Erik McClure

Neurodivergents Will Inherit The Earth

Decades ago, something absolutely unheard of happened - a nerd became the richest person on the planet. This, of course, was merely a consequence of Software Eating The World, a fact we are all now painfully aware of. Programming, once delegated to glasses-wearing nerds banging away on strange boxey devices that could add numbers, has been transformed into something that many people are interested in (mostly because it makes tons of money). Nowadays, as software permeates almost every aspect of modern life, programming is “cool”, firmly entrenched alongside doctors and lawyers as a respected, high income career path, so long as you get hired at a large company.

If you think about it, this represents a radical societal restructuring. All these nerds being put in charge of things tend to be more progressive and willing to support social movements. Combined with the fact that the best programmers can come from anywhere, including diverse and underserved backgrounds, this has forced software companies to cater specifically to minorities, accelerating existing societal shifts simply because they want to attract good programmers. Adding benefits specifically designed for trans people is a common example, but the shift to remote work is another.

As our world changes, the kinds of people we need to support our society changes with it. I don’t think people appreciate just how much the world has diverged from the neurotypical-cisgendered-heterosexual norms that were so entrenched just a hundred years ago. The United States only enshrined woman’s suffrage with the 19th amendment in 1920, just after World War I. It’s not just that the social fabric of society has changed, the world has changed. The global reality we live in has changed. Climate Change is now an existential threat that is beginning to have visible effects. Software and the digital world have not simply merged with reality, the internet now dominates it. 6 of the 10 largest companies by market cap are software or computer hardware companies. The exceptions are Johnson & Johnson, Berkshire Hathaway, United Health, and Exxon Mobil. The world’s largest oil company is #9 on that list. This is a titanic shift in economic power that’s happened only in the past few decades.

This is not unique to modern history. Each major technological or geopolitical shift in human history changes the balance of power. World War II’s Rosie The Riveter is the most recent example of a sudden geopolitical change (a global Total War necessitating a drastic social shift), when women were encouraged to take manufacturing jobs previously reserved for men. This was extremely unusual at the time, and after the war ended, the government abruptly started pressuring women to “return to normalcy”. Sound familiar? While most women reluctantly returned to more traditional jobs, many historians consider it the impetus for The Quiet Revolution, which eventually resulted in women permanently entering the workforce. The First and Second Industrial Revolution notably involved a steep decline in infant mortality, but not child mortality, as the baby boom resulted in a massive increase in child labor that was much more deadly than the farm work they were doing before. This eventually resulted in much stricter child labor laws in the UK and United States, eliminating children from the pool of available physical labor.

Going back farther, ancient history is full of tribes and civilizations that displayed a huge amount of variation depending on their particular geographic and technological pressures, including concepts of alternative genders or even different ways of expressing time. A society is a particular subset of all possible personalities that are able to self-organize and maintain order. In any society, what exactly a “reasonable person” is and what constitutes a crime may vary significantly. Factions within a society grow or shrink depending on economic and environmental influences, which can change the favored social fabric. This evolution of the social fabric is happening right now as technological advances allow entire forgotten sects of humanity to express their true potential in ways never before possible.

VR is still in an early adopter phase and its real impact has yet to be appreciated. We have only a scant few video games that can take meaningful advantage of it, a few poor attempts at metaverses, and hardly any useful productivity apps. We are teetering on the edge of another technological reorganization of society, where the entire world gets eaten by VR and AR in ways that people have difficulty appreciating right now because the hardware isn’t there yet. Once we solve the last few critical problems - like comfortable reading without headaches and less bulky headsets - then everything will change, very suddenly.

Over half my friends have ADHD, and when hyperfocused are capable of things few neurotypical people could ever do. Many of them are autistic, able to think in ways that most neurotypicals can only replicate with a lot of drugs. They don’t just think outside the box, they think outside of boxes people aren’t aware of. Some hyperfocused ADHD people can take advantage of the entire interactive volume around them in VR space, allowing them to open 5 different reference manuals while working on a project, or cross-reference a dozen sources in realtime, or set up a massive set of realtime data visualizations while monitoring a system. A persistent, freely navigable workspace inside VR (that could also be non-euclidean) makes it easier to return to tasks later without having to reconstruct an entire mental state. However, the ability to do many things at once sometimes translates into a need to do many things at once, and the ability to focus for long periods of time on one task can translate into an inability to do anything else, like getting food or remembering to mail an important tax form.

Unfortunately, in our modern society, houses have little to no interior noise insulation and almost every single electronic device makes a constant high-frequency drone. Neurotypicals either do not hear these sounds, or tune them out after a few minutes (and then claim the sound doesn’t exist, having immediately forgotten it). These houses are then built right next to roads with noisy cars, often without sidewalks, and sometimes with ubiquitous traffic noises when buried deep inside the city. How distracting these noises are depends on the person, the noise, whether it is speech, music, a kind of music you don’t like, or a ticking clock. Many places make these sounds inescapable, like restaurants with loud music and conversations, or offices with ticking clocks in every single room.

In contrast, in VR you can wear noise-cancelling headphones and put on music no one else can hear that is automatically attenuated if someone is talking to you. VR lets you tightly control your auditory environment - you can selectively isolate sound sources to only hear the conversation around you instead of having to tune out the dozens of other conversations. Nameplates on avatars can help faceblind people and avatars themselves can be more visually distinct than human faces. Being able to share a funny image with someone without having to show them your phone and hoping you don’t get an embarrassing notification at that exact moment would be useful for many people. Making things more accessible helps everyone.

A lot of what makes these problems so damaging for neurodivergents is the refusal of accommodation from neurotypicals. Often, this is simply authority figures forcing neurodivergent people to remain in environments causing them physical pain. Sadly, humans have a tendency to reject any culture other than their own as invalid or barbaric, possibly due to tribalism. Those of us living in a western country point to history as justification, while conveniently ignoring the fact that history is written by the victors. Countries like America are often willfully ignorant of the natives they subjugated now living in a post-apocalyptic world. While many executives acknowledge the rise of LGBTQIA+ individuals, or at least pay lip-service to them, it is painfully obvious that most do not understand the true cultural upheaval that is upon us. For example, Meta is inherently doomed for a very simple reason: It’s not furry enough.

Despite the prevalence of how Furries Run The Internet, an amazing number of tech workers still do not understand the significance of furries. Just two years ago, a coworker of mine came out as both trans and a furry, in the same e-mail. I never saw the need to “come out” as a furry (which should be obvious, given my avatar) but the reality is that furries are now a significant social force, which is largely going ignored. The one significant competitor to VRchat is NeosVR, developed by… furries. A starbucks union organizer wears his fursuit to rallies. The furry revolution is already here and nobody is paying attention to the fact that furries will not only dominate VR tech, they will determine the fate of any VR “metaverse”, because furries are the ultimate VR power user.

This cultural blindspot is just one example of how humans are often laughably bad at predicting the future precisely because we are blind to social changes caused by technological advancements. This is why we laugh at visions of the future from 100 years ago, because they could only envision technological advances within the confines of their own culture. I still see people today predicting that VR will revolutionize painfully obvious things, like medical analysis, or 3D modeling, or architecture. No one talks about how it will provide a way for autistic people to be more confident about social gatherings when they control their sensory input sphere or allow plural people to switch between avatars depending on who is fronting. When people talk about “the dangers of VR”, it’s always the same stupid reading argument, instead of predicting the inevitable moral panic over weird VR sex. It reminds me of the old adage about science fiction:

“It would take an inventor to predict the automobile, and it would take a real visionary to predict highways and gas stations. But it would take a science fiction writer to predict the traffic jam.” - Ed Bryant



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