October 06, 2010

Jeremy Rifkin notwithstanding, connectivity is neither the same thing as empathy nor naturally facilitates empathy. A dictionary connects us to its maker: yet when we look up the definition of the word 'dictionary', we do not expect to find the words, "Very funny". Rather, connectivity which also increases convenience takes away from the awkward need for working without an off button. It does not matter whether the connectivity is that of dictionary-fact or social media. We may be followed by thousands of friends on Twitter or Facebook: but how many of them would take us into their homes if our own burned down? The greater the casualness and the convenience, the less the empathy required.

Social media easily adapt to the constant desire for greater convenience. E-mails take too long now, blogs are passé: replaced by the brief Twitterfeed and the even briefer text message. Why would tone, context, more words possibly be needed? (Which may also explain the increasing inability of most readers to read between the lines, to see what is not explicitly spelled out; and, more terrifyingly, the increasing inability of many writers to write in any other way.)

The only exception -- for now -- remains the parents. Even teens prefer to actually talk with their parents rather than text. The only time teens text their parents rather than call is when background noise would reveal unwanted information.

At the same time, our increasing dependence on online popularity measuring sticks cuts into our ability and even our time spent making face-to-face connections, and consequently our ability even to make those connections. Who has not seen a social gathering where at least some of its members were more busy talking on cellphones than talking to their immediate neighbours? For every Olympic athlete who is happy to share their moment in the opening ceremonies with a loved one, there are a thousand people who willingly sacrifice time with their own family and friends in favour of the on-line world.

Success is rarely measured in empathy: in today's world, perhaps less than ever. Studies show continually that workplaces with self-motivated workers who have reasons to enjoy working have the highest productivity: yet other studies confirm again and again that those in positions of power over others tend more often than not to use that power to gain and retain at the expense of others, whether by seizing credit and belaying blame, micromanagement, or outright bullying. Histrionic personality disorder (superficial charm, insincerity, egocentricity, manipulation) and narcissistic personality disorder (grandiosity, self-focused lack of empathy for others, exploitativeness) are actually more common among high-level executives than they are among the criminally insane.

Whichever the approach, at the core of it is fear: and so control must be exerted continually lest it be lost -- which, in the end, converts the workplace into just another perceived zero-sum game which continually erodes resources. Refusal -- or, perhaps, inability -- to listen is just another form of control.

(Never mind that, at the least, lost productivity directly due to this particular zero-sum game can be measured in as much as 25% higher employee absence due to illness. In the absence of any need to care and any real employee incentive to improve company productivity, the individual drive to succeed and/or retain control at all costs will continue to be far stronger.)

Autism is not new to the Internet world. Isolated cases of autistic symptoms have been identified as far back as the Renaissance: but they were just that, isolated. In those times, true two-way bridging communication toward a common interest was essential to survival: short-term survival at first, which gradually became longer-term survival as civilisation took stronger hold -- and eventually, such long-term survival, not solely of self but also of family and even of society itself, that we may have forgotten this point altogether. Today, true two-way communication is the road of just another also-ran or didn't-run-at-all. To control dissemination of information without having to worry about little things such as empathy is the ultimate modern path to individual, blinkered power. The true success stories are those who partake of Laurence J. Peter's philosophy of "When I want your opinion, I'll give it to you."

Evolution readily adapts us to those niches we ourselves have defined as preferable. In a world where empathy is increasingly unnecessary and communication is a lesser job specialisation, people trained and hired to manipulate communicative media in order to communicate only what others tell them to: should it surprise anyone that it has become almost chic to be labelled with the genius-linked Asperger's syndrome (thought by some to have been experienced by none less than Newton)? Should it be surprising in the least that an increasing number of autistic persons and their parents no longer see autism as something undesirable to be cured? or even (in its high-functioning forms) as something which may be desirable? From there: is it such a large step to guess that at least some parents, high-functioning autistic and otherwise, might find it preferable to have autistic children? and maybe even engage in behaviours which make high-functioning autism more likely? After all, Deaf parents have already done it.

(Even the instinct toward acutely repetitive behaviours may prove evolutionarily desirable across a broad societal stratum: for of what else consists assembly-line training? Empathy, social imagination, and actual socialising may even get in the way, here. Even the simple physical clumsiness associated with many forms of autism -- which may be a side-effect of reduced socialisation and thus socialised physical play, and which may possibly be remedial through focused tasks which develop the same physical skills and coordination -- plays little role in highly internalised repetitive tasks, only in the otherwise continual adaptation to new circumstances.)

Consequently, should it come as any surprise at all that autism -- now known positively to have not one genetic link but several (for evolution has ever tested as many paths as possible to ruthlessly test which ones are the best means to an end) -- has sprung seemingly full-fledged into an Internet world? and leans most heavily toward males, still the dominant breadwinners on whose economic success the entire family depends?

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