in the 2015 elections Twitter surveyed users aged 18-34, finding that “45% had joined a political or social cause that they had learnt about through the site” (Perraudin, 2015). Additionally, we have become individually very engaged with computers with Microsoft coders referring to tech devices as “self-extensions”. Since technology has become an extension of ourselves it is no surprise that it is increasingly argued that our life is becoming organised by these network computers.

Increasingly “we are asking kids to read homework on a device that also gives them access to everything that matters to them “(Turkle, 2015) and we can see how children’s lives revolve around the internet, for education, social life and leisure. It is clear that this must have a great impact on their behaviour as Turkle also suggests “they are not emotionally developed.” The use of technology is impacting how we communicate as a society and would appear to be producing similar behavioural characteristics in people generally to those who are born with autism.

The influx of technology has consequently required an increase in the number of technicians and developers.  Coupland suggested that he believes “all tech people are slightly autistic.” (Coupland, 1995) and that “people with autism have a special “affinity with computers” (Baird in Silberman, 2015), therefore implying that the rise in tech is providing autistic people with more roles and opportunities rather than there being an overall increase in the number of people with autism. It is also suggested that those with “autism, dyslexia, and other cognitive differences could make contributions to society that so-called normal people are incapable of making” (Silberman, 2015) which suggests they have been more recognised as valuable in recent years and consequently have taken on more prominent roles in the workplace. Although it may appear as if there has been an increase of those with autism in society and that “the world is becoming more autistic” it is because of our need for their skills that they are becoming more sought after and we see this increase. An example of this is HP who, whilst they have said that they have always intended to increase diversity in their workforce, began recognising the skills those with autism possess and launched the Dandelion program based upon integrating those with autism better into the workplace. This supports the idea that the world appears more autistic due to our lives becoming organised by network computers and needing a workforce that can support this.

With the rise of “geek culture” and autistic traits becoming more commonplace we must question if we are becoming more autistic or just more computerised. Those involved in technology are seen to be neuroatypical and have a different way of thinking to the majority of society. Silberman writes “Autistics have a fascination for quantifiable data, highly organised systems and complex machines.” (Silberman 2015) these parallel a system of thought similar to computer systems. During the 1980’s in the US around 1 in every 2,000 children were thought to have autism, whereas it is now estimated that 1 in every 68 school children are identified as autistic (CDC, 2015). This dramatic increase could arguably be representing the future of our society because, as we engross ourselves more into technology, we are adapting and harvesting android traits but not necessarily autistic ones. Therefore, it could appear that “the world is becoming more autistic” when in reality we are evolving and this is the way in which the new generation of “digital natives” behave. As young children “passively pick up information” (The Guardian, 2017) growing up in this world organised by network computers it is no surprise their social skills vary from those before them. When using “a computer there is only one right way to do something” (Baird, 2000) as this method of thinking reflects the mind of someone with autism and therefore makes the processing and communication easier to understand for them. This also reflects back onto those who are neurotypical because in modern society being technologically able is celebrated and we therefore adopt the thought pattern that there must only be one right answer. We therefore change our approach in order to use the computers and adapt our thinking in this way. Although our behaviour is becoming more like computers  does this necessarily mean more autistic?

This also leads us to discuss whether technology itself is autistic. If this is the case, then what we use every day and arguably could not live our lives without is neuroatypical. Where technology is being designed and driven by those with autism it is not surprising that it would consequently work in a way that would function logically for someone with autism. Technology is based upon “logic, rules and predictable interface “which are all qualities that are generally seen to be preferred by those with autism. It is also suggested that “the OS mirrors the autistic mind and the user mirrors the OS” (Senior Director, Microsoft AI), thus supporting the argument  that the programs are being created by those with autism and that we will in turn mimic these workings in order to use the technology.  If we are constantly using these interfaces and technology it will have some impact on the way we think and act. For example, if we continue using social media to the extent we currently do, without acceptable boundaries, it will have a significant social impact on children that we are already seeing such as, “bullying, sexual experimentation, cyber bullying, privacy issues, internet addiction and sleep deprivation” (Schurgin O’Keeffe and Clarke-Pearson, 2011). All of these issues impact children negatively affecting things such as their social skills and engagement with non-online society, therefore meaning they may show traits of autism when in fact this is a learnt behaviour from use of technology.

Autism is arguably appearing to rise due to our ability to recognise it more easily than previous generations did, understand it better, and consequently be able to diagnose and adjust to its needs better. Even if there is no direct link between the way our lives have become organised by a network of computers this rise in technology links with autism because  it enables those with the condition to live day to day life more easily.   We are a “convivial society of loners” (Silberman, 2015) who happily take part in this new form of communication through online sites, so much so worldwide we spend an average of 135 minutes a day on the internet (Global Web index, 2017). When technology functions as an extension of “the self” and a representation of ourselves that we get to control, this is beneficial for those with autism as they get to control how they present their “self” and do not have to communicate through body language and facial expressions which is typically what autistics struggle with.  Our new society is directing itself towards those with autism and, with technology only progressing further, are they the future of society: “who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment? Cybernetics and computer culture, for example, may favour a somewhat autistic cast of mind” (Blume 1998). Qualities that we consider autistic and previously were seen as a hindrance to contributing to society are now seen as a help. Autistic traits are the future with cybernetics and computers only becoming more popular and embedded in our lives. Will a neuroatypical, autistic way of thinking become the new neaurotypical?

On the other hand, the rise in autism may not be linked to the use of technology but what we see in the media. The media has a large part to play in how we view autism and how much exposure we see of it. Moral panics (Cohen, 2011) can be created by the media, through presenting a threat to norms and values in society. Autism has had reports of being linked to causes such as vaccines, receiving negative coverage, and being presented as a negative side effect of a drug could explain the previous lack of coverage of those with autism. However, in recent times the positive potential of those with autism and the idea it is a natural occurrence that does not need to be fixed has been recognised and this increase in positive coverage and therefore acceptance in the workplace could produce the impression that the world is becoming more autistic when in reality it is becoming more accepting.

The world may be becoming more autistic as although the method of online communication is beneficial for those with autism, encouraging neurotypical members of society to communicate more and more online is not allowing for the practice of social skills or children to learn and develop social behaviours.  It has been argued that “assisted communication is leading to a decline in conversation skills and the ability to feel empathy,” (Turkle, 2015) thereby forcing us towards becoming a more autistic society unwillingly. Turkle further suggested that “if we are unable to be separated from our smartphones, we consume other people in bits and pieces,” (Turkle, 2015), implying that this is a less valuable form of communication and we are less fulfilled through using it. Therefore, the increase in a network society may be changing the world to become more autistic but not necessarily for the best.

The world may be moving towards the Hikikomori phenomenon where people are becoming so withdrawn that they do not have social interaction for long periods, sometimes even years. Technology and computers are enablers for this way of life without social contact and consequently are providing all of us with the tools to act similar to those with autism. Further Microsoft have adapted their recruitment techniques to benefit those with autism, which suggests that as we make changes for those with the condition we may  need to adopt similarly diverse approaches  for more than just those with autism.

In conclusion, our lives being organised by networked computers does have an effect on society and it does appear as if the world is becoming more autistic. However, this effect from technology does not necessarily mean people are becoming more autistic but adapting and changing in a way that has parallel qualities to autism. As technology, will always keep moving on and developing “it is we who adapt to the machine, the machine does not adapt to us.”  (Kittler, 2006) We will also keep changing, no matter if this is for better or worse, and a technology based society is inescapably the future of how we will communicate. It does appear as if the world will become even more autistic in the ways that people behave.

References

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