By Harvey Freedenberg
by Clive Thompson, (The Penguin Press, $27.95, 341 pages)
If you’re familiar with recent books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows or Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, you’ve heard grim warnings about how technology is rewiring our brains or laments about how it has failed to fulfill its most passionate advocates’ promise of enhancing freedom and democracy. Yet, hardly a week goes by when some Internet evangelist trumpets the coming technological utopia. It seems the time is ripe for a thoughtful effort to navigate between these starkly opposed claims. In Smarter Than You Think, Canadian journalist Clive Thompson does just that, expertly finding “a new way to talk clearly about the rewards and pleasures of our digital experiences – one that’s rooted in our lived experience and also detangled from the hype of Silicon Valley.”
Thompson brings a well-grounded sense of perspective to this study, reminding us that Socrates, in the dialogue Phaedrus, expressed his fear that the advent of writing would bring about the death of memory. It’s been that way with every technological advance, Thompson argues, from the book, to radio, to television and now the Internet and social media. And yet, in each instance, we’ve adapted to these tools, turning them to ever more creative uses. Relying on apt and wide-ranging stories focused on the “actual experiences of real people,” Thompson brings a decidedly down-to-earth approach to his exploration of that phenomenon in the digital age.
While he doesn’t predict the death of reading, for example, Thompson emphasizes how critical it will be for us to develop “new literacies,” in everything from “video, images and data sets” to 3D printing, a technology he expects soon will find its way into the home as its cost plummets, the way costly mainframe computers morphed into the inexpensive and ubiquitous desktop PC. Employing these powerful tools, we’ll increasingly find ourselves in “this duality of being a creator and a consumer.”
Thompson patiently considers and deflates most of the specters raised by technology’s skeptics. The massive store of data that’s available instantaneously through search engines like Google, for example, isn’t a threat to our memory, in his view; it’s a way to offload information that frees us for more creative tasks. As that Everest of information piles up, our principal challenge lies in finding more efficient ways to access it and make it more immediately useful.
Some of the most intriguing portions of the book explore how the masses have seized on these new digital tools, what Thompson calls the “connection-making machine,” that is the Internet for one, and guided them to ingenious uses. University of Washington biochemist David Baker turned his study of the behavior of proteins into an online puzzle called Foldit. In three weeks, two teams of amateurs solved a riddle of the AIDS virus biologists had grappled with for 10 years. District Building, an open-source software program, allows individual citizens to fight legislative gerrymandering. These stories, and others Thompson offers, reveal the “cognitive power of a highly connected audience.”
Social networks like Twitter and Facebook have increased what Thompson calls our “ambient awareness,” a heightened sense of what’s going on in the world around us. Here, he offers some of the increasingly common examples of how Twitter has been mobilized for political or social ends, as in the case of the network that called itself Tahrir Supplies, aiding protestors in post-Mubarek Egypt, or the mapping tool Usahidi, developed in Kenya to track political violence, used to speed relief to the victims of the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Thompson recognizes it took more than a few random tweets to bring about these impressive accomplishments, and he offers a sobering assessment of the way repressive regimes can turn the same devices to malign uses.
Though he doesn’t confront the neuro-scientific findings of Carr’s book head on, Thompson isn’t without his reservations about the risk of distraction posed by our absorption in technology. He’s no fan of multitasking, a phenomenon he calls “ruinous to our attention and focus,” instead recommending experiments like a “digital Sabbath,” and increased emphasis on mindfulness to counteract its negative effects.
“At their best,” Thompson writes in the opening chapter of this entertaining, informative study, “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.” In balancing these competing realities of the brave new digital world, it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm for what lies ahead. The world he describes here is an exciting one, destined to become even more so as our technologies evolve and we, eagerly or not, evolve along with them.