Making the world a safer place for everyone

To assist schools, universities, and other organisations in preparing for Neurodiversity Celebration Week (15 to 21 March 2021) I have compiled a list of learning resources that allow people to familiarise themselves with the way in which neurodiversity and neurodivergence play out in people’s lives.

A great place to start is by celebrating Weird Pride Day on 4 March 2021 together with Oolong and Autistamatic:

Complexification is the civilised© operating model for normal™ human primates®. I remain an uncertifiable life form in a perfect® world.

Undercover autists as well as all other weird non-conformists are compromising their mental and physical health in toxic school and work environments on a daily basis. In W.E.I.R.D. societies management by fear is the norm in most organisations, and groupthink is celebrated as a virtue.

Neurodivergence is at the core of creativity. Striving to be popular is incompatible with being creative. This is either the truth, or it is a case of autistic black and white thinking. Not wanting to be popular is what allows autistic and artistic people to act as agents of a healthy cultural immune system within human societies. Autism and other forms of neurodivergence are genetically-based human neurological variants that can not be understood without the social model of disability.

In the broadest sense, the social model of disability is about nothing more complicated than a clear focus on the economic, environmental and cultural barriers encountered by people who are viewed by others as having some form of impairment – whether physical, sensory or intellectual. – (Mike Oliver 2004).

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.

Autistic life in 2021

The vast majority of adult autists have no formal diagnosis, and in sick W.E.I.R.D. societies they can’t afford to be open about their neurology. The autism medical industrial complex insists that only those who have fallen off the cliff, whose mental or physical health has been severely affected by isolation, discrimination, and bullying, are eligible for a “diagnosis” of autism.

Our society has been constructed such that the only assistance available to autistic adults consists of an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. If the severely injured autist is still alive, the assistance available addresses the acute symptoms of distress, without any thought being given to the toxic social environment that led to the acute crisis. A disproportionate numbers of autists take their lives before receiving a “diagnosis”. This points to a violation of human rights, to institutionalised discrimination and bullying in our society, and not just to a lack of adequate crisis support services and healthcare services.

The list of negative stereotypes incorrectly associated with autistic people is not getting any shorter. So-called “Autism at Work” programmes for example are predominantly focused on specific industries and professions that reinforce the stereotype of the autistic engineer and the stereotype of the autistic savant. This contributes to the creation of corporate ghettos of officially diagnosed autists, who are confined to working in specific roles – often for very small salaries, who must at all times be appropriately “managed”. Autistic people are prevented from interfering with the bigger social picture, which “autists can’t possibly understand” – by virtue of the pathologising language that is imposed by the medical autism industrial complex, which in larger countries has become a multi billion dollar industry.

This social climate has two effects:

  1. Firstly, many undercover autists who are more or less successfully clinging to a job that provides them with a livelihood will strive to remain undercover at all costs – that is until they reach breaking point and fall off the cliff. Similarly, given all the incorrect negative stereotypes, only few autistic artists, musicians, and academics openly identify as autistic.
  2. Secondly, virtually all undercover autists who are working in non-stereotypical roles, for example as social workers, clinicians (often highly competent in their areas of specialisation), as carers, nurses, teachers, administrators, etc. will remain undercover until they fall off the cliff or exit the workforce. The size of this second group may well be as large as the first group, but it hardly ever gets mentioned because the stigma is so extreme, and because the bullying in the healthcare sector is pervasive, and not limited to autistic people.

Tools for surviving in a W.E.I.R.D. world

No large organisation can claim to have a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion if it does not subscribe to independent oversight by marginalised segments of the population.

Companies can subscribe to independent oversight via the Employer Rating Service coordinated by the Autistic Collaboration Trust. Individuals and companies can contribute to and engage with the Employer Rating Service via two anonymous surveys in conjunction with the related Bullying Alert Service:

  1. The psychological safety baseline databaseAdditional contextThe survey, which does not collect data on specific employers but does collect information on the location (country) and the economic function/sector of the employer.
  2. The employer rating serviceThe survey, which collects data on specific employers. Employers are encouraged to subscribe and to use the service for regular psychological safety audits. Please note that in order to maximise the protection of employees, the Autistic Collaboration Trust will never share information about who participated in the survey nor any of the anonymous individual responses with employers nor with any other party.

Thriving in a less W.E.I.R.D. world

Like bees and ants, humans are eusocial animals. Through the lenses of evolutionary biology and cultural evolution, 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, a topic that I explore in detail in my new book The beauty of collaboration at human scale – Timeless patterns of human limitations, which is now in the peer review stage.

The following organisations, initiatives, and people are working towards a world in which all people can thrive:

  1. Autistic Collaboration Trust – a hub for mutual support, and encourages neurodivergent individuals and ventures to connect and establish long-term collaborations.
  2. Neuroclastic – A collective of neurodivergents cataloguing the experience, insights, knowledge, talents, and creative pursuits of autistics.
  3. Autistamatic – Here to help people understand more about the lives, challenges and above all potential of autistic people in society today.
  4. S23M – Collaboration for Life; enabling knowledge to flow to all the places where it can be put to good use.
  5. Democratizing Work – Working humans are so much more than “resources.” This is one of the central lessons of the current crisis
  6. Design Justice Network – An international community of people and organizations who are committed to rethinking design processes so that they center people who are too often marginalized by design.
  7. P2P Foundation – Researching, cataloging and advocating for the potential of P2P and Commons-based approaches to societal and consciousness change.

Celebrate neurodiversity to make the world safer for everyone

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 ways of thinking about diversity and the human species.

Neurodiversity Celebration Week is an invitation for your school, university, or organisation to ‘take the pledge’ and celebrate the intelligence, ability and employability of neurodivergent students and staff.

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

As the title suggests, 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.

Like bees and ants, humans are eusocial animals. Through the lenses of evolutionary biology and cultural evolution, 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. 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 put ubiquitous global digital connectivity to good use, to curate and share the lessons from minority perspectives, and to reflect critically on the human evolutionary journey and on the possibilities and limitations of human agency.

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.

The observations offered in this book are the synthesis of my field research from living amongst humans, which has been shaped by hundreds of deep and enjoyable conversations with friends and family within the autistic community, and with my peers at S23M, the human scale NeurodiVenture that started my journey of discovery and creative collaboration back in 2002. Many thanks to all the many who have contributed to growing my understanding of the human species.

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.

Much of the content in the book has been published in earlier articles on this website, on, 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.

All feedback is welcome!

I am also very interested in contributions of short personal anecdotes from lived experience that relate to my observations. You can choose to submit anecdotes either in anonymous format or with your name. In all cases I will ask you to review the context of any text/segment that I intent to cite, to ensure that I don’t misrepresent your perspective.

The book is designed for a broad audience. So if it does not meet that objective, please let me know.

If you would like to review the book and provide constructive feedback, you can request access to the complete content using the simple form on this page. I will respond promptly and email you relevant access details.

The introduction is included below, to provide you with an outline of the scope.


This book provides communities and organisations with a useful sense of direction, giving them the option to snap out of busyness as usual mode when they are ready. If or when this may happen will vary from case to case. It is not something that any individual has much control over. There is no shortage of optimistic books that celebrate human achievements and there is also no shortage of pessimistic books that proclaim the end of the human species. In contrast, I approach the Anthropocene from the fringe of human society, from the perspective of someone who does not relate to abstract human group identities.

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.

The result is a historical narrative that makes for slightly less depressing reading than 10,000 years of conflict and wars. Instead, human history can be understood as a series of learning experiences that present us with the option to break out of the tired, old, and increasingly destructive pattern of civilised conquest and domination. Whether our current global civilisation chooses to complete the familiar pattern of growth and collapse in the usual “civilised” manner is a question that is up to all of us.

Part I – Homo symbolicus

The first four chapters cover the period that predates written historic records, based on what can be deduced from the archaeological record and from the available knowledge about hunter gatherers and other human scale societies.

Chapter 1 examines the origins of human primates and outlines the collaborative traits that have enabled early humans to become established and to survive on all continents with the exception of Antarctica.

Chapter 2 identifies the patterns and cognitive limitations that define human scale, and it introduces the concept of neurodiversity as an aspect of biodiversity that has had a major influence on cultural evolution.

Chapter 3 introduces a small set of concepts that reflect the most fundamental cognitive architecture of human perception and thought, which provides us with a simple language to represent and reason about living systems.

Chapter 4 explores the topic of collective learning in small human scale groups, and offers a synopsis of thinking tools that predate the evolution of human language. The chapter concludes with an initial analysis of the ways in which cultures and social norms can either catalyse or compromise collective learning.

The period of human civilisations prior to the industrial era is condensed into two chapters, referring to the recurring patterns of civilisation building and collapse identified in the pioneering comparative work by historian Joseph Tainter.

Chapter 5 presents the three essential ingredients that have enabled the emergence of civilisations and complex societies consisting of many hundred, many thousand, and even many millions of people, and it provides working definitions of “cultural inertia” and “paradigmatic inertia” that are helpful for understanding the limits of collective intelligence.

Chapter 6 provides an introduction to the collapse of complex societies, with particular emphasis on the key elements that are applicable to our current global civilisation, including a useful working definition of “collapse of complexity”.

Part II – Homo economicus

The following nine chapters in Part II are devoted to an in-depth transdisciplinary analysis of cultural evolution since the industrial revolution, with an emphasis on the role of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people in undermining the repeated attempts of reducing the human species to homo economicus. Readers who are less interested in an in-depth critique of the industrial era through autistic eyes can skip this part of the book, and as needed revisit specific chapters in Part II in case the arguments laid out in Part III for moving towards homo ecologus seem difficult to follow.

Chapter 7 covers the industrial revolution, the factory model of production, the emergence of the “scientific” management, and the W.E.I.R.D. (Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic) myth of progress and superiority in which capital plays the dominant role in structuring social power relationships.

Chapter 8 examines the myth of progress and superiority in more detail by articulating the unspoken neuronormative assumptions about human “functioning” in industrialised society. The chapter proceeds with concrete examples from all continents about how industrial society actively disables minorities and offers critical thinking tools that can assist in re-framing the myth of progress into a symptom of collective delusion.

Chapter 9 analyses the effects of the addiction to economic growth and warns against the dangers of attempting to replace the narrative of growth with a more appropriate and less toxic universal narrative of progress. The reader is alerted to the inherent limits of the tool of storytelling.

Chapter 10 explains how computers have been used to extend the mirage of exponential growth, and offers a planetary and less W.E.I.R.D. perspective on the future of cultural and technological evolution.

Chapter 11 takes a critical look at the achievements of societies that hoard information for comparative advantage over other societies, and it exposes the illusion of the idealised standard human, which has been cultivated of the last 250 years.

Chapter 12 investigates the dynamic feedback loops between culture and technology that have led to the W.E.I.R.D. technological monocultures and competitive social games, which are frequently framed as disruptive forms of innovation, and which increasingly define life in the digital Anthropocene.

Chapter 13 identifies collective cognitive blind spots. It explains how the cult of busyness has elevated storytelling to a silver bullet and has relegated model building to the dustbin of history, paving the way for a seemingly bright future of artificially intelligent systems.

Chapter 14 zeros in on the cognitive dissonance between the anthropocentric myths of meritocracy, technological progress, and growth on the one hand and the needs of all the people and other living creatures that we care about on the other hand. The discussion exposes the limits of the Western scientific worldview.

Chapter 15 summarises the current predicament of humanity. It exposes a social operating system that is afflicted by a suicidal collective learning disability and that is dominated by the life destroying logic of digitised capital.

Part III – Homo ecologus

The chapters in Part III offer critical thinking tools and first hand experiences from creating good company at human scale, and lead up to a short conclusion about the limits of social complexity that can be sustained on our path into the future. The tools provided may assist us in collectively creating ecologies of good companies, in nurturing a global knowledge commons, and in finding viable paths into a more neurodiversity friendly future.

