Understanding human collective behaviour

Individually and collectively neuronormative humans are prone to developing a bias towards thinking they understand more than they actually do (Kruger and Dunning 1999), certainly in the context of modern industrialised societies that are built on the myth of meritocracy. The extreme global loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis, both triggered by collective human activity in the industrial era, confront us with the cognitive limits that are induced by the industrialised social operating models that have become the global norm over the last 50 years.

Autistic world views are influenced by an absence or a significantly reduced level of subconscious filtering of social information and by a heightened level of conscious processing of raw information signals from the environment. This raises the interesting question of what cultural shifts might improve our collective chances of dealing effectively with human-created existential crises.

In order to better understand not only current human collective behaviour, but also the collective potential of human imagination, and how this potential can either be dampened or amplified depending on the cultural norms and available thinking tools within specific social operating models, we need to study human collective behaviour from a transdisciplinary perspective, across the last 300,000 years, and across societies on all continents.

If I would have had access to some magical time machine for procuring books when I was a teenager, it would have spared me many surprises, and I might have been able to avoid a few detours on my journey through life to date. In the absence of such magic, I found myself having to write one of the books listed below.

The Dawn of Everything

David Graeber and David Wengrow, 2021

  • Perspective: anthropology and archaeology
  • Topic: examples of human cultural flexibility
  • Why it matters: re-expanding the sphere of discourse and regaining confidence in the possibilities of human imagination

The more we examine the anthropological and archaeological evidence, the more it becomes apparent that not only did hunter gatherers and early societies adapt to a diverse range of ecosystems, they also experimented with ‘a carnival parade of political forms’.

The cultivation of plants was often practised alongside hunting and gathering, the emergence of the first cities with several ten thousand inhabitants did not necessarily coincide with the establishment of rigid hierarchies of control, early farmers co-ordinated complex irrigation systems without any need for bureaucratic oversight, and oppressive societies often existed alongside societies that explicitly rejected all forms of permanent social power structures.

David Graeber and David Wengrow elaborate how schismogenesis, the process of differentiation in cultural norms resulting from cumulative interaction between societies, has shaped cultural developments in many geographies over hundreds and thousands of years.

They also point out that neurodivergent people have always contributed to human culture in unique ways. In healthy societies contributions from neurodivergent people were highly appreciated, in particular in times of crisis. When great calamities or unprecedented events occurred – a plague, a foreign invasion – a person who might otherwise have spent their life as something analogous to the village idiot would suddenly be found to have remarkable powers of foresight and persuasion; even to be capable of inspiring new social movements.

The Collapse of Complex Societies

Joseph Tainter, 1988

  • Perspective: history and anthropology
  • Topic: limits of hierarchical social operating models
  • Why it matters: understanding anti-patterns and traps of social operating models

The reason why complex societies disintegrate is of vital importance to every member of one, and today that includes the entire world population. Contemporary thinkers foresee collapse from such catastrophes as nuclear war, resource depletion, economic decline, ecological crises, or sociopolitical disintegration.

Human societies and political organisations, like all living systems, are maintained by a continuous flow of energy. From the simplest familial unit to the most complex regional hierarchy, the institutions and patterned interactions that comprise a human society are dependent on energy. Not only is energy flow required to maintain a sociopolitical system, but the amount of energy must be sufficient for the complexity of that system.

The declining marginal returns of hierarchical organisation and complex bureaucracies ultimately lead to social tensions that make it harder and harder to maintain established institutions, and the dampening of feedback loops in hierarchical organisations ultimately reduce collective intelligence to a point where collapse becomes inevitable.

Collapse is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity. To a population that is receiving little return on the cost of supporting complexity, the loss of that complexity brings economic, and perhaps administrative, gains. It may only be among those members of a society who have neither the opportunity nor the ability to produce primary food resources that the collapse of administrative hierarchies is a clear disaster. Collapse then is not intrinsically a catastrophe. It is a rational, economising process that may well benefit much of the population.

A Field Guide to Earthlings

Star Ford, 2010

  • Perspective: autistic culture
  • Topic: patterns of neuronormative behaviour in industrialised societies
  • Why it matters: understanding the cognitive blind spots of neuronormative people in W.E.I.R.D. cultures

Autists carry around large numbers of open questions and only hold a relatively small number of firm beliefs – those that are backed up by personal experience or by scientific evidence. In contrast, non-autistic people are much less comfortable carrying around open questions over long periods of time and tend to hold many socially constructed beliefs, i.e. opinions that are not backed up by personal experience or by scientific evidence. Social norms in modern industrialised societies have highly concerning effects on non-autistic people.

The manipulation of words becomes like an art form, instead of words being used to mean something specific. Neuronormative people can have trouble seeing or hearing things that they don’t already expect to see or hear, so new ideas can “fall on deaf ears.” It is not necessarily the case that they dislike new ideas; they might simply be unable to detect them because of symbolic filtering. The neuronormative mind is often not good at distinguishing appearances from the facts that underlie the appearances. To appear to do good is doing good. To claim to claim that one is supportive is the same as being supportive. This is what sales people do a lot. The boundary to lying is fluid.

Minimising misunderstandings involves significant work on both sides and hinges on mutual respect and patience. Autistic people don’t intuitively engage in the verbal and non-verbal pretend play of understanding everything that is being said, which is the neuronormative norm in many industrialised societies.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale

Jorn Bettin, 2021

Perspective: autistic culture

Topic: the role of neurodivergent people in cultural evolution

Why it matters: maximising the potential of human imagination within the constraints imposed by human cognitive limits

This book is about collaboration, about scale, and about humans, about beauty, and about limits. It has been written from my perspective as an autistic anthropologist by birth and a knowledge archaeologist by autodidactic training. I attempt to address the challenges of ethics and collective intelligence in an era that 21st century geologists refer to as the Anthropocene.

Through the lenses of evolutionary biology and cultural evolution, small groups of 20 to 100 people are the primary organisms within human society. The implications for our civilisation are profound. Humanity is experiencing a phase transition that is catalysed by a combination of new communication technologies, toxic levels of social inequalities, and existential crises. It is time to reflect critically on the human evolutionary journey and on the possibilities and limitations of human agency.

I would like to equip communities and individuals with conceptual tools to create good companies that are capable of pumping value from a dying ideological system into an emerging world. Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is in control. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise and collaborate accordingly.

Becoming conscious of human cognitive limits and recognising that these limits are just as real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics may allow us to avoid the fate of earlier civilisations, and to embark on a path of radical energy descent.

The continuously shifting justifications for pathologising non-conformists

Recently I have come across a treasure trove of interesting references on the continuously shifting justifications for pathologising autistic people and all those who are not culturally well-adjusted to “civilisation”. I’m bound to weave in a few references into the book on collaboration at human scale before publication. Following the trail of where Hans Asperger picked up the term “autism” I ended up reading a fascinating 1919 German book by Eugen Bleuler titled ‘Autistic and undisciplined thinking in medicine, and how to overcome it’. The content is not at all what you would think. The sands of pathologisation have shifted significantly. Unsurprisingly there are not many references to Eugen Bleuler’s work in the English medical literature. His original work is not even available in English. But I found a few articles and abstracts. The essence is distilled below. 

Here is an extract from a 2013 article by Bonnie Evans titled How autism became autism, on the continuously shifting justifications for pathologising autistic people and all those who are not culturally well-adjusted to “civilisation”:

The concept of autism was coined in 1911 by the German psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler to describe a symptom of the most severe cases of schizophrenia, a concept he had also created. According to Bleuler, autistic thinking was characterized by infantile wishes to avoid unsatisfying realities and replace them with fantasies and hallucinations. ‘Autism’ defined the subject’s symbolic ‘inner life’ and was not readily accessible to observers (Bleuler, 1950[1911]: 63). Psychologists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists in Britain used the word autism with this meaning throughout the 1920s and up until to the 1950s (e.g. Piaget, 1923). However, in the 1960s, many British child psychologists challenged the contentions about infantile thought assumed by Bleuler and created new methods to validate child psychology as a science, in particular epidemiological studies. ‘Autism’ was then completely reformulated as a new descriptive category to serve the needs of this new model of child development. From the mid-1960s onwards, child psychologists used the word ‘autism’ to describe the exact opposite of what it had meant up until that time. Whereas ‘autism’ in the 1950s referred to excessive hallucinations and fantasy in infants, ‘autism’ in the 1970s referred to a complete lack of an unconscious symbolic life. For example, Michael Rutter, a leading child-psychiatric researcher from the UK’s Maudsley Hospital who conducted the first-ever genetic study of autism, claimed in 1972 that ‘the autistic child has a deficiency of fantasy rather than an excess’ (Rutter, 1972: 327). The meaning of the word autism was then radically reformulated from a description of someone who fantasized excessively to one who did not fantasize at all.

This article traces this radical transformation of the concept of autism in Britain, exploring the reasons behind the shift and the impact that it has had on psychological sciences relating to infants and children. It argues that the change in the meaning of autism was part of a more general shift in Anglo-American psychiatric reasoning which sought to understand psychological problems through epidemiological studies rather than individual cases. The introduction of psychiatric classificatory models has previously been explored in relation to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), in particular the introduction of DSM-III in 1980 (Grob, 1991; Mayes and Horowitz, 2005; Wilson, 1993). However, few people have explored this in relation to child psychology and psychiatry. This article examines the way that epidemiological methods shifted and morphed central concepts in these fields, in particular the concept of autism. It argues that the diagnostic practices required of psychiatric epidemiology in the 1960s continue to influence contemporary theories and descriptions of autism in Britain.

