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Smarter Than You Think

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Joseph Iacoviello

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Joe Iacoviello

Clive Thompson, a freelance journalist, wrote a book titled “Smarter Than You Think”. In this book, Thompson talks about how the Internet and other technologies are significantly affecting how we think. Although the zeitgeist is that the technology has an adverse effect on how we think today, Thompson cites several examples of how technology has improved our thought process. In an interview with The Verge, he discusses several of these examples.

Thompson’s first goal in his book is to show that the negative effects commonly attributed to technology existed even before the technology that is said to have caused them. In his interview, Thompson states:

“Open the weekend section in any major paper and you’ll find the same hackneyed opinion pieces about how technology is making us a dumber, shallower species. That gloomy view just didn’t accord to my reality. I’m 45, so I remember going to college before the interwebs existed and people were not measurably wiser, sitting around discussing Proust. They were watching Married With Children and playing video games. Idiocy is a long-standing feature of our species.”

A commonly held belief attributes antisocial tendencies, laziness, or short attention spans to modern technology, but these common behavioral problems existed long before the creation of the Internet and social media. These timeless problems could not possibly have been borne as a consequence of these technologies.

While “Smarter Than You Think” is a book about the benefits of technology, Thompson does acknowledge that technology does have some prominent downsides. A 2012 study on human attention span concluded that the average person could focus for about eight seconds; a similar study in 2000 found that same amount to be 12 seconds. Thompson offers a theory for the source of the problem:

“We currently have this information ecology that has been designed to capture as much of your attention as possible. We think of our computers and smartphones as single devices, but really they’re a collection of services trying to capture our attention so they can show us ads. There hasn’t been much work trying to design our way out of that yet.”

He also offers a possible solution:

Your 27-inch iMac screen […] is the size of a cafeteria tray. There isn’t enough room here to spread out and think. When screens get as cheap and ubiquitous as paper, I imagine we will begin to spread them out, and to have each one dedicated to a different task or idea.

There are glimmers of how this might work. I used Scrivener to write the book, a word processing app that forces you into a full-screen mode without the constant drop-downs and notifications and distractions of a modern computer desktop.

Essentially, Thompson believes that if more screen real-estate was available, allowing for the easy spreading out of our ideas, it would make concentration easier to attain without being bothered by the continuous notifications from email, texts, and other such distractions.

Thompson states in the interview how technology can help us improve our learning abilities, sometimes in ways not expected. Thompson talks about how the Internet can help school kids write English papers:

“One good example is allowing children to write for this incredible, global audience, [the Internet]. When kids are writing a paper for a teacher, they sort of don’t care, because they know the teacher doesn’t care, they are being paid to read this, it’s just an assignment and a grade. But as soon as you connect them with an authentic audience, the same way adults do on blogs and Twitter, the kids completely throw themselves into the work.”

By connecting the child’s assignment to a tremendous multinational audience, children will learn and practice writing far better, valuing their work and allowing it to capture their attention. This concept, learning by doing, can be applied in in increasing ways thanks to technology. Thompson talks about how his kids like to play Plants vs Zombies:

“They are into Plants vs. Zombies, and using that you can get them to think in this very interesting way. When they get to a boss, I ask them to observe his behavior, postulate a theory about the rule set that defines his actions, and test a theory for how best to defeat him. This is the scientific method at work!”

These are just a few of the many shining examples found within Thompson’s text, “Smarter Than You Think”. Check out Thompson’s book if you want to learn more about these intriguing topics.