Chapter 16 asks the question of how to paddle back from lethal forms of monoculture. The investigation points back to the cultural characteristics of early human scale knowledge based societies, which relied on knowledge sharing and trusted relationships rather than on the not-so-invisible hand of competitive markets.

Chapter 17 provides an emergency brake to slow us down to a speed that allows critical self reflection. It outlines neurodivergent forms of collaboration that are much less W.E.I.R.D. than the civilised myth of progress and offers a set of thinking tools that may allow us to progress from so-called wealth to good health.

Chapter 18 uses the visual languages of the human lens and the ecological lens to contrast life at human scale with life in the W.E.I.R.D. world of busyness. It offers proven tools for intentional bottom-up cultural innovation at human scale that can be deployed today.

Chapter 19 elaborates how collaboration can be understood as an evolutionary force based on a suitable working definition of “collective intelligence”, and it provides further guidance for transitioning to creative collaboration at human scale. The reader is encouraged to start by rediscovering the language of life.

Chapter 20 concludes with a reminder that collapse of hierarchical complexity is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity, and a return to more locally appropriate use of technology.

The social architecture of collective intelligence


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.

Capacity for independent thought

The following observations describe the foundations of autistic culture:

I just can’t be a sycophant to anyone. I can’t be a follower / worshipper / fan / groupie to celebrities, political figures, artists, authors, academics. I think for myself. Always. This isn’t winning me friends, but…I can’t change this. It seems to be a combination of outside-the-box independent thinking, as well as trial by fire in which I’ve been burned too many times. I always tend to double and triple check myself before falling in behind anyone.

To expand on this, add groups to the list. I’ve been a member of many groups in my life. I’ve been in organizational positions, etc. But the shelf-life of these memberships seems to have an expiration date. I end up saying something unpopular that causes a falling out. It’s all well meaning, when I stray from conformity. I don’t want to stray from the pack. I’ll analyse, think of exceptions or say something that contradicts accepted views, and before long, I’m out.

There are people I immensely admire, whose writings, ideas, lives, I love and am profoundly influenced by. But no one has monopoly over my attention. & I evolve, change, I don’t just stay fixed in one place focused on personalities. I easily can disagree even when I admire them. There are ideas I have come to find consistently valid. But even with these, I find myself changing in nuanced ways over time. I question my most cherished perspectives. I just do. As if the ground under my feet is always shifting.

I’m probably the most loyal friend a person can have, once a bond is made. That’s what is paradoxical about this. But not everyone is aware of this. I defend underdogs, I stick up for people who lack power.

obrerxconsciente – the conscious cat

Autists are allergic to social power differentials and all forms of personality cult.

I’m like this too. Following any movement, ideology, person or an organization is totally beyond me. Sooner or later I always find an issue where they are blatantly incoherent and I give up.

Anna Weronika

Non-autists find this so hard to understand.

pippy joan veronica

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.

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

Further background ➜ People management and bullying

Awareness of the limits of understanding

There is a very important distinction between arguing to “win” and bi-directional sharing of knowledge and experiences to learn from each other.

Extract from What would a healthy society look like?

It is helpful to distinguish five basic categories of beliefs and related knowledge:

1. Beliefs based on scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are intimately familiar with. Only a small minority of our beliefs fall into this category.

2. Beliefs based on scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are not intimately familiar with. If we are “educated”, a sizeable minority of our beliefs fall into this category.

3. Beliefs based on personal experiences and observations. For those who identify as autistic, a significant number of beliefs held fall into this category.

4. Beliefs that represent explicit social agreements between specific people regarding communication and collaboration. For those who identify as autistic, a significant number of beliefs held fall into this category, especially agreements with family, friends, and colleagues.

5. Beliefs based on what others have told us and what we have been encouraged to believe by parents, teachers, and friends, … and politicians and advertisers, etc. For those who do not identify as autistic, the majority of beliefs held fall into this category.

All categories of human beliefs are associated with some level of uncertainty regarding the validity and applicability to a specific context at hand.

When people argue to “win”, they mostly rely on beliefs in category 5 (opinions). Such arguments are about dominance, not facts. For autistic people it is a waste of time engaging in conversation with neuronormative people who most of the time are more interested in winning than in learning.

Neuronormative people have a huge capacity for cognitive dissonance, and unfortunately there is no cure for that. A neuronormative colleague once described himself as very “pliable”.

Especially when social status points can be gained, beliefs are adapted as needed, to better fit into the social context at hand. Recently I mentioned to an acquaintance that most employees in larger organisations seem to be working on their individual careers rather than for the company that employs them, and the response was “of course, that’s what everyone does”.

Ability to nurture, maintain, and repair trusted relationships

Autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity. Autistic people relate to specific people, and primarily to other autistic people, and not to group identities. We are well equipped at creating and maintaining long-term trusted relationships at eye level:

Trust is gained reciprocally, not through institutions or conventions. Takes one to know one, they say.

pippy joan veronica

I had to learn how to build and invest into relationships. I didn’t grow up with those tools. And then I had to learn the difference between boundaries and abuse.

Rie Sinclair

This difference in constructing social relationships has profound implications. Autists understand a group of people to consist of the set of pairwise relationships between individuals.

Mutual trust and respect can also mean a mutual recognition and acceptance of significant differences in needs and preferences – simply allowing the other person to be themselves, without undertaking any attempts to coerce the other person to do certain things in certain ways, or to respond to a question or situation immediately, without any time allowed for reflection and unique ways of information processing.

Psychological safety means being surrounded by (familiar) trusted peers, not by “being part of” an amorphous abstract group like being “human”, being “male” or “female”, being “part of organisation xyz”, or being an “Antarctican” – national identities are amongst the silliest inventions, and one learns to be careful not to offend the millions of (insane?) non-autistic believers in the various cults of nationality.

A group only needs one unsafe relationship for the entire group to become an unsafe environment. This is a practical working definition of psychological safety.

Many autists also have the capability to develop strong bonds with animals and even with inanimate objects. Because autistic people don’t spend time in the abstract world of social status symbols, many of us care deeply about the quality of our relationships with other people and with the natural world.

Abstract group identities are very broad umbrella terms, and in my experience autists are very aware of the limitations of such abstract descriptors. Group identities often involve sets of people far beyond the Dunbar limit of relationships that humans can maintain, and entail ideas, beliefs, and values that an autist may endorse or reject to varying degrees.

Autistic people don’t “belong” to any groups, but the idiosyncratic relationship between two autistic people, including their idiosyncratic ways of interacting, may belong to one or more groups. If all relationships in a small group are based on mutual trust and respect, then the group can be considered to be good company. If some of the relationships lack mutual trust or respect, then the group is in an unhealthy state.

Further background ➜ Autism – The cultural immune system of human societies

The courage to specialise

Extract from Beyond peak human standardisation

Unless society starts to appreciate and celebrate neurodiversity and neurodivergent collaboration the future of humans looks bleak. The following illustrations can assist in establishing trusted collaborations with autists and with neurodiverse teams.

Neurodiversity - the core of creativity.001

In the above illustration the relative surface areas of the red, green, and blue rectangles represent the usage profile of a neuronormative brain, and the sum of the surface areas represent the total brain volume.

Neurodiversity - the core of creativity.002

An autistic brain has the same volume but a distinctly different usage profile. The range of domains that are of interest is much narrower and deeper, with the exception of intuitive (subconscious) social skills, which are much less deep than in a neurotypical “reference” brain. Also note that a significant part of the autistic brain is devoted to the development of exceptionally deep knowledge and skills in specific domains of interest (the example reflects my specific interests, each autistic person has a unique profile of core interests).

Successful and mutually enjoyable collaboration and focuses on shared or overlapping areas of deep knowledge and hinges on neurotypical adaptation to autistic levels of social skills.

Public competency networks

Extract from Organising for neurodivergent collaboration

Within a good company (smaller than 50 people) and especially within a team, everyone is acutely aware of the competencies of all the other members. The NeurodiVenture operating model is a minimalistic implementation of a non-hierarchical organisation.

Within traditional teams knowledge about the distribution of available competencies tends to be tacit – locked up in peoples’ heads, it is not available in explicit form. In a NeurodiVenture  all members expose (write down and share) these so-called individual competency networks for mutual benefit.

Beyond eliminating formal hierarchical structures the NeurodiVenture model removes all incentives for the emergence of informal “power-over” structures via transparency of all individual competency networks for the benefit of everyone within the company. This is perhaps the most radical idea within the NeurodiVenture model.

The result is an immensely valuable index of competencies consisting of up to 50 unique perspectives on the company. These perspectives are not merged into some absurd attempt to create a unique source of truth. All perspectives are considered equally valid. Collectively their presence allows the company to rapidly respond intelligently and with courage to all kinds of external events, by drawing on collective intelligence in a very literal sense.

To appreciate the significance, let’s assume that on average for each person in a company of 50 there are 10 to 20 externally or internally triggered categories of events (these events can be thought of as use cases) associated with a demand that relate to the person’s core competencies, and perhaps there are another 10 to 20 events that the person is also well equipped to deal with (beyond the core competencies). This leads to a collective set of 50 x 20 to 50 x 40 = 1,000 to 2,000 competency self assessments, and to a multitude of perspectives from others on a subset of these declared competencies. Having all this information available in explicit form within a company is an extremely valuable tool.

But of course hardly anyone in a traditional organisation with hierarchical power structures would openly share their individual competency network including their perspectives on the core competencies of other members of the organisation. Anyone who thinks about this obvious observation for a couple of minutes has to conclude that traditional organisations represent a form of collective stupidity – the result of inherent lack of mutual trust due to in-group competition.

Transparency of individual competency networks enables meta knowledge (who has which knowledge and who entrusts whom with questions or needs in relation to specific domains of knowledge) to flow freely within an organisation.

The conceptualisation of meta knowledge flows via individual competency networks assists the coordination of activities via regular Open Space workshops, and it acts as an effective dampener on the informal hierarchies that can easily come to plague hierarchical and “non-hierarchical” organisations.

Note that the concept of a “flat hierarchy” is a neuronormative oxymoron. Either you tolerate social power gradients or you don’t.

Beyond regular Open Space workshops, adopting a simple peer-to-peer advice process goes a long way towards nurturing collective intelligence, and as an added bonus, it minimises the risk of misunderstandings and potential for conflict. In case conflict does emerge between two individuals, transparent competency networks make it easy to agree on a suitable mediator who is trusted by both parties – without the need for any hierarchical power structures.

Further background ➜ Collaboration for dummies

Awareness of the limits of human scale

Extract from Nurturing ecologies of care

Available archaeological and anthropological evidence points towards highly egalitarian social norms within human scale (i.e. small) pre-civilised societies. In such societies social norms against wielding power over others would have allowed the unique talents and domain specific knowledge of autistic people be recognised as valuable contributions.

In a psychologically safe environment at human scale (up to Dunbar’s number of around 150 people) the inability to maintain hidden agendas becomes a genuine strength that creates a collaborative advantage for the entire group. In fact autistic honesty will also have made autistic people prime candidates for maintaining trusted collaborative relationships with other groups.

In a transactional industrialised world, collective intelligence literally goes down the drain. In my experience, organisations with several thousand staff tend to act less intelligent than a single individual, and as group size grows further, intelligence tends towards zero.

The graph above assumes that as group size increases, people attempt to maintain more and more relationships – which end up deteriorating into transactional contacts with very limited shared understanding. The decline in collective intelligence can be avoided by consciously limiting the number of relationships of individuals, and by investing in trusted relationships between groups.

The dampening of feedback loops within hierarchical social structures further reduces collective intelligence. Hierarchical forms of organisation are inherently incompatible with the construction of trusted relationships within and between groups. Anyone who attempts to establish trusted relationships outside the hierarchical tree structure implicitly questions the effectiveness of the hierarchy, and thereby undermines one or more authorities within the structure.

The NeurodiVenture operating model based on trusted relationships at eye level not only raises neurodiversity as a top level concern, but by imposing a hard limit on group size (50 in the case of S23M, enforced by our company constitution) it also ensures that every member of the team has spare cognitive capacity for building and maintaining trusted relationships with the outside world, whilst at the same time encouraging creative collaboration for life.

