News

Going to SXSW? Come to my talk Friday, 12:30 pm on “The Power of Public Thinking”

If you’re heading to the mad, mad, mad crush of SXSW, come out to my talk — on Friday and 12:30 pm I’ll be doing a presentation on “The Power of Public Thinking”. It’s in Ballroom G of the main convention center: Full details here.

I’m doing a book signing immediately afterwards … if you’ve got a copy bring it, or you can get one at the SXSW Bookstore inside the convention center. Come by and say hello!

Talking texting, “recency”, and what it’s like to wear Google Glass on MPR

Minnesota Public Radio picked up on a story about how Google is making a contact lens that can display info in your eye — and got me on to talk about it. I’d worn Google Glass last year for a story (which I wrote for the New York Times Magazine here), so we chatted about the pleasures, and social weirdness, of using an in-the-eye-computer … and then we zoomed off into a ton of other subjects, including the impact of online writing on our literacy, and the “recency” effect of Twitter. The show is online to listen to here!

Quoted in the Wall Street Journal: Should you Google at the breakfast table?

In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Lenore Skenazy — who runs the fabulous “Free Range Kids” site, and wrote the eponymous book — describes a morning googling stuff with her teenage son: It begins with him showing her an ad with Lou Reed song, and twists along, in that oh-wow-that-thing-leads-to-this-thing way, until they’re reading about how the Aerosmith song “Walk This Way” was inspired by Mel Brooks’ movie Young Frankenstein. (Yeah, I had no idea either.)

She pondered whether it’s culturally weird to be googling with your kid at the breakfast table, and called me to talk about it. The Wall Street Journal piece is behind a paywall, but here was my take:

There are some who say that the Internet is rotting our brains, ruining conversation, zombifying our youth, etc. But Clive Thompson, author of the new book “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better,” contends that looking up things that lead us to other things is not just engaging, it’s enriching.

“Encyclopaedia Britannica once did a study of its users and they found that the average number of times that the average users looks at the encyclopedia was once a year,” he says. “Why? Because it’s a pain in the butt.”

Googling YouTube clips is just the opposite—simple, fun, immediate. “The proximity of this knowledge turns out to be enormously valuable,” says Mr. Thompson. It’s like having the encyclopedia at the breakfast table . . . but better. We’re not just reading about the Supremes, we’re seeing and hearing them. We’re studying musical influences. But because there isn’t a word yet for this kind of impromptu education, says Mr. Thompson, “we’re prone to feel shameful about it.”

My interview at “Shrink Rap Radio”

I was interviewed by the psychologist David Van Nuys for his “Shrink Rap Radio” show — “All the psychology you need to know and just enough to make you dangerous”, as its tagline goes. We had a great talk about memory, attention, and navigating the online world. It’s online here!

I’m on MSNBC’s “The Cycle” talking about “The Parent Trap”

Yesterday I was on MSNBC’s “The Cycle” talking about my latest Wired column, in which I argued that teens today have taken to social media so avidly not because they think it’s so awesome — but because they have no other option.

Back when I was a teen in the 80s, you could hang out with your friends for hours while wandering around the neighborhood. But as the social media scholar danah boyd points out in her upcoming book It’s Complicated, that sort of autonomy isn’t possible any more: Parents have been so freaked out by two decades of “crime crime crime” daily news coverage that they’re afraid to give their teenagers the same level of freedom. Plus, educational pressure (for the middle classes, anyway) have produced the rise of the overscheduled teen, shuttled from one sport to another enrichment class all afternoon and weekend. On top of that, there are simply less places for teenagers to hang out: New subdivisions are routinely built without any public gathering-spaces like parks, and many malls have enacted no-loitering laws.

The upshot is that kids pass the week with surprisingly little time to simply hang out with their friends, face-to-face, without any authority figures nearby (like parents or teachers). The reason they’ve flocked to social media is that it’s one of the few places they have relative autonomy to hang out with one another.

So if parents really think their kids spend too much time socializing on screens, there’s one way to tackle it: Let them spend more time socializing in person — out there in the world, away from adults, precisely the way we parents did ourselves.

Anyway, that’s the column! Which you can read here online if you want. We had a great conversation about it yesterday on “The Cycle”, which you can see here!

