Autism and the Hacker Manifesto

ultimate hacker phone - 2Late last year I posted an entry which included a quick list of people and ideas my wife and I found heartening or helpful back before we fell out of active involvement with autism as a topic of public discussion; as will happen when trying to remember all it was you knew and valued over a decade ago, not everything got included.  I was reminded of one bright spot I’d forgotten just now while rereading an article on of all things the hopes, joys, and frustrations experienced by fans of Nokia’s N900 cell phone.

Smartphones are a space I follow closely as a hobby, and while I won’t inflict the full brunt of my enthusiasm on you here, if we were to imagine this particular phone lying at one end of a thread which winds back through much of what I write about, that thread would eventually lead to a cornerstone document of hardcore computer culture known as The Hacker Manifesto—which was in fact the bright spot I neglected to leave out of my list last year. Perhaps because its author is informed by the stance set forth in the Manifesto, the article on the prospects for fans of the N900 manages to travel much of the same territory as I’ve covered here, if necessarily from a very different angle.

Since last summer, topics I have touched on include:

the pervasive yet unsuspected presence of the autistic cognitive style all across society, history, and pre-history;

the Written Word (especially the typed or keyboarded word) as a lingua franca native even to nonverbal autistics;

the places and ways autistics (whether recognized as such or not) are finding community and coniunctio by leveraging the social changes and opportunities brought about by the internet;

the ongoing struggle for legitimacy for autistics in a world which prefers a status quo in which autistic character traits lack legitimacy;

the revolutionary capabilities of the autistic mindset, the contributions it makes to cultural evolution, and the advantages it confers on larger populations which harbor it as a phenotype;

the idea that disability and impairment can too easily be taken for inherent qualities when in the larger picture they may actually be imposed conditions brought about by stereotyping and a felt need to control those who are different;

the notion of geeks and nerds as proxy warriors for the advancement of what are in fact autistic values, skills, and perspectives;

the emergence of the modern IT department as a first-of-its-kind opportunity for those with an autistic cognitive style to wield collective power, to control access to a valuable resource, and to see consequences imposed on those who fail to respect their values.

All these topics have flowed in some sense from the stance of the Manifesto; what I’d like to emphasize out of all of them is a passage I’ve used a couple times, most recently here:

I suggest, with tongue still only partially in cheek, that an autistic perspective is at work any time someone fails to comprehend that “because we’ve always done it this way” is a good-enough reason.  The autistic, as I’ve written elsewhere, are those who lack the common sense, who fail to receive the received wisdom, who don’t pick up on “how things are done.”  If we are condemned to re-invent the wheel, to for example learn social interaction as a foreign language, to tediously back-engineer it by observing how other folks interact, then we possess a skill set and a perennially fresh, outsider’s perspective which are chronically lacking in others.

I’ve been posing this point as the flip side of a negative, framing originality as compensation for perceived failures and shortcomings, but I’m not so sure that originality itself can’t be understood as an autistic trait in the first place, just an asset plain and simple rather than some sort of consolation prize. That’s certainly the way it works in the tech world, native turf for geeks and hackers, both terms which exemplify an autistic cognitive style.  Let’s see how this framing plays out in tech journalist Sascha Segan’s article Why Open Source Phones Still Fail.

In the Nokia N900, what we have is “the ultimate hacker phone,” described by Segan as, “the truest expression of Linux—the OS and the philosophy—that you’ll find on mobile this year.”  Aye, but the rub, Segan explains, is that “Linux the philosophy—users banding together ad hoc to create new things—is anathema to wireless carriers.”  Right away—and this is what drew me to the article in the first place—we have an echo of Jeff Ello’s piece that I covered two weeks ago, in which IT pros (exemplars par excellence of the autistic cognitive style) are seen in an ongoing battle of wills with upstairs management, simply in order to protect their ability to get things done as they alone best know how.  The difference of course being that isolated customers (of wireless carrier T-Mobile in this case) may have plenty of tech expertise, but (like autistics in general) they wield little collective power and control no resources save their own bank accounts—and of course there are few apparent consequences that befall carriers for failing to offer an “ultimate hacker phone.”

I’m seemingly deep into the weeds for a neurodiversity blog, I know, talking inside baseball about phone companies, but autism has a lot of boots on the ground here.  Tech is a front where battles are being fought and won in this war, and there are lessons to be learned.  Before and after turning to the Hacker Manifesto, I invite you to read Segan’s article substituting the word “hacker” for his word “geek,” and then read those passages again from a wider frame of reference, substituting “autistic” instead, open to the possibility that “experimentation, originality, and the unexpected” may be exactly what autism brings to the table.  That last substitution will likely take some imagination; you’ll need to swap “wireless carriers” for “society” as well—but the results will mirror and illuminate the way the larger world is currently structured to the disadvantage of autistics, with the takeaway being that society is terrified of the disruption it fears would come of treating “autistic” as a legitimate way to be in the world.

The Hacker Manifesto, published originally as The Conscience of a Hacker is a legendary, more or less off-the-cuff declaration of values and philosophy written in the voice of an outraged teenager. Two and a half decades after its publication, it still has currency as a point of reference for tech geeks—as such, it can serve as a touchstone as well for the experience of being autistic, a condition which historically invites misjudgments of character all too similar to those visited upon hackers.  Information about the origin and author of the Manifesto can easily be found online, and since it deserves to be read in full (just 535 words), I’ll not quote it here.  This then was one of the items left off my list of what was out here over a decade ago that we found encouraging.  It’s worth noting that when my future wife and I ran across the The Conscience of a Hacker in 1998, we were both still comically intimidated by the fairly recent arrival of a computer in the living room—but we recognized family when we saw it, family that was learning to recognize and defend its own members, its own values, and its own value:

The Hacker Manifesto, or, The Conscience of a Hacker

on 01/22/10 in featured, Society | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. abfh says:

    The Hacker Manifesto is somewhat outdated, in that it was written at a time when online access was metered by the minute and the criminal status of hackers came from (in most cases) finding creative ways to avoid being billed for their extensive computer usage.

    As you accurately point out, society is just as afraid of disruption now as it was in those days. Today we have unlimited Internet access for a relatively small monthly fee, but those who feel driven to spend long hours online learning about our world still are treated as dangerous outcasts by way of new diagnostic categories and autism stereotypes, even though no crimes are being committed. Mainstream society still refuses to recognize the legitimacy of our way of life.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Thanks again abfh for filling in some gaps; I didn’t feel I had the space to tackle the uses and misuses of the word hacker, but ReadWriteWeb had an excellent thread on it not long ago, Since When Is “Hacker” a Bad Word?

    “… by and large, the hackers I’ve known and loved have gone on to have brilliant careers in infosec, network administration and even startup-building and application programming. Does the word hacker need a PR facelift? Do we need to educate folks in the real world about what a hacker is and does?”

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