Smarter Than You Think

By Clive Thompson

Most people agree that the digital revolution has dramatically changed the way we live, with some even taking the McLuhanite line that it has fundamentally changed us as well. There is little agreement, however, on whether the changes have been for better or for worse. While not a full-fledged cybertopian, science and tech columnist and blogger Clive Thompson takes the pro-technology side in this new book, arguing that our cognitive behaviour and the quality of our cultural production has greatly benefited from living in a wired world.

By “technology” what Thompson means is the Internet. Specifically, the new developments or “biases of today’s digital tools” that he looks at are expanded memory, connectivity, and an explosion in publishing and communication. Two points are worth noting in advance: he wants to “accentuate the positive” because, he believes (the point is arguable), that the field has been “flooded with apocalyptic warnings of late” about what technology is doing to us, and he is not concerned with questions of neuroscience and brain chemistry because he doesn’t think there’s enough evidence yet to say for sure what the fallout in this area will be.

The exposition is easy to follow, grounded in stories drawing on scientific studies among controlled groups and people interacting in the real world. The beneficial impact of the Internet is looked at in fields such as early education, health, and politics. And underlying it all is a compelling thesis: that we grow, or evolve, by facing the progressively more difficult challenges that our new enhanced minds hunger for.

While providing a good read, easy to skim and thick with information on a timely and complex subject, Thompson’s unabashed optimism leaves a number of doors unopened. It is not clear, for example, why the Internet has been of next to no assistance in creating art, or if this is something to be concerned about. The interaction of the Internet with the economy is rarely addressed, with many of the success stories we get being of non-profit or amateur efforts, which may not be all that representative of larger trends. And, perhaps most troublingly, Thompson’s central image of the centaur for the human-machine hybrid mind of the future isn’t looked at critically enough. He recognizes how hybridization raises serious issues of dependence, but he leaves these unexamined. He acknowledges, as a certainty, in his introduction, that “if we’re intellectually lazy or prone to cheating and shortcuts, or if we simply don’t pay much attention to how our tools affect the way we work, then yes – we can become . . . overreliant.” But we already know that, in general, we are all of those things. And so becoming overreliant may be taken as a given.

If the truth lies somewhere in between the prophets of doom and the cybertopians, then it’s hard not to feel that we are only hearing half the story here. No matter your point of view, however, this book is a worthwhile addition to an important conversation.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2013.

%d bloggers like this: