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Questions for Clive Thompson

Interview by Jennifer Anikst

The Wired columnist and best-selling author describes the value of Internet-enabled ‘public thinking’.

Many people feel that technology has negative effects on the way we think, but you believe it is actually changing our minds for the better. Please explain.

I’ve been writing about this for 20 years now, and in the beginning, I was pretty skeptical. I thought the Internet was going to destroy society — that the average person was unqualified to be giving their opinion about everything and that it would just lead to a morass of stupidity. But every time I wrote a story about a new technology tool, I discovered that it was far more interesting and creative than I could have imagined.

For example, when I first wrote about instant messaging (IM), my initial thought was, Isn’t this just a shorter, stupider version of email? But when I interviewed people, they told me that they were having a whole new type of conversation via IM — one quite different from conversations they had face-to-face, in e-mail or through letters. This was a form of communication halfway between the cadence of an oral conversation and the formality of epistolary writing. It allowed people to be more thoughtful than in face-to-face conversations, in that they could think a little bit about what they were going to say; but it also had a playful, less formal tone. Essentially, the fact that someone could pick up a conversational thread created a sense of proximity to others — even if they were chatting with someone in a different country.

Over time, as the people around me became increasingly pessimistic about technology, I became increasingly optimistic. My findings suggested that some really amazing things were happening in everyday technological life. The reason I wrote Smarter Than You Think was that I wanted to identify the central threads running through the positive intellectual changes happening as we embrace modern technology.

How has technology changed the content of what we think about?

In terms of the things we can think about it has expanded our horizons massively. Twenty years ago, the amount and the diversity of media people consumed were much smaller. With the explosion of publishing — from formal publishing to blogs, chat rooms and forums — we now absorb a much greater diversity of thought. Mark Granovetter has called this ‘the strength of weak ties’: the people you know really well are unlikely to surprise you with new information, because they tend to be quite similar to you, because you read the same things, laugh at the same jokes, etc. But ‘weak ties’ — people you don’t know well, whom you have never met in person—are the source of really new and interesting information.

Social media is really all about the explosion of weak links. It’s not just about being aware of the comings and goings of your good friends; people are following complete strangers — celebrities, creative thinkers, lifestyle bloggers — and sharing and retweeting their posts. This has changed what we think about by dramatically expanding the range and horizon of subjects and ideas we consume. It has also added new modes to what we think about. For example, it used to be difficult to communicate via video and photos, because these modes of communication required expensive equipment and computers; but today, these things are affordable, so we’re beginning to externalize forms of knowledge that are hard to grasp or express in text.

Here’s a personal example. I recently became interested in building a cigar-box guitar. I was working on a recording project, and I wanted a really interesting, gritty old sound. I bought a bunch of high-speed power tools, but then realized I had no idea what I was doing. One of the best ways to learn is to watch someone who has the skill you are seeking, so I immediately went to YouTube, where I discovered a massive world of people who had made fantastic demonstrative videos. This is a transmission and codification of knowledge that is very difficult to communicate in words.

What is ‘transactive memory’, and how does technology affect it?

Transactive memory is a phenomenon that was first named by Psychologist Daniel Wegner. He had been studying married couples, and he noticed that they often relied on one another to remember things. In one case, he took elderly married couples, separated them, and quizzed them about their past. Time and time again, they would each get three out of ten answers correct; but when he quizzed them together, they would get nine out of ten right — they were actually better together than individually.

What Wegner discovered is that people use each other as a memory source. If we know each other really well — for example, if we’re part of the same family or team at work — we often rely on each other to help us remember things; so much so that a group of people collectively has a much larger memory base than each individual member.

Transactive memory is prevalent in modern life because we use technology — Google and our smartphones — to work in a very transactive way. For a long time, our tools for storing knowledge were fairly slow to access; we typically recorded things by writing them down, so retrieving something took a bit of work. Google and Wikipedia are the new go-to sources, and the speed at which we can access information puts us in a transactive relationship with these tools.

What is our ‘social sixth sense’, and how does it affect the way we learn?

When we spend time on social media, we’re usually looking at very brief updates. For example, a friend posting, “Here’s what I had for lunch”, or “Here’s a link to a great story I just read in the Globe and Mail.” As we view these updates over a longer period, we develop a rich picture of what is going on in someone’s life and, more interestingly still, in their mind. We see what they are paying attention to at the very moment they are paying attention to it, and as a result — whether it’s a friend or a celebrity — we get a ‘sixth sense’ about what is going on in their lives. Individually, each status update seems small and meaningless, but in the aggregate, over time, they are complex and novel ways of paying attention to one another.

