“The Internet is Ours!”

“The Internet is Ours!” Autistic History Month Part Two

by R. Larkin Taylor-Parker

originally posted at http://autisticfuture.com/2016/11/24/the-internet-is-ours-autistic-history-month-part-2/

“In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?”
-William Blake


My grandfather’s life just overlapped with the flowering of the Neurodiversity movement. I had joined Wrong Planet by the time he died. I remember when those kidnapping ads ran, though I wasn’t personally involved in the response. My memories of how I became more deeply immersed in Autistic culture are fuzzy. It was a gradual slide. Maybe the loneliness I felt when I lost a kindred spirit pushed me in deeper. The loss of the only with whom I could identify in certain ways also forced some maturation. This may have deepened my sense of responsibility for nurturing and protecting our community. Maybe it didn’t. I’m not sure what happened, just that I started to help tell the story of an Autistic people, and the story swallowed me up.

I thought about my grandfather, sometimes, when I had to make hard, moral decisions. He was careful to be hopeful, generous, forgiving, and brave in front of me. I did my best to follow that example. When neurotypical parents threatening to kill Autistic bloggers who were still children, when I encountered Autistic adults so consumed by their suffering that they could not live in community with others, I thought of him. I remembered that he got through the war with a gentler temperament than mine. I did not want the worst of what I had stumbled into any more than he had, but I thought of him and did my duty plus whatever I could to make the experience more bearable for others. I tolerated rough handling as best I could from the people life had just fundamentally broken. I reminded myself that bad actors within the community hurt others out of pain and fear. I tried to stay proportional in the ways I tried to protect our community. I did my level best to take care of children, parents new to disability issues, and delicate adults. I made myself available, day and night, to anyone with questions.

I didn’t think differently about my grandfather’s memory in the context of Neurodiversity other than the way I always do. I took examples from it. I wore it, and one other’s, like a suit of armor. No matter what happened in the course of my advocacy, or my life, I’d seen people like me who were respected and worthy of respect. They never conceded their own inferiority, and they loved me. This kind of love deadens blows. It’s a light in dark places. Too many Autistic people die too young. I’m convinced that this is why I didn’t, how I came to be alive.

“And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?”
-William Blake


My grandfather will have been gone ten years this Chirstmas, but death so rarely gets the last word. People say I look like my father’s people, mostly, but I have the eyes he did in an old, colorized picture from the war. I also have his hands. Within a year of getting my first car, engines started making sense to me. I kept mostly-dead cars running and built a computer mostly by instinct and YouTube videos. I learned enough of some machine languages to build websites. The toolbox in the back of my truck ballooned to 150 lbs of hammers, wrenches, assorted cables, and screwdrivers. Working on an old Buick when I was 20 gave me the creased, warped fingernails of a mechanic. As I started to pull together an Autistic community in Atlanta, I drove everywhere and carted other people around. In the end, the best way to take care of them was to drive away.

When I went to law school, the internet was my lifeline to the Autistic community. Living among neurotypicals, I sometimes go weeks without seeing another disabled-identified person. A glance up and down the law library is a sobering reminder of how few people like me make it this far. Law school has been lonely both because of my separation from the community and because few other Autistics will be my peers as workers, as professionals, and especially as legal professionals. There are a handful of Autistic lawyers, but I doubt I’ll live to see very many. I’m studying my way into becoming a rarity. The transience of law school and the risks of student loans are divorced from the narrative of what Autistic people can and should do. Neurodiversity activists heavily emphasize personal comfort and safety and aren’t usually interested in aknowledging the hard truth that personal sacrifices will sometimes be important for moving us forward. This sometimes leaves me wondering whether I can fit in anymore.

It was in that environment that I found Neurotribes. I saw my family in its pages, the rural South, the war, and the machines. I saw a legacy of wires and waves, an unbroken line from the Teslas and [radio guy]s of the late nineteenth century. I had heard rumors about our involvement in the origins of the internet and never gave them much credence. I thought it was one of those things people do to feel better about themselves, but here it was on paper. The argument was simple, elegant. It showed its work. Step by step, it traced a lineage from people who tinkered with electromechanical things in the early twentieth century to the present. I had pesonally encountered people who lived the chapters from WWII on. I had seen the homesteads and graveyards in the mountains with my grandfater. He was teaching me Morse code when a elderly HAM operators, princes of the air grown up and grown old, invited him to speak about his time on the bomber. He brought me along to meet them. Neurotribes flowed through the origins of computers and the growth of the networks until it disappeared into the present like a river flowing out into the sea. The names and dates near the end of the book are marked in my own memories.

From the early cables and radios to the signals that crackle around me and light up my phone this evening to the end of what I will be, it’s all one story. The strange grace of a way with the internet was probably innate. It was easy to clothe myself in wires and light because this was a kind of birthright. The internet embraced so many of us because it was made for hands like ours. I finished the book thinking about a Neurodiversity slogan from when from when I started out: “The internet is ours!” The intuition behind the old battle cry was right. The internet is uniquely ours, and that makes us uniquely responsible for it. We made something like life, and it did what we hoped it would do. It gave us better ways to communicate. It helped us form a community and binds us together. As we come into our own, as our community grows up, we need to take responsibility for this thing we put in the world.

The soul in the machines is ours to raise. We must lead it away from angry mobs and toward measured, proportional responses. It’s our responsibility to keep our tiger leashed. It’s our job to be friends of the young, old, fragile, and clueless and enemies of everyone willing to damage our internet for profit or use it to spread bigotry and fear. We are in the best position to do this because we use it incessantly. We’re good at getting it to do what we want. We’re not entitled to inject a powerful, new force into world affairs and let it harm others. The internet is ours, ours to use carefully and mercifully, ours to play with, ours to protect, and ours to train into a model citizen of the world. I hope this is the next chapter of our story. We’ve bound that story up with the internet’s, so let’s take care of it in hopes of a good future for us all.


My Friend the Tiger

My Friend the Tiger: Autistic History Month Part 1

by R. Larkin Taylor-Parker

Originally posted at http://autisticfuture.com/2016/11/19/autistic-history-month-part-1/

“What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!”
-William Blake


I met the internet when I was five. Home from school with strep throat, I was allowed to play with it unsupervised because my parents, never particularly technologically aware, thought it was harmless. I came to two important realizations that afternoon:

1) There was something I could reach through the hulking box of the desktop in the living room that was, if not exactly living, close enough. It seemed very young but growing rapidly, hungry for new information.

2) We were going to be friends.

As I grew up, my sensibilities about what lives in the machines became more ambivalent. We both got bigger, stronger, and more capable. I became a solid, boring adult, the kind of person who can be trusted to manage money, who reminds loved ones to change their timing belts and not shop online with debit cards. My old friend developed differently. When we met, it seemed something like a human child. It turned out to be a ‘tiger’ such as Blake described, still a cub, on the scale of the Industrial Revolution. It’s beautiful and terrible, volatile, and unforgiving. I can’t pretend to like everything it does.

I have to give the internet credit, though, for taking care of me. As I grew up, I learned to hold enough of the vast world tree of connections in my head to forecast its next moves and plan around them. These days, I get paid to do that. It also gave me whatever I asked, work, friends and contacts, information, and more. When I found the Autistic community and my own need to protect it, the internet offered me a cornucopia of tactics and tools for that struggle. It was the long enough lever and place to stand with which disabled kids with cheap laptops and furtive, coffee shop connections could move the world.