This is about as much as is available about Eugen Bleuler’s work in English. To really appreciate his perspective and his use of the term “autistic”, it is necessary to be aware of his in-depth critical analysis of the foundations of the medical profession. From an English abstract of Bleuler’s book on Autistic and undisciplined thinking in medicine, and how to overcome it’:

The famous Swiss psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler (figure 1), is well known for his seminal work on psychosis, for having coined the term ‘schizophrenia’ and for his disputes about psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud. Less known is the fact that Bleuler was a harsh critic of many of the methods and practices of his colleagues. In a small book, first issued in 1919, when he was 61 years old, he castigated many of his contemporaries for sloppy thinking and poor methods, both in medical practice and research.

The title of the book sounds too good in German not to quote it fully: Das Autistisch-Undisziplinierte Denken in der Medizin und seine Überwindung. This provocative title can be translated as Autistic and undisciplined thinking in medicine, and how to overcome it. In the first chapter, Bleuler asserts that many of the cognitive habits of doctors can be compared with what he observed in his patients: a magical way of thinking, more aimed at the fulfilment of wishes and hopes than reflecting and analysing reality: hence ‘autistic thinking’. According to Bleuler, this pathological cognitive style is paramount in medicine, far more than in other sciences. He explains this by the complexity and obscurity of most medical knowledge, in combination with the need to defy sickness and death. The combination of our limited knowledge and the need to act causes what he calls ‘Primitivreaktionen’. These are a form of cognitive reflexes, based on tradition and habits, which create the illusion in both doctors and their patients that something useful is done.

Bleuler was of the opinion that autistic thinking pervades all areas of medicine, but especially prevention and treatment. He gives numerous examples of popular treatments in his time that were ineffective or even dangerous, such as electrotherapy, hydrotherapy and many dietary remedies. One only has to visit one of the historic European spas to get an impression of the popularity of water treatments around the fin de siècle and later. Bleuler observed that the efficacy of these treatments is unproven and probably non-existent. It would often be better to do nothing at all, instead of prescribing worthless remedies. Moreover, many ailments recover spontaneously. Even a seemingly harmless treatment, which many might now accept for its placebo effect, can have adverse effects, according to Bleuler: it may reinforce the conviction of the patient that he is really ill and even impede recovery. To give his policy of doing nothing the same dignity as the popular remedies with their ostentatious names, he—jokingly—proposes the term ‘udenotherapy’, which literally means ‘non-treatment’ (from the Greek ‘ouden’, nothing).

In the realm of pharmacological treatments the situation was not much better. Bleuler had little confidence in the methods used to develop drugs, which he summarised as follows: when a new substance is believed to have therapeutic properties, it is tested on a couple of animals or humans, and “in the great majority of these experiments nobody is killed”. Usually the drug is targeted at a condition with a benign natural course, or one that is easily influenced by suggestion. The doctor who discovered the drug believes in its beneficial effects, which strongly biases his observations. The outcomes of therapeutic experiments are usually caused by a play of chance, and only the favourable results are published, not the negative ones. Controlled experiments are rarely done and, if they are, the results are unreliable because the control patients differ from the treated ones. The next step is to print a glamorous brochure and offer free samples of the drug, so doctors can see for themselves how well it works in practice.

After his analysis of the dismal state of affairs in medical research and practice, Bleuler proposes a number of measures to improve the quality of medical research, which he called Forderungen für die Zukunft (requirements for the future). Some of these ideas had already been developed long before, by the French pioneers Louis and Gavarret, but he was not aware of their publications. For Gavarret, this was not unusual since even the renowned British statistician Greenwood (1880–1949) did not know the work of Gavarret. Bleulers’ proposals show some of his surprisingly modern insights. First he demanded that, in order to examine the efficacy of any treatment, it is essential to compare the results in two groups of patients who are as similar as possible in all aspects except the treatment. To achieve this he proposed alternating assignment of patients to treatment A or treatment B (or nothing). He did not come across the idea of randomisation, which had to wait for Ronald A Fisher, who described it in 1935 in his legendary book The design of experiments. Bleuler stresses the need to examine sufficiently large groups to avoid chance results. Also, he recommended that “for almost all conclusions the degree of their probability should be determined, if possible expressed in numbers”. He regarded so called negative results as at least as important as positive findings: “for science, there are no negative results”. They should be published in a registry, so that everyone can have access to all data. This should also help to counteract the tendency to try and find positive results at all cost, which he regarded as “a practice that results in much pointless labour and many false results”. This issue has later been elaborated by John Ioannidis in his influential paper ‘Why most published research findings are false’ (2005).

Bleuler aimed his criticism not only at the poor state of medical research and practice, he also had recommendations for journal editors and medical teachers. Medical publications should be concise, with a summary and a numbered list of references. Now commonplace, but in 1919 revolutionary, and much needed. As to medical education, he advised that medical students should receive at least some instruction in medical psychology and ethics. He strongly condemned the practice of medical professors lecturing their students ad nauseam without getting any kind of feedback (“a completely perfidious, autistic institution”). This was truly revolutionary in the authoritarian teaching culture at that time.

This brief summary of Bleulers’ insights shows that he was far ahead of many of his contemporaries. His proposals to improve medical research and practice laid out a programme that was only realised slowly during the decades after the Second World War. Many pioneers after him, such as Alvan Feinstein, David Sackett and Archie Cochrane, came to similar conclusions, and formulated the programme which we now call ‘evidence based medicine’, a term coined by Gordon Gyatt somewhere in 1990. Re-reading of Bleulers’ remarkable book shows his farsighted analysis of the many shortcomings of medical science and practice in 1919, and the effective remedies he proposed. His name should be enlisted in the hall of fame as one of the true pioneers of evidence based medicine.

The scientific basis of the medical profession is mostly limited to correlations. Often causal understanding is lacking due to the quasi-infinite constellations and psychosocial factors that can cause human dis-ease. Even Bleuler, with his astute observations on the medical profession and his scathing critique of big pharma more than 100 years ago, was a product of his time. Like most of his contemporaries he was an advocate of eugenics (sterilisation) when it came to “mentally diseased” people.

The introduction of “evidence based” approaches was very much a double-edged sword. Most people confuse being able to mechanically use an evidence based model with understanding the model, all the underlying assumptions, and the limitations, resulting in the pseudo-science of behaviourism and in sensationalist “autism research” that only serves the commercial interests of the autism industrial complex.

Like copy and paste coders in software, social scientists and medical researchers work with implicit assumptions all the time, without necessarily worrying much about it. The muddling, i.e. the use of models without explanatory powers, has only gotten worse in the age of artificially intelligent systems, where every man, women and dog is tinkering with digital correlation maps, believing that this will result in exponential post-human “progress”.

Anyone who suspects being autistic is well advised to learn about autistic culture and autistic ways of being from autistic people. We really don’t need any gatekeepers, and even less people who attempt to “help” us by “normalising” us.

Good company in an era of peak cognitive dissonance

I prefer to co-create good company rather than business – to focus on the people and things we care about rather than what is simply keeping us busy. Often this is easier said than done, as we live in an era of extreme cognitive dissonance.

This article describes common symptoms of collective cognitive dissonance in industrialised societies, and it points towards tools for reducing cognitive dissonance. From an autistic perspective the dissonance manifests not in terms of contradictory beliefs, but in terms of complete alienation from the mainstream culture in industrialised societies. Most of the so-called foundations of our civilisation amount to a delusional level of wishful thinking. Our society is locked into paradigmatic inertia by fear and busyness.

Anthropocentrism

A few years ago I facilitated a workshop on Anthropocentrism. Participants discussed the way we perceive and experience the civilised world  in comparison to the way in which pre-historic humans perceived the world. Today, with the help of modern communication technologies, the world we experience is more and more social and less and less non-human. Unless we scale back our use of communication technologies or we develop powerful technologies for perceiving the state of the non-human environment in ways that capture our attention as much as social signals, we become increasingly numb to the effect that we are collectively having on the biosphere.

Anthropocentrism is currently shaping our world view, and thereby leading us further and further into a world in which human ignorance, human errors, and human cognitive limits are capable of not only triggering the extinction of the human species, but also into a world where anything that is non-human or not human made is perceived either as worthless or as a threat.

The wishful thinking of enlightened or green capitalism

Those who put their hopes on enlightened or green forms of capitalism fail to understand basic principles of biological and cultural co-evolution. Biological, neurological, and cultural diversity are the evolutionary forces that have enabled humans to adapt to and thrive within dynamic environments – better than many other species. Enlightened capitalists easily underestimate the human capacity for altruism, intrinsic motivation, and mutual aid, and at the same time they overestimate the human cognitive capacity to understand and control complex dynamic systems. Human social, ecological, and individual behaviour is shaped to a large extent by internalised local cultural norms. There is nothing that somehow makes internalised norms relating to capitalism superior to other possible local arrangements.

The belief in the magic of the invisible hand is an ideology that confuses the energy and resources spent on direct competition with a positive evolutionary force. As a result, all forms of capitalism optimise for maximum busyness, i.e. maximum (mis)use of time, energy and resources. The fiction of homo economicus manifests itself in the belief in the need for external incentives and coercion.

Humans have a limited capacity for attention. Shifting the focus of busyness growth into the digital and social realm only further alienates us from our ecological context, and is not a viable strategy for perpetuating the delusion of infinite growth on a finite planet. Furthermore, the competitive ideology that underpins the growth imperative has led to a devaluation of all forms of physical labour and care work that does not or that should not involve social competition.

The mutual distrust that is created via a competitive labour markets reduces the human capacity for communication and shared understanding into a capacity for deception and direct social competition, distracting from the goal of delivering services and outcomes that are beneficial for wider society.

