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.”
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.