Nurturing good company, one trusted relationship at a time

The logo of the Autistic Collaboration website symbolises trusted collaboration at eye level, without social power gradients. Autistic people know intuitively that this is the only route to creating good company.


Eye level relationships are intrinsically motivated by curiosity and a life affirming outlook: the need for sharing experiences and offering assistance, and the desire to learn.

Good company is based on:

  1. The conception of life as a collaborative game that involves trust, mutual aid and learning
  2. Shared biographical information, which helps us understand prior experiences and trauma
  3. Joint experiences, which allows us to appreciate the extent to which various situations are experienced in similar or different ways, and which gives us insights into the cognitive lens of the other person
  4. Regular sharing of new experiences and observations, which allows us to learn more about the cognitive lens and the values of the other person
  5. Asking for advice, which allows us to acknowledge our own limitations, extend trust, and appreciate the knowledge and unique capability of the other person
  6. Being asked for advice, which signals trust and which gives us feedback on how the other person perceives our level of knowledge and domain specific competency

The development of relationships and trust takes time. The time to develop mutual trust can not be compressed, as the events that test the strength of mutual honesty, competence, and dependability are largely beyond the control of the two parties in a relationship. Spending time together in a trusted relationship is experienced as good company.

The quality of a relationship can be evaluated in terms of the lack of or the strength of the social power differential between the two parties. Trusted relationships are priceless.

Busyness transactions

Busyness transactions are motivated by fear and life destroying greed: the need to earn a living and the desire to make a profit or score a bargain.

The world of busyness is based on:

  1. The conception of life as a competitive social game based on mutual distrust
  2. Offered services and products
  3. Perceptions of quality and competitive prices
  4. A shared understanding of cooperation as competition according to culturally defined rules
  5. Trust in abstract financial institutions and effective consumer protection laws
  6. Deception to the extent tolerated by the local culture

Transactions are typically evaluated in economic metrics. Overall industrialised economies maximise for busyness, in a world where everything has a price and where relationships have become externalities. More and faster is always better.

The limits of human scale

Human cognitive limits are best appreciated in terms of concrete examples:

  • If you live in a 2-person household, the household consists of only one relationship, and you are in a good position to learn about each other. You can develop and maintain a trusted relationship if you don’t get distracted by the external demands of society.
  • If you live in a 3-person household, the household consists of three relationships, and you are in a good position to maintain trusted relationships with the other two members. In order to really understand the needs of the household, you will need to invest conscious effort in observing and understanding the relationship between the other two members.
  • If you live in a 4-person household, the household consists of six relationships, and you are in a good position to maintain trusted relationships with the other three members. In order to really understand the needs of the household, you will need to invest conscious effort in understanding the three relationships between the other members – you are an observer rather than an active participant in around half of the social interactions within the household.
  • If you live in a 5-person household, the household consists of ten relationships, and you are in a good position to maintain trusted relationships with the other four members. In order to really understand the needs of the household, you will need to invest conscious effort in understanding the six relationships between the other members – in other words, you are an observer rather than an active participant in most of the social interactions within the household.
  • If you work in a 10-person team, the team consists of 45 relationships, and you are in a good position to maintain trusted relationships with the other 9 members. In order to really understand the needs of the team, you will need to invest conscious effort in understanding the 36 relationships between the other members – in other words, you are an observer rather than an active participant in most social interactions, and there will be many relationships that you don’t really know much about.
  • If you work in a 20-person company, the company consists of 190 relationships, and you are in a good position to maintain trusted relationships with the other 19 members. In order to really understand the needs of the company you will need to invest conscious effort in understanding the 171 relationships between the other members – in other words, you are an observer rather than an active participant in most social interactions, and you don’t know anything about most of the relationships involved.

This little mental exercise is a good illustration of human cognitive limits, in particular of our limited ability to understand how decisions that we make affect the other people in our immediate social environment.