An ideological bias towards market based “solutions” obscures institutional problems. 250 years of industrialised civilisation have impaired our ability to understand and navigate the world in terms of trusted relationships. The climate of fear in an atomised society has shrunk the sphere of discourse to the point where the existence of most institutions is no longer questioned. All potential institutional problems are assumed to be addressable by adding further complexity to established institutions or by complementing established institutions with further institutions.

Myopic focus on individual mental health

In industrialised societies the topic of mental health is conceptualised as a concern pertaining to individuals, and accordingly, treatment is focused on identifiable symptoms at the individual level, and this in turn is reflected in the diagnostic and treatment manuals used by psychiatrists and psychologists. Our society pretends that relational problems between people can be broken down into individualised components of mental and physical health, and that these can be treated separately.

Furthermore mainstream healthcare systems treat social determinants (poverty, quality of housing, access to healthy food, local levels of inequality, etc.) as a secondary concern, resulting in a never-ending stream of mental health problems.

By design the established reactive and social context-blind paradigm of healthcare delivery creates incentives for maximising the funding that flows into the treatment of symptoms, and it minimises the funding available for a proactive and social context-aware approach. Also by design, systemic problems are delegated to the realm of politics. The lack of a holistic transdisciplinary approach creates an artificial barrier that isolates political discourse from the potential mental health impacts of policy decisions.

The topic of mental health is further complicated by a profound lack of understanding of neurodiversity across all the many disciplinary silos within the healthcare system:

  • Often mental health problems are not understood as inevitable downstream effects of a society that systematically discriminates against autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.
  • Many physical health problems are not identified as the stress responses of socially marginalised people, a problem that is compounded for hyper-sensitive autistic people who are marginalised along other dimensions as well – ethnicity, lack of access to trusted peers, lack of access to autistic healthcare professionals, etc.
  • The level of stigma associated with neurodivergence (in particular open displays of autistic culture) within the healthcare sector not only perpetuates the harm done by the pathology paradigm to patients, it also means that virtually all autistic (and many otherwise neurodivergent) healthcare professionals remain undercover, and are unable to assist neurodivergent patients and peers who are being discriminated against.
  • Furthermore, the manifestation of neurodivergence is dynamic, and the stress responses to sensory or social overload may change over time, in ways that are individually unique.
  • Post viral syndromes represent forms of neurodivergence that so far have received little attention within the neurodiversity movement. The COVID-19 pandemic has started to bring this topic into focus. In terms of the many potential triggers of sensory overload, post viral syndromes overlap with common autistic hypersensitivities.

Culturally prescribed cognitive dissonance

As I have described in-depth in earlier articles, W.E.I.R.D. societies systematically pathologise all those who are not fully “functional” and “culturally well adjusted” machines within the factory model of society.

The 10 W.E.I.R.D. axioms of the pathology paradigm:

  1. The W.E.I.R.D. social game is the pinnacle of “civilisation” achieved so far.
  2. The arrow of “progress” is advanced by playing the social game.
  3. The “purpose” of society is to perpetuate the social game.
  4. Every human who knows how and is willing to play the W.E.I.R.D. social game is equipped for a happy and “successful” life.
  5. Addressing individual “functional deficits” in relation to W.E.I.R.D. norms are the key to a healthy society.
  6. Non-W.E.I.R.D.-compliant notions of a fulfilled life are irrelevant and represent a threat to the “normal functioning” of society.
  7. Individuals with “functional deficits” must be grateful for all services and assistance that is made available to improve their level of “functioning”.
  8. Individuals with “spiky skills profiles” must be grateful for all “opportunities” to contribute to the social game.
  9. Individuals with “functional deficits”, and especially those who question the value of the social game, clearly “don’t understand the bigger picture”, can’t possibly have anything of value to contribute to society.
  10. The W.E.I.R.D. social game reflects the axioms of human nature, and researchers can safely assume the W.E.I.R.D. axioms to be true when designing research experiments, when conducting experiments, when designing and running computer simulations of collective human social behaviour, and when interpreting research results.

Cultural deficits

A society that systematically desensitises all its people to social inequality and that instead celebrates individual success based on material wealth and social vanity metrics creates a sick social environment that disables society as a whole.

The extreme harm caused is visible to anyone who is able to acknowledge the level of cognitive dissonance that constitutes the foundation of industrialised civilisation:

  • Our inability to adapt to environmental changes in a timely manner
  • Our inability to extend trust to others or to other groups
  • Our inability to understand each other
  • Our inability to meet basic human social needs

Cultural evolution

The following presentation from the ISC 2021 Summer School on Cognitive Challenges of Climate Change by William Rees, a co-inventor of the ecological footprint concept, offers a good summary of the current human cultural predicament in terms of where we are, but without any hint of how we might be able to to overcome paradigmatic inertia.

Other presentations from the same series offer a few clues, in terms of starting to do less by consciously reducing the complexity of design in our physical and social environments, via coordinated activism, and by empowering locally communities to define locally relevant multi-dimensional metrics of wellbeing.

Given the cognitive dissonance that characterises normality in industrialised societies, it is not surprising that none of these otherwise excellent presentations on cognitive challenges related to climate change examine the role of neurodiversity and autistic cognition in cultural evolution.

Autistic people don’t play social games, instead we actively resist them. We are primarily guided by our moral principles and are less prone to being corrupted by monetary rewards. And for this we are pathologised and vilified. It is not an accident that Greta Thunberg is autistic. A growing literature suggests that autists display reduced susceptibility to cognitive biases and exhibit more rational and bias-free processing of information. The enhanced rationality of autistic people has valuable implications for the understanding of human rationality and for understanding the role of neurodiversity in cultural evolution.

Within the bigger picture of cultural evolution autistic traits have obvious mid and long-term benefits to society, but these benefits are associated with short-term costs for social status seeking individuals within the local social environments of autistic people.

Neurological and cultural diversity is the reservoir of imagination of the human species. In a time of existential crises the collective creative potential of neurodivergent people and marginalised cultures has become more important than ever. It is well known that all major social change originates on the margins of society. We have to realise that in our hypernormalised global consumer culture transformational change can only emanate from indigenous cultures, from marginalised and sometimes criminalised groups, and from pathologised neurodivergent people.

The implications for co-creating good company are profound. Becoming conscious of human cognitive limits and recognising that these limits are just as real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics may allow us to avoid the fate of earlier civilisations, and to embark on a path of radical energy descent.

In my book on the beauty of collaboration at human scale I trace the journey of cultural evolution from the origins of humans right up to the latest significant developments in the early 21st century – including the role that autistic people have played and will continue to play in this context. Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is in control. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise and collaborate accordingly.

Countdown towards a ban of all forms of conversion therapy

Today we have presented our submission to the government’s Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill.

From today we will will start counting the days until all forms of conversion therapies are banned in Aotearoa New Zealand. Our hope is that this page will only need to be appended a few times with further activities to remind the government of its commitment to banning conversion practices and of its commitment to human rights, including all the rights articulated in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which our government has ratified in 2008.

Timeline

Include all Conversion Therapies in Legislative Ban

Media release: 7 September 2021

Include all conversion therapies in legislative ban, says autistic community

Although the government’s Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill is welcome progress, it should be extended to ban all conversion therapy in Aotearoa New Zealand, say members of the autistic community.

In a submission to the Justice Select Committee, members from New Zealand autistic community groups say while they fully supported a ban on conversion practices targeting sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, protections should be extended to include all New Zealanders subject to these practices, especially neuro-diverse communities among whom conversion therapies also cause considerable harm.

The submission, prepared by Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga o Aotearoa (AutismAotearoa.org), an initiative of the Autistic Collaboration Trust (AutCollab.org), notes that a significant population being treated by such therapies in Aotearoa New Zealand today is autistic children. Conversion therapies remain widely used to try to radically modify the behaviour of autistic children and to deny autistic coping mechanisms for sensory overload.

The Bill as drafted proposes to outlaw Conversion Therapy as it relates to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

This form of conversion therapy is, historically, a by-product of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) from the United States, which was developed using experiments on autistic children. Its pioneers also claimed it might ‘cure’ ‘heteronormative deviance’ (homosexuality being a psychological disorder in medical literature until the mid-1970s) – a claim this Bill acknowledges ought to become criminal.

Although progress has been made around the world outlawing Gay Conversion Therapy, ABA continues to be practised as a treatment in Aotearoa New Zealand for autistic people, especially children, despite the harm it produces.

Co-author of the submission, Jorn Bettin, says the autistic community welcomes the protections in the Bill for the Rainbow community, but is urging Parliament to be more inclusive. A more complete definition of conversion therapy would extend protections being advanced for Rainbow communities to neuro-diverse communities that continue to endure significant harm from these practices.

“The Bill’s current definition of Conversion Therapy offers no protection for members of the neuro-diverse community, particularly autistic children, who are regularly subject to these horrendous practices,” said Jorn Bettin.

Of particular concern was that the ABA industry was promoting these therapies for younger and younger children – the notion of ‘early intervention’.

“Consider the impact of ABA practices on young neuro-divergent children. They’re being taught very early that they aren’t normal and they need to be ‘corrected’ or ‘cured’ of something that actually isn’t an abnormality or disease, but rather is simply part of their identity due to their neurological make-up,” said Jorn Bettin.

“This is an opportunity for Parliament to take a lead and include protections for all New Zealanders, including neuro-diverse communities.”

Co-author Alice Richardson said the submission summarised research in the field, showing how these conversion therapies are applied to autistic people, and these therapies are not merely ineffectual, but also extremely harmful. These therapies were a contributor to the poor mental health outcomes for neuro-diverse communities, including higher rates of suicide.

