With every advance in technology, skeptics lament the loss of a more meaningful and simpler time, arguing that attention spans are shrinking and critical thinking is corroding. But in his new book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, journalist Clive Thompson offers a different take. Brooke talks with Thompson about how all of the YouTube videos, blogs, Twitter feeds, Wikipedia pages – from the mundane to the informative – have produced a unique human intelligence.
Brad Mehldau - Blackbird
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marshall Berman, the great philosopher of modernism, died on the 11th at the age of 72, of a heart attack, while eating breakfast with a friend at a diner in the city he loved, New York. It seems, if much too soon, at least fitting he died in dialogue. He believed dialogue to be an urgent need in modern times because our subjectivity and inwardness have intensified, a state he called both richer and more lonely. That’s why he wrote, “Communication is both a desperate need and a primary source of delight. In a world where meanings melt into air, these experiences are among the few solid sources of meaning we can count on. One of the things that makes modern life worth living is the enhanced opportunities it offers us, and sometimes even forces on us, to talk together, to reach and understand each other.”
Now, the argument over the Internet’s power to intensify our inwardness versus its ability to engender dialogue never ends. But the intrepid Clive Thompson has conducted a thorough search of the digital landscape and makes his case for the latter, in his new book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better. He’s come a long way from where he began as a geekily engaged 25-year-old back in the nineties.
CLIVE THOMPSON: So I guess it was probably around ’94-95, when people started coming online in droves, I thought, well, this is terrible. And I was convinced that the average person could not be trusted with the “keys” to the Internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here you were, a mere babe in your twenties and you’re screamin’ at the kids to get off your lawn!
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, yeah. Well, a lot – a lot of 25-year-old men are pretty sure of their opinions.
When you sit at your desk, it’s easy to believe that the average person is really stupid and the world’s going to hell in a hand basket. But when you start reporting and actually going out there and talking to people and seeing what they do, I think the reporting saved me, because I just realized that a lot of the things I was worried about, they came to pass, some of them, but they weren’t as bad as I thought. And I did not at all predict the amazing stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You launched the book with the story of supercomputer Deep Blue beating Gary Kasparov at chess, which is a moment that was seen as a Rubicon, when human brainpower fell short. But, as you go on to report, the answer to the question, who's smarter, humans or computers, is – both.
CLIVE THOMPSON: That’s right because what Kasparov did next is really interesting. He put together a new form of chess called – Advanced Chess, where you have one human and a laptop facing down against another human and a laptop. The humans could do what they’re good at, which is, you know, intuition, rattling their opponent, and the computers could take care of if-then possibilities and letting them consult the history of chess. So normally, chess players are somewhat conservative. They stick to a, a very simple line of play. They do it over and over again.
And what happened was that the chess suddenly became unbelievably complicated and creative and daring. And this really is a metaphor for what I do in the book, where I’m trying to say, what does it mean when we stop thinking in isolation and start thinking with each other and with computer assistance?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What you call in the book, the centaur, the man-machine meld that creates, if not a super being, at least a better-skilled one.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yes. Every time someone goes on Facebook and says, does anyone know this, and a bunch of people who they have sort of forgotten that they even know, happen to notice this at the corner of their eye and chime in, that's collaborative thinking in its most simple form.
One of the things that’s great about thinking out loud is that you begin to realize that there are other people who you would never have predicted are thinking about the same thing as you. Scientists actually have a phrase for this. They, they call it multiples, where two or three different scientists will come up with the exact same idea, at the exact same time, all around the world, without knowing of the others’ existence. You know, it’s-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like Newton & Leibniz and the calculus?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yep, or like Charles Darwin with the theory of evolution. He invented it and then he sat on it for years, until he got a letter from a - another young academic saying, I have this idea, I think you're interested in this stuff too. The typewriter was invented at least five or six times, the telescope by four people, the logarithm by two different people, and always within a year of each other. So there's something about our environment that means that ideas come to life when they’re sort of ready to come to life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, how does the digital environment influence that?
