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Smarter Than You Think
Cover of Smarter Than You Think
Smarter Than You Think
How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better
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A revelatory and timely look at how technology boosts our cognitive abilities—making us smarter, more productive, and more creative than ever
It's undeniable—technology is changing the way we think. But is it for the better? Amid a chorus of doomsayers, Clive Thompson delivers a resounding "yes." In Smarter Than You Think, Thompson shows that every technological innovation—from the written word to the printing press to the telegraph—has provoked the very same anxieties that plague us today. We panic that life will never be the same, that our attentions are eroding, that culture is being trivialized. But, as in the past, we adapt—learning to use the new and retaining what is good of the old. Smarter Than You Think embraces and extols this transformation, presenting an exciting vision of the present and the future.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
A revelatory and timely look at how technology boosts our cognitive abilities—making us smarter, more productive, and more creative than ever
It's undeniable—technology is changing the way we think. But is it for the better? Amid a chorus of doomsayers, Clive Thompson delivers a resounding "yes." In Smarter Than You Think, Thompson shows that every technological innovation—from the written word to the printing press to the telegraph—has provoked the very same anxieties that plague us today. We panic that life will never be the same, that our attentions are eroding, that culture is being trivialized. But, as in the past, we adapt—learning to use the new and retaining what is good of the old. Smarter Than You Think embraces and extols this transformation, presenting an exciting vision of the present and the future.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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    The "extended mind" theory of cognition argues that the reason humans are so intellectually dominant is that we've always outsourced bits of cognition, using tools to scaffold our thinking into ever-more-rarefied realms. Printed books amplified our memory. Inexpensive paper and reliable pens made it possible to externalize our thoughts quickly. Studies show that our eyes zip around the page while performing long division on paper, using the handwritten digits as a form of prosthetic short-term memory. "These resources enable us to pursue manipulations and juxtapositions of ideas and data that would quickly baffle the unaugmented brain," as Andy Clark, a philosopher of the extended mind, writes.

    Granted, it can be unsettling to realize how much thinking already happens outside our skulls. Culturally, we revere the Rodin ideal—the belief that genius breakthroughs come from our gray matter alone. The physicist Richard Feynman once got into an argument about this with the historian Charles Weiner. Feynman understood the extended mind; he knew that writing his equations and ideas on paper was crucial to his thought. But when Weiner looked over a pile of Feynman's notebooks, he called them a wonderful "record of his day-to-day work." No, no, Feynman replied testily. They weren't a record of his thinking process. They were his thinking process:

    "I actually did the work on the paper," he said.

    "Well," Weiner said, "the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here."

    "No, it's not a record, not really. It's working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper. Okay?"

    Every new tool shapes the way we think, as well as what we think about. The printed word helped make our thought linear and abstract and vastly increased our artificial memory. Newspapers shrank the world; then the telegraph shrank it even further, producing a practically teleportational shift in the world of information. With every innovation, cultural prophets bickered over whether we were facing a technological apocalypse or utopia. Depending on which Victorian-age pundit you asked, the telegraph was either going to usher in a connected era of world peace or drown us in idiotic trivia. Neither was quite right, of course, yet neither was quite wrong. The one thing that both apocalyptics and utopians understand is that every new technology invisibly pushes us toward new forms of behavior while nudging us away from older, familiar ones. Harold Innis—the lesser known but arguably more interesting intellectual midwife of Marshall McLuhan—called it the "bias" of a new tool.

    What exactly are the biases of today's digital tools? There are many, but I'd argue three large ones dominate. First, they're biased toward ridiculously huge feats of memory; smartphones, hard drives, cameras and sensors routinely record more information than any tool did before, and keep it easily accessible. Second, they're biased toward making it easier to find connections—between ideas, pictures, people, bits of news—that were previously invisible to us. And the third one is they encourage a superfluity of communication and publishing. This last feature has a lot of surprising effects that are often ill understood. Any economist can tell you that when you suddenly increase the availability of a resource, people not only do more things with it but they do increasingly odd and unpredictable things. As electricity became cheap and ubiquitous in the West, its role expanded from things you'd expect—like nighttime lighting—to the unexpected and seemingly trivial: Battery-driven toy trains, electric blenders. The superfluity of communication today has...

