Link of the Day: Economy of Neurodiversity

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with visual content!

Tyler Cowen discusses his book Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in an Disordered World with Will Wilkinson on bloggingheads.tv.

Cowen (an academic economist and blogger at Marginal Revolution) and Wikinson (think tank commentator and has a blog listed on my Favourite Sites) both have psychological/cognitive conditions known as disorders. Wilkinson, the clearer case, has been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder); Cowen has not been diagnosed as anything, but he considers himself to have areas of cognitive functioning in common with autistics.

Wilkinson does not consider his condition a disorder, it gives him the qualities which make him suitable for what he does as a communicator. Cowen considers his autistic cognitive functioning to be an advantage as it enables him to take in information very quickly. Cowen explains that autism also has very positive cognitive results, in making people suspicious of framing and more concentrated on facts. Non-autistics are vert susceptible to narrative as a frame for communicating, and storing information, which has some advantages, but also introduces strong bias. Cowen’s point is not that everyone should be autistic, but that is it wrong to assume that autism is a disorder in all cases, and that autistic intelligence adds to social knowledge. A kind of social knowledge which is made more widespread by the net as absorbing information in an ‘autistic’ way, that is at high speed and with great concentration, has become more widespread through people getting information online.

Cowen also argues that the net does not isolate people and produce social alienation. Social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, enable us to have more contact with the most important people in our lives, and to stay in contact with less important people we might lose all contact with over time. Cowen also suggests that following Facebook and Twitter is not just a waste of time, as the mini-narratives of our friends and contacts are valuable, and are as aesthetically distinguished as minor literature. I’m not sure the comparison is a great one but I think Cowen has a point about seeing aesthetic value as dispersed through different kinds of experience. This goes back to autism, as Cowen refers to the beauty autistics see in life, more constantly and intensely than non-autistics.

Cowen argues that the diversity of human cognitive functioning can better recognised with the growth of the division of labour, As work becomes more and more specialised, the usefulness of different kinds of cognitive functioning for different kinds of jobs becomes more apparent. The chances of any individual finding work particularly well suited to their character and cognitive functioning is increasing as a result. Entrepreneurs have always been a niche of that kind. There are a high proportion of dyslexics who are business people, one reason is that they are good at delegating because they can grasp the global picture with relative ease. That’s the point of the title, we all have an increasing chance to have our own economy in the sense that we have an increasing chance of finding an economic niche that is a particularly good fit with our psychology and cognitive processes.

I would add that the point is not that everyone is in a perfect job fitting their individuality, but that there are good reasons to think an increasing proportion of people have that kind of job. Modern economies do have a growing proportion of jobs that use personal and cognitive skills, rather than repetitive routine jobs, Those people in the not so great jobs benefit, if less people are competing for those jobs, because the market value of their kind of labour increases as it becomes more scarce.

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