Wired Thinking on Neurodiversity

Wired at 20 years old

My favorite magazine is WIRED, and I’m a magazine guy.  No other magazine dares me to think as widely and as daringly about the times we live in (if you’ve never picked up a copy, give it a go!).  Wired will go after interests of mine (internet culture, technology, etc) but it will also introduce me to the leading edge of fields I have only a passing experience in, and make me care about them.

This month they turn 20 years old.  They’ve been daringly guessing what will happen next for two decades now, and while they don’t always get it right, they always make you realize what changes are upon us.

As  I read a new edition I usually want to link and share the ideas they stir up.  This edition is full of them as Wired goes over an alphabet of ideas considered in the last two decades.

Neurodiversity is a topic that hits close to home.  With a son diagnosed, I’ve come to recognize how I’ve dealt with ASD myself.  One of the reasons I love reading Douglas Coupland or William Gibson is because many of their characters are neuro-atypical, and it’s nice to read about people like yourself; I find much of mainstream media quite alienating.

I’ve struggled with my inability to care about social distinction forever, and I feel for my son while he does.  I also think that difference is wonderful.  When we heard the diagnosis I said, “excellent! Who would want to be normal!?”  I guess the normal people do.

WIRED’s take on all this? Neurodiversity is like biological diversity; it develops resiliency.  The neurodiverse might not all be geniuses, but the ones that are (and geniuses by definition are neurodiverse) may very well save the human race.  Diversity allows a species to survive in extreme conditions, conditions that we’re making for ourselves.  As long as we’re hammering round pegs into square holes, we’re not allowing human beings to be as neurally diverse as we naturally are… and we’re hurting ourselves in the process.  Normal people really need to get off their high horses.

I wish I could convince the school system of this as it focuses exclusively on short comings in hopes of making the exceptional ceptional..  If they could improve my son’s image pattern recognition (which is astonishing), his special skills would be enhanced, instead they rush to make him fit a mould.  The system presses him to be as widely and flatly skilled as ‘normal’ people in hopes of making him what, normal?  Upcoming standardized tests won’t examine his superhuman abilities, they will focus on what ‘normal’ people are expected to do (they have charts).  When he fails a literacy test because he’s unable to verbalize what he knows in a manner that suits the testers, we’re left with the pieces.

Some might suggest that alternative school systems might offer a response to this, but I doubt it.  Adding money to remove expectations isn’t what is needed here.

Like eating factory produced meat, driving SUVs or buying sweatshop made products, how we treat the neurodiverse is going to be one of the things that points to our backward (hypocritical) thinking in the early twenty first century.  Like the eighteenth century person who thought slavery was perfectly acceptable, this social ignorance makes us look like fools to history.

Fortunately, I don’t really care what most people think about it.

The Value of Losing

Originally published October, 2013 on Dusty World.

I’m currently teaching two grade nine classes of introduction to computers and coaching the senior boys soccer team.  In both situations I’m trying to understand and develop their response to failure.  This is something we’re singularly bad at in education.  Instead of developing resilience around failure we try to mitigate failure entirely.

The soccer team has shown such a lack of resilience that they are essentially in tatters.  When given opportunities to recover from failure they have responded with dishonesty, poor sportsmanship and a lack of character.  Continually trying to coax them into right action has been exhausting and ultimately a failure on my part as a coach which I find very distressing.  There is a culture on this team that I’m finding impossible to overcome.

The grade nines, while tackling Arduino for the first time, are also running into failure though they are handling it much better than the soccer team.  When they realize that they won’t be made to suffer for failure (this involves overcoming years of training by our education system), they begin to play with the material in a meaningful and constructive way.  Removing fear of failure from the equation has been successful in both classes and the confidence that results is based on real, hands-on, experiential learning.


So much of what we do in a classroom is artificial.  Artificial challenges in an artificial environment producing artificial assessments while working on artificial timelines.  The same can be said of those epic wins players think they own in video games.

This brought me back to an article I read in WIRED a long time ago called Generation Xbox wherein they talked about the culture of gaming in such a forthright way that it stuck with me.  Anyone who has been teaching kids in the last ten years will see a lot of truth in these observations.

One of the reasons gamification has connected with education so comfortably is that the two things deal in artificialities.  Both focus on engagement and subvert realism in order to ensure continued attention.  Being in a classroom is much like being in a game complete with rules to follow and points to be scored.  We grade students in much the same way that a game gives out points – we award players for willingly submitting themselves to the rules of the game; submission is a prerequisite for victory and victory is given rather than taken.

When you win in a video game or in a classroom you aren’t experiencing success in a real way.  It is an artificial environment designed to breed success, you are in a place designed by committee to appeal to the widest range of people.  The attention and engagement of the student/player is the goal, everything else is in support of it.  Yet people develop very real senses of themselves around these false victories.  Our self image is molded around what we think we’re good at and many digital natives consider themselves masters of the universe because they have played games successfully.  Many academics believe that they are masters of the universe because they were able to submit to education successfully.

If social constructs like games or education or economics are designed to focus entirely on inclusive engagement then the result is a population with no ability to think outside of these social constructs.  They don’t develop meaningful meta-cognition or resiliency.  When you’ve been beaten badly it shows you something about yourself.  When you’ve been beaten badly it knocks you out of habitual response and into a new and potentially more successful means of overcoming your failure.  In that scenario even a less painful loss could be seen as an improvement, but we are doing all we can to remove pain from everything.

One of the reasons gamers migrate to multi-player versus games is because you can test your ability against someone who isn’t a benign agent of the game’s mediocrity engine.  As in sports you are able to test yourself against your peers.  You can bet that the human being on the other side won’t bell-curve their play to suit your level.  That’s how you end up with 9-1 soccer games, or getting pwned online.  It’s in these extremes that gamer culture and sports seem most alien to educators.  It’s in these extremes that my soccer players have nothing in their vocabulary to respond honestly and constructively to failure.