CLIVE THOMPSON: What’s fantastic is that in the old days people worked in isolation before realizing someone else around the world had the answer faster than them. In fact, studies of mathematicians found that one-third of them complained that they were toiling on something and they published it, only to discover that someone a few cities away had the answer two years earlier, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm.
CLIVE THOMPSON: So knowing about what is going on in other people's minds helps resolve multiples and get those problems solved more quickly, or even just finding someone to talk to about them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. But what about the children? Let’s not forget the children! How do they learn to write, if all they’re ever producing are texts on their phones? And, by the way, get off my lawn!
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, and get off my lawn, exactly. Young people definitely are writing a lot of stuff online, and a lot of it is quite silly and there's all those short forms and what- not. But practice is valuable, and it is hard to get young people to write stuff because when they went into school and you have to write an essay for the teacher, you don’t really want to do it because there's no actual audience. There's an audience of one person that’s your teacher, and they're being paid to read your writing. So it, it's inauthentic. And every teacher has known this and every student has known this. And that’s why it’s been historically really hard to get them to write. What has happened, as, you know, young people have gone online and done what the rest of us have done, which is to realize, oh my goodness, there’s these people I can talk to. They’re my friends, they’re strangers, there’s different forums, they’ve started writing more than any generation has ever done in the past.
Now, that idea that we are now talking and taking the thoughts out of our heads and putting them down and showing ‘em and sharing them to other people is really one of the central trends throughout the whole book. And it has been persistently misunderstood, I think, by traditional scholars and journalists and thinkers, because they're accustomed to writing and putting their ideas in public. In reality, for the rest of the population, it's transformatively new.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But all that minutiae, Charlie's choice of entrée, all that living out loud, what’s the value of that for the rest of us?
CLIVE THOMPSON: You know, one tweet about one's lunch is kind of boring, but 300 of them starts becoming [LAUGHS] oddly compelling, in a weird way -
- because I begin to get a sense of the contours of what’s going on in my friends life, particularly if they’re – you know, they’re talking about what they've seen, what they’ve read. It's a – it’s called ambient awareness. It’s – it’s the idea that if you pick up these little subtle cues into the work of someone else's mind, you begin to have a fantastic sense of what's happening in their intellectual life. And that has enormous value, when you are trying to solve problems by knowing who's out there that you can talk to, when you can establish states of awareness amongst a group, where the group has a sense of its own abilities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: My favorite part of the book probably is the big chunk that's devoted to memory in the digital age. Specifically, I'm talking about Thad Starner. This is someone who had a prototype that helped develop Google Glass and who had incorporated it entirely into virtually every phase of his life.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Right, yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that seems – wrong!
You know, he’s constantly recording and monitoring, and how can he be talking to you, if he's consulting this little thing in the corner of his eye?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah. I wondered about that. I mean, I'm sitting here with a guy that’s had a computer in his head for 20 years. And he's got a screen that he’s looking at. And my first thought was, this is gonna be dreadful. I mean, he’s gonna be looking and doing Angry Birds on his, on his – on his screen while I’m trying to talk to him.
Um, but he – you know, he very carefully, over years, developed really good protocols for how and when to use it. He is - one of his rules was only to be looking at notes that are germane to what you're talking about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And by notes he could call up on this little tiny head computer, by using something in his hand, something that he'd written ten years ago that related to what you were talking about.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Exactly. He had over two million words of notes he’d written. And so, we’d be talking about stuff and he would go, oh yes, and he’d bring up some amazingly erudite point that related to exactly what we were talking about, because he had this stuff at his beck and call.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you didn't see him actually writing these words in.
CLIVE THOMPSON: No. His one-handed keyboard, he’s very fast with it. And he’s’ not writing a huge amount. He’s really only writing, you know, a few words here and there. Like, he's got it down to a real art and science of being able to record the most interesting things of a conversation, usually in breaks and pauses in the conversation, and then calling them up later on. And this was really enriching the conversation and not distracting from it at all.
