The relational nervous system of open knowledge flows between human societies

The relatively sparse local distribution of Autistic people and the diversity amongst Autistic people, i.e. sometimes very different sensory profiles – and needs, and different areas of core interests, conspire to make it difficult for Autistic people to form thriving local communities in any given location.

That said, even though the Autistic interest profile tends to be noticeably narrower and deeper than considered typical, whatever an Autist is interested in beyond their core areas of expertise, the interest is driven by genuine curiosity.

Neuronormative knowledge and skill profile

Example of an Autistic knowledge and skill profile

This opens great opportunities for friendships between Autists on the basis of complementary areas of deep expertise, and this is how over time areas of deep expertise may even shift. The caveat is, speaking from experience, that the limited number of Autists in any geographic location, in combination with the often precarious life situation of Autistic people, reduces the available opportunities for forming long term local Autistic collaborations.

Established collaborations and friendships tend to persist, but are often pulled apart again geographically due to economic constraints. This fact of Autistic life won’t change until local communities are are prepared to much better support Autistic community formation, for example by investing in a centre of Autistic culture that is designed and operated by and for local Autistic people. Traumatised people tend to be isolated, and the same is true for most Autistic people, even for the minority that is not significantly traumatised.

This raises the question of how local Autistic community formation can be nurtured within the current absence of Autistic centres of culture. There are many examples of multi-generational Autistic families, if fact, this is probably the default scenario. It just so happens that our parents may not be the people or the only people we want to spend the rest of our lives with.

In many cases the Internet has enabled Autistic people to find their way to each other. This may work fine, catalysing a few friendships within a wider geographic region, and it can even work for forming life partnerships. But without local community co-investment, it is difficult to impossible to nurture a thriving local human scale Autistic community into existence, and to catalyse the formation of local companies owned and operated by Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.

In the pre-industrialised past, only a few hundred years ago, life was more collaborative and relational, and less hyper-competitive and transactional, and local communities would have been less alienating for Autistic people. The above problem has only become acute in an increasingly toxic hypernormative society. I have already written in some detail about the role that Autistic people have always played and will always play in all human groups in the context of multi-generational cultural evolution.

Agents of the cultural immune system within groups

Autistic people – agents of the cultural immune system within groups – this makes for interesting reading in the abstract, but it looks very different from the perspective of Autistic people who repeatedly find themselves in hostile and impossible situations, and who continuously push back against toxic social expectations and toxic social power gradients in hypernormative societies.

In an effort to “be the change”, in the industrial era, many Autists end up being sand in the gears of busyness as usual.

Luckily, thanks to the Internet, this is not the end of Autistic people. Whilst in isolation, in our role as agents of the cultural immune system, we can easily get crushed, we are also the ones who have co-created the Internet and the digital tools that mediate much of human communication and collaboration today. This is not quite accidental.

A human cultural immune system engages with cultural expectations and norms that are harmful – ultimately for all humans and for most of our non-human contemporaries.

To operate in this space requires access to human communication and collaboration channels, and this is something we have achieved at scale, together with all other humans, as part of the evolutionary process that gave us the Internet. It is not accidental that the rich modalities of communication and collaboration we have co-created on top of the digital substrate include many that are more suited for Autistic needs than linear spoken human language.

Autistic collaborations constitute the relational nervous system between groups

The relationships between people and all the information flows between people constitute a network that serves a role comparable to a nervous system, and this has become much more obvious since humans have started using digital communication tools.

Such relational nervous systems exit within within each cultural organism, and also between cultural organisms.

Culturally well adjusted people maintain many relationships within their local context, i.e. within a local cultural organism. This obvious truth has significant implications for the design of digital technologies. This was first noticed in 1967 by Mel Conway, when he submitted a paper called “How Do Committees Invent?” to the Harvard Business Review. Here is one form of the paper’s thesis:

Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

Mel Conway, 1967

Many Autistic people, as discussed above, only have few local relationships. Instead, Autistic communities and collaborations have evolved primarily between compatible neurodivergent people with shared interests and complementary talents and skills, via the Internet, and across the boundaries of cultural organisms.

Connected via the Internet and Open Source software for around thirty years, Autistic people have collaborated on the development of new digital user experiences, trustworthy domain specific interoperability standards, and better language systems for knowledge archaeology and knowledge sharing amongst humans, and throughout, Conway’s law has remained relevant. The birth of Autistic communities is deeply entangled with the birth of the Internet.

To sum up, Autistic people play two important roles in human societies at large:

  1. Autists are agents of the human cultural immune system within all societies.
  2. Autistic collaborations constitute the relational nervous system between societies that allows tacit knowledge to flow freely to where it can be put to good use.

For most Autists, digital technologies are essential tools for navigating daily life. In the domain of healthcare, where the stigma of being Autistic remains high, I regularly collaborate with undercover Autistic educators, Autistic scientists from a broad range of disciplines, Autistic clinicians of all stripes, Autistic nurses, and of course, Autistic health informaticians.

Being Autistic in a hypernormative society

The Web may have commercialised the Internet, and as we know, much of it has deteriorated into Big Junk Data that is worshipped as the “new Oil” by corporations, which is now exponentially multiplied for further commercial gains by artificially intelligent systems.

But none of these commercialised digital information flows have prevented valuable tacit knowledge from being passed between Autistic people, feeding into the Autistic SECI (socialisation, externalisation, combination, internalisation) knowledge co-creation spirals, which are at the heart of many Autistic communities and many Open Source software communities. 1 in 5 people are considered neurodivergent from the hypernormative perspective of our industrialised society.

