Smarter Than You Think… Public Thinking

I recently read the book “Smarter Than You Think, How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better” by Clive Thompson. You can get it on Google Play, or Amazon (among others). I was drawn to it because I was tired of all the “technology is ruining us” rhetoric out there, and I saw it on a friend’s GoodReads feed. I was not disappointed.

I found it very balanced. It was not just a sugar-coated view of technology as only benefiting us. I will include quotes. All page references are to the Google edition of the book I read. I assume the Kindle and print are similar.

Early on he says:

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. (3)

He went farther, adding:

We’re becoming more conversational thinkers — a shift that has been rocky, not least because everyday public thought uncorks the incivility and prejudices that are commonly repressed in face-to-face life. But at its best (which, I’d argue, is surprisingly often), it’s a thrilling development, reigniting ancient traditions of dialogue and debate. (6)

That thought was very intriguing to me. I have witnessed and participated in many online conversations that have not gone well, and was not quite as optimistic as he was about the state of public discourse.

I intended this to be a full review, but as I worked through it I found myself focusing in on Public Thinking, The Art of Finding, and Homophily. There are many good sections of this book, and I recommend a thorough read, but my primary takeaway in this post is revolves around communication technology.

The power of communication we have today is pretty amazing. I am a big believer in communication being a good thing. Of course it is not sufficient for all ills. for example:

Back in the nineteenth century, the telegraph was supposed to put us in such intimate global contact that killing a foreigner would seem as barbaric as killing your neighbor. (118)

Public Thinking

There are so many tools that can help you think publicly. Twitter, Facebook, even tools like Medium. Many see these as narcissistic exercises, but it can also help the writer better understand their topic, as well as engage with many other folks.

I really liked the quote from Cecil Day-Lewis (a poet):

“If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. . . . We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” (28)

This resonated with my experience. I have worked for years as a technical writer and always found my depth of knowledge in a topic increased during the writing process. In fact, I fully expect to better understand this book by the end of the post.

He further expounds:

When you walk around meditating on an idea quietly to yourself, you do a lot of hand waving. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face a real audience, as Weinberg points out, the hand waving has to end. (29)

This is, after all, the ultimate echo chamber. We are all limited by our knowledge and experience, so fail to see the whole picture on many topics. Taking the next step, putting it in writing, helps.

But studies have found that particularly when it comes to analytic or critical thought, the effort of communicating to someone else forces you to think more precisely, make deeper connections, and learn more. (30)

Again, my own experience, both writing technical guides and delivering technical training agrees with this concept.

Technology gives us the opportunity to do this. We can communicate with a wider range of folks, much more easily than in the past. We can leverage these tools to communicate more about what is going on in our heads. Of course, this is not always a good thing.

When you give everyday people the ability to communicate, you release not just brilliant bons mots and incisive conversations, but also ad hominem attacks, fury, and “trolls” — people who jump into discussion threads solely to destabilize them. (41)

The Art of Finding

Another good section of the book focused on how technology helps us find things. Technology has been a real boon here. Not sure what the song playing is? Fire up Shazaam and let it listen for you.

One of the more intriguing things in the book was learning about the Mundaneum. This was created in 1910 by a French information-science pioneer Paul Otlet.

The Mundaneum,a collection of twelve million facts written on catalog cards, meticulously organized with an indexing system of Otlet’s devising. For a fee, anyone could query the Mundaneum by mail or telegraph. Housed in a massive building in Belgium, it received over fifteen hundred such requests before it was finally disassembled by the occupying Nazis. (65)

Now we have Google. Instant response. Not that there are not skills we need to develop beyond typing in a phrase. How do you craft the right one, how do you sift through the chaff?

However, it is amazing how quickly you can fact-check things. Whether it is sites like Politifact, Snopes, Wikipedia, or About. Of course, nothing is perfect, and there is a reason why the snarky statement “It’s got to be true, I read it on the Internet” always elicits a laugh. What makes these sites so valuable, involves the conversation. They are all popular enough that you have many folks focusing on fact-checking the fact-checkers, and the best of them include many links to source material.

The Problem of Homophily

Unfortunately while today’s tools offer unprecedented reach, they also do not guarantee that it will broaden our exposure to others. It is too easy to create your own echo chamber.

Principle of homophily: Socially, we tend to be close friends with people who mirror us demographically, culturally, intellectually, politically, and professionally. This makes it easy to bond, but it also means that we drink from the same informational pool. Any jobs my close friends have heard about, I’ve heard about, too. (120)

It is a pernicious issue.

It’s easier to lean into homophily, connecting online to people who are demographically similar: the same age, class, ethnicity and race, even the same profession. Homophily is deeply embedded in our psychology, and as Eli Pariser adroitly points out in The Filter Bubble, digital tools can make homophily worse, narrowing our worldview

In fact, Facebook filters work to provide you articles you are interested in. So without even trying, you start filtering out stuff you don’t agree with. Furthermore, every time you block someone you disagree with, your bubble gets tinnier.

I struggle with this. I resist the urge to unfriend those I disagree with, I also resist the urge to block sites. I have done a few, but I set the bar pretty high.

Key Takeaways

We live in a time of unprecedented ability to engage in conversations with folks of a wide variety. We also live in a time where we can use tools (or have tools use us) to create a narrower, and narrower perspective on topics.

My big takeaway from this read has been to “nurture” my feeds. Seek out folks that I don’t agree with, and engage in a respectful manner to better understand their perspective. It’s not always easy, and it can be frustrating, but in the long term it is learning experience.

It is really hard to do this on “quick” tools like Facebook an Twitter. It is too easy to fall into the trap of the snarky response. So this is one of my goals with my Medium account.

  1. Use the tool to write out my thoughts on a given topic. This is a discipline that will allow me to better understand and communicate my thoughts.
  2. Listen to responses of others. Allow others to help fill in my gaps of knowledge, or sharpen my existing opinion.

In the end, this is definitely all about me. If no one ever reads a post, I will still benefit. My only request is if you respond, do so respectfully.