I realize that having this computer in his eye was less distracting for him than the phone was for me, because –
- we, we were having coffee at a Starbucks and we leave the Starbucks, we’re walking across the street, and I’ve got my phone out because I'm trying to figure out where my – I’m looking at a map, I’m trying to figure out where my hotel is. And I don’t even notice I’m about to talk into a pothole filled with water.
And it's Thad who goes, dude, look out where you're walking, you know.
It turns out staring at a phone might be worse than having a computer in your eye that you know how to manage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that the real power of digital memories is to trigger our human memories. But if you can't access this mountain of material that you've recorded and stored, if you can't sort through it the way that Thad did, then it's no good to us at all, is it? In fact, you cite a study that suggests if we know something is recorded, we’ll forget it even sooner. So is this a real risk, in the end?
CLIVE THOMPSON: It, it's definitely a concern. The more I looked at the profusion of recording we’re doing, the more I learned that, really, one of the great skills of the next, you know, 20 to 30 years – we’re gonna have to learn how to deal with the enormous stores of memory we have and how to manage them so they're useful. A lot of this is gonna become almost like library science of everyday life. You know, librarians 500 years ago began to grapple with there being tons of books, and they had to start thinking about how to prioritize them. And now we have to do that too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about distraction, the last great criticism of this digital age, which is that it’s like flickering lights on the periphery and that that is death to creativity?
CLIVE THOMPSON: I think that’s actually right. Now, that’s the one criticism that I wholeheartedly endorse. I mean, the idea that digital media are making as trivial or shallow, I don’t buy at all. We’ve, we’ve been very good at being trivial and shallow for, for centuries.
I certainly was before the Internet came along. But the idea that we are now more distracted, I think is absolutely true, and it’s borne out by the research. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that we are trying to do too much at a time on these little devices. You know, you open up your phone or your computer, and it's not really a single phone or a single computer. What it really is a gateway to about six or seven multinational companies that are trying to grab your eyeballs and sell you ads. So they’re constantly sending you these alerts, saying, please look at me, you know, please do this.
And when I first started working on the book, I thought, maybe there's some amazing high-tech solution for this, right, like maybe there’s some software out there that could save us from all these distractions. And the more I looked at it, the more I realized there is no silver bullet. There is really only, you know, what the philosophers of attention have always called mindfulness. And this is really what I'm writing about here.
I mean, I – if you grant the force of my argument that these new technologies catalyze and push us into new types of thinking that are productively useful, right, you know, connected thinking, social thinking, that it's also good to think in the non-digital ways that we enjoyed for decades before, you know, the more solitary thinking, face-face interactions. And you need to build that into your life. I mean, the, you know, religious traditions and unions had it right when they pushed for the weekend Sabbath, right?
You know, they understood seven days a week of being always on is a bad thing. Now, and I, I'm not a monk about this. I actually, if someone asks me a question I can't answer, I google it on the weekends, and I do text a lot. But, by and large, I've tried to sort of do the Sabbath, and it works pretty well for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't play video games on the weekends? [LAUGHS]
CLIVE THOMPSON: Oh yeah, I play video games on the weekends. [LAUGHS] I’ve recently gotten into what’s known as Japanese Bullet Hell games.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m glad you really unplug and kick back on your Sabbath.
CLIVE THOMPSON: [LAUGHING] I read books too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clive, thank you so much.
CLIVE THOMPSON: It was a lot of fun.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clive Thompson is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better.
I think that the departed bard of modernism, Marshall Berman, would have deemed Clive a modernist. In his masterwork, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Berman wrote that, quote, “To be modern is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one's world and one’s self in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction, to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air.” “But to be a modernist,” he wrote, “is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom, to make its rhythms one’s own, to move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom of justice that its fervid and perilous flow allows.”
That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary, Laura Mayer and Reema Khrais. We had more help from Zac Spencer and Megan Teehan, and it was edited by me.
Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Dunne And Ken Feldman. Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.