“Almost half of autistic people subjected to these therapies develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” she said. “Mental health outcomes among neuro-diverse communities reflect the trauma of these therapies.

“We know the government is focused on improving mental health outcomes,” said Jorn Bettin. “Expanding this Bill to address all conversion therapies not just Gay Conversion Therapy offers a strategic opportunity to address the serious mental health challenges faced by a great many neuro-divergent New Zealanders.”

He said the autistic community’s desire to expand the scope of protection in the Bill sought in no way to take away from the need to protect the Rainbow community from Gay Conversion Therapy, a move the autistic community fully supported.

The submission

https://autcollab.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Submission-in-relation-to-the-Conversion-Practices-Prohibition-Legislation-Bill-1.1.pdf.

Related educational videos

Short (7 minutes):

Detailed (18 minutes):

Contact and further information

Email (Jorn.Bettin@s23m.com), Tel (+64 223 423 209)

The Autistic Collaboration Trust (AutCollab.org) acts as a global hub for mutual support, and encourages neurodivergent individuals and ventures to connect and establish long-term collaborations. The Autistic Collaboration Trust is incorporated as a charitable trust in Aotearoa New Zealand. Our board of trustees and our advisory board consists exclusively of people who openly identify as autistic.

Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga o Aotearoa offers education about autistic culture from a first hand perspective and it provides a safe environment where parents, educators, and employers can connect with autistic parents and the wider autistic community. The autistic community members who are curating and jointly developing the educational material and services featured on AutismAotearoa.org, the website of the New Zealand Autistic Community, are involved in the neurodiversity movement.

The purpose of human cultures

Photo by Yogendra Singh on Unsplash

To appreciate what makes human cultures unique, and to understand the primary purpose of symbolic (spoken) human language, an obvious starting point is a comparison of basic parameters with the cultures of other primates, our closest living relatives:

Chimpanzees live in large groups of 30 to up to 150 individuals called “communities”. Within these groups are fluid, often changing sub-groups of friends and family.

The social structure is sometimes referred to as a “fission-fusion” society.

These groups may socialize at a watering hole and then break up into any number of smaller units to forage, reconvene in the afternoon, break up when its time to bed down, etc

The group usually has one or two dominant males, who gain their leadership through sometimes very violent displays and fights between rivals. Males will “display” by screaming and running through the forest grabbing sticks to strike the ground or the trees with, throwing rocks, and rattling bushes.

Extract from: https://www.animalfactsencyclopedia.com/Chimp-facts.html

Bonobos are highly intelligent, extremely social great apes. They live in very cooperative and peaceful groups, known as troops, with as many as 70 members, but 15 to 30 is most common. Their fluid social structure is known as fission-fusion, which means they may come together in various sized groups, or separate for different activities, different times of year, and depending on who is available to “hang out” with. Just as we do.

Extract from: https://www.animalfactsencyclopedia.com/Bonobo-facts.html

The troops are typically composed of 2 to 30 members; from which 1 to 4 are male adults, and the rest are blackbacks, adult females, and their offspring. Groups of western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) appear to be smaller: up to 5 individuals. Their composition varies over time due to events like the death of the young and the migration of individuals when they reach sexual maturity. In average, groups have between 2 and 12 members and move around an area of 4 to 25 square kilometers.

Extract from: https://www.gorillas-world.com/

Human culture

In contrast to the myths about human nature that power civilisations, human babies are naturally inclined to help strangers, without any need for coercion or external incentives.

Michael Tomasello has spent many years working with children and with chimpanzees to understand the evolution of collaborative behaviour, and to explore how human behaviour differs from the behaviour of other primates. A range of simple experiments show that in contrast to chimpanzees, human babies and young human children are highly collaborative, which may come as a surprise to many economists.

The innate collaborative human tendency is also supported by anthropological research. Samuel Bowles is an economist who has spent his career researching the origins of economic inequality over the last 100,000 years, and he comes to very interesting conclusions. For several hundred thousand years humans lived in small groups without written language, money, and cities. The archaeological evidence available and also the evidence from “uncivilised” indigenous cultures that have survived until recently in a few remote places point towards an interesting commonality in the social norms of such societies:

The strongest social norms in pre-civilised societies were norms that prevented individuals from gaining power over others.

The evolution of human language went hand in hand with the evolution of cultures that deviated from the cultures found in other primate societies in terms of a much greater emphasis on fairness and collaboration. We have to conclude that the primary purpose and function of human language was associated with:

  1. Coordinating activities within a group
  2. Transmitting valuable knowledge and new discoveries with others and future generations
  3. Developing and agreeing fairness norms that are adapted to the specific local context at hand
  4. Minimising the time and energy spent in conflicts, and freeing up time refining the above activities

The evolution of symbolic spoken language and cultural transmission based on language can be understood as an energy and resource saving tool. Humans out-collaborated rather than out-competed other primates. The primary purpose of human culture is related to collaboration within groups and between groups.

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.

– David Sloan Wilson and Edward O Wilson (2007)

Human neurodiversity

To understand human creativity and collective intelligence beyond the most basic forms of collaboration, we must look beyond the experiments conducted by Michael Tomasello and his colleagues. To appreciate the full range of human collaborative ability we need to consider the influence of individual neurological variability on sensory processing and social motivations.

To date the vast majority of anthropological research ignores the role of neurological diversity in shaping human societies. Social scientists routinely assume neurotypical social motivations when observing and interpreting human behaviours. Taking into account that neurodivergent and especially autistic people may not at all be interested in prestige in the sense of social status, but are rather motivated by a strong sense of curiosity and individual agency, allows for a more nuanced understanding of the evolution of human cultures.

Even in pre-historic times, the curiosity and unusual sensory abilities of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent individuals will have resulted in deep domain specific knowledge and related specialised skills. Some of the acquired knowledge and skills would have been valuable to society and would have attracted the attention of others.

Neurodivergent individuals will likely have been recognised as trustworthy carriers of valuable knowledge and competencies, the easily transferable parts of which will then have been preserved and propagated to others and future generations via cultural transmission. In the absence of written language the knowledge transmission process involved all senses and intensive interaction between recognised masters of a craft and motivated novices.

Given the neurotypical human tendency for over-imitation, any fairness norms invented by trustworthy autistic carriers of valuable knowledge will easily have been absorbed into the cultural repertoire of the group.

The combination of neurodiversity and the human capacities for collaboration and cultural transmission enabled humans to thrive for many hundred thousand years in a diverse range of circumstances. Pre-civilised societies clearly appreciated the talents of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, and they would undoubtedly have been aware of the value of having a diversity of talents and unique cognitive abilities (and limitations) within a group.

Cultural diversity at human scale

The limits of human scale groups, the capacity for cultural evolution, and the resultant cultural diversity are best appreciated as the most valuable and unique species level survival advantage of humans over all other primate species. Human societies that operate at human scales are highly resilient and adaptive. Bands of hunter gatherers could rely on the human capacity for flexible cooperation and collective intelligence that is unlocked by egalitarian social norms within small groups.

Beyond group size, human scale is characterised by limits of the collective environmental footprint, and by limits of the amounts of material possessions imposed by the demands of a nomadic way of life. It took several hundred thousand years for humans to encounter circumstances that catalysed the formation of larger groups. The limits of human scale could only be surpassed by a combination of inventions:

  1. Agriculture to increase the food calorie yield per unit of land
  2. Social arrangements for maintaining and defending permanent settlements
  3. Reliable record keeping systems of debt (who owes what to whom)

On the one hand these inventions in combination with a super-human-scale group size provided a group with a local advantage over other groups. On the other hand permanent settlements and reliance on agriculture also made the group more vulnerable to the impact of infectious diseases, droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. This may explain why mobile and egalitarian hunter gatherer societies dominated for such a long time, and why some hunter gatherer societies have survived until very recently.

As humanity is approaching existential risks in the 21st century, we are well advised to carefully study the advantages that are available at human scale and to critically examine all the inevitable drawbacks that kick in when societies exceed the limits of human scale.

Some of the drawbacks such as the brittleness and vulnerabilities of technological monocultures are becoming more apparent in a world that is globally connected via digital networks.

Homo ecologus

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that via a series of accidental discoveries and inventions, we have created a global network for sharing valuable knowledge, as well as opinions and misinformation. It apparently takes a virus like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift cultural norms away from profit maximisation and back towards sharing knowledge for collective benefit. It is fascinating to notice that SARS-CoV-2 has very rapidly induced cultural changes that affect the foundations of civilisation:

  1. Cities – explicitly designed to facilitate rapid sequences of human interactions in anonymous contexts, have been forced to adopt and enforce rules for physical distancing and limiting social interaction.
  2. Money – when used as a tool to protect social power gradients and profits, now has become a negative indicator that signals a lack of trustworthiness.
  3. Written language – when used as a tool for propaganda and distortion, now contributes to the spread of the virus, and yet can play a critical role when used for sharing valuable knowledge.

It is clear that the future of human societies now critically depends on cultural evolution of these foundations.

It is about much more than overcoming neoliberalism or changing out a few technologies (even if both steps are necessary). It is about a transformation that reaches right down to the foundations of our civilization. The question is not whether such a transformation will take place – it will whether we want it to or not – but how it will occur and in which direction it will develop.

– Extract from: Fabian Scheidler. 2020. The end of the megamachine. Zero Books.

Concepts such as cities and written language as well as quantitative metrics may survive, but their scope of applicability and the operational rules and rituals associated with them may be transformed to such an extent that we will invent new words to clearly distinguish between the old semantics of the information economy [hoarding] and the new semantics of the emerging knowledge age [sharing].