Further background ➜ Celebration of interdependence

A partnership model for collaboration between groups

In case you think non-hierarchical forms of organisations can’t possibly scale, take a look at Buurtzorg, an international nursing organisation that operates as a collaborative network of 950 autonomous nursing teams with a total of 15,000 employees.

When human-scale networks / NeurodiVentures grow beyond human scale, they split into collaborating sub-networks.

Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus (homo) is the genus that includes all cultural species.

The main difference between modern emergent human scale cultural species (NeurodiVentures etc.) and prehistoric human scale cultural species lies in the language systems and communication technologies that are being used to coordinate activities and to record and transmit knowledge within cultural organisms, between cultural organisms, and between cultural species.

The main commonality between prehistoric societies and modern human scale cultural species is the critical importance of knowledge for survival, and a cultural appreciation for the value of knowledge and the value of trust based collaboration at eye level both within cultural organisms and between cultural organisms.

The main difference between all human scale cultural species and super-human scale “civilised” societies lies in the devaluation of knowledge and reliance on anonymous transactions and abstract monetary metrics, and in a corresponding devaluation of trust based collaboration at eye level.

Time horizons shorter than 150 years encourage tribalism and counter-productive competition between groups. Recently I was delighted to read about a company here in Aotearoa that operates on a 500 year time horizon. S23M, our employee owned NeurodiVenture is 19 years old. Our measure of success is tied to a 200+ year time horizon, and it depends on maintaining long term eye level relationships with joint-venture partners, with customers, and with suppliers.

In an ecology of care the focus shifts from speculative investments for profit (where the people actively involved in a venture are viewed as tools towards a profitable “exit”) to investments in the health of ecosystems and people (where the people actively involved in a human scale venture are co-investing in each other, resulting in a network of trusted relationships that connects the venture into an ecosystem of multi-dimensional resource flows between suppliers, customers, and partners).

Symmetric contractual agreements between organisations, clear definition of deliverables, and an extension of a simple peer-to-peer advice process across the organisational boundary go a long way towards minimising the risk of misunderstandings and potential for conflict. Furthermore, transparent competency networks can be extended to include partner organisations.

Conflicts are minimised via intentionally de-weaponised contractual agreements, so that both parties to a partnership agreement have strong incentives for resolving any potential conflict by learning more about each other, and as needed, via mediation through a shared trusted party in wider network of partners, customers, and suppliers (over a period of 19 years I have never run into this scenario) – without the need for any hierarchical power structures.

Our society faces the unprecedented challenge of making a transition towards significantly different values within a single generation. This is the real challenge, rather than finding our way back to a state of “normal” that only ever worked for a very small minority.

Further background ➜ Life beyond economics

A language for reasoning about living systems

Our future depends on the adoption of new forms of creative collaboration. The kind of mathematics that can assist us in reasoning about dynamically evolving value systems and the coordination of non-trivial circular resource flows involve groups and graphs rather than numerical calculations.

The ecological lens is a modelling language for evolving ecosystems. It connects the human lens and the evolutionary lens via the activity of play and a critical perspective/motivation. The ecological lens catalyses diversity within the living world from an ecological perspective.

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.

The NeurodiVenture operating model steps outside the box of the established social and economic paradigm by adopting a life affirming working definition of collective intelligence that is not confined to the distorted characterisation of human potential that dominates in W.E.I.R.D cultures.

Collective intelligence : finding a niche and thriving in the living world by creating good company

In this context I also recommend drawing on the insights encapsulated in the 10 Design Justice Principles, which can assist both neuronormative and neurodivergent people in learning how to unW.E.I.R.D. our societies.

Further background ➜ Rediscovering the language of life


New understanding and the most valuable insights are generated by the tacit knowledge that flows freely between people (no/low social friction) and the critical questions that are being asked (high intellectual friction).

Beyond a network of trusted relationships at eye level (no social power gradients) there is no universal organisational structure that can compensate for lack of psychological safety and transparency.

This is bad news for those who sell management fads, silver bullet technologies, and simplistic diversity & inclusion recipes that pretend to offer “solutions”, and it should be good news for autistic people, who are natural catalysts for collective intelligence within their social environments. Autists contribute to trusted relationships and intellectual friction in ways that expand the sphere of discourse of what is possible.

The unique human ability to adapt to new contexts, powered by creative collaboration at eye level, enabled humans to minimise conflicts and establish a presence in virtually all ecosystems on the planet. This level of adaptability is the signature trait of the human species.

Active disablement of minorities

In a W.E.I.R.D. culture where autistic people are pathologised, it can be helpful to point to reflections on culture made by outsiders and members of minorities

  1. who are marginalised and often persecuted,
  2. whose educational diet was not limited to the W.E.I.R.D. education system,
  3. and those who have spent significant times of their lives outside their culture of origin.

The following selection of examples may give neuronormative, culturally “well adjusted” people an introduction to symptoms of the W.E.I.R.D. social disease.

An American perspective

The United States of Narcissism, by American Canary, directed by Amanda Zackem (2020):

A Japanese perspective

Excerpts from Future Design: Incorporating Preferences of Future Generations for Sustainability (2020):

While the market may be a place where desired short – term gains can be achieved extremely efficiently, it is not meant for allocating resources with an eye towards the welfare of future generations. Even in a democracy designed to compensate for market failures, a method of realizing profits for people at present, by its very nature, does not take into account the welfare of the future generations… The greatest concern of most democratically elected politicians is their own re – election, not the need to ensure that their actions consider future generations.

The market, democracy, and individual optimism lead to the “ If we all start logging this mountain, we could make a fortune ” perspective from the second half of the twentieth century to the present…

In neighborhoods, city councils, and national assemblies, which could be considered as similar mechanisms in our own societies, one never sees a scenario in which participants envision a generation, say, 100 years into the future, before they make decisions; in our society, the idea of present – day elected officials representing future generations is unthinkable.

We are realizing that the potential for a new field of science, one that bridges the gap between traditional science and the humanities, is hidden in the designs of future social systems.

Sociality was essential in order for people to work together and communicate for a single goal, so it must have evolved that way. The market is in fact a tool to erase sociality.

The market is good at balance of supply and demand on a short term in which there is no element of time, and this changes once time is factored in. Most investments do not take place over multiple generations and is focused on profit in the near future. As has just been described, markets are prone to fail with uncertain futures. This is reinforced by people’s shortsightedness. The market lacks any mechanism that distributes resources between current and future generations. Instead, markets exploit future resources without hesitation.

People naturally gravitate towards policies that give out benefits within one’s lifetime. Therefore, indirect representative democracies do not implement institutions that take future generations into account. Optimism bias is one reason why estimates for public works tend to exaggerate the benefits and understate costs. Another reason is strategic manipulation by politicians and contractors . the cost of climate change is minimal for the current generation but increases with the passing of time — for which future generations must pay dearly.

it is practical to use the human tendency to be able to think of how others think in their hearts and create a group of people who act as a person from the future world.  This group will be a sort of imaginary future generation , and make institutions to make it possible for them to bargain. We shall call this group the Ministry of the Future.

The Ministry needs only to come up with possible problems that people will face in the future, and create several alternatives from which current generations can choose the course of action. Then, we randomly select a number of individuals from society and through dialogue and debate with the Ministry of the Future, make them represent future generations. Then , we must also choose a group of people to serve as representatives of the current situation. The process will have the two sides and the ministry discusses and argues to decide upon a single course of action to solve problems to be faced by future generations.

Furthermore, by regulating the market from the perspective of future generations, myopic democracy will have to change as well. Perhaps constitutions will be amended and new legal systems will be built up on the basis of a “ basic law of the future ”.

As the example of climate change shows, various fields are incorporated into the IPCC but they do not have a clear future perspective , so their intention is not to design the future itself. Therefore a new research field is needed. We can call it future design. Perhaps in the future there will be future design research institutions and graduate programs. Think of a society in which one person in ten thousand only thinks about the future. Many universities will have a future department, complete with graduate schools and young people will learn how to design the future. From them, some may become researchers and others may become public servants in the ministry or department of the future. I hope for a society in which these kinds of people will be honored and respected.

Tatsuyoshi Saijo
Specially Appointed Professor (Program Director), Research Institute for Humanity and Nature
Professor, School of Management, Kochi University of Technology
Director, Research Institute for Future Design

A Native American perspective

The talk Looking Toward the Seventh Generation (2008) by Oren Lyons examines the origins of the obsession with growth and domination in Western ideology and law.

Onondaga Chief and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons discusses the increasingly urgent issues of global warming and climate change and points to Indigenous peoples, their core values, and their reciprocal relationships to the natural world as sources of instruction for human beings to heed in order to combat those issues.

Oren Lyons describes a collaboration between indigenous nations that has a history that predates European “discovery” by over thousand years, and that has survived until today. The culture he describes is one example of a number of indigenous societies that have traditionally operated with a 150 year or longer look-ahead time horizon. 

A Nigerian perspective

Excerpt from In Nigeria, colonial thinking affects everyone. It is time we found new heroes (2020):

We joke about “colo mentality” in Nigeria as a problem that affects only “the ignorant masses”, when, in reality, it is an affliction that excludes no one – equally responsible for the most obvious displays of self-alienation, as it is for the not-so-declaratory, corrosive transformations it makes to our ideas.

Is the solution to build powerful Black nations by imitating a history of European capitalist domination and aspiring to false notions of “rationality” as espoused by European philosophy and science? Is this not, also, the result of a “colonial mentality”? Shall we counteract the violence of European colonisation by showing that we, too, can be just as exploitative, as greedy, “rational”?

I do not ask these questions to be rhetorical. I am, also, searching for answers.

One of the many devastating consequences of colonialism, in its imposition of one mode of thought and way of life, attempting to destroy all others, is that it shallows our imaginations, too closely confining them to present, near-recent, experience.

It does not help that Europeans continue, in their recordings of a history of ideas, to persist in the belief of their unique mightiness. As Zophia Edwards, a sociology professor at Providence College in the United States, notes, western scholarship is replete with false notions that the most useful ideas come from the global north, only copied by the global south. Conveniently forgetting that such ideas as a universal human rights were first developed by Latin American countries.

Through wilful acts of forgetting and myth-making, and despite the evidence of our labour in the establishment of their metaphorical houses, it remains prominent in the minds of many Europeans that the current socioeconomic development of African countries is simply the result of our supposed lack of intellectual originality.

We are, in Nigeria, beginning to unmask the villains of our present predicament. They are not just the colonials – every one of them – but those, also, among our historical elite who aided and abetted colonialism. Some, like the slave trader Madam Tinubu, we have unsoundly memorialised, though by their wickedness we should have known they were not heroes. And our heroes?

It is not enough to reveal the lies and tear down the statues, though this we must. We have, also, to build things in their places. The political thought of the anti-apartheid activist and thinker Steve Biko contains an instructive conception of freedom that requires, first, the elevation of Black Consciousness, of Black cultures and communities, out of the false baseness they have been pushed into. Second, the thorough understanding that white people are just, well, people. That the space that they have collectively attempted to occupy in the last few hundred years is not simply one of superiority, but an attempt at being more than human. And to have done so by maintaining others in sub-human state.

For everyone to be brought back to being simply, fully, but not more than, a human being, white people will need to give up instrumental power, and more – a mental, religious, understanding of themselves as God-like.

If Black Consciousness, the emancipation of the Black mind, and the recovery of the true freedom of all human beings starts with correcting the obvious violences of colonisation, it is not completed until we have questioned every communal understanding we take for granted. Our real heroes cannot be left unscathed. It is daunting. We will be tired. But free.

Eniola Anuoluwapo Soyemi
Political theorist and a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute

Māori perspectives

Excerpts from the introduction of the report of Matike Mai Aotearoa – The Independent Working Group on Constitutional Change (2016):

“I respect that our people want to be at the table and that Parliament or the Council is where the table’s at right now but that doesn’t mean that’s where it should always be at or even where it’s meant to be at…I want my tamariki to know we can change that and reset the table because it’s the right thing to do”.

