Open source tools: a good collaboration environment for people with Aspergers Syndrome

by Andy Oram

Not only is free software development unprecedented in its size and geographic spread--hundreds of people from countries around the world collaborating on individual projects--but it brings together people who are notorious for having trouble dealing with other people. That's really impressive when you think about it.

Of course, the stereotype of the computer programmer with Aspergers Syndrome is overblown. I used the term in my title to attract attention, but I've worked with enough programmers to know that many warm and socially sophisticated people take up the job.

Let's put it more gently: many programmers have the feeling their people skills haven't kept up with their technical mastery. That's why they are attracted to sites such as Perl hackers Michael Schwern's geek2geek, whose motto is "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

How does free software development work so well, then? People often remark that the Internet made the explosion of development in the mid-1990s possible, but they focus (wouldn't you know it!) on the Internet's technical functions: instantaneous transmission, exact replication of content, etc. Occasionally a general "nobody knows you're a dog" comment gets thrown in too. But we have to consider the social behavior encouraged by the tools the geeks developed.


Taran Rampersad
2008-01-14 10:11:37
The lack of empathy is not a good thing, though... :-)
2008-01-14 11:23:38
Taran Rampersad, what do you mean with empathy? People with Asperger syndrome have conscience just like ordinary people. (Actually, they are more principled than average people.) But they regularly misinterpret the emotional reactions of other people, so it may superficially look like that they don't care about others' feelings.

Do you speak of caring about others' feelings, or instinctively and reliably understanding others' feelings? If you don't separate these two things, you confuse a psychopath with an Asperger. A psychopath successfully pretends to others that s/he really cares, although s/he doesn't. An Asperger leaves a wrong impression that s/he doesn't care. However, an Asperger can learn to interpret other peoples' emotional reactions better, and to get on better with other people. A psychopath doesn't learn anything, and keeps perceiving other people as mere objects and tools for psychopath's use.

2008-01-14 12:03:02
I think it's even simpler than that:

Business meeting: "I think we need a thingy for the project".
OSS software: "I made a thingy, do you want it for the project?"

In business project management, the real problem is getting people to contribute. Not a problem in OSS.

2008-01-17 00:25:53

Your take on empathy is a little off. To be honest though, having known my fair share of programmers, I can safely say that they do not normally have any empathy for others. You can explain for hours how a five minute interface tweak can save the end users hours of work, and the response from every programmer I have dealt with is "I do not care. If they use my software, they have to do things my way.". Programmers do seem to be more concerned with the opinions of other programmers, but whether that has anything to do with empathy is still up in the air.

Are programmers psychopaths? Well if your take on empathy is more correct than my take on empathy, then programmers must harbor some sinister tendencies.