Clive Thompson, a science and technology writer for Wired and The New York Times, has written a book that takes an opposing view of the effects of technology on us today. Where most of what has been written warns that technology is doing all of the thinking for us, Thompson believes that technology is actually affecting our minds in a positive way, enabling us to use more information to enhance our lives. It’s an interesting concept, and he backs it up with detailed examples and extensive research. Like it or not, technology is a huge part of our existence, and it is encouraging to read Thompson’s account of the positive influence it has on us.
The author believes that technology is making us “smarter,” because it allows us to think socially. We are thinking now in a conversational manner, which enables the exchange of ideas. Thompson cites many influential thinkers throughout time, Socrates, in particular, because he was a proponent for the exchange of ideas and dialog. The Internet is the biggest platform for collecting information and then having a social conversation around the idea. In the New York Journal of Books (http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/review/smarter-than-you-think), Janet Asteroff states, “If you’ve read all the books on how the Internet and World Wide Web change our lives and thinking, be prepared to step up a significant level, because Smarter Than You Think puts the Internet in the chronological timeline not only of the printing press, typewriter, and telephone but of the larger schemes of orality and literacy that shaped societies.”
Thompson writes extensively on memory in this book. Technology gives us the tools to record our moments and ideas and the abillity to store all of this is “upending” the way we remember, both as individuals and cultures. Search engines and computers are helping us to augment our memory. Of course, there is also an abundance of data, and the challenge is to find the data we need. As Thompson notes, “Our ancestors learned how to remember; we’ll learn how to forget.” In doing so, we are learning to distinguish and recognize what is important.
Another big topic in the book is on writing. Thompson believes that the Internet is giving us opportunities to write more and he cites examples in his everyday life and the lives of others. Emailing, social networks, blogging, commenting on blog posts, are all examples of how we are engaged in writing by our use of the Internet. Additionaly, the access to reading is also increasing via eBooks, the Internet, etc. (I, also, have to admit, that I am reading more on my eReader than I read before, simply due to the immediate and easy accessibility to eBooks.) The question remains, of course, as to the quality of what we are writing and reading, but Thompson puts forth compelling and numerous arguments for his case.
Thompson continues his theme of the “social thinking” aspect to technology throughout the book. Along with this online conversation of ideas, comes the ability to scrutinize, to look at things closely. In the field of entertainment, for example, he notes how a viewer of the show Breaking Bad, by reviewing the show online and using tools of the Internet, solved the mystery of how a main character caused a child’s illness. The viewer then created an online conversation about his theory, which proved to be correct. Thompson moves from entertainment to global politics, and cites examples of how the Internet and its social conversation alerted the world to incidents of political repression. Again, Thompson stays with a positive theme, but we have to be aware of the darker side to social online collaboration, where people could use it to further their own negative goals.
This is a fascinating read, and will spur discussion about technology’s integration into our everyday lives. It is a subject that affects each and every one of us.