What are some of the downsides to all these brief interactions?

Distraction is the main downside. There are only so many hours in a day, so if you want to get your work done, you can’t spend the whole day engaged in the pleasant and often intellectual act of ‘public thinking’ and observing other people’s public thinking.

The fact is, most of the online services from which we get tremendous cognitive and intellectual delight are run by for-profit corporations — the majority of which make their money via advertising. Basically, your smartphone and computer have become portals through which countless multinational corporations are fighting for your attention. If someone has an unlimited budget and a team of people dedicated to drawing you to look at their website, they’re going to do a great job of it. Thus, the creation of ‘push notifications’, the proliferation of targeted banner ads, etc. Facebook works hard at getting its psychological hooks into people via demographically-targeted, location-based advertising. They create an environment wherein you are presented with something so novel or irresistible that you actively interrupt yourself to look at it, when you should be doing something else.

Traditional thinking suggests that if you are multi-tasking, you are somehow working at the peak of your intellectual capabilities. But we now know that’s not necessarily true; there is a cognitive cost in switching from one task to another and, while there’s a natural rhythm for doing it, if you get interrupted before you’re naturally ready to switch tasks, you have trouble absorbing what you’re looking at.

A second downside is the focus on ‘recency’. Basically, it’s our human predisposition to be interested in what’s happening here and now, and social media tools are designed to capitalize on that. When we log on, we are presented with what has happened most recently, and then it trails on backwards into the past, and this serves to reinforce the notion that what is happening right now is the most important thing.

A third downside is ‘retrospective surveillance’, which relates to corporate/government control and appropriation of our public thoughts. Government spy apparatuses spend a great deal of time collecting everything that people say online and storing it permanently. Then, at some point in the future, the information can be used against that person. This is a classic tactic of governments and over-zealous police forces. The corporate use of data for that same reason is troubling. For example, insurance companies increasingly compile as much information about people as possible, so that they can cater their services to them — or worse, deny them services. It’s not clear that we have autonomy of our own information from these huge corporate and state forces.

How can we ensure that technology doesn’t alienate us from real life?

We constantly hear about how everyone is too busy staring at their cell phones to talk to each other, but in my view, it’s a bit overblown. A professor at Rutgers put together a study that proved this. About 30 years ago, a group of sociologists set up cameras in five major U.S. public parks to study patterns of interaction. They collected dozens of hours of footage, capturing everything that went on. Thirty years later, they went back to the exact same parks, placed cameras in the same places and recorded for the same amount of time. The team went through the footage, frame by frame, coding and comparing it, only to discover that in the new footage, between three and ten per cent of the time, people were staring at their phones. Despite the fact that this is minority behaviour, we constantly see op-ed articles insisting that it’s happening all the time.

Psychologists call this the ‘frequency illusion’: once you’ve decided that something is interesting or annoying or simply noteworthy, you overweight its frequency in everyday life.

Tell us a bit about ‘the power of multiples’.

One of the most delightful aspects of public thinking is that once people start talking out loud about the things they’re interested in, they discover that there are lots of other, random people around the planet who are equally interested in the same thing, about whose existence they would have never known. Almost everyone I interview about what intellectual value they get from the Internet returns to this: they were troubled by something, or they were seeking an answer, and online, they found a tribe of other people who cared about the same thing and wanted to talk about it. One of the most straightforward benefits of the online world is its ability to reduce intellectual isolation.

Did writing this book cause you to reassess the role of technology in your own life?

Absolutely. It made me so convinced of the value of public thinking that I wished I had actually done more of it while working on the book. I talked a lot on Twitter about my research and, as a result, people would come out of the woodwork with feedback or new leads. If I had published on Twitter more formally — say, every day — it might have improved my own thinking and allowed me to connect to even more valuable multiples.

I have also become more careful about managing my interruptions. The more I learn about the downsides of distraction, the more I realize that we need to take control of our own attention. For me, that means using the Internet and technology as a resource environment, not as an alternate universe.

Clive Thompson (BA ’92) is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press, 2013). The Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based journalist is a longtime contributor to The New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine.

This article originally appeared in 'Smarten Up!' (Spring 2015).

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