Smarter Than You Think

How tech boosts our cognitive abilities

It is my pleasure to welcome Clive Thompson for an AMA today at 12 noon - let's ask questions in advance...! BIO: Clive is a science and technology journalist for the New York Times Magazine and Wired, and author of "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds For the Better." In his spare time, he's a musician with the bands The Delorean Sisters and Cove.
Since writing STYT, virtual reality has gone from a promising experiment to being the cusp of something huge. I've already had some success in curating my thoughts by entering certain VR environments: in the same way you'd think about a problem differently in a park than to an office with flickering lights. What excites you the most about the possibilities of this new medium?
@darklordandy VR: This is a great question! But honestly, I'm not sure. I have some intuitions. The obvious early stuff is going to be telepresence -- "being" somewhere in real-time. There are people already working on broadcasting live 3D imagery to VR from all sorts of fun crazy places: courtside at wimbledon, remote areas that are hard to access, drone views. But in a way, I'm most interested in it as a new thinking tool. What types of ideas or information or communications can we wrestle with using VR? That probably includes anything that has a spatial dimension; not just the obvious things -- like architecture, fly-throughs, etc. -- but the less obvious, like data visualization. (Imagine a 3D dataviz you could walk around in!) If you really wanted to know what's going to happen in that area, though, just look at the video games that people make. Video-game-makers are nearly always the ones that figure out the most useful and delightful way to employ a new interface. Joysticks in the arcades of the 80s taught people the concept of manipulating things on screen with a physical object (a *super* weird concept, back then). Solitaire on the Windows PC probably trained more people and how to use a mouse than any other thing. And it was video games on the iPhone that first explored the limits of what you could do with multitouch controls. So basically, just watch whatever video-game people do!
Clive, what's the biggest shift in the tech climate that you've witnessed in your career?
@jeffumbro Hey Jeff! I think, weirdly, the answer is less about technology that our orientation to it. Specifically, it's the shift from thinking of what the internet is for. Sometimes around the middle of the 00s, people started realizing that the Internet wasn't about accessing "information" -- it was about accessing *each other*. The early days of the Internet were all about the idea that we would suddenly have wonderful access to databases of stuff: facts, articles, whatever -- things produced by traditional editorial entities like newspapers. And to a certain extent, that happened! We have enormously more resources at our fingertips these days. But what fewer people predicted, in early days of the Internet, was that the big impact would be in giving us access to other people -- in conversations, discussions, chat, texting, live video, you name it. And despite the many conflicts that emerge when people have new ways to talk to one another, most people tell me this social shift has been enormously beneficial to their everyday lives. If the Internet is a thinking tool, it's because it allows us to think in concert with other people. Clay Shirky put this really nicely some years ago: "We systematically overestimate the value of access to information and underestimate the value of access to each other."
What is a situation where technology has made the average person more dependent or perhaps even dumber in a situation where they don't have access to the tech? I know your stance is quite the opposite based on the preview I've read and the audio book excerpt on chess grand masters vs. supercomputers. How would you view the dependence situation in a different light to support your stance that tech + humans is better for our minds?
@kunalslab Oh, there definitely are ways in which our modern technologies can corrode our thought! The big one is distraction. As I like to say, your mobile phone isn't really *your* mobile phone: It's a portal through which five or six multinational social-network corporations are trying to get you to stop doing whatever you're doing and come stare at them, so they can sell you ads, heh. For Facebook, Twitter, Google, and plenty of other firms, distraction is central to their business model! And of course, we now have copious evidence that distraction is bad for quality of thinking. Once you start "task switching" from one thing to another, it becomes pretty hard to internalize anything, remember it deeply, and make sense of it. To use today's thinking tools well, we have to wrest back control of our attention from all these corporate forces. It's not easy! But it's not *impossible*, either -- it just takes some mindfulness, paying attention to your attention. I wrote a bit about this recently in an essay about what it was like to read "War and Peace" on my iphone:
@pomeranian99 Thanks! I'll take a look at the essay. Looks well thought out.
@kunalslab It was a ton of fun to write! Also "War and Peace" is absolutely metal -- if you've read it, DO DO DO
Hi Clive! Since writing STYT, have you come across any new stories, companies, or people you would have liked to include in the book?
@imchauncey Chauncey! Yes, zomg, yes. Frankly, even back when I was writing the book, I had to leave out easily 80% of the things I wanted to include. It's pretty funny to go back and look at my early book outlines, because the chapter list is like twice as long as what I actually wrote. As I was writing it -- and as it was dawning on me that I'd bitten off far more than I could chew -- I started throwing less-crucial chapters in the garbage, one by one by one. One chapter that I really wanted to write was about the prospects for less-centralized networking. Right now, one of the big civic and political and social problems of the way our everyday tools work is at they're very centralized. There's always some huge server in the middle scooping up all our information, and from my conversations with people I know this makes them all very nervous. Towards the end of the book I got very interested in hackers and startups that were making tools for less-centralized networking -- everything from things like Bittorrent Bleep (an encrypted, peer-to-peer chat app) to "personal cloud" technology that allowed nontechnical people to run their own home server, or even their own social apps on it. I'd originally hoped to end the book with a chapter on the subject, but didn't have space or time to do so. So instead I've been writing about the subject for magazines.