The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Earthlings

Unfortunately, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), an otherwise highly illuminating book, didn’t have much useful information on Earthlings. The most important information, some of which quite outdated by now, can be glimpsed from this meagre paragraph:

Humans are bipedal ape descendants from the planet Earth. Not noted for being particularly bright, up until they are destroyed, if they even manage to do that much correctly, they actually still think that digital watches are a pretty neat idea, and they spend most of their time concerning themselves with moving about little green pieces of paper.

Fortunately, since the publication of the Hitchhiker’s Guide a book has come out to fill that gap. A Field Guide to Earthlings: An Autistic/Asperger View of Neurotypical Behavior (2010) by Ian Ford (not to be confused with Ford Prefect of Betelgeuse V from the Hitchhiker’s Guide). It has a well-deserved 4.4 rating on Amazon and I would recommend it to all neurodiverse people (ASD, ADHD, gifted, etc.). If you don’t consider yourself neurodiverse and you have always found Earthlings a wee bit confusing, well, this book is for you too (you are probably neurodiverse anyway). It is truly the Anthropologist from Mars kind of perspective. The author tries to remain fair and objective towards Earthlings while explaining how difficult it is to live among them for someone from a different planet:

The word “neurotypical” (or NT) is not derogatory or complimentary — it is neutral. The label is not normally used by people to describe themselves, but is often used from an autistic perspective to name those people who are not labelled as autistic, ADD, ADHD, or any other specific neurological condition. I’ve spent the last 42 years living among and studying these curious creatures. It has been a difficult life, and actually not one that I would have chosen.[…] I first arrived on Earth through the labors of my mother, who gave me milk, and, later, piano lessons .

To my surprise, the book started with a great deal of linguistics and semantics rather than social issues. However, I soon came to realise that these are the foundations of how Earthlings (=NTs) create their imaginary world that can be quite different from the real world out there: through semantic webs. I also came to realise that this was the reason that made me choose linguistics at college. The semantic web is so fundamental to NTs that autistic people won’t be able to navigate it unless they make the transition from the real world to the semantic world (confusingly labelled “real world” by NTs):

An autistic person may be said to be out of touch with the “real world,” and in this case, “real” is the NT term for socially constructed reality. If you are autistic, and you hear the phrase “real world,” you may need to do some silent translation to understand them. Where is your reality — nature, feelings, intimacy? For most NTs, socially constructed language and culture is very seriously real, and high-stakes. Success in school and careers depends on it.

Now, transitioning from the real world to the semantic world wouldn’t be such a problem for autistic people, if truth or reality in this semantic world wouldn’t be so liquid, i.e. dependent on majority views and shifting fashions.

Suppose a person P has a half-full cup of truth about the Eiffel tower, and he meets up with person A, who claims convincingly that “the Eiffel Tower is THE place to go,” it would fill the cup and make it more true. But if he met up with person B, who claims “the Eiffel Tower is just where dumb tourists go,” P could instantly change his level of liquid belief to a low level, to avoid a self association with dumb tourists.

This liquid semantic web is what constitutes the so-called common sense:

Common sense is a pattern that inhibits change, and protects people from mistakes. But when common sense is the only pattern affecting decisions, then large, complicated problems cannot be solved. It’s hard for NTs to talk about common sense to others who aren’t NT; so it is hard for visitors to understand specifically why they do things when the reason given is “common sense.” They might say “It’s just obvious!” This is because of the shared belief.

Once you have mastered the basics of the semantic web it is possibly to start to understand NT sociality, which is full of pitfalls

  • Status
  • Authority
  • Dishonesty
  • Competitiveness
  • Group belonging or “club membership”

In order to belong to a group, it’s not enough to internalise their specific semantic web. Truth often comes from authority and high-status people rather than reality. Truth is often not told, sometimes in order to avoid conflict, sometimes in order to gain a competitive advantage. The consequence of being too much among NTs can be severe mental health problems:

The long term effects of being outnumbered by NTs include (a) the person has little or no opportunity to be with others on their own terms, and thus fails to mature in interpersonal skills or depth; and (b) the person is judged and coerced constantly by NTs, which is perceived as bashing; thus self-esteem falters, leading to chronic stress, anxiety, and depression.

What’s more, NTs often have a zero-sum attitude towards life: your loss is my gain. Not only is it almost impossible for an autistic person to become part of an in-group, they are also most likely to lose out if they try to take part in NT zero-sum games:

For many autistics like myself, there is generally no hope in competing with NTs on their terms. We are not playing to win; they are. Even if we could give up our strengths and go to the basest level of NTs in some areas (for example, abandoning our love of accuracy and adopting a threat-based concept of friendship), that would still not enable us to adopt their strengths, such as sensory integration, and we probably would not be able to memorise their constantly-changing culture. So in that sense it is hopeless.

Ironically, some of the most successful people on this planet are neurodiverse: Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Bill Gates are only some of the best-known names. It would be a mistake to envy them, many NTs probably had far happier lives than them. And then, for every neurodiverse billionaire, there are countless neurodiverse homeless people, in fact, the majority of homeless people are neurodiverse. If you don’t believe me, read through this article again and reflect on its logical consequences.

The book ends with a rather positive message for neurodiverse people:

Our time on this planet is limited, and it is filled with suffering. You were not put here to act like everyone else or to be docile. You are independent and sensitive. The keys are within yourself, not in a religion, a treatment program, or a drug. Listen to your own calling in your own language, and follow. Get your confidence by being more autistic, not less; don’t run from yourself in an effort to become typical.

I am not sure if an updated version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would be this optimistic. It could go like this:

Humans are bipedal ape descendants from the planet Earth. Not noted for being particularly bright, up until they are destroyed, if they even manage to do that much correctly, they actually still think that iWatches are a pretty neat idea, and they spend most of their time concerning themselves with moving about digital currencies. It’s best to avoid them.

Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on May 8, 2022.

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