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Search, Autism, and the Geek Culture

By - September 06, 2004

curiousThose of us who’ve lived around the Valley for some time know of the correlation between autism, Asperger’s syndrome (called autism’s “milder cousin”) and geek culture. The connection has been the subject of lengthy pieces in both Wired and Time.

One of the principle characteristics of autism is what might be called face blindness, the inability to “read” people’s faces for emotional cues (resulting in what most would call anti-social behavior). This and other Asberger-like traits have often clothed the body of geek culture in our popular culture – the tireless focus, the need to classify and order everything, to control and to name, to identify and to sort, to count and compute.

These observations were percolating in the back of my mind as I read Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” one of the few books which has been universally recommended to me, and honestly, one of the very few non-search related reads I’ve allowed myself as my deadline looms.

The novel chronicles, through the voice of a young autistic boy, the murder of a neighborhood dog and the resulting human fallout. But even as I was enjoying what seemed to be a non-work related escape, the author, in the voice of the autistic boy, describes how his memory works.

My memory is like a film. That is why I am really good at remembering things….when people ask me to remember something I can simply press Rewind and Fast Forward and Pause….
…this is how I recognize someone if I don’t know who they are. I see what they are wearing, or if they have a walking stick, or funny hair, or a certain type of glasses, or they have a particular way of moving their arms, and I do a Search through my memories to see if I have met them before.

He goes on, giving examples of how he uses Search to deal with everyday situations – helping someone who is having an epileptic fit, or understanding the nuance of a idiomatic phrase.

For example, if people say things which don’t make sense, like, “See you later, Alligator,” or “You’ll catch your death in that,” I do a Search and see if I have ever heard someone say this before.

In essence, the boy is describing his mind as something akin to an index of experience through which he searches.

I’m not entirely sure why, but this really hit home with me, after a year or so of interacting with the engineers and mathematicians who drive innovation in search. It’s not that, as a group or even as individuals, the geniuses behind search are autistic. But as a culture, and in particular, as a product, search certainly can be understood to be face blind in the very least – unaware and/or unable to discern the cues we as users give it.

And there is a certain…coldness to search, an aloof, detached, and passionless side to it, where all things which can be indexed, are indexed, and a certain arrogance with regard to those things or people who don’t understand how to retrieve that which is in the index.

I can’t put my finger on it in this passage, nor will I try any more than I have, but, in the end, this is why we read novels, to feel that which otherwise we might not even notice.

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3 thoughts on “Search, Autism, and the Geek Culture

  1. ID:entity says:

    Its funny how in a few short years that we used to view technology as “The black box,” a 1-2-many technology – but now its a race to understand the individual 1-2-1, thus each the user becomes “the black box.”

  2. Geek Undercover says:

    “…face blindness, the inability to “read” people’s faces for emotional cues (resulting in what most would call anti-social behavior)…”

    Well, that may be the pop psychologists’ view, but perhaps in at least some cases (mine?) it is not an inability to read their faces, but a complete lack of interest in what they express they are feeling.

    After years of experiencing manipulative, distorted, deceptive, and just plain dumb “non-verbal communications” from non-geeks, I can with a clean conscience ignore much of that “face” . When it holds meaning, I try and pay attention. When it doesn’t, I imagine I appear to be face blind.

    Anti-social? Well, if networking face-2-face with those deceptive bastards is a requirement of their “society” then yessir, I am anti-social. Can you name any subculture that is more connected, more communicative, and more “social” than geeks? Seems to me that somebody needs to adjust their definition of anti-social.

    Meritocracy, performance-based heirarchies, guilds – they are all social structures, and geeks rule them. Political democracies, autocracies, time and relationship-based heirarchies are ruled by liars and scoundrels, and yes, it is true that Geeks don’t usually “play well” in those circles.

  3. reeses says:

    GU: You see that “fauxtism” a lot with kids at MIT — it’s “in” to be Asperger’s, so you see a lot of people posing in exactly the same way.