Pain of the Incapables

This year, I've had a side interest in savants.  I was watching a program about real life "comic book superheroes" on History Channel, and went googling around the web reading wikipedia articles, watching youtube videos, etc. on people with incredible powers of perception, often limited by social skill impairment.  Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, and other mental ... er, syndromes, I guess ... are poorly understood.

I related what I read about Aspergers to the discovery of tribes and hermits.   Not an exact analogy, but I think there are similarities in approaching people who don't understand your language and don't know what you are talking about, and the history of Western depictions of "primitives" and "savages".

I was imagining what it would be like to classify an entire group of socially incapacitated people, people with autism or Aspergers, and based on the generality of their social connectivity, to decide not to let them listen to classical music... not to let them read books... just label them, as a group, of being incapable.  Isaac Newton, Henry Ford, Benjamin Franklin - the worlds they lived in were not OECD standard, either.   Would we boycott them if they lived today in a land with the medicine and environmental standards they lived with in their time?

Possibly autistic Isaac Newton
Daniel Timmet would not have learned ten languages.  Kim Peek could not have read books in an hour, independently reading pages with each eye.  Derek Paravicini would not have a piano, learning to play tunes from Mozart to Scott Joplin perfectly after one listening.

When we take an entire group of humanity, the Geeks of Color, and say that because they live in an isolated nation which has not joined the club of rich white countries (the OECD), that we cannot share with them the laptops we know they can fix, we cannot share with them the computers that they make a living on, that they must wait for the rest of their nation to meet some developmental bar (which their nation will meet much more quickly if they are allowed to enter into contract manufacturing), it is hard to prove that the people you are cutting off are not primitive wire-burning women sitting knee-deep in mud.

They speak other languages.  They are other colors.  They live far away.  They are not "noble savages".  They are smart kids who learned how to fix stuff.

Anyway, when I hand a laptop to a self-taught repairman engineer in Cairo, and he hands it to a brother who opens the boards with his eyes closed and moves his hands while his eyes gaze at an electronic schematic, it is to me like being in the room with a prodigious savant.

And it makes me think that someday, maybe in a generation, we will know as much about the brain activity of these savants that their abilities will no longer be mysterious.  The way they think, calculate, draw, memorize, and repeat will be understood, the same way as I would completely understand the magic of board level electronics capacitor diagnosis.

And then, the word "e-Waste" will go into the dustbin of our lexicon, alongside "idiot savant".  There is also a human rights organization, "Survival International", which is campaigning for the complete abolition of the term "primitive".    What would Frederick Douglas say, or for that matter, Mark Twain's "N****r Jim" say, if you told him you cannot own a book until you master the ability to read?  Did you know you cannot find this definition of "savage" in Wikipedia?

How many savants were shut in institutions, deprived of intellectual stimulation, a century ago?  How many Paravicinis never set their eyes on a piano?   While we don't want to excuse the abuse of reuse exports, relegating an entire group of repair savants to accepting only "working" items is a mistake.  Offering them only computers which kind white people must repair for them - or too more often, destroy in a shredder - reflects a bias which the interns and students and clients of the Techs of Color find denigrating.

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