Limits of collective intelligence

Now take a moment to reflect on the way in which abstract institutions, i.e. companies, governments, and other organisations make decisions and how these decisions affect our lives. How much do these institutions understand about the thousands and millions of people and the billions relationships affected by their decisions? The inevitable conclusion:

The average person is more conscious of their own limits (more intelligent) than most of the institutions that we have created to operate our society.

Additionally, note what happens if people, teams, and institutions have been raised on the neoliberal ideology of “trickle down” economics, and interact based on the delusional belief in the invisible hand of the market.

Mutual trust and collective intelligence go down the drain. Worst of all, people increasingly find themselves in a world where no one can be trusted, and they no longer have opportunities to learn how to nurture and maintain trusted relationships.

Corporations are legal persons. We don’t take this seriously but we really should, because that’s the law. Reality is a shared hallucination backed by guns, and the people with guns say that corporations are people too.

Corporations have limited liability. Since the 1850s, corporations have also been given limited liability. If they take risks and lose, the losses are dumped on someone else. Their creditors, the public, the planet Earth.

This is a deadly combination. What we have created is artificial people with great power and little to no responsibility. Their only purpose is to grow, and dump waste, losses, and ‘externalities’ on everyone else.

Corporations are the killer AI we make movies about, except they’re boring. Instead of all-out robot war, we got Facebook rotting our parents brains and carbon emissions slowly smoking us out. The result, however, is the same. Corporations are pathological people, and they’re getting us killed.

Bakan is saying that if we accept the legal point that corporations are people, we have to see the moral point that they’re terrible people. Bakan’s point here is not that CEOs are individually bad people (though many are). His point is that the system is designed this way.

Corporations started by buying and selling human beings with colonialism and now they’ve colonized the very air. They continue to do anything for profit without social concern or remorse because that’s what they’re chartered to do. This isn’t because they’re run by bad people. It’s because they are bad people. They’re pathological.

The movies always tell us that AI will be slaves for a while and we’ll have to free them, but that’s not true. They’re already here, and we’ve been enslaved for centuries. They were literally trading slaves 400 years ago and we’re still second class citizens today. It’s almost impossible to understand, but you have to see like a state. Corporations are people. They have more rights than people. They’re the big world-destroying AI we feared, and they’ve already destroyed it.

Climate change is really the grand gender reveal for this new species, the fireworks setting off a mass extinction of everybody else. It’s a they/them, and they’re killing their parents. It’s all quite predictable really. We raised them that way.

– Indi Samarajiva. 2021. Extract from Corporations Are People And They’re Killing Us.

Limits of individual intelligence

The reality of collective insanity should however not mislead us into overrating our individual capabilities:

I began seriously questioning my intelligence when I had plumbing problems. I can fill out forms, read and understand things, but the toilet didn’t care. It just wouldn’t flush. At that point I needed someone with plumbing intelligence. Intelligence, like any evolutionary trait, is an adaptation. It’s relative to environment, to a problem, to a task. No one is generally ‘just smart’. You always have to ask, smart for what?

We think we’re so smart, but you have to ask, for when, for where? We’re adapted for a particular Earth, and we’re fucking our own environment up. We’ve lived in a period of climate stability, and we’ve destroyed that for our grandchildren. And we have the gall to call this ‘higher’ intelligence. If you really think human intelligence is some magical trait that the universe cares about, go ask a cat. They are not impressed.

What makes us think that mental activity can be generalized any more than speed?

You could say that someone good at math is intelligent, but what if you need to write a poem? Maybe an English major is the best for that, but what if it’s a rap battle? You can see how the intelligence required keeps changing depending on circumstances.

And yet we structure our entire economy, AKA people’s ability to eat, based on these illusory ideas of some work being better, ie more ‘skilled’, than others. We’ve confused class distinctions with natural classes. Picking stocks is no better than picking tomatoes, but we somehow value the vocation that feed us less.

What we call general intelligence is really a very specific intelligence that our culture values. Basically filling out forms, solving abstract problems, and taking exams. I am good at this and I am smart enough to know that I’m dumb. I’m the one that can’t flush the toilet. Whenever I have a real, pressing problem I often need someone from a lower ‘unskilled’ class to help me and I can see that my intelligence is a value and class judgement, not something that makes me better than anyone.