“I work for Council partly because I’ve got a mortgage but also because I think it can be better for some of our people to be in there but it’s a struggle, especially in a little place like this…I’d love it if there was a better way to do things…not just because it might be easier… and I only say might be easier because our people can be hard taskmasters, but because at least we would be responsible for ourselves and wouldn’t have to keep asking for permission for things”.

“We never talk about constitutions in our mahi but we know that the people we deal with have no say over the government decisions that affect their everyday lives. They have no say over the economic policies that make them poor or take away their jobs. I know that’s not what the treaty was about and it just seems important to get it right”.

“I was in court before this hui for my mahi and everyone up on a charge was a Māori. They don’t know what to do and even if they did they have no power to change it. That might seem a long way away from any kōrero about this kaupapa but it isn’t really”.

“I’ve been in this wheelchair for eighteen years and I know all about the frustration of all of this. It’s not just policy decisions that affect me and others like me but the other power and the system that talks about partnership yet here we are…just where the old people were when they were having hui like this fifty or a hundred years ago”.

“I know some people might say all this talk is unrealistic but the reality we have now isn’t working. Parliament isn’t about us or the treaty…it’s not even from us and unless things change we’re just going to keep on having protests or making submissions or forming new Parties and nothing will really change”.

“When we told a friend we were coming to this hui she said ‘dream on’ and I know none of this will be easy…lots of others will probably think it’s unrealistic as well but Te Tiriti was a bit of dream because it was generous to the Crown and it had a tikanga…we haven’t got that tikanga right yet but we have to keep trying”.

“We have always had the whatukura tangata whenua or cornerstones of a constitution that rest in our tikanga and our mana and tino rangatiratanga. They are part of our whakapapa and are what joins humans to everything in this world and the universe…mai te wenua ki te rangi…The key will be giving effect to them for the benefit of our mokopuna…and identifying the values that would make it unique and long-lasting…being true to what is tika rather than what is expedient”.

Not everyone agreed on every point at every hui of course, and there was often a very palpable fear that advocating any real constitutional transformation might provoke a Pākehā backlash. But the overwhelming consensus was that more needed to be done, and should be done. Like the rangatahi in Porirua, the people wanted to be “in”.

However we hope that the Report does justice to the views which people shared with us. We also hope that it helps point the way to the deliberative constitutional transformation which they sought.

A Taiwanese perspective

Excerpt from We see democracy itself as a technology (2020):

What are the central elements of your present COVID-19 strategy?

We have acted along three principles: fast, fair and fun. Fast: There is a toll-free number that anyone can call and report for example a shortage of masks. Fair: We are ensuring through the single payer national health insurance that more than 99,9% of not just citizens, but also residents can have access to rationed masks. And finally, fun, humor over rumor: We battle the infodemic of conspiracy theories by creating memes and cute figures like Shiba Inu that people shared much more on social media than conspiracy theories.

Corona is more than a health crisis: What was your role as the Digital Minister?

The most important technologies in the Corona crisis are soap, sanitizers and the physical vaccine, the mask. But we did use a lot of novel data applications to battle the pandemic – like an app developed by citizens, civic hackers as we call them here. This app visualizes the availability of masks at pharmacies, enabling people to make evidence-based interpolations and base their critique on real data.

Transparency creates trust.

One key factor is alignment: Everybody can see that pharmacists, to stay with this example, really share the goal of giving as many people as possible access to masks. The other factor is accountability: Not only can everybody check the app, everybody can suggest better distribution methods.

How do you guarantee privacy?

We call it participatory self-surveillance. In high risk places like bars we do require that people make it possible to be contacted in case of a local transmission. But all information is distributed and decentralized and preserves the anonymity valued at such places.

What makes the Taiwanese society so open to new technology, so quick to adapt?

One important factor is that in Taiwan democracy is really new. The first presidential election was in 1996, the world wide web already existed. We see democracy itself as a technology, an applied social technology. The constitution is something that you can tweak and change – we already did it five times and are now considering another change. In a way, democracy is not very different from semiconductor design – anyone can improve it.

What is the other factor?

It is connected to the first: People who are 40 years old and more remember the years of martial law. And any technology that threatens to take society back to a more authoritarian era is an automatic non-starter in Taiwan. We’ll just say: Do you want to go back to martial law? Do you want to go back to white hair?

What are non-authoritarian technologies for you?

We are very focused on democratizing technologies like free software, open-source or the distributed ledger of the blockchain. We also question historical rituals of democracy, like a vote every four years. Is that really a good idea? Do you get all the best input for the democratic institutions? We augmented the election process and introduced referenda, participatory budgeting, E-petitions, you name it.

Western democracies seem to be struggling in this pandemic with a very disparate reaction to the challenge of Corona. What is your take on this?

The great thing about democracy is the resilience. It relies on people actually having scientific understanding and renewing the institution. It will be better the next time around. Just as Taiwan in 2004 set up a new infrastructure and did yearly drills and augmented with the latest digital technologies. I’m sure that now that you have this societal exposure to a SARS 2.0, you too will do better when SARS 3.0 comes around.

How do you cooperate as a state institution with citizens and other societal actors?

We are building a norm around data that is social sector first – neither public sector first, which would mean state surveillance and authoritarian intelligence, nor private sector dominated, which would mean surveillance capitalism and the dependence on multinational companies. We always put people first in people, public, private partnerships.

Audrey Tang
Digital Minister of Taiwan

An Autistic perspective

Extract from Uncovering the Words of the Wordless Aut Sutra (2020):

We consider the Aut Sutra as pre-dating 500 BCE (when the historical Buddha appeared) by at least a hundred million years. We consider active-receptive autist (or atmost) silence as an appearance of suññatā (emptiness). Further, the familiar uncorrupted qualities that we find in the Aut Sutra include:

honesty (lack of tact)

a sense of self that is not boundaried, not limited (lack of self-consciousness)

reality as interdependence (proto-panpsychism)

senses experienced as not separate from each other (synesthesia /lack of sensory discrimination)

movement in stillness and stillness in movement (lack of binary discrimination)

embodied and with everything / spaciousness-in-placeness (lack of mind-body split, lack of ego)

pronoun fluidity (lack of fixed positions for self and other)

friendliness (lack of distrust)

equanimity (lack of hierarchical reasoning)

Helen Mirra
A [u|r] tist

Critical thinking tools

Minority perspectives and outsiders are the most valuable source of critical thinking tools and the main source of collective intelligence for any society.

The way Oren Lyons talks about collaboration between “peoples” fits very well with what I outline in this article:

…Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus (homo) is the genus that includes all cultural species… 

“Peoples” correspond to what I refer to as a “cultural species”. I came across Oren Lyons via the work of Tatsuyoshi Saijo on social and economic decision making in modern societies. Both scholars don’t hesitate to point out the sucidal short-terminism of W.E.I.R.D. economic logic.

I can also relate to the Nigerian perspective above. From my childhood I have memories of the European/British colonial attitude in the early 1970s in Nigeria, in the years after the country gained “independence”. The way the locals were viewed by European expats had many similarities to the way in which autistic people are treated – as backwards and incapable of measuring up to Western standards of “civilisation”.

Current Māori perspectives point to the role of wilful ignorance and deception in W.E.I.R.D. cultures.

The Taiwanese perspective on COVID-19 highlights the critical role of mutual trust within society, as well as the latent potential for collective intelligence that is at our fingertips when trust is combined with transparency and with digital communication and collaboration technologies to enact new forms of democracy.

Autists conceptualise the world in terms of trusted relationships with unique people rather than in terms of tribes and abstract group identities. They are best understood as the cultural immune system of human societies that is active in virtually all human groups that involve relationships between 50 or more people.

The presence of autistic people ensures that all groups of humans are equipped with some level of self-reflective capability that counteracts cultural bias. We are devastated when we learn that neuronormative people exploit relationships as a tool to advance their social status in a group, and that “normal W.E.I.R.D.” relationships are not about continuous collaboration and learning from each other in domains that we care deeply about. Furthermore, autistic people tend to act as catalysts for knowledge flows and shared understanding between groups. Pathologising autistic people is a really bad idea.

The 26 MODA + MODE backbone principles act as a baseline set of thinking tools, to avoid getting entrapped in a single paradigm. A specific culture may have further bones, but one or more missing vertebrae lead to a collective learning disability. The following subset of MODA + MODE thinking tools relate directly to the critical role of minority perspectives for the development of collective intelligence:

  1. Understand that minorities and outsiders are well positioned for uncovering attempts of deception
  2. Give minorities and outsiders access to private means of communication
  3. Recognise neurological differences as authentic and valuable sources of innovative potential
  4. Value local perspectives more than widely-held popular beliefs
  5. Understand that all information is dependent on perspective and viewpoint
  6. Understand that a multitude of perspectives generates new insights
  7. Understand that power gradients stand in the way of transformation
  8. Recognise paradoxes and disagreements as the essence of continuous improvement
  9. Engage in niche construction
  10. Use feedback loops to create learning systems

Only by pathologising and actively disabling autistic people is the autism medical industrial complex able to manipulate the exchange rate for trustworthy autistic knowledge and honest autistic advice in favour of maximum corporate profits.

Active disablement of autists at work

There are many reasons why autists often find it difficult to find employment and to stay employed. The following examples summarise experiences made by many autists. I relate to all of them:

  1. Being perceived as over-qualified or over-experienced, potentially embarrassing colleagues and superiors
  2. Being too honest to withhold the truth from customers or to tolerate social power politics within a team or between teams
  3. Working in ways that differ from established “best practices”, resulting in being perceived as unable to integrate into a team, even if the results achieved are objectively superior to established “best practice”
  4. Inability to perform small talk to the level considered “normal” according to the unspoken rules for social interaction, resulting in being perceived as unfriendly or uncooperative
  5. Refusal to partake in after-work social events in environments that represent sensory hell for an autistic person
  6. Requesting flexibility in terms of working hours or changes to office environments that are perceived as inappropriate and incompatible with established local norms
  7. Exhaustion and burn-out, often due to a combination of sensory overload and drowning in workload that others find too difficult or too much to handle

Many autists choose to stay undercover in order to avoid career suicide, but they pay an extreme price in terms of the effort of continuous masking, being bullied and misunderstood on a regular basis, continuous low level anxiety, periods of depression, and at times suicidal ideation.

Given the myths and misinformation peddled by the autism medical industrial complex, the chances for employment of openly autistic people are further compromised, playing into the hands of organisations that specialise in employing or brokering employment for autistic people, often for specific roles in quality assurance, data analysis, and software development. Many of these organisations systematically exploit available government funding for employing disabled people, whilst paying their autistic staff salaries close to the minimum wage – or at best – market rates for junior or mid-level roles.

The future of W.E.I.R.D. monocultures

Like earlier severe pandemics that are no longer part of living memory, the COVID-19 pandemic holds the potential to become a major catalyst for learning and cultural change.

“The moment we become arrogant, we´ll lose”. (March 2020)
– Prof Kim Woo-Ju, South Korea’s leading COVID-19 expert

Enablement of minorities and outsiders

Regarding the future, the following observations by Oren Lyons seem highly appropriate:

How is global warming impacting native indigenous people? 

It impacts poor people and indigenous peoples are almost always poor, they’re the first ones to suffer. In Africa and Haiti, people are already suffering from global warming  and the Arctic is really going down fast. I get reports from Alaska, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Mongolia, the polar caps, it is all the same, it is going down, going down fast. So fast that there’s no transition, no transition for the ice culture to adapt and the animals are caught in it the same way as the humans are. The Inuit of Greenland say that they only give the White Bear 20 more years and the White Bear is now mating with the Brown Bear, so they know. Things are changing quickly. I would expect that in the next two years we are going to be involved in some very serious fires, bigger ones than what was seen this year, and there are going to be bigger storms, maybe one or two Katrina scale storms and that’s going to wake the people up. And then from that point, we may have a chance, but the people have to be slammed hard on the side of the head to where they have to fear. It seems to be the only thing that they’re going to respond to now. They’re certainly not going to respond to common sense. It’s going to take their own personal survival fear kicking in, and if that’s what it takes. We had a string of 139 tornadoes up the center of the United States this past week. Nobody’s ever seen that before, that’s unprecedented. Doesn’t that tell you something? If that doesn’t tell you that we need to be changing from how you’re living your life I would say something’s wrong.