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 1, 2013
    Does technology make us lazy, incapable of thinking smartly about solutions to cultural problems? Does it make us shallower thinkers, ever reliant on computers to help us mold our responses to any issues? In this optimistic, fast-paced tale about the advent of technology and its influence on humans, journalist Thompson addresses these and other questions. He admits that we often allow ourselves to be used by facets of new technologies and that we must exercise caution to avoid this; yet, he demonstrates, digital tools can have a huge positive impact on us, for they provide us with infinite memory, the ability to discover connections between people, places, or ideas previously unknown to us, and new and abundant avenues for communication and publishing. For example, Thompson shares the tale of Gordon Bell, who walks around equipped with a small fish-eye camera and a tiny audio recorder. Bell uses these devices to record every moment of his life, which he records on a “lifelog” on his laptop. Because of these devices, Bell—and we, if we embrace the technology—lives in a world of infinite memory. Using technology also helps us make connections, not only with old friends on Facebook or other social media but with the world around us as we search for knowledge and facts about it. Thompson points out that “transactive memory”—which arises out of our need to understand details and to connect to larger sets of facts outside our own limited social or familial setting—allows “us to perform at higher levels, accomplishing acts of reasoning that are impossible for us alone.” In the end, Thompson believes, these features of digital tools will allow us to think more deeply and become more deeply connected both as individuals and as a society.

  • Kirkus

    July 15, 2013
    A sprightly tip of the hat to the rewards and pleasures--and betterments--of our digital experiences. Who, asks Wired and New York Times Magazine contributor Thompson, hasn't felt a twinge of concern? How many times have we let Google feed us the answer to all manner of random inquiries? Indeed, does Google allow our memory muscles to grow flabby? How much is important to retain without a crib card? How much byzantine, brain-busting junk do we need at our fingertips or leave dangling at the tip of our tongues? Thompson is a firm believer in the school of digital information. Why not offload all the minutiae and free up the brain for bigger questions? Then let the computer serve as the external memory, find connections and accelerate communication and publishing. The author also argues that, despite all the excesses, writing on the Internet encourages discipline and economy of expression--if not harking back to the golden age of letter writing, at least making people put thought to screen. In addition, think of all the stuff that computers do in a wink--data crunching, calling you to task in the word cloud for repetitiveness, and more. Computers also bring analysis, logic and acuity to the table, while humans bring intuition, insight, psychology and strategy, as well as sentience. Near the beginning of the book, Thompson discusses the mind vs. computer dilemma in the context of chess: "The computer would bring the lightning fast--if uncreative--ability to analyze zillions of moves, while the human would bring intuition and insight, the ability to read opponents and psych them out." A well-framed celebration of how the digital world will make us bigger, rather than diminish us.

    COPYRIGHT(2013) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    September 1, 2013

    In the face of concerns over whether digital connectivity has made us generally lazy and shallow, Thompson (columnist, Wired) investigates and demonstrates how technology can be used to improve the ways we think and learn. For instance, he looks at the educational impact of the not-for-profit free online video tutorial platform Khan Academy and describes how its student dashboard system, a teaching platform for instructors, has considerably improved teaching and learning. Thompson includes compelling examples of how technology is furthering scientific discovery. For example, he writes, neuroscientists have been seeking to understand protein folding; an online protein-folding game helped allow them to understand the phenomenon when thousands of gamers found new and interesting strategies by collaborating online. VERDICT Thompson succeeds in making the case for digital technologies enhancing how we learn, discover, and collaborate. A comparable work on crowd-sourced activism and the benefits of Web 2.0 technologies is Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. A well-written case for the power and advantages of new digital technologies and possibilities for human achievement, this book will appeal to a technically savvy crowd as well as to nontech readers interested in how adopting new technologies may better their lives.--Jim Hahn, Univ. of Illinois Lib., Urbana

    Copyright 2013 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    August 1, 2013
    In this excursion into techno-optimism, Thompson discusses computerized, interconnected social activity. Relying on journalism's staple of the human-interest story, he describes individuals' experiences of exploring the Internet in pursuit of their interests. In Thompson's examples, those pursuits range from retrieving a personal memory to critiquing TV shows to finding a house for sale to researching proteins to organizing political movements. The commonalities Thompson finds among all those searches are prodigious data storage-and-retrieval capacities and the latent presence in cyberspace of someone interested in what you're interested in. Connecting interest with information animates Thompson's many anecdotes, whose motif of the delight felt by strangers or long-lost friends upon discovering a mutual concern propels his belief that Twitter, Facebook, and social-media sites built by amateurs positively motivate people to think and write better. To criticisms that social media degrade or isolate people, Thompson ripostes with studies or classroom examples that show improvements in learning and the creation of collaborative groups. A lively presenter with a sunny outlook, Thompson will engage readers drawn to the sociology of technology.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2013, American Library Association.)

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Smarter Than You Think
How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better
Clive Thompson
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