“If a Time Traveller Saw a Smartphone”: Tim Wu of TheNewYorker.com on my book

Over at The New Yorker, the author Tim Wu writes a nifty piece riffing on the “centaur” concept of Smarter Than You Think — musing on where, precisely, human ability lies when we use tools for thought.

It’s a great meditation, and here’s how it starts:

A well-educated time traveller from 1914 enters a room divided in half by a curtain. A scientist tells him that his task is to ascertain the intelligence of whoever is on the other side of the curtain by asking whatever questions he pleases.

The traveller’s queries are answered by a voice with an accent that he does not recognize (twenty-first-century American English). The woman on the other side of the curtain has an extraordinary memory. She can, without much delay, recite any passage from the Bible or Shakespeare. Her arithmetic skills are astonishing—difficult problems are solved in seconds. She is also able to speak many foreign languages, though her pronunciation is odd. Most impressive, perhaps, is her ability to describe almost any part of the Earth in great detail, as though she is viewing it from the sky. She is also proficient at connecting seemingly random concepts, and when the traveller asks her a question like “How can God be both good and omnipotent?” she can provide complex theoretical answers.

Based on this modified Turing test, our time traveller would conclude that, in the past century, the human race achieved a new level of superintelligence. Using lingo unavailable in 1914, (it was coined later by John von Neumann) he might conclude that the human race had reached a “singularity”—a point where it had gained an intelligence beyond the understanding of the 1914 mind.

The woman behind the curtain, is, of course, just one of us. That is to say, she is a regular human who has augmented her brain using two tools: her mobile phone and a connection to the Internet and, thus, to Web sites like Wikipedia, Google Maps, and Quora. To us, she is unremarkable, but to the man she is astonishing. With our machines, we are augmented humans and prosthetic gods, though we’re remarkably blasé about that fact, like anything we’re used to. Take away our tools, the argument goes, and we’re likely stupider than our friend from the early twentieth century, who has a longer attention span, may read and write Latin, and does arithmetic faster.

The time-traveller scenario demonstrates that how you answer the question of whether we are getting smarter depends on how you classify “we.” This is why Thompson and Carr reach different results: Thompson is judging the cyborg, while Carr is judging the man underneath.

NPR’s “On Point” radio interviews me about auto-translation software

Today, NPR’s “On Point” interviewed me about the future of learning languages — in world where autotranslation software gets better and better. The short version of my argument: Autotranslation software is improving all the time, and it’s making it easier and easier to read foreign-language sites. (I use the Chrome plug-in to surf foreign news almost every day.) But if you want to be really fluent in another tongue — and understand the true nuances in a piece of text — you still have to personally fluent, and will so for a long while yet.

The whole interview is online for listening here!

Tribeca Film Festival interviews me

Jess Kimball interviewed me for the Tribeca Film Festival web site — a rollicking and wide-ranging Q&A talking about webcam shots, Sherlock, the cognitive value of pencils, and novels written on 12-button mobile phones. It’s really a blast, and begins with us discussing the modern art of managing memory: Which pictures do we save, and which do we delete?

A sample:

Jess Kimball: So how are we learning to forget thus far?

Clive Thompson: Some of it might be active acts of saying, “I don’t want all this stuff.” We’re seeing that already with SnapChat. If you talk to people who use SnapChat, they’ll give you a couple reasons why they like it. One idea is that it’s evanescent: the photos aren’t being stored, so they are more conversational, more fun, and people feel more free to just do silly, stupid things.

Secondarily, people like the idea of not clogging their phone with lots of photos because the SnapChat photos aren’t saved. People could do like 30 SnapChats a day but after a month, they weren’t going to have to go through this onerous task of going, “All right. My phone’s full. What am I going to get rid of?” That turns out to be an emotionally difficult moment. When you think about photos, it’s a really funny thing because up until now, within our entire 200 year photography experiment, we only took a photo when we wanted to preserve it.

Jess Kimball: And now part of photography’s purpose has shifted.

Clive Thompson: Now that a photo can be sent in the moment to just say, “Here’s what I’m doing,” it can become a communication act that’s completely separate from the act of archiving and saving. It’s taking us a long time to decouple the photo as an expressive act from the photo as a permanent archive.