Sean Parker is an anachronism, says Ezra Butler, who explains why Silicon Valley has a vested interest in maintaining the romantic cliché of the socially awkward geek.
“I have been professionally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome,” he told me, in a matter-of-fact way, while sipping a cappuccino at the Swedish coffeehouse Fika on New York City’s Upper East Side. It wasn’t a shocking revelation.
During our years of acquaintance, spanning conversations in various countries and numerous online chats, I could (perhaps should) have assumed. This friend is well-known and respected on the technology scene and does not view his diagnosis as a hindrance. If anything it is a positive.
Every piece of anecdotal evidence I’ve come across informs me that when an individual is diagnosed with Asperger’s, it is usually viewed positively by the person, as he finally has a lexicon to describe how his mind functions. One close friend diagnosed with a similar, high-functioning level of autism has made his professional name dissecting complex processes and creating simplified instructions for the non-tech savvy.
Ryan Tate wrote a caustic article in Gawker last month titled “The Tech Industry’s Asperger Problem: Affliction or Insult?” (a strange sort of dichotomy), brutally diagnosing Mark Zuckerberg with the syndrome. Other notable tech personalities he mentions are Bram Cohen, the creator of BitTorrent, Craig Newmark, the eponymous founder of Craigslist and Bill Gates of Microsoft.
In a post for TechCrunch, Alexia Tsotsis glibly referred to the stereotype of being “on the spectrum” in the Valley. She said a geek’s reluctance to procreate may stem from a fear that a child will “[come] out all Asperger’s”, based on research done by Simon Baron-Cohen.
In her piece, Tsotsis lauds a successful geek for taking part in “Millionaire Matchmaker”, a popular, if mildly controversial, television programme now based out of Los Angeles.
The article in Nature she links to states that it is simply an idea entering the “popular psyche” that techies have a higher percentage of individuals on the autistic spectrum. The resulting article largely debunks – or, at the very least, questions – that hypothesis.
Tate’s leading title seems to insinuate that Asperger’s is a scourge, responsible for evils in the current tech industry. Tsotsis’ article seems to praise awkward or anti-social behaviour as a basic tenet or inevitability in the tech industry. For her, being “on the spectrum” seems to be a badge of honour.
Mr Tate’s fearmongering is reminiscent of the antagonists in an Ayn Rand novel, deriding the protagonists’ zealous determination by deriding the same traits that made them successful in the first place. Both Mr Cohen and Mr Newmark, arguably, conceived their world-changing platforms because of their unique detached connection with the world at large.
In both cases, I would not call their disorder an “affliction”. Their disorder enabled their worldview.
Of course, this is all nothing new. Over a decade ago, Steve Silberman wrote a seminal essay about “The Geek Syndrome” for Wired, showing the rise in children, especially in the Silicon Valley, being diagnosed on the Autistic spectrum every year.
In the same piece, he notes the common “joke” in the Valley about how the most hardcore programmers probably have Asperger’s, mainly because so many lack social graces. The Valley, he explained, accepts people as long as their “code is bulletproof”, no matter how “off-the-wall” their personal habits are.
More recently, robopsychologist Dr Andrea Kuszewski claimed that every start-up in the Valley should have a psychologist on staff with expertise in Asperger’s Syndrome with the sole purpose of helping bridge the communication divide.
The clip embedded by Tsotsis from Millionaire Matchmaker portrays a start-up founder who, while being a bit socially awkward, is definitely not anywhere on the spectrum. (The Silberman article cites “wearing the same shirt for two weeks” as a diagnostic sign, but the new unofficial uniform of a start-up is a t-shirt and flip-flops. It is getting hard to tell.)
Many people “self-diagnose” based on diagnostic tools available online, which, in the words of Dr Kuszewski, are full with “vague” questions. “Even I’m considered an Aspie according to them”, she once said in an interview.
I’m intrigued by the question of whether people affect mannerisms of individuals with Asperger’s because they feel they must do that to become socially accepted. In other words: Is it cool to be socially awkward?
As I noted in an earlier essay, Mark Zuckerberg has become the de facto aspirational archetype of the modern founder, down to his disregard for clothing conventions. Young founders view him as a role model and mimic his wardrobe, among other things.
In a recent, slightly hysterical post on PandoDaily, Sarah Lacy expressed consternation at Randi Zuckerberg’s upcoming Bravo reality television programme entitled “Silicon Valley”. From a short clip, she guessed the show will be rife with “clubs, parties, bimbo women…” and equated that with the fallacious way The Social Network viewed Silicon Valley culture.
She quotes Francisco Dao, who is offended by the dumbing-down of the entrepreneur in the public eye. I’m not going to disagree with him nor Ms Lacy, but it seems to me that the institutionalisation of entrepreneurship ought to be welcomed by Lacy, et al. Apparently not.
The bubble of Web 1.0 was characterised by party culture. Between 1997 and the burst in 2001, the parties in the Valley rivalled those depicted in The Great Gatsby. The unspoken fear of Ms Lacy and Mr Dao, both seasoned veterans of the tech scene, is that the culture will return to its debaucherous roots.
That may indeed be happening, if Sean Parker’s Spotify party was anything to go by. In fact, it may be for this reason that neither journalist has really dealt with the other side of Sean Parker and his bacchanalia, while both the New York Times and Gawker’s Tate have enjoyed suggesting that the frothy, party-hard times are back.
By grasping on to the Asperger’s relic, members of the current generation of founders are able to belay any fears of a social scene they may not be equipped to operate in. Thus we are presented with the ideal of the cool geek, by geeks.
It is a convenient lie the community needs to tell itself. The stereotype of the INTP geek is useful, because it is endearing and it also suggests that we, as an industry, have learned from our mistakes and past excesses.
The current crop of young founders are fairly normal people, but they are faking it in one of two ways: either cleaving to 1990s stereotypes or reinventing cool around the safer and more sustainable appeal of the autistic spectrum. (Truthfully, those who imitate Parker never quite pull it off. Mad Men this is not.)
Thus, fears that the “age of the Geek” may soon end because it is becoming more simple for people like Groupon bogeyman Andrew Mason to launch internet companies, seem a little odd.
Silicon Valley also has a self-esteem problem, because it knows that its financial architecture is built on sand. It needs to believe that it has a high percentage of individuals with Asperger’s who can solve problems like no one else can.
Without them, San Francisco is just a bunch of coders raising insane amounts of money to create lightly disguised clones of existing technologies which don’t really solve any real human need.