Digital Evolution

The tech pessimists are wrong-we can and will adapt to new technologies.


Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson, Penguin Press: 352 pp., $27.95.

The Internet is turning us all into ignorant, distracted, lazy, asocial narcissists. Or at least that's what a seemingly endlessly stream of recent books about the information revolution and digital technology would have us believe.

Since the Net's dial-up days, social critics have lined up to tell us about the supposed dark side of digital technologies and online life. The ranks of the Net pessimists include Neil Postman (Technopoly), Clifford Stoll (High-Tech Heretic), Andrew Keen (The Cult of the Amateur, Digital Vertigo), Lee Siegel (Against the Machine), Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget, Who Owns the Future?), Mark Helprin (Digital Barbarism), Evgeny Morozov (The Net Delusion), and Nick Carr (The Shallows), to name just a few.

For just as long, a different group of pundits has suggested the exact opposite: that the Internet and digital technologies will revolutionize the economy and society for the better. Our new tools will help us topple tyrannical regimes, elevate political discourse, improve education and public health, and more, they claim. The optimist army includes Nicholas Negroponte (Being Digital), Kevin Kelly (What Technology Wants), Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody), Chris Anderson (The Long Tail, Free), James Surowiecki (The Wisdom of Crowds), Stephen Johnson (Everything Bad is Good For You), and Jeff Jarvis (What Would Google Do?).

Enter Clive Thompson, a contributor to Wired and The New York Times Magazine. Thompson has a foot firmly planted in the optimist camp, but his new book, Smarter Than You Think, stakes out a reasoned middle-ground position. His goal is to "find a new way to talk clearly about the rewards and pleasures of our digital experiences—one that's rooted in our lived experience, and also detangled from the hype of Silicon Valley." He generally accomplishes that, and in the process he gives us a sensible framework for thinking about our new digital tools and how we will adapt to them over time.

New Issues, Old Concerns

Debates over the impact of new information technologies predate the rise of the Internet by at least two millennia. Several books by both Net optimists and pessimists, including Thompson's, recount the allegorical tale found in Plato's Phaedrus, in which Socrates cautions about the dangers of the written word. Socrates tells the story of the god Theuth, who boasted that his invention of writing would improve the wisdom and memory of the masses relative to the oral tradition of learning. Upon hearing this, King Thamus retorted that, "the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it." Thamus then passed judgment himself about the impact of writing on society, saying he feared that the people "will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant."

"With every innovation, cultural prophets bickered over whether we were facing a technological apocalypse or a utopia," Thompson notes. "The one thing that both apocalyptics and utopians understand and agree upon is that every new technology pushes us toward new forms of behavior while nudging us away from older, familiar ones." It's just that they bitterly disagree about whether that reality has positive or negative implications for society.

So it continues today. Most critiques of digital technology penned since the mid-1990s have followed the lead of Neil Postman's 1992 anti-technology manifesto Technopoly. "Information has become a form of garbage," he proclaimed, "not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems." Left unchecked, America's technopoly—"the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology"—would destroy "the vital sources of our humanity" and lead to "a culture without a moral foundation" by undermining "certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living."

Echoing Postman, some of the digital age's dourest critics (Keen, Seigel, Lanier) seem to believe we have already rushed headlong into the technological abyss and that there is no saving our culture or economy from the scourge of the digital revolution. Less pessimistic critics admit that some of us could adapt to the new realities, yet they persist in believing that something very important is lost in that process, that we should all care far more deeply about whatever that is, and, perhaps, that something must be done to preserve that thing or value before it is lost entirely.

Unlike most Net optimists, Thompson is willing at least to hear out the concerns raised by the pessimists and to take them seriously. And then, better than almost all of the optimists before him, he explains why positive adaptation is not just possible but almost certain.

"What Socrates didn't foresee," Thompson writes, "was the types of complex thought that would be possible once you no longer needed to mentally store everything you'd encountered." Perhaps we lost the ability to memorize and retell long folk tales around the campfire. But we gained all new abilities to construct, consume, and process long texts at the same time. By extension, Thompson argues, we have continued to gain new capabilities by adapting our habits, and even our brains, to the emerging technological realities of each era. That evolution continues today, even if there's some heartburn along the way.

Thompson's treatment of digital tools' impact on learning and attention illustrates his balanced approach. Thompson is worried about the potential for distraction in the midst of so much information choice and clutter. "Nobody has yet studied the long-term effects of relying on external, intimate memory tools," he observes. While today's tools "make it easier for us to find connections" and "encourage a superfluity of communication and publishing," those options can overwhelm us. He calculates that everyone on the planet is "composing at least 3.6 trillion words daily, or the equivalent of 36 million books." Meanwhile, we're pretending to be master multi-taskers. "Constantly switching between tasks is ruinous to our attention and focus," Thompson suggests. He recommends self-restraint, in the form of occasional breaks from our digital tools—"Digital Sabbaths," he calls them. "One of the great challenges of today's digital tools is knowing when not to use them, when to rely on the powers of older and slower technologies, like paper and books."