In a world increasingly not only connected by trade in goods, but also by exchange of violence, information, viruses, emissions, the importance of social preferences in underwriting human cooperation, even survival, may now be greater even than it was amongst that small group of foragers that began the exodus from Africa 55,000 years ago to spread this particular cooperative species to the far corners of the world.

– Extract from: Bowles and Gintis. 2013. A Cooperative Species : Human Reciprocity and its Evolution. Princeton University Press.

Planetary intelligence is achieved by creating a feedback loop of mutual learning between the rapid learning cycles (mutations) of viruses and learning cycles at human scale, which are now amplified via a global digital network at super-human scale. Humans are learning the hard way that messing with that network for misinformation and attempts of hierarchical control works against humans and the entire planetary ecosystem.

Where to from here? We live in a highly dynamic world, and our capability to understand the world we have stumbled into is quite limited. However, once we acknowledge our limitations, it is possible to learn from our mistakes, and also from the ways of life and the survival skills we cultivated in our pre-civilised past, which served us well for several hundred thousand years.

Our destination is beyond human comprehension, but ways of life that are in tune with our biological needs and cognitive limits are always within reach, even when we find ourselves in a self-created life destroying environment. All it takes is a shift in perspective, and corresponding shifts in the aspects of our lives that we value.

The picture is not entirely bleak. The work of Michel Bauwens on the role of the commons in the emerging knowledge age is encouraging, and architect Julia Watson points to concrete examples that illustrate how we can respond to climate change by utilising millennia-old knowledge about how to live in symbiosis with nature through “lo-tek radical design”.

The way I see it, autistic people have their place in the emerging world, and in many cases that place will not be in large government organisations or in corporations, but in non-hierarchical organisations and networks of mutual aid formed by autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, which can offer a level of psychological safety that can’t otherwise be achieved within W.E.I.R.D. societies.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

― Buckminster Fuller (1975)

From a position of safety within a network of mutual aid, autistic people are ideally equipped to act as catalysts for the evolution of social norms for collaboration between groups, to allow human scale communities to manage scarce resources sustainably at bioregional levels, and to share trustworthy knowledge globally, via the global communications networks we have established.

Reclaiming the essence of humanity

Design by Quinn Dexter (Autistamatic)

Searching for the remains of human potential in industrialised societies

Before I comment on the characteristics of the institutions that operate and influence industrialised societies, I want to be clear about my background and the experiences that shape my observations.

I always work at the boundary between people and technology, and at the boundary between people in different organisations or teams, with companies of all sizes, from start-ups, to established medium size companies, through to transnational corporations with more than 100,000 employees.

Understanding people’s needs and desires within a professional social setting is a core theme in my work. Surfacing, disambiguating, and validating tacit knowledge in a culturally and psychologically safe team environment, and translating the resulting insights into enduring software platforms or tools that remain valuable for decades is a related core theme.

A focus on collaboration platforms intended for long-term use by thousands of organisations and across complex global supply chains has taught me about the many interdependencies between abstract organisations and the concrete social and ecological contexts in which organisations operate, including the many externalities created by profit motives and external investors.

I spent 12 years in the world of employment and independent contracting, in a range of transdisciplinary roles, before my body and mind told me to quit in no uncertain terms. Once I realised that for many people a large part of their work consists of voluntary and involuntary participation in competitive social games I had to quit. I started to understand why mangers loved my ability to catalyse collaboration, but why at the same time they feared my openness about risks, and my uncanny instinct for identifying and reducing spurious complexity in bureaucratic systems. I realised that our entire economic system optimises for the perception of busyness – the opposite of collaboration towards shared goals and diligent creative (re)use of scarce resources.

For over a decade one of my clients was a technology industry analysis firm, where I learned everything about the social games being played between large technology vendors, executives in client organisations (large government departments and corporations), and technology industry analysis firms. We live in a world where innovation is a carefully engineered perception that serves those in positions of social power, it has little or nothing to do with delivering value to citizens or local communities, and it usually makes our lives busier and more complicated – increasingly with a tangible negative impact on our health.

In response to the growing awareness of the existence of autistic people and the related proliferation of dangerous stereotypes and misconceptions, I’ve introduced many healthcare professionals and several cohorts of MBA students to the concept of neurodiversity and to key elements of autistic culture.

Establishing and nurturing good company over the the last two decades has taught me many lessons about the growing chasm between genuine human needs and typical workplace cultures, and about the many untrue myths that constitute the cornerstones of the institutions that operate industrialised societies.

Reclaiming humanity in our work

Global management consulting firms increasingly talk about the importance of employee wellbeing, social and cultural safety, and mental health, and yet they frame the entire discussion as a matter of leadership and management. As if employee wellbeing and inclusion is only a matter of putting the right people in power, and as if the people in designated positions with formal powers over others are somehow special and deserve more recognition and privileges than those who are not in positions of power.

Of course employees are more satisfied with their jobs in workplace where managers genuinely strive to maintain good relationships with staff, but such analyses ignore the elephant in the room:

What would happen if there were no noteworthy power and pay differentials between managers and those who are managed, and what if it turns out that with an appropriate focus on trusted based relationships at eye level, the perceived need for managers and leaders evaporates?

Decades of research and empirical evidence demonstrates that behaviourism, i.e. all forms of management based on rewards and or punishment don’t work over the medium and long term. We know that rewards and punishment only superficially and temporarily lead to perceived compliance or higher levels of performance. All forms of coercion and control, irrespective of the level of sugar coating, undermine trust and the human capacity for altruism and mutual aid.

The same firms that are advising on the importance of employee wellbeing also advise clients in the oil and gas industries. McKinsey & Co is just one example of many:

In the face of changing perspectives on fossil fuels and increasing electrification, the oil and gas industry needs to take immediate action to prepare for the years to come. One such action is increasing the share of natural gas in portfolios. Our reference case shows that gas, unlike other fossil fuels, will experience growing demand until the mid-2030s. In a 1.5-degree climate pathway scenario, natural gas will be more resilient than other fossil fuels for another five to ten years. This is primarily because natural gas is among the cleanest fossil fuels, so it will be the last to be replaced as part of the energy transition.

McKinsey & Co. 2021. The impact of decarbonization on the gas and LNG industry.

Most large management consulting firms propagate the belief in the god of the market – blind faith in the invisible hand, and are firmly committed to the notion of economic growth as a viable and desirable strategy for the coming decades.

Even though there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that financial growth can not be decoupled from growth in energy and resource use, management consultants hesitate to talk about post-growth economics or de-growth as essential strategies to reduce the risk or speed of runaway global heating, and to adapt to a dynamic environment that is changing at a rate that is faster than our current institutions (governments and corporations) can keep up with.

Leaders and managers within hierarchical systems of power have a strong bias towards buying advice from those who tell them what they would like to hear instead of what they would need to hear. Especially neuronormative people have a strong compulsion to feel good about themselves, and to achieve these feelings by complying with the predominant social norms within their society, rather than by critical analysis and by following their own internal moral compass. They want to be seen to be doing the right thing and being in control just slightly more than actually doing the right thing, which often involves admitting not being in control or explicitly letting go of control.

The recipe for success for management consultants lies in what I refer to as 360 degree consulting – offering cookie cutter best practice approaches to support whatever target direction the client has in mind, as needed deflecting from inconvenient externalities, to meet the immediate emotional needs and short-term career ambitions of leaders and managers.

“Normal” busyness as usual is slowly killing all of us. The sooner we unplug from the collective delusion, the fewer people will die or suffer needlessly. De-growth (a genuine reduction in unsustainable energy and resource consumption) can play out over generations, and it can be the most civilised project of mutual aid humans have ever undertaken.

“To a population that is receiving little return on the cost of supporting complexity, the loss of that complexity brings economic, and perhaps administrative, gains… Among those less specialized, severing the ties that link local groups to a regional entity is often attractive. Collapse then is not intrinsically a catastrophe. It is a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population.”

– Joseph Tainter. 1990. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press.

A shift to human scale groups reduces the spurious complexity needed to support a monoculture, and it retains/grows adaptive cultural complexity, i.e. the diversity that emerges when the human footprint is aligned with bioregional ecosystem functions.

Obstacles

Within established organisations the dominant paradigm of control prevents essential knowledge from flowing to the places where it can be put to good use for the entire organisation and the ecosystem within which the organisation is embedded. People are afraid of the unknown. Often busyness as usual is perpetuated not because it is recognised as helpful, but simply because it is a familiar routine.

Hierarchical systems of management and control play a prominent role in the seemingly safe routine of busyness as usual. As needed, when the flaws of the approach have become too obvious to ignore, flat hierarchies come to the rescue. Formal power structures and significant pay differentials persist, but open communication and collaboration across layers and between silos is no longer actively discouraged or penalised.

Beyond fear of change, open or hidden xenophobia (racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, ageism, …) is another common manifestation of the fear of the unknown. It is hard to underestimate the prevalence of xenophobia, especially when it it hidden, or perceived as common sense by a particular culture, often even enshrined in local laws. Xenophobia is best illustrated in terms of concrete examples:

Recently seven professors from the University of Auckland published a letter in The Listener that dismissed mātauranga Māori as “falling far short of what can be defined as science”. Encouragingly the letter generated significant backlash, and one of the academics, Professor of Psychology Douglas Elliffe, has stepped down from his role as acting dean of the faculty at the University of Auckland.

One could think that at last systemic racism is no longer tolerated by the majority of the public, but the underlying xenophobia has multiple dimensions, and is neither limited to racism nor to just seven bad apples.

