Eiko Ikegami Researches Autistic Communities in the Virtual World

This piece originally appeared at The New School News and is reprinted here with permission.

In their study of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), researchers have devoted most of their attention to the diagnosis and treatment of children.

As a result, says Eiko Ikegami, Walter A. Eberstadt Professor and professor of sociology at The New School for Social Research, researchers know very little about the lives of adults with autism — and even less about the way they interact with one another.

Ikegami wanted to flip the script on ASD research and zero in on adults living with the condition. To that end, she went to a place that happens to be a decade-long focus of her ethnographic research: the online virtual world of Second Life. It’s there that adults on the autism spectrum gather to hang out — and be themselves.

As Ikegami discovered, Second Life is ideally suited to people with autism, as it allows users to come and go as they please — a means of avoiding the real-world threat of sensory overload, a common affliction for people with the disorder. Assuming the form of Kiremimi Tigerpaw, her Second Life avatar, Ikegami interacted with adult autistic people in virtual environments.

Of all the discoveries she made about these individuals, Ikegami was most intrigued by the “incredible richness of their mental life.”

“Although I entered with the expectation of studying people with a disorder, I acquired a heightened appreciation of the neurodiversity among human beings,” Ikegami says. “While people with autism have difficulty with some things that are easy for us neurotypicals, as they call us, they excel in other things to which we are insensitive.”

Ikegami has channeled her research and findings into her innovative new Japanese-language book, Hyper-World: Autistic Avatars in Virtual World (an expanded English version of the book is forthcoming). It is supplemented by a blog, published on her website, that details her interactions with autistic people on Second Life and in face-to-face meetings with them across the United States. Her trip was documented by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, for a two-part documentary, The World of Autistic Avatars.

During her two-week trip, Ikegami scheduled hours of face time with her autistic friends from Tennessee to Wyoming to California. But they had their most productive conversations on the Internet. As Ikegami notes, because of their “different mental functioning, many autistic people see, hear, touch, or smell the world in ways that differ from those of neurotypicals.” Most crucially, the majority of people on the autism spectrum are unusually sensitive to sensory information. Unlike the real world, Second Life allows its inhabitants to control sensory input and to freely express themselves through the creative use of avatars (furthermore, no one is required to read subtle “social cues”). If an autistic Second Life user becomes overwhelmed, he or she can simply turn off his or her computer.

“Being able to turn down the sound, prevent people coming up to me; not having the movement of air or smells, pollen, insect sounds, intensity of light; being able to be supported in a chair — not falling almost all the time and having to brace myself against objects or be horizontal — yet still being able to move in a space and explore is hugely beneficial,” one user told Ikegami. “This is coupled with the fact that I seem to communicate far more fluently via text than I can by speech.”

The rules of communication in the real world have been made to accommodate the preferences of neurotypical people, Ikegami explains. In virtual worlds, however, “there are technologically defined spaces that democratize the rules of communication and allow autistic and neurotypical people to socialize as equals,” she says.

Given the opportunity, autistic adults have a lot to say. During her trip, Ikegami met Malachi and his friend Jenny, who discussed their lives as members of both the LGBTQ and autistic communities in El Centro, California;  Cora of Little Rock, Arkansas, who shared her “activist outlook” on autism and her experiences of sensory and emotional “melt-down”; and Larre of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who talked about his life as a musician and trance music DJ (in Second Life) and a merchandise clerk at a local supermarket (in real life). Each person conveyed his or her appreciation for the freedom of expression allowed in virtual worlds.

The experience of autistic individuals on Second Life resonated with Ikegami. Upon moving from Japan to the United States to study sociology at Harvard, her ability to speak or understand English was limited, leaving her with the feeling of being “a self-confined autistic child.”

“Many autistic children have in fact rich mental worlds, even when they cannot express themselves well; When I moved to the United States, I also had a lot to say, but I could not express myself effectively in a new environment,” she says.

Expressing herself not only meant learning a new language, but also breaking with cognitive assumptions rooted in “the culturally defined ways of feeling, sensing, and viewing” with which she grew up.

“It was quite a frustrating experience,” she adds, “but it was curiously enriching.”

She felt a similar sense of exhilaration conducting ethnographic research with autistic people. Just as immersing herself in a new culture led her to “break the boundaries of my cognitive framework,” so too did “interacting with neurologically different people.”

Ikegami hopes that through her research, others will come to the same realization — and, in turn, “come to a new level of reflection regarding the depths of our cognitive experience, and appreciating diversity in human intelligences.”

“Knowing oneself is a counsel of various philosophies and religions around the world,” she says. “Paradoxically, however, we often come to know ourselves better only when we interact with and try to know ‘others’; we are able to touch the unseen parts of ourselves only when others hold up a mirror to us.”

From Fascism to Populism in History: Federico Finchelstein’s New Book

For New School for Social Research Professor of History Federico Finchelstein, the present-day stakes of engaging with the history of populism could not be more critical.

As Finchelstein puts it in his new book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press), “Populism’s past challenges to egalitarian forms of democracy continue in the present and are now threatening the future of our own democratic times.” He contends that a historical understanding of modern populism—whose roots he also traces back to the earliest days of twentieth century fascism—has become critical in any analysis of contemporary politics.

Differently put, our capacity to respond to the challenges presented by populism depends crucially upon our willingness and ability to acknowledge and process the lessons of history.

Having grown up under military dictatorship in Argentina, and having studied various forms of authoritarianism throughout his career as an academic, Finchelstein finds it surprising that his work has gained such sudden and urgent relevance in the United States and around the world. With the election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency, Finchelstein suggests that the United States has become the global leader of populism. But it is hardly alone in grappling with populist movements, marking only the most recent in a long string of developments around the world. From Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, to Brexit, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and France’s National Front—among many others—populism is on the march around the world.

At the same time, it is the 2016 presidential election and the success of populism in the United States that most intrigued Finchelstein, at the very least because President Trump represents the first modern populist to hold the office here. “I never thought these issues would hit so close to my home in New York,” he said in a recent conversation with Research Matters. Reflecting on his longtime commitment to researching the history of fascism and populism, Finchelstein recalled his feelings about the intellectual legacy of The New School upon his arrival in 2006. “The New School for Social Research was founded not only on the idea that there was an academic need to resist fascism,” he said, “but also a need to understand it.”

To this tradition of scholarship, Finchelstein brings a distinctive approach to an examination of populism “from the margins,” integrating perspectives from the Global South that commonly remain outside Eurocentric historical narratives about populism’s emergence as a political force. For example, he reminds readers that Argentina’s Juan Perón became the first populist leader to reach power in the postwar era, becoming an example of how to do things for subsequent generations of populists in Latin America and elsewhere. In the subtext of his genealogy of populism, Finchelstein points to an unmistakable through line back to fascism—a line that similarly goes unaddressed in extant scholarship on populism. “Many interpreters of populism have a limited understanding of the historical and genealogical connections between populism and fascism,” Finchelstein explained. “They collapse important historical distinctions and different historical contexts, as well as continuities.”

From Fascism to Populism in History addresses precisely these contextual differences and continuities, providing a nuanced vocabulary for describing the particular ambitions of present-day populists and carefully articulating what it inherits from fascism. “In history,” Finchelstein writes, “fascism was a political ideology that encompassed totalitarianism, state terrorism, imperialism, racism, and, in Germany’s case, the most radical genocide of the last century: the Holocaust.” He adds that its central aim was “to destroy democracy from within to create a modern dictatorship from above.” Although populists often attract what Finchelstein calls “neofascist fellow travelers”—particularly when it comes to the definition of “the people” in ethnic, national, and racial terms—he emphasizes that they typically aim to, “reshape democracy in [an] authoritarian fashion without fully destroying it.” The result might not look like the dissolution of democratic rule, but nevertheless often represents a significant erosion of democratic institutions.

Professor Willi Semmler Unpacks the Economics of Climate Change

This is the first in a series of Research Matters articles profiling the interdisciplinary climate change work of students, faculty, and alumni at The New School for Social Research. Check back for more!

Despite his contributions to scholarship in the economics of climate change, Willi Semmler—the Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development in the Economics Department at The New School for Social Research—considers himself a relative latecomer to the field.

“I stepped in just a few years ago,” he explained, reflecting on decades-long efforts to understand the implications of a warming world for global growth.

Semmler suggested that serious discussions about these issues began with the first meetings of The Club of Rome, an international group of scholars and practitioners from across fields and areas of expertise that first met in 1968. “They recognized that growth has limits,” he said, “It affects the environment. And it uses up resources that won’t be available for future generations.” If given the opportunity, Semmler can trace the highlights and lowlights of climate change policy throughout the half-century that followed the 1968 meeting—from Rome to Rio, Kyoto to Cancun, and Doha to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Semmler now serves as the Director of the Climate Change Project at The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, and was recently named Senior Researcher on climate change issues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria. With Lucas Bernard—PhD alumnus of The New School and Professor at NYC College of Technology—Semmler edited The Oxford Handbook of The Macroeconomics of Global Warming. In their introduction, they write, “The developed world can protect itself against climate change through infrastructure improvement and will use more energy to adapt to climate change effects. But it is in developing countries where some of the most dangerous consequences of climate change will be concentrated.”

In this sense, questions about the economics of climate change can rehash fundamental debates about the winners and losers of globalization, and the haves and have-nots within an interdependent global economy. “The losers of globalization were not compensated, and this has produced inequality,” Semmler said. As a result, the current political moment—in which climate change is already a hot-button issue—is made more complicated by debates about globalization itself. He explained, “We are seeing imbalances within individual countries and across borders [and] people are more skeptical about what type of globalization we really want.”

Semmler argued that this is especially the case in countries like the United States, where large swaths of the manufacturing labor force has been affected by globalization over the last three decades. He pointed out that the negative fallout for workers is particularly pronounced, “if you don’t have a proper social system where the victims or the losers of globalization and the free markets don’t have much in the way of unemployment benefits, welfare benefits, or opportunities to do re-schooling or reskilling.”

