A version of this article first appeared on http://sarahpaddleswim.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/smarter-than-you-think-a-review/

Simon Cocking specialises in covering Dublin tech / start up / innovation events, he is on twitter @SimonCocking

Clive Thompson

Smarter than you think : How technology is changing our minds for the better

Clive Thompson, 2013

As smart phones rapidly become ubiquitous, it is almost a social faux pas these days to be out without one, and therefore able to be online 24/7. We are rapidly moving into a time where it would be inconceivable not to stop and to pull out our own device to check something mid conversation. As artificial intelligence surges forward with so many leaps and bounds, it is important to consider what the effect is on human intelligence.

Techno-pessimists are suggesting that we, as humans, are becoming less smart by this constant reliance on an external device for our knowledge. In this book Clive Thompson, writer for Wired Magazine http://www.wired.com/ and the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/pages/magazine/, suggests things may not be so negative.

Firstly Thompson stresses the fact humans were able to develop beyond being mere apes in the very beginning, by using the external world to augment their capacity for learning and retaining information. Notches on sticks, Sumerian marks in clay tablets, Ogham inscriptions, Egyptian hieroglyphics were all evolving methods of storing and communicating information to other contemporary and future human readers. Similarly as complex mathematics evolved, writing equations on paper, was not simply the act of recording their work, it was part of the process of actually solving the problem. Writing on the paper, writing it down, was part of the process for many mathematicians, and future programmers, in achieving the solution.

Considered in this context, massively powerful, completely mobile, handheld computing devices (ie iphones, phablets, etc) can be seen as tools to enhance and develop sophisticated ideas and concepts we humans are wrestling with. Or alternatively of course we may just be using plants to zap zombies or throwing pigs at birds (or vice versa). However even in gaming, some will argue we are enhancing eye hand coordination, strategy, lateral thinking and other useful skills.

Thompson also suggests enhanced and distributed access to learning offers the opportunity for better blended lessons. The idea being, we watch the teacher’s lecture out of class. To free up class time for actual problem solving, and requests for help and advice on concepts the student struggled to comprehend in the previously viewed class. With prerecorded lectures, you can pause, rewind, and rewatch multiple times key ideas. You can also pause to look up unfamiliar words or concepts, before returning to the lecture. This way when you finally see your teacher in the flesh, the questions you have may be more sophisticated ones.

Teaching and how we learn are currently going through massive, rapid changes at the moment. Online learning platforms, such as moodle and others, offer the opportunity to place numerous resources in the cloud for learners to access. There will still be an important place for human experts in their field, teachers, doctors etc, but with an enhanced level of knowledge to refer to. Doctors will still need to make onsite diagnoses, but now using technology in hand to get better, more detailed information to make the best decision possible.

Thompson tries to tread a reasoned path between those that are techno-solutionists (everything is awesome, technology will fix everything) and techno-pessimists (skynet is just around the corner, robots are going to rise up and usurp us ). As the pace at which things change continues to speed up, it is important to take a moment to consider where we are heading withan ever more connected internet of things. Read it if you can, and make your own conclusions.

Link to an excerpt of the book.


Review by Walter Isaacson of the book.


Clive Thompson's blog

Clive’s own blog



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