Douglas Elliffe has built his career on the pseudoscience of behaviourism. The connection to behaviourism and Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) in relation to autistic children becomes obvious in Doug Elliffe’s research profile and publication record. An abstract from one of his papers:

The differential outcomes procedure uses reinforcement unique to each alternative in a conditional discrimination, leading to faster and more accurate learning relative to non-differential outcomes procedures. In this study, the differential outcomes procedure was used to teach novel tacts of musical instrument sounds to children with autism. For one set of instruments, response-specific reinforcers were used in combination with social reinforcement. For the other set, reinforcers were provided non-differentially. Two out of three participants showed enhanced learning in the differential outcomes condition, providing some support of the differential outcomes procedures as a useful tool for teaching individuals with autism. Future research into the differential outcomes effect is warranted to identify the procedural and individual factors that predict its effectiveness.

The problem of xenophobia is not limited to specific individuals, it is systemic. The University of Auckland actively promotes the pseudoscience of Applied Behaviour Analysis as follows:

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a scientific approach to understanding and changing human behaviour. It has applications with a wide variety of client groups including those with intellectual and other disabilities, autism spectrum, childhood onset behavioural disorders, and people in brain injury rehabilitation and dementia care. Behaviour principles provide a strong basis for the analysis of complex human repertoires including language and social behaviour.

Successful completion of the programme will also make a graduate eligible to apply to the New Zealand Psychologists Board to be a registered psychologist and work as a practising psychologist in New Zealand.

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB http://www.bacb.com) administers the international professional certification process for behaviour analysts. Our programme is a BACB-approved course sequence that will equip you with the coursework and supervised hours needed to become board-certified. Graduates of our three-year programme are eligible to take the BACB examination for Board Certified Behavior Analysts. Our graduates have achieved a 100% pass rate at this examination over the programme’s history. 

To some extent the government is now stepping in and committed to banning the behaviourist practice of conversion therapy, but so far without acknowledging the use cases highlighted above.

Few people outside the autistic community know that conversion therapies were invented to “normalise” autistic children before being extended to children with “abnormal” gender identity or gender expression. Culturally accepted xenophobia can make researchers blind to fundamentally flawed research design and inadequate evidence.

The tone of the advertisement from the University of Auckland above can only be properly understood via the mind set that propels the growing multi-billion-dollar global autism industrial complex. Here is a taste of how ABA practitioners think about their “market” in the US:

For more evidence on how ABA practitioners think about autistic people and autistic culture:

“Responding to recent critiques about ABA found on social media”
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

I listened to the first part earlier this year, and that was more than enough for me.

Appreciating autistic culture

Autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.

Society must start to move beyond awareness and acceptance towards appreciation of cognitive diversity. On the one hand a shared culture can streamline collaboration, but on the other hand, the more open and diverse a culture, the more friendly it is towards minorities and outsiders.

It is very easy for groups of people and institutions to become preoccupied with specific cultural rituals and so-called cultural fit, whereas what matters most for collaboration and deep innovation is the appreciation of diversity and the development of mutual trust. This is obvious to many autistic people, but only very recently has cognitive diversity started to become recognised as genuinely valuable beyond the autistic community.

Inclusive culture is minimalistic. In contrast, relying on the social transmission of hundreds of unspoken rules via osmosis is not only distinctly unfriendly from an autistic perspective – it also stands in the way of collaboration across cultural and organisational boundaries at all levels of scale.

There is huge variety in the ways autistic people communicate using words, both spoken and written. This is the verbal spectrum.

Often those who can not speak remain the most misunderstood and the most misrepresented.

CommunicationFIRST, ASAN, and AASR have created a toolkit for people who want to learn more about nonspeaking autistic people, methods of communication other than speech, disability representation in media, autistic meltdowns, trauma-informed care for autistic people, restraint and seclusion and their alternatives, and how to best support nonspeaking autistic people and survivors of restraint and seclusion.

It is precisely because autists have to spend conscious effort on understanding each individual that we are well equipped to act as a catalyst and translator between very different cultures.

The catch is that this unique capability only becomes apparent if the cultures in question are open to potential collaboration with the rest of the world, and are not learning disabled by in-group competition and fear of the unknown.

One of the persistent negative stereotypes is that we are poor at collaboration. Often the exact opposite is the case. Collaboration can take many forms, and different people have different needs and preferences. Autistic people learn and play differently. We communicate and enjoy ourselves by sharing information and knowledge, and not by negotiating social status.

Non-autistic people seem ill equipped to recognise how all the little exaggerations they use on a regular basis, such as “you look great” (when you look and feel sick), and small deceptions such as “sorry, I have an important meeting to attend to” (when someone prefers not to help you and hoards information for personal advantage) or “I helped develop a great product” (when the person was not involved and only got to know the finished product and never contributed any feedback to the development team) over time add up to a non-collaborative and potentially toxic culture.

Autistic forms of communication within a neurodiverse team and within a psychologically safe environment actually impart a collaborative advantage to the entire team, to organisations, and to society as a whole.

It is not a coincidence that Greta Thunberg and many well known climate activists are autistic, it is not a coincidence that the unConference on Interdisciplinary Innovation and Collaboration regularly attracted autistic people, and it is not a coincidence that the services around cultural and psychological safety co-designed by the Autistic Collaboration Trust, and operated and sponsored by S23M in collaboration with the Design Justice Network, have their origins in the autistic community – and that these services are beneficial for members of any marginalised group, culture, or community.

The antidote to xenophobia is genuine appreciation of diversity, and genuine appreciation of the value of interdependence.

Engaging with autistic culture

Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and embodied minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.

Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga o Aotearoa offers education about autistic culture from a first hand perspective and it provides a safe environment where parents, educators, and employers can connect with autistic parents and the wider autistic community. The autists who are curating and jointly developing the educational material and services featured on Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga are involved in the neurodiversity movement. Most of us are parents – we make autism education and support accessible for all in Aotearoa New Zealand through lived experiences and practical advice.

➜ For parents. Rather than therapies to “reduce autistic behaviours”, autistic children need to be supported in the full development of their unique autistic potential, and need to be encouraged to follow their intrinsic motivations to explore the world.

➜ For educators. All children thrive when education and parenting nurtures and supports the children’s intrinsic motivations and sensory needs rather than focuses on obedience.

➜ For employers. We all thrive when being given the opportunity to work with our most trusted peers. In a good company everyone is acutely aware of all the collective intelligence and capability that is available in the form of trusted colleagues, friends, and family.

➜ For autists. Elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide apply across the entire autism kaleidoscope. These co-morbid conditions are a reflection of experiences made in the social environment rather than a reflection of autism specific neurology.

Nurturing good company, one trusted relationship at a time

The logo of this 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.

Relationships

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 of 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.

Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga o Aotearoa

An initiative of the Autistic Collaboration Trust

Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga o Aotearoa (Autism Aotearoa New Zealand) (https://autismaotearoa.org) is a new website that is designed as an access point to the New Zealand Autistic Community.

The autists who are curating and jointly developing the educational material and services of the website are involved in the neurodiversity movement. Most of us are parents – campaigning for a ban of all forms of “conversion therapies”.

  • Alice Richardson
  • Hemi Hokianga
  • Jolene Stockman
  • Jorn Bettin
  • Julia Campbell
  • Dr Matthew Sellen
  • Sarah Bettin

If you are autistic and live in Aotearoa New Zealand, you are welcome to join Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga Aotearoa (Autism Aotearoa New Zealand) and to access the peer-to-peer support services offered by our members – and if you are in a position to do so, to assist us in co-designing and delivering support services to the local autistic community.

Learning about autistic culture and autistic people

Takiwātanga is the Te Reo Māori word for autism, which means “in his/her/their own space and time“.

Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga presents autistic culture from a first hand perspective and provides a safe environment where parents, educators, and employers can connect with autistic parents and the wider autistic community. The website also offers access to education and advisory services:

➜ For parents. Rather than therapies to “reduce autistic behaviours”, autistic children need to be supported in the full development of their unique autistic potential, and need to be encouraged to follow their intrinsic motivations to explore the world.

➜ For educators. All children thrive when education and parenting nurtures and supports the children’s intrinsic motivations and sensory needs rather than focuses on obedience.

➜ For employers. We all thrive when being given the opportunity to work with our most trusted peers. In a good company everyone is acutely aware of all the collective intelligence and capability that is available in the form of trusted colleagues, friends, and family.

Replacing control with ecologies of care

The focus on economic performance and the subordination of all other dimensions of life in industrialised societies has profound effects on human behaviour.

Different cultures focus on different primary time horizons, and often this is the biggest source of challenges in being able to understand each other. On a related note, linguist and cognitive scientist Daniel Everett observes that big differences in observed social behaviour between cultures can often be traced back not to differences in values, but to differences in the relative ranking of values.

My primary time horizon is greater than 200 years, and while I am not blind to goals that relate to shorter time horizons, the simple fact that I make an effort to consider the 200 year implications of the choices I make, often leads to conclusions and priorities that can remain inaccessible to those whose time horizon is limited to their own life or the lives of their children.

Pay for merit, pay for what you get, reward performance. Sounds great, can’t be done. Unfortunately it can not be done, on short range. After 10 years perhaps, 20 years, yes. The effect is devastating. People must have something to show, something to count. In other words, the merit system nourishes short-term performance. It annihilates long-term planning. It annihilates teamwork. People can not work together. To get promotion you’ve got to get ahead. By working with a team, you help other people. You may help yourself equally, but you don’t get ahead by being equal, you get ahead by being ahead. Produce something more, have more to show, more to count. Teamwork means work together, hear everybody’s ideas, fill in for other people’s weaknesses, acknowledge their strengths. Work together. This is impossible under the merit rating / review of performance system. People are afraid. They are in fear. They work in fear. They can not contribute to the company as they would wish to contribute. This holds at all levels. But there is something worse than all of that. When the annual ratings are given out, people are bitter. They can not understand why they are not rated high. And there is a good reason not to understand. Because I could show you with a bit of time that it is purely a lottery.