Last year my colleague Dr. Pete Rive published a book titled “Worldbending : a survivor’s guide” (introduction, video synopsis).

Our company, an employee owned neurodiventure that is the main sponsor of the website, offers Creative Collaboration, a service that assists organisations to navigate an uncertain future by unlocking creativity and by establishing and maintaining psychological safety on an ongoing basis.

What would a healthy society look like?

It is easy to point out the flawed assumptions and circular reasoning that underpin the justification for the institutions and social norms in W.E.I.R.D. societies, especially from an autistic perspective. It is much harder for neuronormative people to fully take in the implications of overly simplistic assumptions about human nature and life on this planet, and to accept individual autistic experiences and observations at face value.

The definition of normality in the industrial era is based on the metaphor of society as a factory and on the metaphor of people as machines. Our laws and social norms have been shaped by these metaphors to a far greater extent than most people are able to comprehend without an in-depth explanation.

Neuronormative industrialised functioning

At the macro level of global, national, and regional politics, our society is shaped by the language of economics and by orthodox economic theories that make a number of assumptions about human nature and human social motivations that are simply incorrect, but which to a significant extent, can become self-fulfilling prophecies that are highly toxic for individuals, and socially corrosive for society. Those who have bought into the assumptions of orthodox economics are considered to be fully “functional” and “culturally well adjusted”. In this article I will refer to such people as neuronormative, as they have internalised the social norms that have arisen from the metaphor of society as a factory and from the metaphor of people as machines.

Our education system teaches us very little about the role of metaphors in human societies. Instead the education systems that produce neuronormative human resources emphasise the importance of narratives – linear stories. W.E.I.R.D. “civilised” humans have developed a preference for communication in linear language, especially since the invention of “modern” (linear) written languages, roughly 6,000 years ago. Humans have used symbol systems for much longer, but without access to living humans from earlier times, we are simply very ill equipped to make sense of older symbolic representations.

From birth civilised humans are indoctrinated in the use of linear language as the primary tool for mastering life, which translates to ladder climbing and “leadership” in the ultra-large human primate dominance hierarchies that in today’s language we refer to as organisations, corporations, and government institutions.

The tools of the trade for “success” at the “social game” are persuasive story telling, the strategic use of plausibly deniable lies – which by some is celebrated as the “valuable” capacity for flexible deception, and the art of bullying to the limits of what is deemed socially acceptable in specific contexts.

Extract from a review of Simon Baron-Cohen’s new book “The Pattern Seekers” in The Spectator:

It takes the specific kind of perverse neuronormative logic of an “autism researcher” to celebrate the ability to “dig a pit for others and cover it with leaves”, and to connect this ability with the presence of a so-called “empathy circuit” that is lacking in autistic people.

In this BBC discussion with Simon Baron-Cohen archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes and palaeoanthropologist Susana Carvalho point out examples of complex creative behaviour found in other species, which Simon Baron-Cohen promptly dismisses as “simple”, and as not really comparable to what humans are doing, without offering any solid reasoning or evidence of what makes human special. In the discussion Simon Baron-Cohen comes across as the one with the most speculative theories, and with the least amount of insight into other species or even primate / human evolution. He is an amateur in these fields, yet makes bold claims about human uniqueness and offers no evidence for the questionable claim that both creativity and empathy evolved exclusively in humans and round about at the same time. The other two panelists articulate their scepticism in very polite ways, probably to stay clear of publicly discrediting Simon Baron-Cohen.

An earlier similarly sensationalist book by Simon Baron-Cohen is titled “Zero Degrees of Empathy”, in which he refers to psychopaths and autistic people as having zero empathy, based on a convenient classification of different “types” of empathy and differences in the ways in which neuronormative and autistic people outwardly express emotions (or not). In that book he elaborates an “extremely male brain” theory of autism, for which there also was no solid evidence, and which has since been debunked.

The W.E.I.R.D. axioms

All people who are unable to or who hesitate to play the competitive social game are systematically disadvantaged in all civilised societies. But W.E.I.R.D. societies go one step further, they systematically pathologise all those who are not fully “functional” and “culturally well adjusted” machines within the factory model of society. The pathology paradigm ensures that all defective machines are identified and to the greatest possible extent are corrected by suitable therapies and medical interventions, to get as close to normal “functioning” as possible. The implicit assumptions 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.

There are many further implicit assumptions of the pathology paradigm, but most can be traced back to one or more of the above W.E.I.R.D. axioms about human societies. For autistic people it is a waste of time engaging in conversation with neuronormative people who are unfamiliar with the pseudo-scientific foundations and the ideological bias of the W.E.I.R.D. social game.

There is a very important distinction between arguing to “win” and bi-directional sharing of knowledge and experiences to learn from each other.

It is helpful to distinguish five basic categories of beliefs and related knowledge:

  1. Beliefs based on scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are intimately familiar with. Only a small minority of our beliefs fall into this category.
  2. Beliefs based on scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are not intimately familiar with. If we are “educated”, a sizeable minority of our beliefs fall into this category.
  3. Beliefs based on personal experiences and observations. For those who identify as autistic, a significant number of beliefs held fall into this category.
  4. Beliefs that represent explicit social agreements between specific people regarding communication and collaboration. For those who identify as autistic, a significant number of beliefs held fall into this category, especially agreements with family, friends, and colleagues.
  5. Beliefs based on what others have told us and what we have been encouraged to believe by parents, teachers, and friends, … and politicians and advertisers, etc. For those who do not identify as autistic, the majority of beliefs held fall into this category.

All categories of human beliefs are associated with some level of uncertainty regarding the validity and applicability to a specific context at hand.

When people argue to “win”, they mostly rely on beliefs in category 5 (opinions). Such arguments are about dominance, not facts.

It is impossible to take most “autism research” seriously, because it brims with circular reasoning and cultural bias. The pseudo-science used to justify pathologisation is a reflection of the exploitative nature of “civilised” industrialised society.

What level of W.E.I.R.D.-ness have we reached?

Our societies are developing increasingly lethal autonomous weapons that have the potential to systematically take out “undesirable” segments of the population.

Observing the growth of the US national security state – what he deems the “predator empire” – the author Ian GR Shaw asks: “Do we not see the ascent of control over compassion, security over support, capital over care, and war over welfare?” Stopping that ascent should be the primary goal of contemporary AI and robotics policy.

from Machines set loose to slaughter’: the dangerous rise of military AI, The Guardian, 15 Oct 2020

At the same time the social pressure towards neuronormative conformance has reached bizarre levels.

The autism industry in particular has become a multi billion dollar global busyness opportunity. Torture and exploitation of autistic people is not only legal, it is sold as the ultimate money making machine.

There are strong parallels between the co-opting of neurodiversity for corporate profit and what has happened to other civil rights movements. This podcast offers a very good introduction to the way in which capitalism systematically co-opts social movements to protect and strengthen the status quo.

In an age of global disparity and inequity, billionaire philanthropists (dead and alive) are stepping up to the plate with powerful foundations and acts of charitable giving to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. But how much faith should we place in the hands of individuals with concentrated wealth and power? And if we take a step back to examine the broader system in which these individual philanthrocapitalists function, do we find any contradictions between wealth doled out and the process of accumulating it? Further, despite some of the good that we perceive directly stemming from philanthropic efforts, what are some of the hidden motivations behind these efforts that ultimately seek to deepen the same structures that produced the problems in the first place which philanthropy purports to solve?

The examples provided map alarmingly well onto what we are seeing in the two main arms of the autism medical industrial complex:

  1. Pathologise / indoctrinate / traumatise the children
  2. Exploit those who have been broken / traumatised / domesticated for profit

Along the way, philanthropy is used to fund the “research” that perpetuates the trauma and exploitation as outlined in this article.

The anthropocentric era of “human civilisation” only lasted around 10,000 years, and has led the living planet into the sixth mass extinction – an ecological and geological transformation that is currently on track to result in a planet without humans. People talk about a global ecological crisis, a climate crisis, an economic crisis, an institutional crisis, and a mental health crisis, and as of 2020, we can add a pandemic to the growing list. These crises are not isolated but highly interconnected.

Collective intelligence in biological ecosystems

To understand the genuine positive potential of human collective intelligence we have to look for examples that predate human “civilisations” and especially W.E.I.R.D. societies.

As I outline in this article, prior to the information age, for several hundred thousand years humans lived in much smaller 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.

We can look even further into the past, to discover that collective intelligence in biological ecosystems neither relies on human brains nor on social dominance hierarchies.

Towards less-WEIRD and healthier societies

The picture is not entirely bleak. This podcast is a good introduction to the work of Michel Bauwens (➜ related book) on the role of the commons in the emerging knowledge age, and in this podcast in the “Team Human” series 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.

Companies can demonstrate a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion by subscribing to independent oversight by marginalised segments of the population via the Employer Rating Service coordinated by the Autistic Collaboration Trust.

Individuals and companies can contribute to and engage with the Employer Rating Service via two anonymous surveys in conjunction with the related Bullying Alert Service:

  1. The psychological safety baseline database. ➜ Additional context, ➜ The survey. This survey does not collect data on specific employers but does collect information on the location (country) and the economic function/sector of the employer.
  2. The employer rating service. ➜ The survey. This survey collects data on specific employers. Employers are encouraged to subscribe and to use the service for regular psychological safety audits. Please note that in order to maximise the protection of employees, the Autistic Collaboration Trust will never share information about who participated in the survey nor any of the anonymous individual responses with employers nor with any other party.

I will conclude with a wonderful quote from an article written earlier this year 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.

Where to from here?

In this longer article on nurturing ecologies of care I explore the various shifts in values that are currently in progress. Greta Thunberg’s work is just one example.

Rediscovering the language of life

As I have been pointing out for the last few years, the commodification of neurodiversity and the exploitation of autistic people is in full swing.

Corporate “Neurodiversity @ Work” and “Autism @ Work” initiatives are largely scams to procure domesticated corporate workers that can’t afford to ask uncomfortable questions about the purpose of the organisation.

Most autistic people remain undercover, especially the many autists that work in the healthcare sector and in the caring professions – to avoid being bullied and harassed. Even most of those who work in technology companies prefer not to disclose their cognitive identity – to avoid being confined to roles that fit the stereotypical picture of the autistic male engineer.

As long as society confuses homo economicus with homo sapiens we are more than a bit off course. The idea that all humans must commodify their bodies and their labour is a deeply concerning symptom of the social disease that afflicts our societies.

The formation of worker owned cooperatives offers an alternative life path for autistic people that is not yet much talked about beyond the autistic community, because it counteracts commodification and it limits the systematic exploitation of autistic people.

The open source NeurodiVenture operating model for employee owned companies primarily consists of a set of first principles that can be adapted to the unique needs of a specific team of neurodivergent people. There is no need to be prescriptive about how to go about forming and operating a NeurodiVenture, because there is no right way or best way.

Here are a few thoughts on why it makes sense for autistic people and otherwise neurodivergent people to consider the formation of a NeurodiVenture instead of attempting to participate in the social world of “employment”. The latter is simply the modern term for wage slavery, especially for neurodivergent people who don’t conform to the cognitive standards deemed “normal” and “acceptable” in our society.

The NeurodiVenture model is designed not only to offer an alternative to traditional employment but also to offer an alternative to modern forms of entrepreneurship, most of which are steeped in neoliberal economic doctrine and expect the entrepreneur to act as a profit maximising employer. The modern entrepreneur simply is a second level slave that is entirely dependent on the goodwill of financial investors.