When starting the circuit building unit in computer studies the grade nines were overwhelmed by something completely new to them.  I gave them detailed instruction and support but would not do it for them.  I did stress that if they weren’t paying attention to what they were doing they would find this impossible and when one would ask for help while simultaneously looking at their smartphone or with an error I’d already helped them with once I’d walk away.  Circuit building wouldn’t bell-curve for the class, it wouldn’t simplify things to make it easier if students didn’t get it.  They had to respond to reality and reality wasn’t interested in making it easier.

At one point a colleague from the English department wandered in and watched them working on their circuit building for a few minutes.  He said, “it’s nice to be in a classroom where the students are actually doing something.”  then, after a pause he added, “you really don’t have to worry about engaging them do you?  They’re all right into it…”  Reality can do that to people, it’s a genuine challenge.  My job as a teacher is to give them the time and materials to figure it out for themselves.

If you’re excited about gamification then you’re excited about what is simply a new layer of artificiality around an already artificial situation.  Not everyone should see success in every endeavor.  It’s good for you to fail every once in a while, it makes you more compassionate, humble, creative and self aware; all areas I see the digital native struggle with because their virtual wins have more to do with entertainment than they do with reality.

If you’ve seen success in a system designed to provide it you’ve got to question the value of that success.  If you want to earn success look for a challenge that wasn’t designed by committee mainly to keep you engaged.  Whenever what you’re doing has engagement at its heart you’ll find the victory to be false because it was designed to ensure it for you in order to keep you playing.

The Digital Narcissist

How We Build Digital Narcissists

Narcissus fell in love with his own image while staring into the water.  That kind of self-infatuation is difficult to come by in our world with its relentless competition and big problems; you can’t help but feel humble before what faces us.

Fortunately, many first world children don’t have to face that reality.  In the past decade they have found a new cocoon to wrap themselves in that isolates them from the harsh truths that surround them.

In that digital cocoon they are free to see only what they want to see.  The machines that serve them slavishly see to their every whim no matter how asinine, base or self-serving it may be.

At the best of times it’s tricky to develop a sense of humility and perspective in children, they tend toward an egotistic world view.  The technology cocoon amplifies this and insulates them from adults (both parents and teachers) in a way unseen before.  In a whirl of habituated media consumption, children today are always able to find a ‘fact’ on the internet that backs up their myopic world view.  They are immediately and constantly able to communicate with peers who are more than happy to reinforce their prejudices. In spite of its promise, social media is very socially insular.  Rather than moving us into an era of interaction and awareness on a global scale, for far too many people the internet is offering something more akin to mental masturbation.

The other week we went to the backwoods of Ontario.  With limited internet and basic cable, we weren’t in the self-directed, media rich world we usually are.  I stumbled upon a fascinating documentary that compared militant Hindu girls’ camps and the Miss India pageant.  We ended up watching (and learning) something that we wouldn’t have in our self-directed media paradise.

Remember when TV was only a few channels and you ended up watching what was on?  It was in this way that I discovered The Twilight Zone, Woody Allen, early Japanese Anime and a variety of media that I would never have picked up in our insular modern media world where we define ourselves by our niches.  I’m not saying things were better that way, but limited media did tend to push us out of our comfort zones and try things we otherwise wouldn’t.  We also tended to watch something only once or twice. Limited media forces you beyond your areas of interest and you tend to focus better on it because access to it is special.

I used to beg for rides or ride
the bike for miles to get this!

When Bits & Bytes on TVO wasn’t enough to satisfy my new computer fixation in the early ’80s I had to search far and wide for media that would cover this new medium.  When I found COMPUTE! magazine in a small shop in a strip mall five miles from home I used to beg for a ride over there or jump on the bicycle and ride forever to go get the latest copy.  That media was hard to get and greatly valued.  Every page of that magazine was a glass of water in the Sahara. My urge to find it had to be great or I wouldn’t have bothered.  Limited media makes us value the information we find and lends a sense of accomplishment to our learning.  All that is lost today.

In 2013 media practically scratches at the door of your mind to be let in.  You have to make an effort to stop it rather than find it.  Ironically, this inflection in media delivery does a lot to take away our ability to self direct our interests.  It’s hard to enjoy a glass of water in a flood.  What’s worse is that instead of amplifying our ability to learn, modern media delivery has cordoned people off into their own habitual interests.

Instead of focusing on research and access we need to consider how to manage distraction and information overflow.  Only once this is in hand can we start to direct ourselves in this storm.  The digital narcissist is the logical result of our sudden access to any information that we want, and it fits hand in glove with the consumerist drive that dictates digital development. It behooves the companies that are reducing users to consumers to create a false sense of how powerful we are; it sells.

Generation Xbox

In a media vacuum you have time with your thoughts.  In that silence you have a chance to examine yourself critically, figure out a direction you want to go.  We expect meta-cognition in students but I’m finding that they are increasingly out of touch with a balanced view of their self worth because they are buried under a media avalanche that is not simply a result of technology advancement, there is intent in the deluge.

The navel gazing digital narcissist can’t examine themselves because they exist entirely as a figment of their own imaginations.  Meta-cognition and the sense of perspective it demands is impossible for them in this media storm; a quiet mind is an unknown experience.

The digital native is trapped in an ego feedback loop with a steady stream of media that caters to their every urge, and because the longer they are engaged with media the more they are worth, the media itself is more interested in keeping them plugged in that it is in advancing their thinking.  

Wrapped in this digital cocoon, is it any wonder that the poor digital native can’t help but gaze at the screen like Narcissus and his pond?