– W Edwards Deming (1984)

Behaviourism

In industrialised societies the concept of collaboration is widely understood as “competing against each other according to culturally defined ruled” and is directly related to the fiction of homo economicus.

In our work we’ve tried to test some of the basic predictions made by the Homo economics model using some simple tools from behavioral economics applied across a diverse swath of human societies. Not only do we find that the Homo economicus predictions fail in every society (24 societies, multiple communities per society), but instructively, we find that it fails in different ways in different societies. Nevertheless, after our paper “In search of Homo economicus” in 2001 in the American Economic Review, we continued to search for him. Eventually, we did find him. He turned out to be a chimpanzee. The canonical predictions of the Homo economicus model have proved remarkably successful in predicting chimpanzee behavior in simple experiments. So, all theoretical work was not wasted, it was just applied to the wrong species.
– Joseph Henrich

What Economists Haven’t Found: Humans

In our society the fiction of homo economicus manifests itself in the beliefs associated with the language of behaviourism, which exists in multiple dialects, and which has come to permeate and pollute many disciplines in the social sciences:

  • Leaders, authorities, managers, superiors, social power gradients
  • Leadership, demands, commands
  • Management, measurement, control
  • Incentives, aversives, punishments
  • Business, tasks, busyness
  • Standards, norms, benchmarks, unwritten rules
  • Conformance, compliance, obedience

Some level of standardisation and conformance is useful for collaboration at human scale (i.e. small/local scale), but the more the purpose of conformance relates to maintaining social power gradients, the greater damage in terms of loss of diversity and locally relevant knowledge.

The sections below are extracts from articles that discuss the effects of behaviourist pseudoscience in parenting, education, in the workplace, in economics, and in science. The featured interview with Alfie Kohn offers an excellent introduction to behaviourism.

Parenting

Ivar Lovaas is the originator of “gay conversion therapy” and “autistic conversion therapy”. The techniques he developed and applied are today known as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). ABA is still used for the “treatment of autism” in the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. This explains why autistic rights activism and neurodiversity rights activism are so important. ABA techniques are sometimes applied under different brands to obscure the connection to “gay conversion therapy”.

This series of panel discussions is part of the global Ban Conversion Therapies project, which keeps track of all the bans of conversion therapies that are already in place and of all initiatives towards bans.

Panel discussions towards a ban of all forms of conversion therapies

Education

Not only does a strong reliance on formal education by government authorities (reinforcement of national and regional best practices) and global corporations (reinforcement of commercial interests and technological bias) detract from the locally relevant context, it also squashes human creativity and curiosity. The more an education system myopically relies on formal evaluation and comparative ranking systems, the more it instils a hyper-competitive mindset that actively steers people away from appreciating diversity, from learning how to collaborate, and from nurturing and maintaining lifelong trusted relationships.

These characteristics of modern formal education systems are not accidental, they have been designed to operate this way. After several hundred years of formalised education, entire populations have become oblivious to the monocultural bias and damaging effects.

Rediscovering the purpose of learning

The workplace

It is interesting that the mainstream media occasionally does get concerned about manipulation techniques used in people management, and is much less concerned about the common use of bullying and manipulation techniques such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) as “therapies” for autistic children. Many autistic people who have been subjected to ABA and similar “treatments” end up with PTSD:

The following extract is from a current article about sales techniques / training / management at the Commonwealth Bank Australia. The techniques are similar to ABA techniques – only that small children are subjected to ABA for up to 40 hours per week!

Bank staff had to attend meetings each morning and give a commitment to the group to achieve their targets. A “debrief” meeting was held each afternoon. Some former CBA employees later reported that when staff didn’t achieve their targets they were belittled in front of colleagues.

One bank employee says managers patrolled the work area like stormtroopers to make sure staff were pushing products to customers at every opportunity. Some bank staff felt the training was a form of brainwashing…

The question “I don’t feel pressured to make inappropriate sales to try and meet my targets” produced a result of 33 per cent disagreeing and 32 per cent strongly disagreeing, which was higher than the average across all banks. Even more worrying was the response to a question about whether ‘targets bring out the best in me’ – 83 per cent of respondents disagreed. Furthermore, 26 per cent of those surveyed admitted they were aware of inappropriate lending practices being undertaken to achieve targets.

I first came across the impact of Cohen Brown in 2013 when I wrote a series of articles about the aggressive sales at CBA. The series triggered hundreds of responses from CBA staff. Many described it as a cult-like sales technique that placed staff under intolerable pressure and resulted in serious mistakes

Some CBA staff suffered nervous breakdowns and some started taking anti-depressant medication. The Cohen Brown method featured so heavily in CBA’s strategy during Norris’s reign that I decided to contact the company’s co-founder and CEO, Marty Cohen, in late 2018.

I wanted to talk to him about the Cohen Brown method, including a patent filed in 2006 titled, “Systems and methods for computerised interactive training”, which contains an example of a telephone script that physiologically conditions staff to respond in a certain way.

The patent talks about supplying a positive tone and visualisation when the right answer is achieved and a negative tone and visualisation when the answer is wrong. “A positive tone is generated and/or a text acknowledgement appears, indicating that the correct phrase was identified by the trainee,” the patent says. “Then a ‘negative tone’ is played, and a graphic and/or text message is provided, indicating that the answer was incorrect.”

The user is scored “based in part on the number of errors and/or opportunities that the user identified and optionally on the user’s response to the question”. In an email exchange, Cohen told me he is no longer using this type of “methodology”, but he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with the practice of “negative reinforcement”.

People management and bullying

Economics

In the world of software standards development, Bruce Perens describes the (not so) invisible hand of the market as follows: “In the consortium projects, there’s always the handshake with one hand and a dagger in the other.”

News for culturally well-adjusted neuronormative people: physical and mental health suffers, and serious harm is done, when everyone runs around with a dagger in their “invisible” hand in their pocket, and when those who use the dagger are celebrated as social role models.

Since the Cold War empires have increasingly shifted their focus from overt conventional war to economic warfare and psychological warfare. The growing economic power imbalance between the empires of the “developed” world and “less developed” nation states has significantly reduced the need for large scale direct military interventions to maintain imperial power structures. “Civilised” warfare in the 21st century consists of the following components:

1. Global economic institutions are equipped with the ability to dictate the terms on which nation states with limited financial power are able to engage with the rest of the world (economic warfare).

2. The reserve banks of states with significant financial power use the dial of interest rates and their ability to issue credit to shape the global economic “climate” (economic warfare).

3. The financial power of largest transnational corporations exceeds the financial powers of the majority of nation states, and incrementally, the balance of power shifts further from governments towards transnational corporations (economic warfare).

4. Individuals with significant financial wealth are empowered to wield significant influence over the transnational corporations that they have invested in, and as a result they also wield significant influence over the economic “climate” in many nation states (economic warfare).

5. Transnational corporations use their financial power (often in combination with local or domain specific monopolistic powers) to bathe entire populations in a never ending stream of PR and marketing messages, assisted by profit oriented media organisations that depend on corporate advertising revenue (economic warfare and psychological warfare).

6. Whilst the governments of financially powerful nation states are strongly influenced by the financial powers of transnational corporations, they remain the official operators of military power, and use these powers for “surgical” strikes as needed to prevent smaller nation states from ever ignoring the established imperial “rules of the game” (conventional warfare and psychological warfare).

The effects of economic warfare are conveniently indirect but very effective and brutal.

A language for catalysing cultural evolution

Science

The scientific revolution undoubtedly led to a better understanding of some aspects of the world we live in by enabling humans to create more and more complex technologies. But it also created new levels of ignorance about externalities that went hand in hand with the development of new technologies, fuelled by specific economic beliefs about efficiency and abstractions such as money and markets.

In the early days of the industrial revolution modelling was concerned with understanding and mastering the physical world, resulting in progress in engineering and manufacturing. Over the last century formal model building was found to be useful in more and more disciplines, across all the natural sciences, and increasingly as well in medicine and the social sciences, especially in economics.

With 20/20 hindsight it becomes clear that there is a significant lag between model building and the identification of externalities that are created by systematically applying models to accelerate the development and roll-out of new technologies.

Humans are biased to thinking they understand more than they actually do, and this effect is further amplified by technologies such as the Internet, which connects us to an exponentially growing pool of information. New knowledge is being produced faster than ever whilst the time available to independently validate each new nugget of “knowledge” is shrinking, and whilst the human ability to learn new knowledge at best remains unchanged – if it is not compromised by information overload.

All human artefacts are technology. But beware of anybody who uses this term. Like “maturity” and “reality” and “progress”, the word “technology” has an agenda for your behaviour: usually what is being referred to as “technology” is something that somebody wants you to submit to.

“Technology” often implicitly refers to something you are expected to turn over to “the guys who understand it.” This is actually almost always a political move. Somebody wants you to give certain things to them to design and decide. Perhaps you should, but perhaps not.
– Ted Nelson, a pioneer of information technology, philosopher, and sociologist who coined the terms hypertext and hypermedia in 1963.

Students of software engineering and computer science are often attracted by the idea of “innovation” and by the prospect of exciting creative work, contributing to the development of new services and products. The typical reality of software development has very little if anything to do with innovation and much more with building tools that support David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” and Edward Bernays’ elitist “utopia” of conscious manipulation of the habits and opinions of the masses by a small number of “leaders” suffering from narcissistic personality disorder.

