Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book argues that online technologies are an enabling force for good

Smarter Than You Think, How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For the Better, by Clive Thompson
Published in Canada by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group USA (2013)

(Disclosure: I'm a big Clive Thompson fan. His monthly column in Wired magazine is a must-read, as are his articles in Fast Company and the New York Times Magazine.)

The emergence of the Internet has given rise to a claque of naysayers who believe that digital technologies (especially social media) are making us dumber and less human. Fortunately, Clive Thompson is not among them. When it comes to digital technologies, he is an optimist at heart, and that optimism is amply borne out in his first book, Smarter Than You Think.

In this carefully researched work of non-fiction, Thompson explores many facets of the online technologies and their impact on our lives, from education, gaming and politics to collaboration, memory and literacy. He delves into these topics with an unflagging appetite for discovery and he arrives at some surprising conclusions.

Rather than making us dumber and less human, Thompson believes the Internet is actually improving our lives in remarkable ways. He points to examples like Wikipedia (the collaborative encyclopedia), online gaming (collective thinking) and educational resources (Khan Academy) to show how easy access to information has become an enabling, not a disabling, force in the world. He shows numerous examples of how educators, scientists, businesses, governments and activists are using the Internet to build communities and affect positive change.

Smarter Than You Think is broken into nine chapters, each of which delves into an aspect of online computing and its broader impact. In the chapter entitled Public Thinking, Thompson tells of a Kenyan-born law student living in the U.S. who decides to start a blog about the corruption taking place in her native Kenya. Without any training as a journalist, the woman's writing soon attracts a worldwide following of loyal readers.

Stories like this are commonplace and illustrate how easy it is for anyone with an Internet connection to communicate messages to (and share information with) a potentially unlimited audience. Thompson believes that blogs, comment threats, discussion boards, text messages and tweets have contributed to a new kind of literacy over the past two decades. As Thompson observes: 
"Before the Internet came along, most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college. This is something that's particularly hard to grasp for professionals whose jobs require incessant writing, like academics, journalists, lawyers, or marketers...personal expression outside the workplace - in the curious genres and epic volume we now see routinely online - was exceedingly rare. For the average person, there were few vehicles for publication."
As much as Thompson stresses the personal and societal benefits of online technologies, he also recognizes that overdosing on the Internet isn't a good thing either. In the chapter called The Art of Finding, he spoke with memory experts to find out what affect digital tools are having on our memory and cognitive skills. Experts are divided. There seems no clear evidence as to what impact mobile phones, social networking and digital tools are having on long- and short-term memory. Still, Thompson concludes that distraction ("pellets of novelty" as he calls them) can be an impediment to learning. He writes:
"If you want to internalize a piece of knowledge, you've got to linger over it. You can't flit back and forth; you have to focus for a reasonable amount of time, with mental peace. But today's digital environment rarely leaves you any such peace." 

Smarter Than You Think is enlightening book that will evoke thought and discussion about where all this connectivity is taking us. Thompson doesn't profess to know all the answers, but his reasoned arguments and thorough research provides a richer understanding of the technologies that are impacting and shaping our lives.

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