Fear Cycles

The baseline in these debates is constantly shifting because every generation has a particular bugaboo, panicking about the disruptive technology du jour. Today's intellectuals "wax nostalgic about early European coffee houses" and mass-market novels, but the elites of earlier eras hated them.

This echoes work I've done on technological fear cycles, a process that typically involves initial resistance, gradual adaptation, and eventual assimilation of new technologies and media. It's been true for the telegraph, the telephone, the camera, and various genres of books, music, movies, dance, television, and video games. With the Net and related digital technologies, we're still going through the growing pains associated with the move from initial resistance to adaptation. It's just that the cycle is happening much faster than it did for previous technologies.

Consider the initial backlash to Gmail, which prompted immediate calls for regulation—even bans—when the service debuted, as critics feared for their privacy. But the public quickly adjusted, and over 425 million people now view Gmail as an indispensable resource. We're going through similar cycle right now with social networking services, ambient computing, wearable technologies such as Google Glass, and the so-called "Internet of Things" ("smart homes," "smart cars," and other networked intelligent devices). "Understanding how to use these new tools for thought requires not just a critical eye, but curiosity and experimentation," Thompson says. We shouldn't be blind to the challenges raised by these new technologies, but we also shouldn't stop experimenting with them and figuring out how to assimilate them into our lives wisely.

Many of today's pessimistic fears, Thompson adds, are premised on artificial baselines or outright myths. We were not collectively better informed, better educated, and more articulate in the past, as some of today's critics seemingly imply. And as Thompson notes, the supposed "glorious age of letter writing" is largely a myth. "The reality doesn't match our fond nostalgia for it."

Meanwhile, all the public writing we're doing today is changing our cognitive behavior in positive ways. It helps us clarify our thinking to work out ideas and arguments in public. Having an audience "forces you to think more precisely, make deeper connections, and learn more." It also improves your memory and brings together diverse and dispersed individuals who have shared concerns or who are looking to solve complex problems.

Why Doomsaying Dominates

If coping mechanisms have always developed to alleviate the apocalyptics' worst fears, why do those pessimistic perspectives always seem to get so much more attention? Thompson pinpoints the culprits: "dystopian predictions are easy to generate" and "doomsaying is emotionally self-protective: if you complain that today's technology is wrecking the culture, you can tell yourself you're a gimlet-eyed critic who isn't hoodwinked by high-tech trends and silly, popular activities like social networking. You seem like someone who has a richer, deeper appreciate for the past and who stands above the triviality of today's life."

But this "reflexively dystopian view is just a misguided as giddy boosterism of Silicon Valley. Its nostalgia is false; it pretends these cultural prophecies of doom are somehow new and haven't occurred with metronomic regularity, and in nearly identical form, for centuries. And it ignores the many brilliant new ways we've harnessed new technologies, from the delightful and everyday…to the rare and august," he says.

Finally, there's the rank elitism of the pessimistic narrative. Before digital tools empowered the masses and gave them more of a voice, it was much harder to observe the public's diverse interests. Consequently, "it was a lot easier to pretend that these obsessions simply didn't exist; that the nation was 'united' around caring about the same small number of movies, weekly magazines, novels, political issues, or personalities." The rise of the Net shattered this "self-flattering illusion for the folks who ran things" and opened our eyes to the rainbow of human interests and tastes out there. "When you gaze with wild surmise upon the Pacific of strangeness online, you confront the astonishing diversity of human passion." And the pessimists aren't comfortable with what they see.

Pragmatic Optimism

Thompson strikes a sensible balance on many other thorny debates, covering topics ranging from reputation management to regime change and from digital privacy to harassing speech. The result is a sort of pragmatic optimism. Following the lead set by such earlier thinkers as F.A. Hayek, Herman Kahn, Julian Simon, Virginia Postrel, and Matt Ridley, Thompson shows us why there are good reasons for us to be unapologetically bullish about the future and the prospects for humanity's adaptation to it. At the same time, he refuse to be naïve or blasé about the occasionally gut-wrenching and highly disruptive challenges associated with technological change. Thompson proves it possible to think about ways to mitigate those downsides without adopting the paranoid and Luddite tones that are common among the techno-apocalyptic crew.

Pragmatic optimists will always find ourselves in a defensive crouch, constantly forced to respond to the lugubrious lamentations of those shouting at the clouds—even the digital ones—and insisting that humanity is doomed to suffer under technology's dreaded yoke. Clive Thompson shows that a deep breath and little patience are in order. We'll pull through. We always have.