WIRED Business Conference: Think Bigger

Clive Thompson speaks at the WIRED Business Conference: Think Bigger at Museum of Jewish Heritage on May 7, 2013 in New York City.

Is the world getting dumber, tweet by tweet? Certainly many writers think so — novelist Jonathan Franzen has decried Twitter as crowding out substantive writing.

“What happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement?” Franzen wrote in the Guardian last month. “What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word?”

Taking the opposing viewpoint is Wired and New York Times Magazine contributor Clive Thompson, who argues in his new book, “Smarter Than You Think,” that technology is improving our minds, helping us understand the world around us and become sharper and clearer thinkers.

Thompson will read from “Smarter Than You Think” at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Friday, Oct. 18, at 5:30 p.m. at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, 330 N. Orchard St.

Thompson wasn’t always bullish on technology’s influence on the human mind. Twenty years ago, he said, he was in much the same position as Franzen is now, fearing that the distraction and instant gratification of the Internet would corrode serious thinking.

But as he wrote long-form magazine pieces, reporting on new advances in email, chat rooms, and later Flickr and social media, he kept seeing those predictions undermined by what he was actually seeing and writing about.

“I kept on having my worst assumptions challenged by the creative and interesting stuff that people were actually doing,” Thompson said in a phone interview last week. “It was easy at my desk to assume the world was going to hell in a handbasket. But when I did the reporting, the world did not cooperate with my deskbound assumptions.”

Take, for example, instant messaging. Thompson first wrote about IMing in 1999, assuming that IMing back and forth was a degraded, deficient form of interpersonal communication. Instead, he found people using smart and playful ways to not just communicate, but to constantly stay present with each other.

“This is actually kind of an interesting and actually delightful new way of communicating that opens up some interesting new avenues in how we express ourselves to each other,” he said. “That was my tipping point moment, when I said I need to stop assuming that I know what’s going on by comparing it to an earlier mode of communication.”

A big part of Thompson’s argument is the idea of “public thinking,” essentially thinking out loud on social media, asking questions of followers and tapping into the hyper-specific expertise and memories of others. Thompson said it’s really just a digital extension of the public thinking we do offline, such as couples who joke they “share one brain.”

“I know X, Y and Z and my wife remembers A, B and C,” he said. “So I don’t remember A, B, C because my wife is always there. So not only our work and problem solving, but our memory is social. So any tools that come along that give us new ways to be social are going to supercharge and open up those age-old strategies in new ways.”

Part of that public thinking is an explosion in online writing, from blog posts to Facebook comments to tweets, that allows people to express themselves, receive feedback and define and refine their arguments.

Thompson said that it’s this revolution that many Luddite-leaning journalists and academics seem to miss when they wistfully recall bygone days when everyone wrote long letters to each other. In truth, mostly only journalists and academics wrote long letters to each other. Today, there’s space for everyone to think out loud.

“Where did all these people come from?” Thompson said. “These people were not sitting around writing in journals before the Internet came along. All that conversation and thought were not there. They certainly didn’t write anything that they were passionately interested about, sharing things and thinking about things and making weird jokes.”

But Thompson does concede that the naysayers do have a point when it comes to the Internet’s power to distract. Part of using this powerful tool effectively is knowing when to put it down — for example, Thompson tries to stay offline on weekends.

“It allows you to be more social, and that’s powerful and delicious,” he said. “The dangerous part is this wonderful social power needs to be reined in in situations where it would be better for you to think in a more isolated way.

“What am I trying to do right now, and is better for me to do this quietly alone with a pad of paper. Or is it better done when I’m throwing things out on Facebook and Twitter and talking to people about it?”