Autistic people with complementary talents and skills are ideally positioned to jointly design, develop, and offer highly unique products and services, without any need for external capital, and without any need for an employer or manager.

Whilst a NeurodiVenture might commodify and sell specific products and services, communal ownership and egalitarian principles prevent the individual autistic or otherwise neurodivergent person from being commoditised.

The inside of a NeurodiVenture can offer an island of sanity for neurodivergent people. The burden of interfacing with the outside social world can be shared amongst those who are capable of doing so for limited amounts of time, not unlike the way in which emperor penguins keep warm in winter by rotating positions and limiting their individual exposure to the elements.

Whilst setting up and successfully operating a NeurodiVenture is a challenging undertaking that can take many years until it bears fruit, from an autistic perspective, the advantages far outweigh the immense effort that may need to be invested:

  1. A NeurodiVenture offers the freedom to create products and services that do not necessitate continuous interaction with the neuronormative human social world.
  2. By definition, the main purpose of existence of a NeurodiVenture is the creation of a psychologically safe and egalitarian communal space for neurodivergent people. Whilst perseverance is needed to develop the practical operating experience to minimise disappointments, unlike traditional employees, members of a NeurodiVenture can bring their values and unique talents and interests to work.
  3. My recommendation is to design the purpose of a NeurodiVenture entirely around the unique needs, talents, and expertise of its members rather than around the fixed idea of one entrepreneur or founder.
  4. Communal company ownership, egalitarian revenue sharing, and a long-term time horizon (I recommend at least 100 years, with a preference for longer time horizons) creates a collaborative company culture that can not be achieved in any other way.
  5. The creative potential of a well-oiled team of neurodivergent people is not to be underestimated. Collectively the team has a much better chance of combining their talents and expertise into services that are valued by the outside world than an individual entrepreneur on their own.

More and more autists are discovering that employee owned companies operated by neurodivergent people offer one of the best avenues for surviving and thriving whilst defying the zero sum bullshit logic of capital and markets.

The world could have benefited more from anthropologist David Graeber’s line of inquiry into industrialised bureaucracy. Sadly David Graeber died a few weeks ago, but his analysis of bullshit jobs, and his insights into the healthcare and construction sectors remain highly relevant, mirroring many of the conclusions that autistic people draw about the state of contemporary society.

On the one hand, fully appreciating the neurodiversity of our species requires a reimagination of human potential beyond what is conceivable for “culturally well-adjusted” neuronormative minds in our current societies, and on the other hand, it entails a deep understanding of the dangers of the human herd instinct.

The NeurodiVenture operating model steps outside the box of the established social and economic paradigm by adopting a life affirming working definition of collective intelligence that is not confined to the distorted characterisation of human potential that dominates in W.E.I.R.D cultures.

Collective intelligence : finding a niche and thriving in the living world by creating good company

In this context I also recommend drawing on the insights encapsulated in the 10 Design Justice Principles, which can assist both neuronormative and neurodivergent people in learning how to unW.E.I.R.D. our societies.

A language that is conducive to life

“Life creates conditions conducive to life.”Janine Benyus

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 construction and 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.

Putting the language of life to good use

Our little friend, the Corona virus is showing us the way in terms of cultural change. The planetary ecosystem has further agents and tools at its disposal that will assist in progressing human cultural evolution to the point where life and biodiversity again thrives on this planet. Human culture evolves and adapts much faster than human biology, and this is largely due to the level of neurodiversity within our species.

It is somewhat ironic that in this context autistic people are the most sensitive, adaptive, and creative – developing idiosyncratic coping mechanisms and idiosyncratic ways of living that allow us to survive – and thrive, when in a supportive social environment, without asking cultural authorities for permission.

It is even more ironic that in our society the so-called “normal” people are largely incapable of noticing and responding in adaptive ways to the mismatch between human biological needs and the cultures we have co-created.

Neuronormative people primarily learn socially, by imitating others in their social environment. They seek comfort in human herd behaviour and are lost without culturally less “well-adjusted” others who act as navigators and way-finders. In times of rapid environmental change social learning becomes a bottleneck in human cultural evolution, specifically in W.E.I.R.D. cultures that have come to marginalise and pathologise 1 out of 6 people based on neurological disposition and sensory profile.

Simply reflecting on the numbers for a minute should tell us that it is absurd to focus on assisting people to adapt to the W.E.I.R.D. cultural paradigm of “normality”. Instead we urgently need to better understand the severity of the social diseases that afflict our cultures.

Autistic people have no desire to turn the table and to pathologise neuronormative people, but we have every right to describe and diagnose the social diseases we encounter in our local contexts from the vantage point of our unusual cognitive profiles and life paths.

We also have the right to opt out of toxic normalisation therapies and perverse diversity and inclusion initiatives that are designed to perpetuate the toxic social power gradients that are causing widespread physical, mental, and moral injury – far beyond the autistic community.

Pathologisation of life and neurodiversity in W.E.I.R.D. monocultures

W.E.I.R.D. stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. As long as society confuses homo economicus with homo sapiens we are more than “a bit off course”.

The exploitative nature of our “civilised” cultures is top of mind for many neurodivergent people. In contrast, many neuronormative people seem to deal with the trauma via denial, resulting in profound levels of cognitive dissonance.

Earlier this year I attended an online course on collective trauma, and once the trauma inflicted by the structural constraints imposed by our civilisation was mentioned, many participants had the courage to acknowledge this source of trauma.


The evolution of W.E.I.R.D. cultures can be easily understood from an anthropological perspective or via the social model of disability.

evolution of weird

The box of constraints that W.E.I.R.D. monocultures impose on neurodivergent people is reflected in rates of depression, PTSD, and suicides, and can be illustrated with very few words using the Japanese concept of Ikigai:ikigai1

The box of constraints of W.E.I.R.D. monocultures (“profession”)

Certain skills and certain tasks clash with the unique cognitive lens and sensory profile of a neurodivergent person. Non-typical learning profiles are disabling within W.E.I.R.D. monocultures:ikigai2

Disabled non-typical learning profiles (“vocation”)

Disabled neurodivergent people that refuse to permanently confine themselves to the box of W.E.I.R.D. constraints tend to be pushed into completely meaningless work that harms them and others:


Exploiting others (“what you can be paid for”)

Neurodivergent people have to spend enormous time doing what they are good at rather than what they love, to get to the point where they can be paid for some things. Neuronormative people don’t see and far less understand why this work is necessary:


Trying to make sense of the world (“what you are good at”)

Creating companies around the talents and interests of people and around trusted relationships makes a huge difference, especially for neurodivergent people:


Valuable work that you love and are good at (“ikigai”)

Healthy relationships are based on mutual trust, an explicit set of shared values (at least one) that both parties are committed to, and a genuine appreciation of the individual differences in knowledge, perspectives, and experiences. Mutual appreciation is the joy of helping each other and learning from each other. You can call that the “purpose” of good company. It does not involve any social power games.

  • A company C of N people is the set of N*(N-1)/2 relationships between N people. Its purpose is the dynamically evolving purpose of all these relationships.
  • You are in good company when all N*(N-1)/2 relationships are in good health. The evidence supporting Dunbar’s law/constraint tells us that in a good company N < 150. Larger companies are sources of misunderstandings, lack of contextual awareness, and conflicts.
  • A collaboration between C1 and C2 is the set R12 of all the relationships between N1 and N2, which contains between 1 and N1*N2 elements. Its purpose is the dynamically evolving purpose of all these relationships.
  • Your company C is in optimal health if all collaborations (relationships) with other companies are in good health. This is only possible if N << 150, so that there is adequate cognitive capacity for healthy external collaborations.

Often neurodivergent people get penalised for attempting to do any of the cool things that they love and would like to learn more about. W.E.I.R.D. cultures kill curiosity & intrinsic motivation, and they do so systematically, resulting in a dangerous collective learning disability:


Important things you are curious about (“mission”)

Doing what they love, without any constraints, is the forbidden zone for neurodivergent people, even if these often solitary activities don’t harm anyone else:


Doing what you love (“what you love / passion”)

Social power is a highly addictive drug for typical humans. Primate dominance hierarchies induce a collective learning disability. There are very good reasons why “pre-civilised” societies enforced strong norms to prevent individuals from wielding power over others. To develop institutions that better serve people and the planet we need to throw out simplistic and deeply flawed assumptions about “human nature”. Without a shift in fundamental values a healthier society will remain out of reach.


To move forward, we need to align our social operating systems with a more optimistic – and less ideologically constrained – perspective on human potential.

As human interactions are increasingly mediated by digital technologies, this entails acknowledging the ideological inertia of our current technologies. The bias that is baked into many of our technologies transforms all human interactions into a bizarre competitive game of likes, followers, and views.

W.E.I.R.D. societies face a choice between:

  • (A) Co-designing and embracing a less W.E.I.R.D. digital technosphere that catalyses new forms of collaboration and that actively discourages toxic competitive games.
  • (B) Officially renaming our species to homo economicus, and relying on W.E.I.R.D. technologies to squash any ideologically inconvenient collaborative or altruistic human tendencies.

In terms of developing a more collaborative social operating system it turns out we don’t have to start from scratch. Here is an example of the kind of economic framework that might actually work for the planet and people:

economy of mana

W.E.I.R.D. societies can learn a lot from indigenous cultures and from other minority cultures, such as autistic culture. Pathologisation of autism and other dimensions of neurodiversity is a social power game that removes agency from neurodivergent people. Social progress is overdue.

regeneration of health

From collective delusion to creative collaboration

If you consider any potential outcomes beyond a ten year time horizon the current path of industrialised “civilisation” must be described as a form of collective delusion.

When I use the term “collective delusion” I am referring to a the most extreme form of cultural inertia that can affect a group of people. A couple of useful working definitions:

Cultural inertia : The tendency within a society to maintain an established set of social practices, norms, technologies, and metrics, even in the face of changing environmental conditions.

Cultural inertia can be beneficial when social practices, norms, technologies, and metrics buffer a society from the detrimental effects of short-term random fluctuations in environmental conditions (think of floods and droughts, and events such as earthquakes).

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

Overcoming paradigmatic inertia

In the history of “civilisations” to date, paradigmatic inertia is broken by one of more of the following events:

  1. revolutions,
  2. protracted wars,
  3. famines,
  4. plagues.

Plagues and famines represent forces that are at least to some extent beyond human control, with the potential to act as powerful catalysts for wars and revolutions.

As war is increasingly waged via economic and psychological means, wars are less and less capable of inducing paradigmatic changes. At the level of nation states “civilised” war is focused on presenting other cultures as “threats”, and internally on widening the inequalities between the elites and the rest of the population. The latter is achieved by pretending that established institutions are capable of addressing the environmental challenges at hand.

Revolutions can be understood as phase shifts that occur when the level of cognitive dissonance that a population experiences between daily life and the fictions that are perpetuated by rulers and elites can no longer be maintained. In a revolution a large part of the population openly dismisses established institutions as dysfunctional and establishes new institutions based on ideas that often have been “fermenting” within the population for decades.

The duration of the transition to a new regime of governance, the extent to which institutions are completely replaced or simply restaffed, and the level of violence involved in the transition vary greatly depending on the context at hand. Only some revolutions constitute a genuine shift in the paradigm of governance. The typical result tends to be a new set of institutions, a revised composition of the elites, and a new set of rules for maintaining a primate dominance hierarchy.

The social burden of famines is always carried by the wider population, and much less by the established elites, but famines can act as effective catalysts for revolutions and wars.

Plagues (pandemics) are interesting in that they represent a threat to entire societies, with little discrimination between elites and the rest of the population. Since history is typically written by historians commissioned by or at least tolerated by the ruling (victorious) elites, most history books focus on wars and revolutions, and present plagues as disruptions or setbacks on the path of human progress towards more “advanced” forms of “civilisation”. A critical review of written historical records allows for a reduction in anthropocentric bias and a different interpretation that acknowledges the role of pandemics in acting as triggers for genuine paradigmatic shifts in human societies.

