Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

Image of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better
Release Date: 
September 6, 2013
Penguin Press HC
Reviewed by: 

“. . . required reading for anyone interested in, working in, or enjoying the culture of the Internet . . . a superb book.”

Recently a friend invited me to join him in a game of Words with Friends, the popular online mobile Scrabble-like crossword game. Eager to try out my new smartphone, I accepted the challenge.

Within an hour I was not only playing Words with Friends with my old pal downtown, but had started three games with anonymous opponents. I had no idea who they were or where they were, but the program put us together, and there we were, locked in mortal word combat.

Words with Friends is available for the iPhone, iPad, and Android smart phone, and is integrated with Facebook. While the number of users reported varies, it’s a safe estimate that players are in the high tens of millions worldwide. The game isn’t perfect, but it’s fun—and it’s addictive.

Words with Friends is the epitome of today's consumer Internet: mobile, interactive, global, anonymous or pseudonymous, and free or low cost.

If you want to understand how the Internet shapes what, how, and why we do things, then put a hold on your games, blogs, tweets, text messages, emails, and videos, and spend some time absorbing the messages of Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think. This book is required reading for anyone interested in, working in, or enjoying the culture of the Internet—as well as for those who believe that the Internet is a waste of time for conducting business.

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.

This probing inquiry is a stunningly researched synthesis of the diverse themes of new technology with a cast of influencers from Plato to Larry Page and with sources that often appear on many doctoral reading lists.

Smarter Than You Think is a superb book.

Mr. Thompson’s goal is to understand “what’s happening to us right now” rather than get caught up in abstractions. He looks at today’s digital tools as practical enablers, including external memory, finding connections and “explosive” publishing in such provocatively named chapters as “We, the Memorious,” “Public Thinking,” “The New Literacies” and “The Art of Finding.”

He moves easily through the theories and contributions of such a wide range of thinkers and practitioners that it’s impossible to name them all. But a representative sample would include Socrates, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Vannevar Bush, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Erving Goffman, Neal Postman, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, and Charley Cheever.

Extolling the idea that the Internet has turned us into a writing society, or what he calls a “foaming Niagara of writing,” Mr. Thompson doesn’t quite see the other side of the coin, that is, the reader. And it is this lopsided analysis that undercuts his idea that all of this writing is necessarily a good thing.

Is everything on the Internet worth reading? No. Can people really process thousands of tweets an hour? No. How many blogs can anyone absorb each day? Not many. Mr. Thompson needs to address this side of the “foaming Niagara of writing” to balance his analyses. Perhaps he should cheerlead a little less for writing and advocate instead for more reading and comprehension (which may mean less writing?).

Where does that leave us? The Internet is overkill for communications. Cisco estimates that in 2005, there were 30 billion gigabytes of video, emails, and Web transactions, with a 20-fold increase in 2013. Those numbers transcend the idea of “big data” into something too big to tackle. So much for the “foaming Niagara of writing.”

There’s simply too much information in too many forms for most of it to be read, seen, or heard and make sense to even the most voracious consumer of information. And while Mr. Thompson makes a strong case for the benefit of collaborative public thinking through question sites like Yahoo! Answers or Quora, he overlooks that digesting even a small part of the information is difficult (Could it be that many of these questions are simply a waste of time?).

Still, Mr. Thompson raises the right flags for the impending (selective) value of crowdsourcing, the new uses for data literacy, the benefits of external memory, and the importance of finding the information we need in many different formats.

Smarter Than You Think is an exceptionally optimistic book as the title indicates. Mr. Thompson does not explore the “dark side” of collaboration, where likeminded people use the Internet to further malevolent motives. He would bring a little more to the table if he looked at both sides.

What’s the “pull” of the Internet and the World Wide Web? For social media, it’s the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Check your Twitter stream more than once a day and you’ve got FOMO. But that’s just the latest layer. There will be new ones.

Overall, the compelling nature of interactivity combined with distance and anonymity makes people unafraid to send text, sounds, and images to masses of people around the world whom they don’t know and will never know. And it keeps us coming back. It’s a little like making a telephone call into the universe just to see who’s out there.

It’s time to hang up the telephone and read Smarter Than You Think.