We can all agree that the rise of digital technology has had profound effects on our daily lives, and some have even gone so far as to argue that it has altered our very nature (a McLuhanite position). It’s a contentious issue, with little consensus.
but on whether or not those shifts have been improvements.
Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds For The Better
Though he doesn’t go as far as to call himself a “cyber-utopian,” tech columnist and blogger Clive Thompson is on the “pro-tech” side of the argument, claiming that our wired society has improved both our cognitive functioning and the calibre of our artistic output. To clarify, when Thompson says “technology,” he means the World Wide Web. Expanded memory, more connectedness, and a proliferation in publication and communication are among the new changes (or “biases of today’s digital instruments”) that pique his curiosity.
There are two things to consider first. First, Thompson hopes to “emphasise the good” because, in his opinion (which might be debated), the literature around technology is currently “flooded with apocalyptic warnings” about its negative effects on society. Second, he doesn’t care about the neurology and brain chemistry problems, since he doesn’t think there’s enough information to know for sure what the ramifications will be.
The explanation is straightforward, with a basis in scientific research of both controlled groups and real-world interactions between individuals. The author looks at how the Internet has helped in several areas, including early childhood education, healthcare, and even politics. The primary argument is that humans develop, or evolve, through the process of taking on progressively more difficult problems in order to satisfy the needs of our newly improved minds.
While Thompson’s uninhibited optimism makes for a compelling read—the book is easy to scan and packed with information on a topical, complex subject—it also leaves a few windows uncovered. As an example, it is unclear why the Internet has been so unhelpful in the artistic process or if this is cause for concern. There is a lack of discussion on how the Internet affects the economy, and many examples of online success tend to highlight volunteer or hobby-based efforts rather than professional ones.
Probably most worrying is how little we question Thompson’s central image of the centaur, which is supposed to depict the human-machine hybrid mind of the future. Although the author acknowledges that hybridization poses dependence concerns, he does not delve further into them, choosing instead to focus on other aspects of hybridization.
It’s difficult not to feel like we’re only getting half the story if the truth actually sits between the prophets of doom and the cyber-utopians. Whatever your stance may be, this book is an excellent contribution to a vital debate.