It provided shock absorption on the rough road of advocacy. The internet’s terrain always seemed to curve in the direction of keeping me out of trouble. I had a way of attracting only the right kind of attention, staying out of the way of angry mobs. There are unsavory characters in the Autistic community, people who like to call themselves activists and pull others down to feel powerful and distract from how little they’ve actually done. When they looked around for people to try to harass and defame into pariah status, their eyes never landed on me, though I never tried to be inconspicuous. At times when I stayed away from our activism because of problems in the community or neglected my online presence because of competing commitments, my existence online didn’t atrophy as much as it should have. As I traded in the reflexes I had at sixteen for experience, more nuanced responses, and the calm of one who has seen this before -whatever ‘this’ is at any given time- I wondered if this would change. It didn’t. The tiger that mauled other people continued to bat at my phone when I tried to ignore it like a big house cat. I did my best to accept this strange blessing without question, but I’m not that kind of person. I continued to wonder about it until I read Neurotribes.

I was going to wait until winter break of last year to read it, but I knew that reviewing it while it was fresh would do my blog good. Thinking of it as a chore to shore up my readership, I bought a copy and resolved to slog through. I’d never in my life felt so exposed, but I couldn’t stop reading. It was the story of my family.

“When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
-William Blake


My maternal great-grandfather grew up in the Carolina mountains with their genetic bottlenecks of isolated, rural communities. This was an old fashioned kind of place where life into the early 20th century looked much like the 18th. He had a brother who would probably be described as nonverbal Autistic today. Uncle Wade spent most of his life in an institution. The family was locally prominent but quirky, full of voracious readers, assertive women, and nontraditional household configurations. My great-grandfather’s parents employed a farmhand who lived alone in a small cabin and read the dictionary for fun. The man was so hyperlexic that visitors unfamiliar with him often assumed that he was an important and well-educated guest. Though the outside world ignored their community, the family always read the newspaper and talked about what was going on in the world.

My great-grandfather came down from the mountains to go to college. His parents were nearly self-sufficient and cash-poor, but he was able to work and mostly put himself through. I don’t know why he stayed in the lowland South. Maybe he liked it better. Maybe he was following the availability of work. He married another interesting woman, a nonconformist who never let her husband control her in the ways that were normal in the early 20th century. They had several children. One was my grandfather, who loved the mountains and loved machines. Reading and writing were always challenging for him, but my grandmother could do those things. They built a successful business around the care and feeding of pretty much everything that runs on diesel but isn’t a generator or a train. My mother, quirky in her own ways, successful in a variety of careers, was their third child. She did remarkable work in conventional, professional settings, but caring for parents and children was the choice she made when she could. She moved us to North Carolina, where I spent significant time around my grandparents. I knew my grandfather well for six very formative years.

He had discovered the word ‘dyslexia’ when I was diagnosed and found that it explained his difficulties in school. As I got accommodations and found academic success, he lived vicariously through my rising grades and growing comfort with the written word. He was delighted that some things would just be easier for me. Though it was painfully obvious that he had internalized the many times people called him ‘stupid,’ he had managed to protect a hard-won sense of the value of who he was and what he knew. He had done this alone, with no disability community, against all the world. He shared these things with me. He got me to read books about the land and how indigenous peoples and early settlers used it. He got me outside, encouraging muddy pursuits like catching toads. I remember some explanations of simple machines and electricity. He taught me the Morse code he picked up as a radio gunner in WWII. He and my mother went out of their way to make sure my sister and I respected people who worked with their hands, people who did valuable and necessary things without much formal education. They ensured that we spent time in the mountains as often as possible and got exposed to Appalachian music and culture.

My grandfather came late to the internet and loved it for its speed, its reach, the value-add to his life that came from being able to find other old men who appreciated vintage tractor engines and obscure hand tools. He kept his desktop from the mid-’90s to the end of his life. As far as he was concerned, that big, old box had enough firepower for someone who did his homework by oil lamp in high school. Asking for more would be hubris or ingratitude. Ten years ago, in the wake of his death, we were all to wrapped up in our grief to think about getting into those forums and telling people he was gone. I still feel a little bad about that. I took his phone number, and his digital life may have had something to do with old men who called me as recently as 2011 looking for parts for equally venerable bulldozers.