I did a terrific half-hour-long interview with Radio New Zealand: It’s online here!
The Philadelphia Inquirer gave a terrific thumbs-up to Smarter Thank You Think — calling it “essential reading for anyone who has ever touched a computer.” Ever touched a computer! Okay, that’s kind of awesome. The whole review is online here.
Bill Tipper of the Barnes and Noble Review did a fantastic email interview with me about the book. He asked rich, chewy, thoughtful questions — this is one of the favorite Q&As I’ve done yet.
BNR: You make the point that we’ve been “outsourcing” parts of our thinking — especially memory — for as long as writing has been widely used, and you suggest that one of the underappreciated effects of the technological changes of the last few decades is the explosion in the amount of writing that many people do, not just in emails and texts but in Tweets, short status updates, and comment threads. Are we in a golden age of conversational writing?
CT: I think so, yes. The amount of writing that people do online is astonishing, and historically unprecedented. This is something that’s often hard for journalists and academics to grasp, but as scholars of rhetoric will tell you, before the Internet, most people graduated high school or college and did very little writing for the rest of their lives. When they did write, it was usually just some memos for work or the like. Only very rare people wrote tons of letters or diary entries; most of us wrote nothing. So we’re in the middle of this crazy social shift where everyday people regularly wonder about something, or have an idea about something, or have a thought about a movie they’ve seen or a song they’ve listened to, and they sit down and write a few sentences about it. When the last episode of the second season of the BBC’s Sherlock aired, I was a fan, and I immediately went to a discussion board to see what other fans thought about it … and the thread was, barely an hour or two after the episode aired, already 10,000 words long, and filled with clever, smart theories about the big mystery. People were alternately offering evidence for their ideas, rebutting each other, flattering each other, disagreeing. It was, as you say, a particularly conversational form of writing — part bar-room debate, part exchange of letters out of the 18th century.
Indeed, the 18th century literary culture in England fascinates me, because it reminds me a lot of today’s online culture. It was the early days of journals and newspapers, and the literate folks in London at the time were constantly writing missives to one another publicly, ridiculing each other, arguing and tossing thoughts back and forth. When you go back and read The Rambler and magazines like that, it feels awfully reminiscent of today’s online conversational culture. This is something that Tom Standage points out in his terrific new book Writing on the Wall: Social Media — the First 2,000 Years. For most of human history, Standage argues, our media were very conversational and participatory. It was only for a relatively short period of a few decades in the 20th century that media became massive, centralized, and something the average person couldn’t participate in.
There were clear benefits in the rise of huge, well-funded media organizations — but something was lost, too, when so many other voices got crowded out. The same balance obtains today, in reverse: We have a lot more voices, but arguably a less centralized social discourse, and plenty of cranks and flat-out abusive speech that wouldn’t have been allowed in the big centralized media.
This is wonderful: The Economist picked Smarter Than You Think as one of 2013’s “Books of the Year” — calling it “an eye-opening and optimistic analysis”.
Check out the rest of the list, too; there’s some great reading on it. I’ve been meaning to read Empire Antartica: Ice, Silence, and Emporer Penguins, which they describe thusly:
A mesmerising description of a 60,000-strong emperor-penguin colony—the “great penguin jamboree”—at the end of the world, Gavin Francis’s book manages also to be an elegant and thoughtful meditation on silence.
I’m thrilled: Smarter Than You Think is a “Editor’s Choice” in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review! The list is here: “This judicious and insightful study argues that the human-computer symbiosis is enlarging our intellect.”
In this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, Aaron Morales gave Smarter Than You Think a rave review: Here it is!
For those of you who’ve ever worried that your constant Facebooking, tweeting, and smartphone usage are making you dumber, Clive Thompson has good news: Technology is actually making us smarter. The Wired columnist presents a well-researched case, in Smarter Than You Think, on the ways that technology is changing how we think for the better, bolstering our memory and sparking a renaissance in writing. Thompson makes complex concepts easily digestible, but his book is engaging because he focuses on real people and the extraordinary ways that technology is improving their lives. B+
In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Walter Isaacson wrote a really stellar review of Smarter Than You Think. Calling it a “judicious and insightful book on human and machine intelligence” (and picking up on the intended humor of the title) he recognized one of my main goals in the book — to avoid the stale, manichean poles of thought that dominate discussion of technology: Loopy boosterism and dour dystopianism.
