The Age of Asperger: Modern Society is Autistic!

Modern societies are symptomatically similar to Asperger’s syndrome.

Posted Apr 16, 2010

According to DSM IV (TR), autism is characterized by markedly abnormal or impaired social interaction/communication with deficits in: eye-contact/body language; peer relations/friendships; language/speech etc. But so too is modern society, where you find similar impairments. Unlike traditional, small-scale societies where everyone knows everyone else in the locality and shares the same language, values, and mentality, most people you meet in modern Western societies are strangers, with most individuals encountered unknown by name, and with many different language and cultural groups.

No longer can you assume that the person you are talking to in a modern Western society has the local tongue as their first language, or that they share any of your cultural beliefs and traditions. On the contrary, you have to be careful not to imply any such thing for fear of giving offence, and you have to be particularly wary with things like eye-contact, body-language, and gesture, which can easily be misinterpreted.  The result is that even indigenous natives are no longer at home in their own society, and we have instead what sociologists have termed anomie, alienation, narcissism, or atomization, with privatized religion and politics and high incidence of sole-occupancy and isolated family structure.

Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, sounds as if it should be about autism, but in fact it illustrates exactly the point I am making. According to him, “the classic institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been hollowed out… across a very wide range of activities, the last several decades have witnessed a striking diminution in regular contacts with our friends and neighbours… We spend less time in conversation over meals, we exchange visits less often, we engage less in leisure activities that encourage casual social interaction, we spend more time watching and less time doing. We know our neighbours less well, and we see old friends less often.”

More specifically, modern Western societies are characterized by high incidence of single-parenthood and divorce; high rates of crime, anti-social behaviour, and delinquency; privatization of sex and its divorce from reproduction, with approval of masturbation (by far the most autistic of sexual practices and one that was anathematized to an astonishing extent up until quite recently); secularization and privatization of religion, fragmentation of politics, with a loss of normative consensus and a cult of individualism and self-realization encouraged by cynicism about collective ideologies and institutional beliefs.

The causes are clear. Urbanization means that social groups are too large and anonymous to allow personal familiarity. Multi-culturalism means that society is too heterogeneous to sustain a common mental culture and that the host culture is disqualified from dominance. Rapid social change combined with increased life expectancy means that older individuals become alienated and disorientated as values change or reverse in their lifetimes, while the young reject them and their mental world as out-of-date and irrelevant.

Other important factors are an advanced division of labor, with social and mental specialization; bureaucracy, routinization, and regulation; the emergence of experts, consultants, and self-appointed authorities; single-issue pressure groups, parties, and politics; single-focus leisure activities, hobbies, and life-styles along with a cult of individualism with tolerance of eccentricity and outsiders. All of these illustrate DSM IV’s second set of criteria for autism: restricted repertoire of activities and interests: stereotyped/repetitive behaviour; abnormally restricted or intense interests; insistence on routines/rituals; preoccupation with parts/details.

In other words, modern, multi-cultural societies could be seen as essentially autistic in nature: something which describes both their strengths and their weaknesses. No wonder then, that there has been a Flynn Effect (see a previous post). Sociologically, this could be seen as the equivalent of the high but uneven IQ found in Asperger’s syndrome, with what you might call the Bowling Alone aspect reflecting the mentalistic deficits of high-functioning autism, and the scientific, technological, and engineering triumphs of modern society the corresponding mechanistic compensations.

Indeed, you could see modern Western culture as the epitome of autistic savantism in many respects. Although we rely on computers to perform the feats of rote memory, instant recall, and lightning calculation you would otherwise only find in autistic savants, you could regard our cultural and economic reliance on computing as a form of collective autistic savantism. Whether we like it or not, mechanistic cognition—not mentalism as hitherto—is increasingly the foundation of our civilization, and is incrementally institutionalized in technology, engineering, and science. All of us are to this extent autistic and find ourselves living increasingly in what you could justly call The Age of Asperger.