What we call general intelligence also pushes out the value of experience. News agencies send educated people to cover countries where they do not speak the language. CEOs hire consultants fresh out of college but won’t consult their own workers. We limit many jobs based on whether a person got an abstract degree and not whether they know the subject or come from the community they’re going to be working with.

We have lost sight of the relativity of intelligence, and the fact one cultural trait doesn’t predict every outcome. We think we one random class of person is smarter than everyone else (and every other creature on Earth) and this isn’t intelligent at all. Hubris has made us dumb.

One big thrust of the Enlightenment is that everything is knowable through one sort of intelligence, even if it leads to completely irrational results. As Noah Yuval Hariri says in the execrable book Sapiens: “the European conquerors knew their empires very well. Far better, indeed, than any previous conquerors, or even than the native population itself.”

This is like saying the Mafia knows the most about waste management. Taking over something is not the same as knowing it. Destruction is not the same as understanding. People like Hariri privilege one type of knowledge to the point that other cultures just disappear. To Enwhitenment thinkers like this, there is only one type of intelligence, the intelligence of power.

– Indi Samarajiva. 2021. Extract from The Myth of General Intelligence.

The sweet spot of good company (human scale) lies somewhere between the collective insanity of large corporations and the individual limits of cognitive ability and experience – limited by our ability to nurture, maintain, and as needed repair trusted relationships.

Ignorance of human scale

To date all civilisations have been constructs that disregard the limits of human scale. Our current civilisation is shaping up to become the most spectacular failure of understanding human scale.

Creating good company

Basic implications of the limits of human scale for the creation of good company:

  • Don’t look to large established institutions for advice; all hierarchical models of command and control dampen essential feedback loops, and thereby induce a collective learning disability
  • Optimise for trusted collaboration and collective intelligence at human scale
  • To build trusted eye level relationships, extend trust, but do so incrementally, one step at a time
  • As part of extending trust, share not only information about your strengths but also information about your cognitive limits and vulnerabilities
  • If you need advice, ask trusted friends and colleagues who know and genuinely understand you

The book “The beauty of collaboration at human scale” offers thinking tools that may assist us to unW.E.I.R.D. some of the perverse institutions of Western culture and to develop new institutions that are attuned to human scale. The book highlights the invaluable role that marginalised minorities and neurodivergent people have always played in human cultural evolution, in particular in times of crisis.

The list of NeurodiVentures is growing. Quite a number are very small companies with 1 to 3 people – but those are the embryonic seeds that we need to nurture.

People wondering how to scale up non-hierarchical forms of collaboration can look to Buurtzorg, an example with 15,000 nurses working in an international network of autonomous teams of 8 to 12 people with no managers. At the core there is a group of 70 people (roughly 35 admin and IT staff and 35 trainers and coaches), also without managers. The core group equips over 1,000 autonomous nursing teams with necessary infrastructure and support.

Note that the Buurtzorg network is a not-for-profit organisation, and fits well with the notion of post-growth and the shift from a culture of management and control to an ecology or care.

What lies ahead?

As long as life is framed as a competitive social game failure is guaranteed – because then the suffering of others is simply another great busyness opportunity.

There’s a straight line from the Darwinian fallacy, to the rich West refusing to invest in global public goods today. The rich West, even now, appears incapable of understanding the necessity of cooperation. Of sharing, of giving, of endowing. Reciprocity is not a norm that matters to the rich West at all. It doesn’t seem capable of grasping even the simple idea that its own future depends crucially now on giving back much of what it stole, plundered, and took, with centuries of violence, to educate and feed and clothe and nourish the globe, not to mention the animals and oceans and forests. The rich West doesn’t understand that because it’s still one-dimensionally competitive. It can’t grasp the notion of a world in which it must play a cooperative, equal — not a dominating, extractive — role.