Pandemics and pandemic risks prompted the development of better sanitation, antibiotics and vaccines for many human pathogens, leading to large improvements in the quality of healthcare services and human health over the last two centuries, such that in most societies, and in particular in the so called “developed” countries, pandemics with mortality in the 0.3 to 1% range or above were no longer part of living memory until 2020.

COVID-19 punched a big hole into the progress myth of of our “civilisation” and has exposed cultural practices that have substantially increased the risks of pandemics over the last 50 years.

In a globalised world, the necessary responses to contain the impact of COVID-19 triggered rapid cultural evolution in virtually all societies, and have prompted governments and local populations to reflect on the longer-term implications of the SARS CoV2 pandemic.

Collective delusion in 2020

At this stage our societies are still in the early stages of (re)learning essential knowledge about pandemics. The growing risks of much deadlier pandemics emanating from industrial animal agriculture practices, natural ecosystem destruction, and accelerating climate change (also leading to increasingly extreme weather events, crop failures, and resource conflicts) are not yet part of the public discourse.

The collective delusion of maintaining cultural inertia will be resolved one way or another within the next 20 years. Pandemics are typically deadlier than wars, and they can’t be stopped or prevented by wars. Famines and revolutions are common downstream effects of pandemics and wars.

Creative collaboration

To what extent human societies will experience famines, wars, and violent revolutions in the coming decades depends on two factors:

  1. How many governments pro-actively and systematically discount the interests of capitalised busyness in favour of the immediate and the long-term (200+ year horizon) needs of human communities and ecosystems.
  2. The extent to which human communities deploy easily (re)configurable digital technologies that are co-designed to meet local and bioregional collaboration needs, to serve as the backbone for non-violent “revolutions” in shared values, shared knowledge commons, and new (much less energy intensive and more collaborative and diverse) ways of living.

I think it unlikely we get out of this, at this point, without abandoning swaths of cities and nations in a band around the equator (too hot & humid for humans), and many coastal cities and regions (uneconomic to wall them). I hope I’m wrong. Let’s fight hard to save what we can.

This is a conclusion I draw from my personal synthesis of all that I’m taking in: model projections, paleoclimate, politics, sociology, and psychology, for whatever that is worth. There’s a ton I don’t know, there’s a ton I can’t know, but there’s also a ton I do know.

Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab who uses satellite data and models to study the rapidly changing Earth, focusing on boundary layer clouds and ecological forecasting.

Depending on what paths human societies choose to take, the above scenarios will play out over 20, 50, 100, or 200 years. Our actions now will determine the level of pain of our children and future generations.

In this timely interview with Daniel Christian Wahl, Dennis Meadows (one of the authors of The Limits to Growth report (1972) observes that the myth of endless growth in industrialised societies tells us “to love to get what we want” and that on a finite planet we need to learn “to love to want what we get”.

In 2014, the University of Melbourne confirmed that the predictions from Limits to Growth were largely correct and that we are very close to tracking the “busyness-as-usual” scenario.

Dennis Meadows is worthwhile listening to. His insights reflect 50 years of failed attempts to communicate the impossibility of endless growth, but I also believe that he ignores the potential for positive cultural change that could be activated by depathologising neurodiversity and by recognising autistic people in particular as the agents of a healthy cultural immune system within human societies.

I want to end on a positive note, pointing to two longer articles on human potential:

  1. The dawn of the second knowledge age (from an anthropological perspective)
  2. A language for catalysing cultural evolution (from an evolutionary perspective)

These articles are also intended to provide a backdrop for presenting the history of the concept of neurodivergence as part of the Neurodiversity Documentary project.

Update : a few hours after writing the article, this timely call for climate action in New Zealand landed in my news feed.

Autism – The cultural immune system of human societies

If neurodiversity is the natural variation of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species, then what role do autistic traits in particular play within human cultures and what cultural evolutionary pressures have allowed autistic traits to persist over hundreds of thousands of years?

The benefits of autistic traits such as autistic levels of hypersensitivity, hyperfocus, perseverance, lack of interest in social status, and inability to maintain hidden agendas mostly do not materialise at an individual level but at the level of the local social environment that an autistic person is embedded in.

  1. Hypersensitivity allows autistic people to perceive details and to recognise patterns that escape non-autistic people, but at the cost of behaviour that often clashes with established cultural norms.
  2. Hyperfocus and perseverance allow autistic people to develop levels of understanding and domain specific skills that surpass the abilities of non-autistic people, but at the cost of disregarding other skills that are regarded as basic life skills by the local culture.
  3. Lack of interest in social status and lack of inclination and ability to self promote greatly reduces social distractions and further amplifies the ability to hyperfocus and persevere, but at the cost of being perceived as non-cooperative, problematic and disrespectful.
  4. The inability to maintain hidden agendas enables autistic people to develop and maintain trusted relationships and very effective long term collaborations, but this ability is crippled in psychologically unsafe environments, and it makes autistic people dangerous from the perspective of anyone who is seeking to maintain and enhance their social status, resulting in the systematic side-lining of autistic people in competitive social environments.

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.

The neurochemistry of autism

Regardless of whether specific autistic traits have a genetic basis or are the result of early learning experiences made by autistic children in their local social environment (we don’t play “the right way”, we are absorbed in “our own world”, we ignore social status, we show little or no interest in participating in competitive games, etc.), the hypersensitivity and pattern recognition abilities of autistic people shape the specific experiences and situations that trigger neurochemical rewards in ways that differ significantly from cultural norms.

Many autistic people intuitively avoid copying the behaviours of non-autistic people. Life teaches autistic people that culturally expected behaviour often leads to sensory overload, and furthermore, that cultural practices often contain spurious complexity that have nothing to do with the stated goal of the various practices, such that a little independent exploration and experimentation usually reveals a simpler, faster, or less energy intensive way of achieving comparable results.

In contrast, non-autistic people receive significant neurochemical rewards from conforming to cultural expectations, such that they are often incapable of recognising spurious cultural complexity when they encounter it in established “best practices”.

Pre-civilised societies

Available archaeological and anthropological evidence points towards highly egalitarian social norms within human scale (i.e. small) pre-civilised societies. In such societies social norms against wielding power over others will have allowed the unique talents and domain specific knowledge of autistic people be recognised as valuable contributions.

In a psychologically safe environment at human scale (up to Dunbar’s number of around 150 people) the inability to maintain hidden agendas becomes a genuine strength that creates a collaborative advantage for the entire group. In fact autistic honesty will also have made autistic people prime candidates for maintaining trusted collaborative relationships with other groups.

In pre-civilised societies adversarial encounters with other groups would have been the only situations where the non-autistic human capability to deceive others would have been advantageous for the group. But such situations and costly conflict could easily be minimised by migrating and carving out a new niche in a different ecosystem.

The unique human ability to adapt to new contexts, powered by neurodivergent creativity and the development of new tools, enabled humans to minimise conflicts and establish a presence in virtually all ecosystems on the planet. This level of adaptability is the signature trait of the human species.

“Civilised” societies

“Civilised” societies are the result of increased human population densities and increased levels of inter-group conflicts. As the number of small scale human groups increased and as local resources became scarce, the ability and inclination to “out-compete” other groups became valuable, but this capability came at a cost – an appreciation of the ability to deceive other groups.

The people who are successful in maintaining hidden agendas to out-compete other groups are the same people who are capable of maintaining hidden agendas within their own social group.

Whilst cultural norms can successfully minimise the immediate or short-term collective cost that comes with granting social powers to competitive and deceptive individuals in the context of inter-group conflict, over the longer term hierarchical social structures dampen feedback loops, and thereby induce a collective learning disability – replacing cultural adaptability with cultural inertia.

Social power gradients became a permanent feature once the frequency of external conflicts increased to the point that such conflicts were considered a “normal” part of the human experience.

It is easy to see that autistic people are continuously at risk of being marginalised within “civilised” societies in which “collaboration” mainly refers to “negotiating social status & power gradients, and competing against each other using culturally defined rules”.

The creative capacity of autistic people continues to be relevant in “civilisation”, but the resulting capabilities and tools tend to be exploited for the purpose of maintaining and strengthening social power gradients.

Cultural immune systems

The competitive social environments that characterise “civilised” cultures systematically disable autistic people. However, whilst autistic people are usually not interested in social status and are therefore considered “socially naive”, they are very astute observers, and learn to decode competitive social motivations – not intuitively, but intellectually, via careful analysis of social interactions and behavioural patterns observed over longer periods of time.

Often autistic children are traumatised by their experiences with culturally “well adjusted” parents, peers, and the education system.

Depending on the extent to which autistic children are prevented from developing their unique interests and are forced to comply with social expectations, their trauma may lead them into extreme levels of social isolation or prompt them to seek out a low visibility role within society that minimises their need to participate in the “civilised” social game.

Those who have grown up in relatively safe environments with at least one autistic parent, and have been encouraged to let their unique autistic cognitive lens shape their interests and activities, initially retain the courage to explore the world on their own terms, but then often run into major challenges in the social environments at work.

Within “civilisation” autistic people tend to be highly concerned about social justice and tend to be the ones who point out toxic in-group competitive behaviours.

Autistic people are best understood as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human society.

This would have been obvious in pre-civilised societies, but it has become non-obvious in “civilised” societies. To retain their sanity, autistic people consistently work against in-group competition, and they often suffer the consequences for doing so. Autistic people within human societies counteract what Steve Silberman has fittingly described as the “truth dysfunction” in non-autistic people.

Societies with disabled cultural immune systems

Michael Moore’s new documentary Planet of the Humans makes the claim that humans are losing the battle to stop climate change because so-called “leaders” have taken us down the wrong road. “Civilisation” seems to have reached a dead end:

  1. Without a radical reduction in our level of energy and resource consumption a transition to renewable energy sources will not lead to a sustainable human presence on this planet.
  2. Projects that shift energy production to large-scale wind and solar farms are easily co-opted by corporate interests. The drive for profit extraction creates strong incentives for corner-cutting and often overrides environmental concerns.
  3. The development of local micro-grids and new ways of living that involve much less consumption are paramount for scaling down the human ecological footprint to sustainable levels.

A viable future of transportation won’t include heavy 1.5 to 2 tone electric cars and large numbers of electric air planes, and will likely include much less travel, and many more electric bikes, velomobiles, and trains. Capitalism systematically favours capital intensive – and hence energy intensive – investments. The world is awash in ads for Tesla and lacks awareness of alternative technologies like the following.

This extensive interview with Daniel Schmachtenberger offers an excellent introduction to the root causes of social dysfunction within our “civilisation”. It is interesting that even without considering the cultural implications of neurodiversity Daniel Schmachtenberger arrives at the following conclusions:

  1. There have always been non-competitive societies and subcultures, but such subcultures are marginalised within civilisations.
  2. The disorders identified by Western psychology are a refection of cultural bias rather than a reflection of human potential.
  3. The level of competitiveness and collective delusion within our civilisation has led to existential risks.
  4. The scope of trusted relationships is constrained by human cognitive limits (according to Robin Dunbar’s research, a human can maintain a maximum of 150 relationships at any point in time) and the ability to scale trusted collaboration beyond these human scale limits depends on using and developing communication technologies that assist us in maintaining trusted relationships between groups.
  5. The survival of the human species now depends on evolving new collaborative social operating systems that are based on mutual support rather than on social power gradients and a myth of meritocracy.

Note that it takes Daniel Schmachtenberger 3.5 hours to explain the rationale for developing a new collaborative social operating system. He is explaining what is self-evident to most autistic people who have spent three or four decades on this planet.

Eric Weinstein, the interviewer, offers good insights into the level of cultural indoctrination that underpins our “civilisation” – what I refer to as the collective learning disability of our society. It is fascinating how cultural bias has prevented an otherwise intelligent person from ever thinking about the full implications of the glaringly obvious truth dysfunction induced by competitive human behaviour.

Both Daniel and Eric seem to be unfamiliar with the concept of neurodiversity, and the one casual reference to autistic traits via a mention of “spectrumy people” indicates a very limited of understanding of the cultural role of autistic people.

