“Smarter Than You Think,” the first book by technology journalist Clive Thompson, is an admiring letter to the digital tools that increasingly chronicle and guide our daily lives. Thompson, a contributor to Wired and the New York Times Magazine, has taken stock of our present moment and found that digital technologies are making us “smarter,” with access to greater stores of memory, teaching tools, methods of collaboration and always-on communication. Together with our devices, we can accomplish great feats: organize protests, become chess grandmasters, learn calculus in elementary school. We can even record our entire lives, so that rather than learning how to remember, “we’ll learn how to forget.”
If you share this opinion, if you live in equanimity with your always-pinging iPhone or Facebook’s surveillance, then this book will be a welcome companion. It will introduce you to some appealing characters and their sparklingly clever inventions. But if you sense that there are downsides to these innovations — not just the fragmenting of attention or the diminution of the culture but also more fundamental questions about power, identity, class and the treadmill of consumerism — you may be less satisfied.
Perhaps anticipating these complaints, Thompson acknowledges that much tech writing aligns itself with the antipodes of techno-utopianism and some variant of Luddism. He tries to sidestep this debate, describing it as tired, a recurrent dialectic that we seem fated to enact. His intellectual posture is one of informed optimism, the rallying excitement of the conference keynote speaker. There’s a gee whiz quality to the prose, intensified by the author’s frequent use of italics.
Thompson tends to extract the most uplifting lessons from his anecdotes. He waxes enthusiastically about Ushahidi, a crowd-sourced campaign to map incidents of tribal and political violence after Kenya’s 2007 election. But he doesn’t consider what might happen if people were to file false reports, or if this kind of technology were used not for reconciliation but to target the very people claiming abuse.
Similarly, he recounts the story of a Chinese town that successfully used social media to organize a protest against a polluting factory. Less attention is paid to the ways in which the Chinese government uses digital media to inhibit dissent, monitor citizens and disseminate pro-regime propaganda through a fleet of paid bloggers. (A recent study estimated that Weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent, employs at least 2,160 censors to police its 54 million users.) One successful protest doesn’t augur a better future.
Thompson is well-versed in media and technological history, revisiting some of the field’s most valuable case studies, such as Vannevar Bush’s Memex (a kind of networked computer theorized in 1945), or pre-Google Glass wearable computers. But at times his excitement for the new gets ahead of him. He writes about how e-books may become “sites of conversation,” eventually alighting upon Bob Stein, who “imagines a cadre of marginaliasts becoming so well liked that people pay to read their markups.” These marginaliasts do exist, though they are an endangered species; we call them book critics.
As “Smarter Than You Think” proceeds, a value system begins to assemble itself, as revealing for its elisions as for what it champions.
Thompson tells Ethan Hein, a Brooklyn musician who loves posting on Quora, a popular Q&A site, that his output over the last year — “about ninety thousand words” — is “the length of a good-sized nonfiction hardcover book.” Hein is a paragon of “public thinking” in Thompson’s eyes, with his capacious online output representing a contribution to the digital commons.
But another way of viewing this relationship is one of unrecompensed labor for a lavishly funded Silicon Valley start-up. Of course, Hein may not mind providing free content to Quora — perhaps he appreciates the intellectual exchange and the relationships he’s made on the site — but that is the true nature of this transaction, and it deserves addressing. Many of the new websites, apps and other digital technologies extolled by Thompson make their money (when they do) by selling our labor, our identities, our data or our privacy.
It’s this untroubled feeling toward our technological overlords and their latest gadgets that rankles. I don’t doubt Thompson’s thesis that by some measures, our technologies make us smarter. But it’s a particular kind of intelligence, that of efficiency, managerial competence and the swift recall of personal data and trivia (Thompson is particularly taken by Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy-playing computer). Instead, I wonder, are we more satisfied? Is our culture richer? Are some of our technological aids — such as the computer games used by students in underfunded schools — papering over fundamental political and social problems?
For every Mona Eltahawy — a journalist arrested by Egyptian security forces and later freed after a vigorous Twitter campaign and the intervention of former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter — Thompson chronicles, one could point to many other protesters who were not so fortunate. Surely, Eltahawy’s story is inspiring, but it’s not a common one. Indeed, fewer than 40% of Egyptians had Internet access at the start of the 2011 revolution, and many of the activists that we in the West hear from belong to the privileged, English-speaking urban elites.
Thompson seems aware of the pitfalls of some of his arguments. After presenting the successes of a few activists, he offers a brief tour through the ways in which authoritarian regimes use digital technologies — often provided by U.S. companies such as Cisco and Boeing — to monitor and intimidate their citizens. The ledger of power favors those with money and guns, as the Egyptian counterrevolution shows us.
Thompson also acknowledges that “at their worst,” our digital technologies “leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers.” Let us hope that, in his next effort, this lively thinker will shift his curiosity to those pushing the tools on which we’ve come to rely.
Silverman is writing a book about social media and digital culture.
Smarter Than You Think
How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better
Penguin Press: 352 pp., $27.95