UnLearned

What I used to think I knew isn't helping: adventures in higher ed open source

Learning as Autism

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I’m working my way – more slowly than I want – through Tyler Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy. It’s a misleading title, especially coming from an economist, but the sort of economy he has in mind is the kind created in one’s head.  An economy of attention, of mind.

His basic thesis seems to be that the Web is allowing us to organize our lives in different ways, ways better suited to a”‘cognitive profile” associated with autism, which he in no way means pejoratively. He even goes as far as to say that education is essentially about cultivating our own autistic tendencies: the focused attention to the organization of “small bits.” This is a good thing.

It’s not hard to take him primarily as an autistic apologist. He claims that we have defined autism by its instances of failure, and in the process failed to recognize it as a way of coping with the world with its own characteristic strengths; that there are more successful autistics than we realize, and we should come to appreciate the virtues of this pattern of mind. That is the moral element of the book.

It’s however more interesting to me as an explanation of the Web.  Where conventional wisdom dismisses online activity as shallow, amateurish and inauthentic, Cowen finds in it a framework for a new neurological health, an ordering of large quantities of small pieces that can deepen social connections and bring new meaning to our lives.

The autistic person, in Cowen’s interpretation, is acutely sensitive to the data the world bombards them with.  They are overwhelmed, and they find ways to cope with their minute sensitivity or they don’t, but it’s a mistake to interpret the end result as mere dissociation or impassivity.  Someone at a rock concert may betray symptoms consistent with deafness, but the deeper explanation is that they are awash in an excess of sound. So also the autistic person, and so also we members of the information age, awash in ideas, factoids, opinions, artistic productions of all stripes, and other trivia like our coursework and understanding of the world.  Cowen offers a rebuke to Nick Carr’s “Is Google Making us Stupid?”  It allows us to think differently in amassing and associating larger quantities of smaller pieces, and it’s a dim view that finds in this structural change only deficiencies.

I think about Sakai in these terms, not as a support for education or even academic collaborations, but rather a tool to help make sense of a disordered world – or at least a certain set of experiences within it.  As the boundaries between one’s years of study and work dissolve, and as academic success has come to be understood as a great deal more than mere coursework, so also does this set of technical tools need to situate itself within a broader ecosystem of people organizing their experience.

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Written by khomotso

August 22, 2009 at 11:50 pm

Posted in elearning

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