Neurodivergent people and teams:

  • Adhere to idiosyncratic moral value systems rather than social norms
  • Are okay with exploring ideas that upset the “social order”
  • Spend much more time experimenting and implementing ideas that others would consider crazy or a waste of time
  • Have untypical life goals: new forms of understanding, making a positive impact, translating ideas into artistic expression
  • Autists in particular have unusually developed pattern recognition abilities and an unusual ability to persevere

There is a case to be made that collectively, Autistic people are shaping the transition from the Information Age to the second Knowledge Age. We’ve been at a similar cultural inflection point before, at the dawn of humanity, when we first combined the human capacity for cultural transmission with the human capacity for imagination and creative collaboration, which allowed us to survive and thrive in nearly all ecosystems on the planet.

The opportunity that presents itself today is to reflect critically on human hubris and human cognitive limitations, and on all the irreversible damage we have already inflicted on the Earth’s ecosystems and the biosphere. We can only do so if we see past the many shiny new digital toys and nauseating competitive social games powered by the “new Oil”, which in turn rely on burning more and more fossils.

We are literally putting fire to the tree we are sitting on. Our primate cousins may differ from our opinions on which primates are more “intelligent”.

The W.E.I.R.D. scientific approach to knowing

These developments go hand in hand with the limits we are encountering in the W.E.I.R.D. scientific approach to knowing, as if the only things that count are the ones that can be quantified and measured, and as if there is little to nothing to learn from indigenous people, who still know how to train their senses on taking in all the many diverse signals from the local ecosystem directly, and who are able to perceive important changes and trends, without the help of digital tools.

This is not to say that our modern instruments can’t give us complementary of insights, but it is a reminder that humans have survived without digital tools for hundreds of thousands of years, and that dismissing all associated insights may well the fastest route towards the end of our species and countless other species.

To reiterate this point, we should always remain cognisant of the limits of human science, which is subject to human cognitive limits and not immune to human mistakes and weaknesses. When systems get complex, then the science gets complex, and with complexity, as any good scientist knows, certainty goes out the window, and then all we are left with is statistics – and sadly, very often bad statistics.

Without an intimate understanding of the limits of quantification and of the models we are creating, science deteriorates into scientism. After writing this article I came across the following excellent diversity affirming 5 minute introduction to the difference between science and scientism.

Good science is a never ending routine of reviewing what we seem to “know”, asking critical and creative questions, and then discovering how much we don’t know and will never get to know.

In the meantime, we do know that our buses are heading towards a rapidly approaching cliff, and it is time to think about whether remaining seated in a “civilised” armchair in a “civilised” bus, whilst billions of others are already struggling to survive from day to day, forced to remain seated in a burning bus, is the most enjoyable and ethically justifiable use of the limited time that we have been afforded on this planet.

Population exposed outside of the human temperature niche:

Climate change has already put ~9% of people (>600 million) outside this niche. By end-of-century (2080–2100), current policies leading to around 2.7 °C global warming could leave one-third (22–39%) of people outside the niche.

Lenton, T.M., Xu, C., Abrams, J.F. et al. Quantifying the human cost of global warming. Nat Sustain (2023).

Relevant science in our times: The revolution will not be nudged.

The Open Encyclopedia of Anthropology (OEA) is a good starting point for culturally well adjusted people to start learning about cultural bias and human diversity. Here are a few interesting entries:

Beyond science

The ethical question doesn’t go away by doing more science.

The notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”. 

Autists depend on assistance from others in ways that differ from the cultural norm – and that is pathologised. However, the many ways in which non-autistic people depend on others is considered “normal”, or rather it is brushed under the carpet.

Humans have evolved to live in highly collaborative groups, with strong interdependencies between individuals and in many cases between groups.

The open question is how humans will treat each other and our non-human contemporaries on the journey towards being composted and recycled. Experiences may vary depending on the human scale cultures we co-create on the margins.

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5 Responses

    1. Centres of Autistic culture operated entirely by Autistic people would be a first step towards reducing the influence of the Autism Industrial Complex. Last year we explored the concept in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand There is definitely interest from Autistic people. I imagine the same to hold on the pacific coast of the USA. The hurdle we face(d) in Auckland was and is finding suitable premises and co-sponsorship by a local council.

      I’ve relocated since last year, and now live in a much smaller city. Maybe that is actually a better starting point for engaging in a dialogue with the local council, maybe suggesting the establishment of a dedicated space for Autistic people at the city library as a starting point. Thanks for the reminder, this is something for me to look into in the coming months.

  1. We need a new framework for thinking of brains. “Neurodivergent” is a negative label – something is wrong with these brains. If a human can create a brain in utero, is it “divergent?” We could think of brains like constellations – imagine a brain flattened into an image with peaks and valleys representing how parts of the brain work. The peaks could provide an image like a constellation which could be studied. The idea of difference should not contain negative ideas or labels.

    1. The concept of “normality” – or neuronormativity in relation to individuals – is a social construct that is grounded in the progress myth of industrialisation and related dehumanising and life denying metrics of economic “utility” and “productivity”. These toxic metrics have allowed entire ecosystems to be destroyed and biodiversity to collapse at an accelerating pace for decades, all in the name of “progress”. Once we acknowledge the harm caused by the life denying norms and expectations of “normality”, then neurodivergence can be understood as part of the remnants of the diversity of life that urgently needs to be protected and nurtured to minimise and ideally incrementally reverse the harm caused by the cult of “normality”.

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