Smarter Than You Think: How Technology
Is Changing Our Minds for the Better
By Clive Thompson
The Penguin Press, 2013
341 pages, $29.50
When famed writer and keynote speaker Dr. Don Norman was cut off the Internet during a trip to Madeira, his dependence on his iPhone unnerved him. He described the experience as being unable to function, saying, “When my smartphone becomes stupid, I too become stupid.” Have we lost the ability to think on our own with a swarm of information at our fingertips?
Clive Thompson, a Canadian science and technology journalist featured in The New York Times, Wired, and Collision Detection, explores how digital tools and the Internet can hone our intelligence in his perceptive book Smarter Than You Think. Computers excel at repetitive tasks like calculating sums, collecting data, and formulating patterns, whereas humans are skilled at interpreting and giving meaning to information, and then applying it in a social context. When human and artificial intelligence team up, Thompson claims this collaborative relationship can enable humans to have faster, enhanced cognitive abilities. In fact, the author argues, “At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive. This book is about the transformation.” Thompson’s provocative book —a brilliant meld of sharp analysis, historical tidbits, current happenings, and human interest stories— is undoubtedly an in-depth look at this new, eye-opening transformation.
The Internet and the accessibility of digital tools allow everyday people to share and debate their thoughts and opinions with others on a global scale. Thompson believes that this revolutionary “public thinking” can help enhance our personal expression and creativity. He demonstrates how we are developing ““ESP-like ambient awareness,” a persistent sense of what others are doing and thinking.” In turn, this development “expands our ability to understand the people we care about” and “helps dispel traditional political problems like “pluralistic ignorance,” catalyzing political action.”
One of Thompson’s most poignant examples of how public thinking triumphs over adversity is when a popular Kenyan blogger —Ory Okolloh— reached out to her audience. She wrote an entry about needing help to map out the violence and destruction in her country during the 2007 elections. In less than a week, a programmer in Alabama responded with a flurry of coding and created Ushahidi —a “map-based tool for reporting violence.” Only days after its installation, thousands of incidents were recorded on a Google map of Kenya. Today, Ushahidi is one of the best-integrated, global digital tools used to catalogue incident reports during violent uprisings or natural catastrophes. Such indisputably ground-breaking examples of strangers connecting and building life-altering tools together help Thompson strengthen his case.
The writer goes even deeper, examining how the phenomenon of “transactive memory” —when we rely on the memory of friends, family, and coworkers in our entourage to remember information— can extend to technology. Thompson claims, “as transactive partners, machines have several advantages over human ones.” They have more reliable recall of detailed facts and can hook us into learning more about a subject. Also, when we access information repeatedly, we eventually end up retaining it without the help of our gadgets. Makes sense, right? I find myself at the mercy of password reminder e-mails, when accessing new websites, until I finally remember without aid. When wearable technology with on-tap recall (like Google Glass) will be readily available and more mainstream, Thompson believes “digital memories [will] amplify what people retain in their brains” when used correctly. Idealistic as this may seem, his points are solid —he has swayed me.
People who are convinced the evils of this relatively new technology threaten our intelligence —and our lives— should give this book a chance. True, it has a polarized view, but it has compelling points framed in a way that provokes and entertains us. Reluctant readers will surely consider new angles and facts they haven’t faced before. Thompson compares the current wave of naysayers to those of the past. When the printed word, the electric telegraph, the radio, and the television made their appearances, a sea of people protested them for fear they would dumb us down.
I am not preaching that we should glorify technology and disregard its adverse effects on the way we process information. However, I do wonder if future societies will crack up about the current fear of the Internet, the way we snicker about Socrates’ fear of the written word jeopardizing human thinking.