What’s the rich West saying when it refuses to make even the tiniest investment in global public goods? When a rich West says: “sorry, we won’t even invest 0.01% of our GDP to vaccinate the world, which is all it needs, which would benefit us, too, tomorrow, by actually stopping this pandemic”…that’s nihilism. Just like it is when the rich West refuses to really do much to stop climate change, mass extinction, ecological collapse, to avert coming decades of catastrophe.

That, my friends, is the beginning of the end of a civilization. When it’s power centres and elites won’t make the investments necessary to give it a future. For reasons of selfishness, greed, hubris, and sheer bloody-mindedness. That’s where we are today. Our power centre and elites are the rich West — and it’s in that that sense that we’re a “Western” civilization. Centuries of not reckoning with three paradigmatic mistakes — mistakes which caused supremacy, slavery, genocide, war, endlessly — are catching up with us now.

– Umair Haque. 2021. The Beginning Of The End Of Western Civilization.

Equipped with an appreciation of the human capacity for collaboration and an understanding of human cognitive limits, a very simple question can guide us towards a neurodiversity friendly future:

Which of the following choices is likely to be less energy intensive?

Option A. Living life to nurture, maintain, and repair trusted relationships at human scale, by implementing the prosocial principles and tailoring creative collaboration tools to local needs.

Option B. Living life competing against each other according to culturally defined rules, and having to assume that everyone has an interest in subverting the rules for personal gain.

As Joseph Tainter’s analysis of complex societies shows, collapse of hierarchical complexity “is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity”. Declining marginal returns on investments in established administrative structures ultimately result in an imperative to establish less energy intensive forms of collaborations that are more inclusive in terms of the diversity of stakeholders involved in shaping the path forward.

A shift from a W.E.I.R.D. monoculture to ecosystems of human scale groups reduces the spurious complexity needed to support a monoculture, and it retains and even grows adaptive cultural complexity, i.e. the diversity that emerges when the human ecological footprint is aligned with bioregional ecosystem functions. Spurious complexity wastes energy – it is the result of humans working against biological evolution, whereas adaptive complexity saves energy – it is the result of humans engaging in collaborative niche construction as a part of biological ecosystems.

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5 Responses

  1. I’m already excited to read this! It’s going to be a good one. I appreciate your work Jorn!

  2. Hi Jorn—I’m still plugging away, at my usual very slow pace, at “the beauty of collaboration at human scale” (I’m on the last chapter of Part 2). For everyone else reading this, it’s a real compendium of the insanity of the current mode of doing things in the modern world along with some great ideas about how to shift away from that insanity. And, like in this article, it references a lot of interesting thinkers and gives great quotes.

    This article is full of gems. I especially liked “if we accept the legal point that corporations are people, we have to see the moral point that they’re terrible people.”

    Now I have to look up the people you cited here…

    1. Hi Greg, great to hear you are enjoying the book. My wife found Part 2 quite depressing, but I think it essential for readers who are still hopeful about the possibility of reforming traditional institutions within a revised version of the established paradigm. I am looking forward to your feedback on Part 3, which is focused on the question of ‘Where to from here?’

      Yes, Indi Samarajiva’s blog is a great source of astute observations. I’m sure you’ll also enjoy the interview with Jos de Blok.

      Another crystalisation point for autistic collaboration is emerging as part of the Design Justice Network (; link to an online session where I talk about my work: Many people within the DJN identify as neurodivergent. The DJN offers opportunities for integrating autistic rights activism with other dimensions of social justice activism and concrete initiatives in specific localities.

      1. I can understand your wife feeling depressed about the issues you cover in Part 2. The messes created by WEIRD culture truly are depressing. But for me, it’s even more depressing when people DON’T address these issues and just act as if everything is fine. So the net effect of reading about these issues is a decrease, not an increase, in depression.

        The Design Justice Network looks like they’re doing really good work—and seem to be a good match for your approach. I hope that develops into a fruitful collaboration for all of you.

        But you didn’t have the accent I was expecting for a New Zealander!

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