The culture within the software development community is shaped much less by mathematics and scientific knowledge about the physical world than by the psychology of persuasion – and an anaemic conception of innovation based on social popularity and design principles that encourage planned obsolescence. A few years ago Alan Kay, a pioneer of object-oriented programming and windowing graphical user interface design observed:

It used to be the case that people were admonished to “not re-invent the wheel”. We now live in an age that spends a lot of time “reinventing the flat tire!”

The flat tires come from the reinventors often not being in the same league as the original inventors. This is a symptom of a “pop culture” where identity and participation are much more important than progress. … In the US we are now embedded in a pop culture that has progressed far enough to seriously hurt places that hold “developed cultures”. This pervasiveness makes it hard to see anything else, and certainly makes it difficult for those who care what others think to put much value on anything but pop culture norms.

Are you a model builder or a story teller?

Humans – The journey of cultural evolution

“Life creates conditions conducive to life.”Janine Benyus

The book The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale  is now in the peer review stage. In many ways the book is an autistic collaboration project. The book offers tools for finding viable paths into a more neurodiversity friendly future.

The journey of exponentially accelerating cultural evolution presented in this book covers several hundred thousand years, from the origins of humans right up to the latest significant developments in the early 21st century. I would like to equip communities and individuals with conceptual tools to create good companies that are capable of pumping value from a dying ideological system into an emerging world. Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is in control. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise and collaborate accordingly.

Much of the content in the book has been published in earlier articles on this website, on Neuroclastic.com, or on my personal blog, but the book offers a unique chronological perspective on human cultural evolution, and it adds the glue needed to establish important semantic connections across discipline boundaries.

The book concludes with a wonderful quote from an article written by Pip Carroll, in the lead up to the prolonged but ultimately very successful lock-down in Melbourne:

A caring society does not value the individual for their ability to return economic value, but simply for existing as their own imperfect self. We can’t choose to be cared for any more than we can choose to win the lottery. We can only hope to develop the quality in others by offering care ourselves. Trusting that care, once given is ordained to return to another in need.

The book on collaboration at human scale is available for peer review

Ecologies of care

The journey towards a healthier relationship with the ecosystems which we are part of starts with the most powerful tool at our disposal, the introduction and consistent use of new language and new semantics:

New languageOld languageMotivation for change
carecommodificationCo-create ecologies of care instead of economies of commodified goods and services – to create environments that are conducive to life
catalystleaderGrow competency networks and catalysts rather than leadership and leaders – to get things done and distribute decision making to where the knowledge resides
competency networkleadershipGrow competency networks and catalysts rather than leadership and leaders – to get things done and distribute decision making to where the knowledge resides
coordinationmanagementCoordinate rather than manage – to address all the cognitive load that can increasingly be automated and to avoid the perpetuation of social power gradients
couragefearReplace fear with courage – to explore new paths when old roads are crumbling
creative collaborationbest practicesProvide a space for creative collaboration and divergent thinking rather than insist on best practices – to be able to adapt to rapid environmental change
currencyliquidityValue the currency of knowledge and transparency of information rather than the liquidity of money and the protection of national interests – to be able to think and act outside the paradigm of industrialised imperialism 
ecologieseconomiesCo-create ecologies of care instead of economies of commodified goods and services – to create environments that are conducive to life
giftsrentOffer your gifts to the world instead of charging rent for economic utility – to make the seemingly impossible possible
good companyprofitable busynessCo-create good company rather than business – to focus on the people and things we care about rather than what is simply keeping us busy
human scalelarge scaleAppreciate human scale and individual agency rather than large scale and growth – to create structures and systems that are understandable and relatable
individual agencygrowthAppreciate human scale and individual agency rather than large scale and growth – to create structures and systems that are understandable and relatable
learningnormalityLearning about each other instead of assuming and perpetuating a fictional notion of normality – to increase shared understanding
niche constructioncompetitionNiche construction and symbiosis rather than competition and exploitation – to create organisations and services that are fit for purpose and valued by the wider community
open source communityintellectual property rightsCreate open source communities instead of walled gardens of intellectual property rights – to create a global knowledge commons and to maximise collective intelligence
physical wastewealthPay attention to physical waste rather than wealth – to focus us on the metrics that do matter
repairprofitHelp repair frayed relationships instead of profiting from the misery of others – to counteract the escalation of conflicts 
symbiosisexploitationNiche constructionand symbiosis rather than competition and exploitation – to create organisations and services that are fit for purpose and valued by the wider community
tacit knowledgemeritocracyShare valuable tacit knowledge in good company instead of hoarding information and perpetuating the myth of meritocracy – to raise collective intelligence.
transparencyprotection of national interestsValue the currency of knowledge and transparency of information rather than the liquidity of money and the protection of national interests – to be able to think and act outside the paradigm of industrialised imperialism 
trustweaponised contractsVisibly extending trust to people instead of drafting weaponised contracts – to release the handbrake to collaboration
trusted relationshipsanonymous transactionsNurture trusted relationships instead of engaging in anonymous transactions – to minimise rather than encourage the creation of externalities 
valuesvalueThink in terms of values rather than value – to avoid continuously discounting what is priceless

Our destination is beyond human comprehension, but ways of life that are in tune with our biological needs and cognitive limits are always within reach, even when we find ourselves in a self-created life destroying environment. All it takes is a shift in perspective, and corresponding shifts in the aspects of our lives that we value.

Rediscovering the language of life

The sections below are extracts from articles that present life affirming approaches to parenting, education, the workplace, economics, and science that celebrate the diversity of our species. Further details on all these approaches are described in Part III of the book “The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale” mentioned above.

Parenting

All children thrive when parenting nurtures and supports the children’s intrinsic motivations and sensory needs rather than focuses on obedience.

For an autistic person the pathway towards good company is distinctly different from the life trajectory mapped out by the expectations of mainstream culture.

The most appropriate pathway for an autistic person depends significantly on the surrounding social environment and the stage of life.

Pathways to good company

Education

The unwillingness to “go with the flow” is possibly one of the key reasons why autistic people are pathologised in W.E.I.R.D. societies. From the outside all that is visible is that we don’t “comply”. No one sees the mental energy that it takes to hold back from providing an extensive explanation of our concerns. In those cases where we can’t hold back and openly raise inconvenient questions or concerns, our contributions are dismissed as irrelevant and our behaviour is interpreted as disruptive.

All social power gradients systematically dampen feedback loops, they constitute a collective learning disability. Economists Arjun Jayadev and Samuel Bowles describe the effort needed to maintain social power structures as guard labour.

Guard labour is wage labour and other activities that are said to maintain (hence “guard”) a system. Things that are generally characterised as guard labour include: management, guards, military personnel, and prisoners. Guard labour is noteworthy because it captures expenditures based on mistrust and does not produce future value.

Many autists reject all forms of social power. Unless we have autistic people in our environment that nurture our sense of agency and intrinsic motivations, trauma may prevent us from learning how to trust others and build eye level relationships.

The social architecture of collective intelligence

An excellent webinar on this topic by Gareth Morewood: Using Low Arousal Approaches in Learning Environments.

The workplace

Neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration hold the potential to transform pathologically competitive and toxic teams and cultures into highly collaborative teams and larger cultural units that work together more like an organism rather than like a group of fighters in an arena.

Evolution has mastered a number of similar phase shifts in the past. Consider the evolution of multi-celled life forms. Single-celled micro-organisms have not been replaced, but they have been complemented with a mind-boggling variety of more complex multi-celled life forms. We now know that our bodies harbour of more bacteria than human cells, and the vast majority of these bacteria are in a symbiotic relationship with our human cells. Consider this masterpiece of evolution for a moment. Many billions of collaborating cells and micro-organisms form what you experience as “you”. Statistically speaking our bodies are highly collaborative ecosystems of microscopic entities.

Organising for neurodivergent collaboration, for examples see
NeurodiVentures

Economics

The documentary on “The Economics of Happiness” (2011) from Local Futures on the toxic role of globalisation was made shortly after the Global Financial Crisis, and is still valid today.

Like bees and ants, humans are eusocial animals. Through the lenses of evolutionary biology and cultural evolution, local communities – and especially small groups of 20 to 100 people – are the primary organisms within human society, in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our civilisation are profound.

Community-oriented life at human scale

Science

Science needs to overcome paradigmatic inertia and become much more transdisciplinary:

Paradigmatic inertia : The tendency within a “civilised” society to maintain established institutional structures, i.e. complex social groups with specific social roles, even in the face of long-term shifts in environmental conditions away from earlier long-term averages.

Paradigmatic inertia is never beneficial. It constitutes a collective learning disability. Unless it is identified, understood and addressed by shifting to a more appropriate paradigm (or mix of paradigms) that acknowledges the shift in environmental factors (and potentially the inability to reverse the trend), it can result in existential risks for entire ecosystems including humans (think of biodiversity loss and climate change).

Once paradigmatic inertia has led to existential risks, it has to be considered a form of collective delusion.

“Climate change is not a war, it is genocide. It is domination. It is extinction. It is the most recent manifestation of how powerful men throughout history have sought to steal from the less powerful and dismiss them as merely inconvenient.”
Eric Holthaus, autistic meteorologist and climate journalist, from Climate change is about how we treat each other

From collective delusion to creative collaboration

Our future

Once the history of civilisation is understood as series of progress myths, where each civilisation looks towards earlier or competing civilisations with a yardstick that is tailored to prove that its own myths and achievements are clearly superior to anything that came before, it is possible to identify the loose ends and the work-arounds of civilisation that are usually presented as progress.