I also enjoyed that he picked up on the novelty of public thinking for the great mass of folks online:
Thompson also celebrates the fact that digital tools and networks are allowing us to share ideas with others as never before. It’s easy (and not altogether incorrect) to denigrate much of the blathering that occurs each day in blogs and tweets. But that misses a more significant phenomenon: the type of people who 50 years ago were likely to be sitting immobile in front of television sets all evening are now expressing their ideas, tailoring them for public consumption and getting feedback. This change is a cause for derision among intellectual sophisticates partly because they (we) have not noticed what a social transformation it represents. “Before the Internet came along, most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college,” Thompson notes. “This is something that’s particularly hard to grasp for professionals whose jobs require incessant writing, like academics, journalists, lawyers or marketers. For them, the act of writing and hashing out your ideas seems commonplace. But until the late 1990s, this simply wasn’t true of the average nonliterary person.”
This week’s New Yorker included a terrific short review of my book; the review isn’t online, but here’s a cameraphone snapshot of it!
“We need a new way to talk clearly about the rewards and pleasures of our digital experiences,” Thompson writes, in this lucid and distinctly hopeful study of the ways in which modern tools are changing how we read, think, write, and act. Thompson is not a tech acolyte, and is skeptical of the “giddy boosterism of Silicon Valley”, but he makes a sharp and sustained argument against “apocalyptic warnings” that social media and constant connectedness are degrading private consciousness or public discourse. He notes that popular innovations — including text messaging, Facebook, Twitter and Web comments sections — and created, for the first time, “a global culture of avid writers.”
Mike Agger of The New Yorker interviewed me for their web site, and the conversation was a blast. At one point we talked about “social thinking” — and why and how it’s so powerful. Here’s what I said:
There’s an idea, popular with many text-based folks—like myself, and many journalists and academics—that reading books is thinking; that if you’re not sitting for hours reading a tome, you’re not, in some essential way, thinking. This is completely false. A huge amount of our everyday thinking—powerful, creative, and resonant stuff—is done socially: talking to other people, arguing with them, relying on them to recall information for us. This has been true for aeons in the offline world. But now we have new ways to think socially online—and to do so with likeminded folks around the world, which is still insanely mind-blowing. It never stops being lovely for me.
I was in a radio station the other day, and while I was waiting to go on the air I watched the staff work. There were six or seven of them, and they were all engaged in this incredibly complex activity that’s behind the scenes of the show: they’re talking about the next segment, writing down ideas, looking things up, organizing the next batch of things the host is going to talk about. This is what thinking looks like in the real world. A lot of it is incredibly, deeply social. And it has the effect of making the host put on this much smarter, richer show than he or she could do on their own.
When people get into discussions and arguments online, whether it’s on Twitter or in a forum about their favorite TV show or even in a thread underneath an Instagram photo, this is the same thing transpiring. In the Phaedrus, Socrates worried that this dialogic nature of knowledge would die out with text, because text was inert: you asked it a question, and it couldn’t answer back. What I love about the online world is that it’s pitched neatly between those two poles. It’s a lot of textual expression, but with the added dimension of it being text that we use to talk to each other, argue with each other, call each other names, compliment each other.
I didn’t mention the specific program, but what I was talking about was the Brian Lehrer show in NYC, which I visited in September to talk about my book. The day I’d shown up, Bill Thompson had dropped out of the mayoral race, and the staff was quickly talking over how to cover it … which is what led to that scene I mentioned above. It was fascinating to watch.
In addition to having Jeet Heer review my book, The Walrus asked Jonathan Wu to interview me for their blog. It was a fun conversation, and my favorite point is where he asked me about my own use of technology in everyday life, at which point I said …
I text like a teenager. I text like 150 times a day. My wife and I are text maniacs. We’re the type of people who text each other even when we’re just on a different floor of our own house. Or sometimes, we’ll instant message for two hours instead of me going downstairs to talk to her. Some people I’ve mentioned this to ask, “Isn’t that a horrifying statement on your marriage? ” But what people don’t understand is that we’re writer-ly people and we express ourselves in fun, playful ways when we’re instant messaging that are substantially different, but terrific, delightful, and [with] great emotional layers.
I don’t see new communications technologies as debased versions of preexisting modes of contact. People have said to me that you can never achieve in a text message what you can achieve in a face-to-face conversation. That’s true, but you can’t achieve in a face-to-face conversation what you can achieve in a text. They’re not rival forms of communication or thought. They’re different. When you get fluent in them, it becomes delightful to have this larger emotional and intellectual palette.
I should point out that I text a lot more than the average teenager; indeed, according to a Pew Internet study, the median number of daily texts for teenagers is only 50. And there aren’t very many in the high end, either: Only 18% of teens text more than 200 times a day.