“Wired Love”: How to Stop Worrying and Embrace Digital Technology

Like other previous posters, I am also discussing several texts, but my primary focus is Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (2013).


Thompson is a technology journalist who writes for Wired, the New York Times, and other online periodicals, and I’ve enjoyed his exuberant and sharp commentary in those venues for a while. So, when his book came out last fall, I was interested, particularly since it seems a pretty clear response to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2011), another excellent meditation on writing, reading, and thinking in a digital age. I read Carr’s book and assigned the Atlantic essay from which it sprang to my very first ENGL 110 class all the way back in Spring 2011. Carr is quite distrustful of how digital technology might be changing the ways in which human brains function and of the potential that Google is making us “stupid.” Thompson, on the other hand, takes almost exactly the opposite approach and argues that our digital tools are actually working “in tandem” with our brains to help us function better, naturally (no HAL/Dave show-downs here):

“…these tools can make even the amateurs among us radically smarter than we’d be on our own, assuming (and this is a big assumption) we understand how they work. At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive. This book is about the transformation.” (6)

Thompson aims to examine technology’s relationship to “what is observably happening in the world around us” (15) rather than arguing for the “rewiring” of the brain, as Carr does (Thompson 13). With this mission statement, he goes on to cover topics including memory and knowledge management, reading habits, how we search for and digest information, and the “ambient awareness” (211) that characterizes our online social networks, all of which hint at new intelligences and literacies cultivated exclusively by our interactions with digital tools.

Thompson’s weblog, Collision Detection, is also worth a visit. It includes more informal meditations than either his articles or his book, focusing particularly on comparing what we think of as “new” with things that have actually been around in other forms for a while. A recent(ish) post I especially loved was on a late-nineteenth century novel called Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes, which follows a telegraph operator and her on-wire dalliance with a mysterious fellow operator. Thompson calls it “A tale of catfishing, OK Cupid, and sexting … from 1880” (scandalous!—though not dissimilar to the telegraph/internet connection Tom Standage has also commented on in his 1998 book, The Victorian Internet). Thompson concludes, “This book is 130 years old, but it could have been written last week,” perhaps fulfilling Wired Love’s own subtitle, “‘The old, old story”—in a new, new way.”

Morse telegraph operator tap truth2

All that’s to say, check out Thompson—his work is a nice complement to many of the texts we have been reading and issues we have been discussing. For me in particular, Thompson’s book offered additional ways to think about how I might discuss users’ interactions with online archives in my digital essay for this class.

8 thoughts on ““Wired Love”: How to Stop Worrying and Embrace Digital Technology”

  1. Petra,

    I really love the post on Collision Detection that you linked us to – that book sounds fascinating and I will be putting it on my summer reading list!

    But on to more substantive comments: it’s fitting that you should mention Standage, albeit a different publication of his, because I feel like what Thompson is trying to highlight in this post, and perhaps in his blog as a whole (not sure, since I’m not familiar with it), is that technology not only is helping us but also has always been social, as that late-Victorian novel shows.

    Although I’m not *surprised* that anti-technology books like Carr’s exist, I’m still kind of surprised, especially because, as we’ve discussed in this class all semester, these concerns about technology are painfully cyclical and don’t show any signs of letting up. Even as an admitted late-adopter of most technological or digital innovations, I can still see the marked improvements most of those innovations make. I just wonder when people will tire of the same old complaints that technology is ruining us/our brains/our kids.

    Such complaints remind me of Antoine Dodgson’s infamous call for us to hide our kids, wives, and husbands because a rapist is afoot (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/antoine-dodson-bed-intruder), except now that rapist is technology.

    Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to do is give Thompson some kudos, plain and simple!

  2. Petra,

    I’m definitely bookmarking that blog. I read the first post (on 17th/18th c. books as smart phones in terms of portability), and am totally hooked!

    I agree with both you and Chris that Thompson seems to work in the Baron/Standage/(and, I would say) Banks tradition of drawing larger, transhistorical connections between writing technologies, modes of reading, social media, and broader communication. One of his posts talks about video gaming and failure, and (based on my recent experience playing Piano Tiles) I definitely want to give that one a look as well. I think there are likely some connections to be made between Davidson’s interest in gaming and education and the impulse we have to give a level “just one more try.”

    Thanks for the source recommendation!


  3. Petra,

    I haven’t read any of Thompson’s work before, but I’m very struck by the portion you cited. I love his acknowledgement of the dangers of technology, not because they’re inherently dangerous or they’re degrading or eroding our minds, but because digital tools themselves have certain qualities (affordances? limitations? ideologies? biases?) that can and do affect how we perceive and experience the world. Instead of what I assume is Carr’s FOX-news-style paranoia about the looming threat of “technology,” Thompson seems to ask us to critically analyze the specific tools and acts that fall under that giant heading. Good stuff.

    Of course, having not read the book, I don’t know what direction he takes that in, but I’d be curious to find out, especially if there are specific examples (Twitter, perhaps?).

  4. Petra,

    Thanks for the tip! Thompson sounds very interesting, and your Twitter exchange with him suggests that he’s a good guy, as well (which in my opinion counts for even more).

    For the next version of Writing in a Digital Age, should one ever come!


  5. Chris and Caitlin–I’m glad you drew the connection between Thompson’s ideas and those of Baron and Standage. I think Thompson is definitely tapping into their work (seeing as he recommended Standage to me in our glorious Twitter conversation), as well as responding to Carr–it’s quite the web of writers-on-digital-writing he weaves together. What I especially like about Thompson is his masterful way of deploying the anecdotal to make really powerful points frankly and wittily without belaboring the point. Also, I just really love the term “centaur” (derived from the world of competitive chess) to describe man and machine working together, and better than either on its own.

    Callie–To answer your closing question, yes! Thompson does have quite a bit to say about Twitter and other short-form social media; you can read an excerpt here in Salon, http://www.salon.com/2013/09/22/hush_up_franzen_dont_blame_twitter_for_shallowness/ which I assigned to my ENGL 110 class in the fall.

    Joe–If nothing else, I am apparently accumulating readers for Thompson, but I will not apologize for that. I thoroughly enjoy his work, and it’s ever so nice–as you remark–to find that he’s also a genuinely “good guy” who will engage with a random person tweeting at him! (It was pretty much the highlight of my week).

  6. I’m always astounded by the ways Nicolas Carr (and Franzen, a bit) seem to be winning the NewsCorp-ian public technology-paranoia discourse (even among my own students–I find *I’m* the one defending contemporary media and smartphones and Wikipedia to a room full of students who apparently hate their own Macbooks), and so I love that someone so eloquent (and ever so gently snarky) is sticking up for realistic approaches to human-assisting information technology. Also, have to admit, I’d like this guy just because his name is Clive, but at least 90% of my decision to bookmark his blog is because he’s one particularly excellent voice for the “oh hey guys these things are okay” camp that I live in.

    1. Hi Carole,
      Thanks for the comment! It’s always nice to find other enthusiasts of a book I found really useful, and your own comments on Thompson’s work had me nodding along in agreement.

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