Monkeys and Robots

2012-02-06 14:40

I’ve been reading a book on “Scrum” methodology. Interesting stuff, and a lot of it makes sense.

Then I got to this:

Use open working environments. Such environments allow people to communicate more easily, make it easier to get together, and faccilitate self-organization. When I walk into open team areas, I can immediately tell how the team is doing. Silence is always a bad sign.

The discussion continues from there, with various commentary on how people work in groups. This is really insightful commentary. There’s just one issue: I can’t conceive of how anyone could get anything done like that. You could put me in an “open plan” office, sure. I could probably get a little work done for a day or two. By the end of a week I’d be non-verbal.

Most mental disorders (and I’m using the term broadly; I recognize that it’s disputed) have the form of shifts of competence within the basic model of human life and society. Whether people are antisocial or depressed or incapable of paying attention, they are still basically people. They think like people. They have commonality of motivation. You can imagine what it’s like to be them.

Among the various cognitive abnormalities I’ve dealt with in friends and acquintances, autism seems to be unique in that it completely changes the nature of existence. It’s easy to understand that some people have easier or harder times reading, right? But it’s essential to our understanding of humans that reading is a cognitively-involved task, while speaking is natural and easy. And when you encounter people who can be to upset to speak or hear spoken language, but who can write fluently… that’s different.

Imagine that you were to replace all your social contact with friends with textual media; chat rooms, IMs, stuff like that. If you’re not autistic, this sounds lonely. For most autistic people I know, it sounds relaxing. No, I don’t feel isolated and cut off from my coworkers whom I see face-to-face every year or two. I don’t feel like I’m less connected to the guy whose face I’ve never seen than to the guy I’ve seen lots of times. To me, personhood is an abstraction. Bodies aren’t people; bodies are things which contain people. The person isn’t the body, it’s the pattern to the body’s behavior. And I can see that pattern just as well in writing or other actions as I can by watching the body.

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot. See. A lot of autistic people I know share the sense that it’s quite disconcerting to find yourself on a planet dominated by telepathic monkeys; moreso because the telepathy is unreliable, but so inherent to them that they often find it simply impossible to question its reliability. Of course, I also hear complaints about the frustrations of dealing with emotionally-distant robots who always have to be so rational and have no sense of nuance.

Tyler Cowen wrote about autism and economic behavior. What makes this interesting to me is that it hints at a new way of framing the question of how we should relate. Typically, I see people arguing either that autistic people are disabled and should be taken care of by more-competent non-autistic people, or that non-autistic people are dysfunctional and autistic people are better.

I put it to you that the answer is neither; rather, autistic and non-autistic people have complementary skills and qualities. Learning to relate effectively and well involves, not deciding who is right in general, but learning to take advantage of each others’ strengths. Learning to communicate is something that both sets of people can work on; learning to understand the differences and make use of them.

I sometimes ask some of my coworkers (I have awesome coworkers) advice on interpreting statements that have the look to me of statements which have political or social connotations I’m missing. They sometimes ask me for second opinions on the sorts of structural abstractions that leap out at me the way they see facial expressions. And rather than me looking down at them for being “fuzzy” or them looking down at me for being “cold”, we look to each other as offering complementary skills, allowing a mutually beneficial association.

Robot likes monkeys. Monkeys like robot?

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. Your autism (undiagnosed then) was probably why the “open plan” elementary school you attended was so catastrophically awful for you.
    (There was a single large room for all the children in a grade, with two teachers and some assistants. Chaotic and noisy.) Fortunately you didn’t have to learn anything much in elementary school.
    —Seebs’ Mom

    Linda Seebach · 2012-02-07 09:32 · #

  2. It’s not just autism. Open office plans are just plain a bad idea for software developers. A number of people doing agile development find that open offices make sense at first, when people are spending a large percentage of their time discussing a new project with one another or a few gurus are training a team of newbies, but once that phase is over it becomes a distraction.

    Software development requires intense concentration. It can take a long time to get focused, and once the concentration is broken, it can take a long time to re-focus.

    Open office plans keep going in and out of style. People try them out, get rid of them, and then a new generation of office remodelers tries them again. They’ll never go completely out of style, because walls are expensive.

    Dave Leppik · 2012-02-07 09:57 · #

  3. I agree, open plans don’t work for any job requiring that kind of focus. I’m a terrible introvert, so I have trouble interacting with more than a few people at a time, and get worn out by social interaction.

    If they’re trying to facilitate communication, there are a bunch of collaborative programs and group chats that can be used. Those give you the communication, but you can stay signed out when you need to focus.

    I’m having trouble thinking of any time I’d appreciate an open office plan. Maybe it’s the introvert in me, but the thought makes me terribly uncomfortable.

    — AshtaraSilunar · 2012-02-07 15:34 · #

  4. This came up at the last job I (successfully) held.

    Transcription company. In Quality Control, it was necessary to listen to audio to verify the accuracy of a transcript. Sometimes the audio sucked. Sometimes people were speaking with accents. Sometimes it was a REALLY complex or nuanced topic.

    Naturally, this requires A Lot Of Concentration. I’m quite certain I was the only autistic spectrum individual in the company, but everyone had trouble re-engaging with a transcript after a sudden verbal interjection.

    So in QC, we tended to make use of text communication tools. This REALLY perturbed our VP of Operations (it was a small company, so the Guy Running Everything was the next rung up from Department Manager) because he felt text communication was ‘dehumanizing’ and that critical communication cues could not be reliably conveyed, given the lack of facial expressions and tone of voice.

    The idea that WE could do this and HE couldn’t perturbed him even more. I think it made HIM feel alien in dealing with his own employees.

    — Amy · 2012-02-08 01:19 · #

 
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