1337 h4X0r or idiot savant?
March 29, 2001 6:16 AM   Subscribe

1337 h4X0r or idiot savant? USA Today quotes noted animal behaviorist Temple Grandin observing that uber-hacker Kevin Mitnick exhibits many of the symptoms of Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autisim from which Grandin herself suffers. Mitnick doesn't seem to disagree, in fact he noticed it himself. Grandin, Mitnick and others speculate as to whether many "hackers" are, in fact, autistic.
posted by briank (11 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
briank, that sentence should end "mildly autistic".

This idea's been floating around long enough to make it into the Jargon File's Weaknesses of the Hacker Personality entry.

I love the scare-phrased sentence, "Could AS be an indicator of children at risk of drifting into computer hacking?" Ah, yes, thank you USA Today. Being an obsessed geek is something you don't want YOUR children to be! Stay away! Send them to football camp!

Later on we get:
Further, the term hacker itself is widely misused, experts say. Not every hacker is a criminal; most hackers are experimenting. When they intentionally cross over to criminal activity, intending to steal from or cause damage to systems, they are considered ''crackers'' rather than hackers. The hackers are the ones most likely to have AS characteristics.

The FBI's Behavioral Laboratory at Quantico, Va., is renowned for its study of criminal personalities, establishing standard ''profiles'' of terrorists, arsonists, serial killers, kidnappers and spies. But it has not produced a ''hacker profile,'' officials say.

So, hackers are not yet considered dangerous pathological criminals by the FBI. You heard it here first. Are we ready to have a big Slashdot thread yet? Why couldnt' they have made better distinctions between Asperger's and the TYPICAL geek personality, and criminal behavior? From this article, you'd think that just because hackers tend to be asocial, they're also pathologically antisocial. Those are not the same thing.
posted by dhartung at 8:45 AM on March 29, 2001

am i really supposed to believe they don't have a profile for hackers?
posted by th3ph17 at 8:49 AM on March 29, 2001

that sentence should end "mildly autistic"

agreed. so noted.
posted by briank at 9:10 AM on March 29, 2001

I went to an Asperger Syndrome website and got the definite impression they were talking about wine critics.
posted by nobodyknowsimadog at 9:41 AM on March 29, 2001

The book Shadow Syndromes goes into some detail about near-but-not-quite-autism 'n' stuff.

Pretty interesting, actually. It seems there are built-in tradeoffs; a brain that is really really excellent at certain tasks (such as math, hacking) cannot at the same time be really really excellent at other certain tasks (such as nuanced social graces).

Of course there are exceptions, but the general observation still holds for large-ish populations.

I read Temple Grandin's book. It's good, and a little odd.
posted by beth at 9:47 AM on March 29, 2001

I read her book, too, as well as Oliver Sacks' profile of her in "An Anthropologist on Mars". Actually, I read the Sacks book first, so my perception of her was colored by his observations of her as being "a little odd" (beth's phrase, not Sacks').

Personally, I don't know if displaying the symptoms of a syndrome is the same thing as having the syndrome, no matter how apt the comparison might seem. People manifest all sorts of behaviors that don't necessarily fall into the pathological just because a pathology exists. However, the notion that some talents may crowd out other talents in an individual is entirely plausible to me, indeed even highly probable.

What I found interesting about the article, which dhartung justifiably criticizes for its scare-mongering and generalizations, is that Mitnick himself made the same observation that Grandin did.
posted by briank at 11:18 AM on March 29, 2001

I wonder if the FBI's Behavioral Laboratory (mentioned in the article) has a "criminal profile" for con artists that details a personality that is good with social interactions, in fact, abnormally good. And what would happen if someone, let's say, a politician, exhibited those very same traits? Would the media trumpet his abnormality and be completely suspicious of him? (I'm writing this with a wry, tongue in cheek tone, btw. I realize the article says the FBI doesn't actually have a hacker profile.) (Of course I'm already scared of many politicians, so maybe this is a moot point :-).
posted by girlhacker at 11:36 AM on March 29, 2001

Eintein, Bill Gates, and Ted Kaczynski have all been described as possibly having Asperger syndrome, but like briank says, having some of the traits doesn't necessarily mean you have the syndrome.
posted by gimli at 12:08 PM on March 29, 2001

I'd like to point out that the actual medical term is autistic savant. Idiot savant refers to - well, that depends on how old you are. But it used to be used as a classification for individuals who exhibited forms of retardation in addition to extraordinary mathematical prowess.
posted by annathea at 4:03 PM on March 29, 2001

A semi-relevant piece of information: some researchers have using a variant of MRI seem to have identified differences in the brains of people with Asperger's syndrome. It would seem as if this would permit unambiguous diagnosis.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:00 PM on March 29, 2001

Heh, girlhacker -- funny you should ask. I once created a new character class for a role-playing game I ran that I called persuader, paired with a generic skill negotiation. A really good persuader could practically get an inanimate object to do its bidding. An enhanced class was called politician. Naturally, it combined well with the thief class.

Nobody wanted to use it, though. They all thought it was dumb. I think they were all Aspergers, if you ask me. ;-) In fact, they preferred to handle negotiations actor to actor, and nobody wanted to be told they'd "lost a roll" and e.g. had been persuaded to go the wrong way by the NPC.

Seriously, though, I look at people that I know in sales, and they're always engaging in Zig Ziglar style confidence-boosting and they've all mastered the hearty, cheery hello and handshake etc. Now, I'm not going so far as to be contemptuous; this is a skill like any other, it can be learned, and a lot of people have to because they aren't automatically talented. I know for a fact that I could not do this on a regular basis. I'm just not wired that way.
posted by dhartung at 6:41 PM on March 29, 2001

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