Book Review: Smarter Than You Think

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Clive Thompson’s new book, Smarter Than You Think, is subtitled “How technology is changing our minds for the better.” What sets it apart from other tech writing is that Thompson is neither a utopian nor a dystopian: he’s more of an evidence-based optimist. His book is a thoughtful, clear examination of what he calls “our Google-drenched world.”

Smarter Than You Think covers a mosaic of topics, from search literacy to memory to gaming. What unifies its chapters is the theme of humanity interfacing with new media. Thompson addresses a bunch of interesting questions here.

Is the Internet really “rewiring our brains”?
Well, yes, but any experience we have, and any sentence we read, does the same thing. And it’s impossible to do control-group experiments about the effects of new technology, because we’re all so saturated with it.

Is the prevalence of Google making our memories worse?
No, but we are outsourcing some of our “transactive memory” to search engines, in the way that we have always done to our friends and spouses.

Research has shown that couples share memory, with one remembering things like the kids’ daily schedules and the other remembering, say, the password for the online savings and checking accounts. Today, we outsource much of our shared memory to Google in addition to sharing it with other people.

Are video games making kids dumber?
Hardly. The use of strategy-based games such as Civilization in classrooms has been shown to increase kids’ engagement and up their reading scores. Kids collaborating on World of Warcraft create their own complex formulas for beating bad guys–in effect, college-level algebra. But these same kids might be failing their math class because they are completely disengaged there. Thompson argues that games can be used intelligently to increase kids’ investment in their own learning process.

There are so many cool anecdotes and factoids in this book. I especially enjoyed Thompson’s discussion of how reading people’s Facebook updates gives us a kind of “ambient awareness” (low-level ESP) about what’s going on with them.

“Our new tools are powerful,” Thompson writes, “but only if we’re taught how to use them.” He sees the hazards and pitfalls of misuse of technology as clearly as its mind-expanding powers. I agree with him that tech, like electricity, is neither good nor evil unless we make it so. His vision of a world where the brute power of computing meshes with human intuition is realistic and inspiring.