Why the web is making us (somehow) autistic


I already blogged about how Google empowers us by enlarging our abilities to treat and recognize information (in French). I now just finished another book that deals with the way we deal with information today, in The Age of the Infovore. Written by blogger and professor Tyler Cowen, the book actually talks more about autism than about the web… but it gives us useful insights about thinking in the Information Economy.

Whereas the Stoics sought to understand the psychology of the Roman Empire […] and Adam Smith studied the pin factory, I am looking at Facebook, Google, and the iPod

The premise that we could all (somehow) be a little autistic is based on the fact that “autistics are information lovers to an extreme degree“. The author details his thought a little later in the book, saying that the cognitive strengths of autism include:

  1. strong skills in ordering knowledge in preferred areas
  2. strong skills in perceiving small bits of information in preferred areas

Nowadays, several web services allow us to order knowledge, think about YouTube, Flickr or the iPod – where most of the value comes from the small bits added-on by viewers, reviewers and/or users who participate in the richness of web 2.0. People like Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, or Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent, are very attached to recording, processing and ordering knowledge, these typical traits of autism actually allowed them to create these services. Every internet user doesn’t have the abilities of autistic people, but “the web allows us to borrow cognitive strengths from autism to be better infovores, even if it doesn’t rearrange any of the wiring between our ears“, says Cowen.


Tyler Cowen appreciates the music from autistic composer Hikari Oe. He asks the question: "Is Oe simply a beautiful composer? Or is he better thought of as an 'autistic' composer?"

The author isn’t one of those, like Mark Bauerlein or Nicholas Carr, who think that the Information Economy makes us dumber. Multitasking, for instance, is “a strategy to keep ourselves interested“, and Google isn’t making us stupid; it “lengthens our attention span by allowing us to follow the same story over many years of time“. This very statement is – as I think – a little optimistic, partly because few people use Google for long-term learning purposes… For Tyler Cowen, the term cultural literacy has a new meaning today: it’s about being able to use technology in our interest. Hence, the question is not wether you know something, but wether you can look it up on your iPhone properly… I strongly disagree with that, especially because I consider deep knowledge much more valuable than simple awareness.

Micro-blogging cultivates our sense of the importance of the small bit

Even though I disagree with some of Cowen’s arguments, I must admit that his analysis of the web media is highly accurate and interesting. Twitter allows you to choose the people who supply you with bits of information, Facebook facilitates and organizes friendships, Amazon makes your books more interesting and eBay turns collectibles into a greater source of pride. So, says Cowen, we should “focus [our] wisdom on chosing the right media for [our] messages“. But beside using technology for communication, we can use it for educational purposes. The very best example that comes to my mind is the painting The Ambassadors from Hohlbein, where the details are so amazingly precise that the web is a blessing for everyone who wants to observe the numerous details.


Many of us, through web technology, are replacing traditional artistic masterworks with our personal blends of self-assembled small cultural bits

Tyler Cowen talks about various other subjects: respect for the differences among individuals (“neurodiversity”), the limits of storytelling, the role of heroes (from Sherlock Holmes to Dr. House) etc. To put things in a nutshell, I’d say this is a book that opens our mind to other peoples’ ablilities and to the fact that there’s no normal behavior. It’s provocative, it’s engaged, but it’s also a little difficult to read… at least it was for me. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t read anything in english for months…


Kiriana Cowansage, a neuroscientist described as autistic by Tyler Cowen, is fascinated by the drawings of M.C. Escher. She likes detail-oriented art. (Image via charliebabbage.blogspot.com)


  1. The Internet and the information age in general has flattened human experience immeasurably. Somehow we have so lost the plot that this is now celebrated as a good thing.


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