The web of life

Agency at super-human scale (groups larger than 150 members) is an emergent phenomenon that can not be attributed to any specific individual. If we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of human “civilisations”, the emergent rules for coordinating at super-human scale will have to allow for and encourage a rich diversity of human scale organisations.

Human organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus is the genus that includes all cultural species.

NeurodiVentures are a concrete example of an emerging cultural species that provides safe and nurturing environments for divergent thinking, creativity, exploration, and collaborative niche construction.

NeurodiVentures are built on timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating trusted collaboration that predate the emergence of civilisation. All members share a commitment to:

  1. Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
  2. Unlock the tacit knowledge within the group.
  3. Provide a space for creative freedom.
  4. Help repair frayed relationships.
  5. Replace fear with courage.

This short video is a great example of collaboration amongst autistic people, and it blows many popular misconceptions about autism that are still peddled by the autism industry out of the water:

Digital communication and collaboration technologies enable NeurodiVentures to act as a catalyst for trusted collaboration between groups. This is particularly relevant in a world of growing existential risks, where the energy and resource demands of competitive “civilised” social operating models, precisely for the reasons outlined by Daniel Schmachtenberger and documented in detail by historian Joseph Tainter, are exceeding the productive capacity of the biosphere.

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that we have created a global digital network for sharing knowledge 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 sharing misinformation and towards sharing knowledge.

Competitive autists?

I have yet to meet an autistic person who is capable of maintaining a hidden agenda. This means that autistic people are ill equipped for the competitive social game of “civilisation”.

However, in all domains that require specialised skills and deep knowledge, some of the best professionals (in terms of their level of experience and problem solving abilities) have strong autistic traits. It is very likely that these people will be misunderstood by their colleagues on a regular basis, and may be perceived as “competitive”, simply because they may not stick to all the social rules of politeness at all times.

A relevant extract from an earlier article on bullying:

In particular the questions that autistic professionals ask may be very direct and their answers short and to the point, and they may praise outcomes achieved instead of the contributions of individuals, because they recognise that all good work takes a team and because they consider social status to be irrelevant. This easily gets autistic people into trouble with “superiors” as well as with “subordinates” who they are expected to manage. These autistic professionals are not bullies!

The key differences between an autistic professional and a professional bully:

  1. The autistic professional does not have a hidden agenda (may get angry in the moment but will never hold a grudge or follow a plot to “get ahead”)
  2. The autistic professional is highly competent in her / his core areas of expertise (which can easily be interpreted as arrogance)
  3. The autistic professional does not exaggerate (or brush inconvenient things under the carpet) and will openly talk about uncertainties, risks, and mistakes made (a good indicator to clear up any perception of arrogance)
  4. The autistic professional is not interested in exerting power over other people (but will tend to use direct language which can be interpreted as authoritarian)
  5. The autistic professional cares a lot about and goes to great lengths to achieve optimal work results (this again may involve asking for appropriate actions from others in direct language)

The future role of autistic people

Hierarchical social structures stand in the way of collaboration across cultural and organisational boundaries at all levels of scale. In the face of existential risks, the cultural inertia of “civilisation” will either lead to the extinction of the human species, or humans will rediscover an interest in genuine collaboration (without hidden agendas) at human scale.

In the latter scenario autists are uniquely equipped to act as catalysts and translators between different cultures and groups, because (a) they have to spend conscious effort on understanding each individual, and (b) they are trustworthy due to their inability to maintain hidden agendas.

My favourite example to illustrate the potential for autistic people to act as catalysts for collaboration is Paul Erdős. In a psychologically safe environment, an autist is enabled and not disabled:

  • Erdős utmostly believed mathematics to be a social activity, living an itinerant lifestyle with the sole purpose of writing mathematical papers with other mathematicians.
  • He was known both for his social practice of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle.
  • He spent most of his life as a vagabond, travelling between scientific conferences, universities and the homes of colleagues all over the world.
  • He would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next.

Autistic analysis of COVID-19


You may have read articles like this one that point to different ways of recording COVID-19 mortality in different jurisdictions. The concerns raised about variability in data collection are mirrored in commentaries by pulmonologists and other clinicians who have observed many flu seasons. This perspective is easily missed by those who focus on the characteristics of the specific virus rather than the bigger picture of the global patterns of flu infections.

A few people, including some clinicians, are dismissing the notion of a pandemic on the basis that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease) is just one small part of the annual cocktail of influenza like viruses and nothing to worry about is misleading. I find it interesting that even some pulmonologists can get caught up in this level of siloed reasoning, along the lines of “we’ve always had different strains of the flu, and this is simply yet another bad flu season”. This line of reasoning does not explain why locally, in some places, thousands of people are severely ill and dying, to the point where healthcare services are completely overwhelmed.

The WHO on influenza

Seasonal influenza is characterized by a sudden onset of fever, cough (usually dry), headache, muscle and joint pain, severe malaise (feeling unwell), sore throat and a runny nose. The cough can be severe and can last 2 or more weeks. Most people recover from fever and other symptoms within a week without requiring medical attention. But influenza can cause severe illness or death, especially in people at high risk (see below).

Illnesses range from mild to severe and even death. Hospitalization and death occur mainly among high risk groups. Worldwide, these annual epidemics are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 290 000 to 650 000 respiratory deaths.

In industrialized countries most deaths associated with influenza occur among people age 65 or older (1). Epidemics can result in high levels of worker/school absenteeism and productivity losses. Clinics and hospitals can be overwhelmed during peak illness periods.

Overall, globally, the COVID-19 mortality thus far is only a small part of a much bigger picture of respiratory deaths – but only because China, and now more and more countries, are adopting “extreme” measures to reduce the spread. The interesting question is, why are these measures necessary? Why have they not been necessary in earlier bad flu seasons?

I think the answer to that question has three parts:

Part 1

Some flu seasons or pandemics are not only bad, they are very bad, as the history of pandemics teaches us.

The people alive today simply have not experienced any really bad pandemic in their lifetimes, and hence the “surprise”. Modern medicine has left people in the false belief that there is a pill or vaccine for every possible dangerous infectious disease, or that one can always be developed just in time.

UPDATE (22 March 2020): To understand the difference between a flu season and a pandemic, watch this advice from Prof John Ashton, a UK public health expert.

Now people are waking up to the fact that health professionals are not always “in control”, and that their own behaviour actually matters, i.e. contributes to or can reduce risk exposure.

This is scary for “civilised” people who believe in “leaders” and “authorities”.

The positive effect is that the current situation is one of the rare moments where neurotypical people get a glimpse of the collective delusion known as civilisation and the dangers associated with faith in “leaders” and “authorities”, including the myth of “being in full control” typically peddled by such people.

Part 2

Our technological capabilities provide us, including health professionals, with more data than ever.


Our analytical tools allow us to ‘see’ many of the pathogens that make us ill, and modern media delivers the images into every office and into every home.


This again is very scary for “civilised” people, in particular if you can see and read about dying people on a daily basis.


The positive effect is that people are made aware of the fact that all humans are more or less equally exposed to the risks of many pathogens, and that wealth and money may not offer much if any protection – and may actually increase some risk factors. According to the laws of probability, we might see a few heads of state or heads of corporations die, to reinforce the message.

Part 3

The hyper-social busyness of civilisation has far outpaced our capacity to comprehend the effects of our behaviour,

… and it has turned what was perceived as a “competitive advantage” in relation to other species into a relative disadvantage in relation to viruses in particular. So far I am not seeing this framing amongst the medical experts, but there is no shortage of people who see the virus as a welcome relief from busyness as usual. Mental health and suicide statistics point towards social/cultural environments that are in conflict with human biological needs.

Beyond the increasingly visible destruction of the non-human natural environment and significant increases in severe weather events and ocean acidification, what has changed? I think there are several factors that come together, with a collective effect not dissimilar to the multiple stressors that contribute to the species extinction rates of insects, birds, and various marine species:

  1. Human population growth, roughly doubling every 50 years, and now starting to flatten, indicative of the extreme pressure we exert on our ecosystems.
  2. A 10-fold increase in air travel over the last 50 years; just watch the activity at Flight Radar to get an intuitive feeling for the level of busyness, even with the current reductions/restrictions in place.
  3. Increasing levels of urbanisation, exemplified by the mega-cities in China, resulting in hyper-social busyness related to work and commuting.

It would be highly surprising if these conditions do not lead to increased collective intelligence and evolutionary success amongst viruses that have discovered humans as a habitat. These viruses are not out to get us, they are developing symbiotic relationships with humans. Note that SARS-CoV-2 is provoking deaths and a human response that works directly against the three trends above.

UPDATE (28 March 2020): This interview with Prof Kim Woo-Ju, South Korea’s leading COVID-19 expert, provides an excellent overview of the latest understanding of SARS-CoV-2, and it also mentions the global increase in air travel as a major challenge in dealing with pandemics.

His warning: “The moment we become arrogant, we´ll lose”.

Given current human population numbers, any attempt to bring back air travel and busyness to pre-COVID-19 levels will be increasingly suicidal for the human species.

The positive effect of the cultural changes induced by COVID-19 in record time is that pollution levels and green house gas emissions are sinking at record rates, far beyond what environmentalists and climate activists would have imagined possible even a few months ago. The fear induced by the data our technological capabilities serve us on a daily basis (part 2 above) acts as a strong force against reverting to busyness as usual, and the risks will increasingly lead to (a) an appreciation/re-discovery of human scale, including strong social norms against super-human scale groupings of humans, and (b) strong social norms against all forms of deception and manipulation of data, because at the limits of planetary capacity deception is a recipe for collective suicide within a single generation.

What makes viruses so intelligent relative to humans?

The answer may surprise civilised humans but it might not have surprised pre-civilised humans.  Viruses are not organised hierarchically and they do not pretend to be in control of anything – they don’t suffer from a collective learning disability. Instead they can be considered experts at mutation and creation of diversity at rates that the genomes of “higher level” life forms can’t. SARS-CoV-2 has figured out a very effective combination of infectiousness, incubation period and mortality.

The intelligence of complex life forms that manifests in neural networks is usually quite limited. Only the human capacity for complex material cultures, which depends amongst other things on the dexterity of human hands and on the anatomical features that enable human language, have allowed this intelligence to accumulate and scale to collaborating groups of humans in ways that are impossible for other primates.

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that via a series of accidental discoveries and inventions, and driven by the suicidal busyness of civilisation (cancerous myths of superiority that have infiltrated human societies around 10,000 years ago), we have created a global network for sharing knowledge and misinformation. We now learn that it takes viruses like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift cultural norms away from sharing misinformation and towards sharing knowledge. There will be many further learning opportunities beyond COVID-19.

Planetary intelligence is achieved by creating a feedback loop of mutual learning between the rapid learning cycles at the smallest scales and learning cycles at human scale, which are now amplified via a global digital network at super-human scale. We 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.

What’s next?

As humans start to re-familiarise themselves with human scale, a new generation of children will be taught corresponding values, and the interest in super-human scale control and hierarchical power structures will fade and will become a taboo. It will be important to preserve accurate recordings of what happened to “civilisation”. As a result, the risks of “civilisation”, and in particular the risk of super-human scale conflict will be reduced significantly. It takes “leaders” to persuade and manipulate people into going to war, and once people with “leadership aspirations” are again recognised as the biggest threat to society, our capacity for culture may once again make us more intelligent than the other primates – but still not as smart as our little invisible friends.

There is no competition for collaboration at human scale 😀.

Together with our viral and microbial friends we are not that stupid after all 😜.

We are starting to experiment with ways to reduce interactions to human scale and are starting to learn. We may even learn that there are many different ways to contain the virus, but a focus on human scale and a bias against super-human scale busyness will be the common thread through all these approaches. When I wrote this article on collaboration for life six months ago, I could not have imagined how close we are to the proliferation of new human scale cultural species.

To close off, here is some good advice on staying safe from an [obviously autistic?] clinician with a special interest in material science and engineering, who is now doing a video series on COVID-19: