SXSW: Bram Cohen: "I don't care"

I'm at the South by Southwest interactive conference (SXSWi) and just went to my first session with Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent. Unfortunately, Bram appears to have very little joy in his life, as a colleague remarked to me after the session was over. He speaks in an affectless voice, offers terse and often somewhat offensive replies to many questions, and doesn't seem to have much interest in anything but certain aspects of network programming. (A colleague says I'm a jerk: Cohen has Asperger's Syndrome, which can result in this disconnect in social behavior.)

BitTorrent is a client-based peer-to-peer file sharing tool which splits up a file into many pieces and seeds it across all peers. Even as the first site offering a file is connected to from a remote BitTorrent client and starts transferring data, that second client has started to advertise the availability of the pieces it already has to others.

But he had some fairly hilarious things to say. He would prefer to program without a computer: that is, the irritations of particular hardware and software problems drive him nuts because he isn't interested in the interface or the experience of computing. He also wants to help facilitate a better cross-platform approach to opening and managing ports through firewalls and network address translation; fortunately, the guy who developed Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) was in the audience.

The interviewer for the panel said that although last summer BitTorrent traffic was measured as 35 percent of the Internet's bandwidth usage, it's now up to 50 percent. I believe this because BitTorrent is used for enormous files and it's enormously successful. The larger files you want to distribute, the more likely you switch to BitTorrent, which means the more likely you

His repeated comment for the half of the session I sat in on was, "I don't care." This was in response to a large universe of questions about content, rights, and money. Some of the more interesting aspects of BitTorrent he ignored questions about or refused to answer. His interviewer asked him to talk about the business of BitTorrent and he quietly said to her, "I don't want to talk about that." Someone asked a good question about integrating BitTorrent into programs, and he decided he didn't understand the question.

I have to ask: if you're so diffident you can barely bring yourself to answer questions, why do you fly thousands of miles to Austin, Texas, and sit in front of an audience for an hour? To feed your ego?

I hate attending sessions in which the person acts as though it's a giant inconvenience that they're even there. Do the crime, do the time.

I had the same reaction to the Famous Celebrity who was onboard a Geek Cruise I was lecturing as part of. In the Q&A that he offered to give, he was incredibly desultory and insulting. This was partly because he was put out that about 90 percent of the people on the cruise (mostly spouses of either gender of the attendee at the conference) had no idea who he was.

Update: Hey, it turns out Cohen has Asperger's Syndrome--at least according to this Wired magazine article that someone who thinks I'm a jerk pointed me to--so this explains his behavior. So I'm apparently an insensitive clod because I should be tracking neurological impairments (which some people with Asperger's would argue is not an impairment) of well-known people and factoring that into all of my judgments.

I'm of two minds here: first, sure, he has a condition that is well known to produce the kind of behavior I discuss above; but, second, does that mean I can't say that he was rude and it was a bad session? Do I need to censor myself, or say, "warning: criticism of someone with a neurological condition follows." Or should his session have a label on the outside: "Note: please don't criticize the speaker's politeness or humor as he cannot vouch for either of those."

I don't see how you work out this situation and still allow fair comment.