Open Letter to Joel Johnson (Gizmodo)

315x_brave_new_ipadHi Joel –

I’ve waited twelve years now to see the word “autistic” begin to come out of the closet in the tech world, but your otherwise dead-on post the other day about “iPad Snivelers” was not exactly the coming-out party I’d had in mind.  I’ll get to the why of that.  First of all though, I’m a fan, a longtime daily reader going back well beyond the infamous TV-B-Gone prank of 2008 that made one of your colleagues persona non grata at the Consumer Electronics Show.  So I recognized the camaraderie and nodded in approval last month when Gizmodo went out of its way to offer coverage to companies who’d been kicked out of hotel rooms by CES officials at this year’s show.  I do get it; you guys are the rebel outsiders of gadget journalism, snarky prankster Robin Hoods, and not afraid to push limits.  While that’s part of why I’m a fan, it doesn’t mean you get to throw the word “autistic” around like it’s some sort of insightful insult and not hear about it in return.

I thought your piece—iPad Snivelers: put up or shut up—was on the whole exactly what needed to be said.  Gawd knows I love your way with sarcasm, and for all that you were out to kick ass and take names you also seemed to be trying hard to breathe life into a world we both care about deeply.

Two weeks ago I posted an entry which took as its starting point a PC Magazine article on the prospects for fans of Nokia’s N900 cell phone, the “ultimate hacker phone” which is in many ways the opposite of any gadget ever produced by Apple.  I did this, yes, on a site which concerns itself pretty much entirely with autism and social change.  The title of that post was Autism and The Hacker Manifesto; in it I invited readers to consider Lloyd Blankenship’s The Conscience of a Hacker as a reference point for the experience of being autistic.

Fact is, I am as sick of autistics and others reacting to autism (both the cognitive style and the official diagnosis) as if it were nothing but a kick in the teeth as you are of developers and tinkerers reacting to Apple products as if they were nothing but a kick in the teeth.  And the thing is, as you are right to imply, the overlap between these two worlds is significant.  You wrote:

But Apple is not the government. There’s no mandate to buy an Apple product except the call of excellence. And if you think the average persona on the street doesn’t recognize both the ups and downs of buying into an Apple ecosystem, you’re eyeing them with the typical nerd myopia, looking down your nose with the same autistic disdain you cultivated in high school. Turns out the internet you helped build as a sanctuary ended up a great place for normal folk, too.

Let me explain a few things here.

If myopia and misplaced disdain are ill-advised reactions, if they’re bad ways to react, then that’s all they are.  They’re just bad.  Bad for you, bad for me, bad for autistics and non-autistics alike.  There’s nothing special about autistic disdain and nothing typically nerdy about myopia; both are equal-opportunity shortcomings.  Since they are things we cultivate or engage in though, they’re fair game for criticism.  We can choose not to be myopic or disdainful.  We can’t choose not to be autistic, though many use up far more energy than most anyone ever realizes, working far harder than they should in order to hide, deny, and cover up their autism—because thanks to attitudes like yours, they feel they have no other choice.

So if there’s an autistic community in tech—or if tech itself is an autistic community—and that community feels threatened by the invasion of other-than-autistic folks into the first sanctuary they’ve been able to build in all of recorded history, then what that means is that they, we, are human.  It means we have normal fears and insecurities.  It means we are normal folk, Joel.

Just like you.

And maybe that’s only what you were trying to say.

So why do so in a way that delivers an actual kick in the teeth to autistics from inside the closing paragraphs of an otherwise sharp, hilarious, and much-needed piece?  Why say it in a way that scapegoats what you call “autistic” when autism may well be what makes tech the magical realm it is—in closed ecosystems like Apple’s and in open ones like linux—in the first place?  Why undercut the people you claim you’re trying to encourage by bringing up our neurology as a tag for our all-too-normal shortcomings?  Whose favor and good will are you courting, really, and what inspiration for “coming generations of tinkerers and engineers” do you leave behind with a mixed message like that?

What kills me is that the useful parts of the message you’re putting across—that it’s self-defeating to simply accept and bemoan what we are handed, and that the rules of the game aren’t going to be changed by anybody but us—are exactly what I’ve been trying to get across on this site.  I’ve been writing for just a few months but as I said it’s been over a decade since I started looking to tech as the context in which autism was going to first join the mainstream.  And simply by being a tech journalist, you’re reaching far more people whose cognitive style is identifiably autistic than I likely ever will from here.

But here we both are.  And to the extent that autism is what got us to this party, Joel, I say we dance with the one what brung us.

on 02/6/10 in featured, Internet | No Comments | Read More

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