Replacing busyness with human agency

The rate of technological change has outpaced the rate at which human cultures can evolve. Being able to design, build, and use technology does not equate to understanding all the implications.


In the meantime deeply flawed economic assumptions continue to be baked into new technologies, corporations treat climate breakdown as a bu$yness / profit opportunity, and politicians are joining the bandwagon by putting simplistic notions of “job creation” (another form of busyness instead of a focus on genuine problem solving) ahead of  addressing the existential crisis that lurks behind the concept known as the Anthropocene.

Humans have to ask themselves whether they want to continue to be useful parts of the ecosystem of the planet or whether they prefer to take on the role of a genetic experiment that the planet switched on and off for a brief period in its development. (The big human battle of this century)

In the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg:

We do need hope. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act hope is everywhere.
(School strike for climate – save the world by changing the rules)

This observation is correct – if and only if we take care not to confuse goal directed actions with the bu$yness as usual advocated by corporations and governments.

Autism and human agency

It is no accident that Greta Thunberg is autistic. Autistic people tend to gravitate to human endeavours that require perseverance, specialised skills and deep domain-specific knowledge. There is a strong correlation between autistic traits and creativity. Furthermore autistic people have a perspective on the purpose of social interaction that differs fundamentally from the social motivation of non-autistic people:

The autistic understanding of “social”

  1. Naive assumption: “social” refers to 
interaction to learn from each other
  2. Naive assumption: “social” refers to 
collaborating with others towards a shared goal
  3. An autistic individual may take decades to decode the typical meaning of “social”

The prevalent neurotypical understanding of “social”

  1. Unspoken assumption: “social” refers to negotiating social status and power gradients
  2. Unspoken assumption: “social” refers to competing against each other using culturally defined rules
  3. A typical individual may take decades to appreciate non-social interests

(Social – The big misunderstanding)

The following delightful interview of Greta and her father illustrates another characteristic social dynamic in families with autistic children and (sometimes more and sometimes less) autistic parents.

The interactions between autistic children and their parents often reverse the typical roles in learning.

Autistic collaboration involves sharing of knowledge and working towards a shared goal of generating new levels of knowledge and understanding. The individual innate moral compass mediates the tension between the desire to assist others vs the desire learn about the world.

  • These inclinations are reflected in the cultural transmission of new discoveries from children to parents
  • Education of parents by the children focuses on teaching about the focus and boundaries of individual areas of interest
  • Sharing of knowledge and asking probing questions is seen as a “natural” human behaviour
  • Adolescence is a period of intensive knowledge acquisition, where individual areas of interests are explored in great depth, and where in the absence of autistic peers with compatible interests new knowledge is often shared with parents

In contrast neurotypical collaboration involves competition at all levels of scale according to culturally defined rules, which mediate the tension between the desire to assist others vs the desire to gain or maintain social status symbols.

  • These inclinations are reflected in the cultural transmission of boundaries of acceptable behaviour from parents to children
  • Education of children by the parents focuses on teaching the cultural rules and acceptable boundaries
  • Ego and self-promotion is seen as a “natural” human behaviour
  • Adolescence is a period of socialisation, where the cultural rules transmitted by parents are incrementally replaced by the cultural rules encountered in peer groups

(Taking ownership of the label)

The role of autism in human evolution

Autistic traits are natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species that are essential for the survival of our species. The autistic minority within human societies provides a critically important counterforce to anthropocentric competitive social games by reducing the risks associated with typical social learning that contribute to spurious cultural complexity.

Technically speaking, in the language of evolutionary biology, human traits are the manifestation of multi-level group selection in human societies, resulting in a form of gene-cultural co-evolution where culture plays a very significant role.

Depending on the specific culture an individual grows up in, the competitive aspect of “collaboration” may either be significantly reinforced (capitalism, older money based societies, some religions) or weakened (hunter gatherer societies, some religions).

Autistic human traits are the glue that enables new knowledge acquisition to be scaled to the level of groups and groups of groups, providing cultures with the ability to adapt in times of rapid environmental changes.

During times when the environment is experienced as highly stable, autistic traits are likely to be suppressed by the surrounding culture; whereas when the environment is experienced as highly dynamic, autistic traits will be appreciated as a source of essential new knowledge.

(Taking ownership of the label)

Autistic agency contains the seed from which hope may emerge. Human societies would do well to nurture the seeds.

We have made a small start at the workshop on workplace culture in the healthcare sector at the HiNZ conference in Wellington last month and at the CIIC workshop in Auckland earlier this month. Social progress is overdue.

Getting serious about diversity and inclusion

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 2 March 2019 (Auckland) and 9 March 2019 (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.

Dates and times


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