Smarter Than We Think Review

In Smarter Than We Think, Clive Thompson makes the case that not only is our technology not making us stupider, but that we have been using external support for our cognition from our earliest days. Moreover, this is a good thing. Well, if we do so consciously and with good intent.

He starts by telling the story of how – as our chess competitions have moved from man against man, through man against computer, to man & computer against man & computer – the quality of play has fundamentally changed and improved. He ultimately recites how the outcomes of the combination of man and machine produce fundamentally new insights.

He goes on to cover a wide variety of phenomena. These include augmenting our imperfect memory, the benefits of thinking out loud, the gains from understanding different media properties, the changes when information is to hand, the opportunities unleashed by crowd-sourcing, the implications for education, and the changes when you have continual connection to others. This is not presented as an unvarnished panacea, but the potential and real problems are covered.

The story is ripely illustrated with many stories culled from many interviews with people well-known and obscure, but all with important perspectives. We hear of impacts both personal, national, and societal. This is a relatively new book, and while we don’t hear of Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning, their shadows fall on the material. On the other hand we hear of triumphs for individuals and movements.

I have argued before about how we can, and should, augment our pattern-matching capability with the perfect memory and complex calculation that digital technology provides, and separately how social extends our cognition. Thompson takes this further, integrating the two, extending the story to media and networked capabilities. A good extension and a worthwhile read.

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