At some point in my childhood, I remember suddenly realizing that it
was weird not to look people in the eye while speaking to them. From
that point on, I studied how other people made eye contact, and
attempted to mimic it. I tried to learn how to do it just enough,
without doing it so much that it becomes creepy.
I still can’t make eye contact when I’m thinking hard, though.
Without going into too much personal detail, I’m fairly certain I have
autism spectrum disorders in my family. And I believe I inherited them
to a small degree. There were times in the past I probably could have
gotten myself diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. But I was only ever
affected to a small degreee, and through a series of conscious
choices, like that choice to learn to make eye contact, I’ve arrived
at a point which at least appears relatively “normal”.
It’s a strange thing, though… I can feel it in my blood. It’s like
having a kooky uncle living in the attic of my own head. Being
socially appropriate is still an act of conscious intention for me
sometimes, and I don’t always succeed.
The connection between the autism spectrum and the field of computer
science & engineering is pretty well established by now. I think we’ve
all either known, or been, That Guy: the guy that just doesn’t get
social interactions the way most people do.
Hell, a decade or two ago we were all That Guy, as far as the rest of
the world was concerned. Then something remarkable happened: the world
learned to respect us geeks, and we got better haircuts and better
t-shirt and got laid.
Well, at least some of us did. We’re all rock stars now. Except the
ones who aren’t. And I worry that in the rush to hipness and
relevance, some of us nerds have tried to distance ourselves from That
Whole Scene; that scene being the one where people with acne and very
bad hair obsess over technical minutiae to the exclusion of all other
I don’t think everyone has the opportunity to make the same choices I
did; nor do I think the choices I made were objectively “right”. It’s
not wrong to be socially inept. But it can make life a lot harder.
The thing is, the true neckbeards are often also the true innovators.
By all accounts Steve Wozniak was/is in that category; fortunately for
him he had a good friend and business partner who was more than able
to do the talking and glad-handing and occasional ass-kicking.
For every hundred lifelong dorks obsessing over something that no one
else will ever care about, there’s an RMS writing the next GNU system.
I guess the point of all this is that sometimes I see someone
technically brilliant say something incredibly socially
and I think “that could easily have been me”. And I worry that some of
my other fellow geeks are so eager to distance themselves from the
“bad old days” that they’ll (rhetorically) throw him under the bus
just as readily as a jock laughs at an awkward kid with a pocket
We can’t all be cool kids. Some of us can’t even manage acceptability.
I hope when I’m old and my brain has crusted over and say loud and
insensitive things without realizing, or talk over and over about that
one technical breakthrough I had that no-one ever appreciated, or
otherwise make a nuisance of myself, that there will be a few people
willing to shake their heads and smile and hang around me anyway.