In this context of considerations about both climate change and the consequences of globalization, Semmler is examining whether financial markets can be used to help shift investment toward green technologies, nudging policy toward regulations that will promote sustainability and growth.

Semmler again returns to fundamental debates about the role of financial markets and regulation of industry to illuminate the stakes of his analysis. Breaking down the argument in his recent book Sustainable Asset Accumulation and Dynamic Portfolio Decisions, Semmler said, “There are basically two views on financial markets: the first is that you can’t constrain operations of the market and you can’t too much constrain investment choice.” In this approach, if social problems or unexpected needs emerge, then the markets should be free to allocate resources to address them. “You make your money freely and then you give it to social needs.”

But Semmler’s research suggests that, “There can be guidelines for more responsible investment: investment that takes into account environmental responsibilities, or that creates social impact.” Against the notion that such guidelines limit growth potential, Semmler has suggested that such strategies—which consider the responsibility to address social dilemmas like climate change—can produce better results for investors. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that you will lose money,” Semmler said, “Because you may be better off in the long run.”

If there is something that concerns Semmler most, it is the possibility that political uncertainty might be a drag on growth. “The global uncertainty comes from the global world order,” he said, “It’s now the global world disorder. Economies, corporations, people, and firms are affected by these macroeconomic phenomena.”

Potential solutions to these enormously complex challenges, in Semmler’s estimation, will continue to require nuanced and collaborative solutions that can better understand the often-hidden forces that are driving economic change. To celebrate Semmler’s contributions to the field of economics, several of his students and colleagues assembled a festschrift—13 essays on his work and career—in 2016. Of his work, New School for Social Research economics PhD alumnus Aleksandr Gevorkyan writes that, “Semmler’s macroeconomic analysis penetrates the most deeply hidden and convoluted aspects of the complex modern global economy.” Judging by the essays included in the collection, titled Dynamic Modeling, Empirical Macroeconomics, and Finance, climate change is less of a hidden aspect now than when Semmler began working on the issue.

And judging by the pace of news and persistence of uncertainty in the field, it seems that the economics of climate change will only continue to demand new research and insight.

Duncan Foley wins Guggenheim Prize in Economics

Duncan Foley, the Leo Model Professor of Economics at The New School for Social Research, has won the 2017 Guggenheim Prize in Economics. In the announcement of its decision, the Guggenheim Prize Committee at Ben Gurion University of the Negev cited Professor Foley’s “major contribution to the field.” Awarded bi-annually, The Guggenheim Prize recognizes lifetime achievement in the field of economics. Foley is the fourth winner of the Guggenheim Prize, joining Professors Bertram Schefold (2009), Sam Hollander (2011), and David Laidler (2015).

“Duncan’s work spans from modeling the contemporary economy to the history of ideas and how it forms our understanding of the present,” said Will Milberg, Dean and Professor of Economics at The New School for Social Research. Milberg added, “As one of the most creative and original thinkers in economics for decades, he is very deserving of this honor.”

Professor Foley joined The New School for Social Research in 1999. He was previously Professor of Economics at Columbia University, and Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Stanford University. Joining his numerous papers on topics as diverse as the economics of climate change, financialization and the information economy, and the labor theory of value, his most recent book Adam’s Fallacy (Harvard) presses back against a fundamental assumption at the heart of orthodox economics: that the “economic sphere […] in which the pursuit of self-interest is led by the invisible hand of the market to a socially beneficial outcome,” can be separated from the rest of social life.

In addition reading to his many books and articles, those interested in Professor Foley’s teaching can find video of his 2016 Advanced Microeconomics class at The New School is available on The New School’s YouTube page.

Uneasy Street: Sociology Professor Rachel Sherman’s New Book Tackles the “Anxieties of Affluence”

Sociologist Rachel Sherman quickly observed a common trait among the wealthy and affluent subjects of her latest book, Uneasy Street: the Anxieties of Affluence.

They hated getting specific about money. It is, in the words of one interviewee, “more private than sex.”

In part, Sherman—Associate Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research—attributes this reluctance to her subjects’ often-ambivalent relationship to wealth. The 50 New York parents she interviewed over the course of this multi-year study all belong to the top five percent of earners, meaning that they bring in more than $250,000 per year, and the majority are in the top one or two percent. Some benefited from substantial inheritances, which in several cases in excess of $10 million. Sherman chose to focus on people in their 40’s and 50’s who were embarking upon home renovation projects, given that such undertakings provide occasions for intentioned thinking about consumption and lifestyle choices.

The project has roots in Sherman’s longtime interest in structures of inequality in the United States and in the evolution of her thinking over the course of two previous ethnographic projects.

It was during her dissertation research on luxury hotels that Sherman identified a similar ambivalence about wealth among hotel guests, who were adamant that it was important to treat workers well. “I wouldn’t have talked about it this way then,” she said of the hotel guests she interviewed, “but I think they wanted to be morally worthy of their privilege.” That study—which Sherman developed into her 2007 book Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels—focused primarily on hotel workers rather than guests. Yet, Sherman recalls, “Even then, the larger question of what it means to have money in a socially acceptable way was interesting to me.”