There have been a plethora of books on the brain; how it changes, how to rewire it, what it can do and how we still know hardly anything about it. At the same time there has been much written about the growth of The Internet, social media and advances in computer technology and how this is undermining our brains. As we let computers do the thinking for us and as we use The Internet and social networks to answer questions we are losing the ability to think for ourselves and as a consequence we are getting dumber. Clive Thompson argues in this book that this couldn’t be further from the truth and in fact we are becoming smarter than ever before.
Clive Thompson also shows that these fears are also not new. With every piece of new technology human’s have invented there have been bold predictions about what these inventions will lead to, positive and negative, and time and again both sets of predictions have been off the mark as our everyday use of these technologies often differs greatly from what the technology was intended for. Television, radio, the telephone, the telegraph and even the Gutenberg press were all ushered in with some people decrying the negative impact they would have on human’s ability to think and interact with one another. Nothing has changed with today’s technology
Thompson’s key argument is that our fear is human functionality is being replaced by new technology but what is actually happening is that we are integrating with this new technology. The book opens with Thompson looking at the quest to find a computer better than a human at chess, something humans have been doing for over 100 years. And while yes there are computers now than can beat a chess master there are also people becoming chess masters at younger and younger ages. And even non-chess masters who can beat computers and chess masters alike by using a combination of skills, human and technological.
This is true for new everyday technologies. We don’t use Google at the expense of memory we often use it to jog memory. It even helps us prioritize our memory. If we know something else will remember a detail or fact for us we won’t waste valuable space trying to remember the detail, we will try to remember where the detail is stored. Rather than The Internet, text messaging and twitter eroding literacy it is actually making us the most literate generation of humans ever. And social networks are also making us more socially aware, online and in person, not just of our friends but the whole world around us. And it is also allowing us to collaborate in ways we couldn’t ever have imagined before.
Thompson is not all glowing about what is happening. For every potential positive there are pitfalls and drawbacks. The technology that helped foster the Arab Spring is also being used by other regime’s to clamp down on people’s rights and maintain their power. Some social networks can also lead to homophily, where we only communicate and interact with those of similar opinions which can create massive echo chambers that serve to reinforce a belief, rightly or wrongly and can foster fierce partisan politics.
But technology, like humans, is ever evolving and as we learn more and more about ourselves and the technology and use it in different ways we get different outcomes that will shock us, surprise us and lead us in bold new directions. It is all about making the best use of technology. One of my favourite examples in the book is about a group on NZ High School students whose teacher got tired of the same, stock standard essays and reports being handed in. Instead she got the students to post their essays and reports publically online. At first nothing changed but as the students became aware that other people outside the school could also read and comment on their posts (parents, friends and even authors of books they wrote reports on) their writing began to change. More attention was paid to their research and more time was spent on their reports. Their writing improved.
This was a wonderfully thought-provoking book which reminds us all that rather than fear and deride what is new and changing that we should take time to look at the whole picture not just what bubbles to the surface. Because, one person’s silly cat meme can be another person’s only way to protest…