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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Science Author Clive Thompson Does Not Think Tech Is Ruining Your Mind

Count Clive Thompson as someone who does not believe Google is dulling our ability to memorize things.

Mr. Thompson is a science and technology writer who wrote the new book, “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better.” He is also an occasional contributor to The New York Times.

With science as its backbone, Mr. Thompson’s book argues that the current transformation of society into the digital age is making us more intelligent, not the other way around. The following is an edited interview:

Q. Do you really think technology is making us smarter?
A. Yes, I do. I think basically we’re able to think more socially. There is something about the ability to externalize our thoughts and compare them with other people in a public way that is really transformative for the average person.

Q. You talk a lot about memory in your book. Are we augmenting our memories with computers, or are we replacing them?
A. I would say we are augmenting them. When I started the book I was genuinely worried that I was losing my memory to Google, but the more I studied the way that everyday memory works, the more I realized how much we already rely on other outside sources â€" books, Post-it notes, etc. â€" but also other people to remember things. We are social thinkers, and we are also social rememberers, we use our co-workers, our partners and our friends to help us retrieve the details about things that they they are better at remembering than we are. And they’ve used us in the same way. Memory has always been social. Now we’re using search engines and computers to augment our memories, too.

Q. You’ve write a lot about “ambient awareness.” What does that actually mean?
Ambient awareness is the experience of knowing what’s going on in the lives of other people â€" what they’re thinking about, what they’re doing, what they’re looking at â€" by paying attention to the small stray status messages that people are putting online. We’re now able to stitch together these fantastic details and mental maps of what is going on in other people’s lives.

Q. But critics say all of these details are just noise. Aren’t they?
A. It’s often really misunderstood because social critics are often pointing at an insignificant tweet and saying look at how trivial and silly this is, but ambient awareness happens in aggregate while you follow someone for a year or two, and that’s when these insignificant tweets add up to give us meaning. We use these tools over a long period of time and we develop a deep ESP-like sense of the intellectual and emotional lives of the people we care about.

Q. You’re married to Emily Nussbaum, the television critic for The New Yorker. Is your house just a series of blaring screens, iPads and smartphones?
A. Probably no more than any other families, no. The one thing that might be a little different is that Emily and I are really avid communicators via text messaging and instant messenger. So there are times I might be working upstairs and she’s downstairs and I’ll strike up an instant messenger conversation with her (because she’s watching TV), and we’ll just carry on that conversation on for a couple of hours.

Q. How do you control the amount of time your children get to use screens in the house?
A. I usually say everything in moderation. This advice hasn’t changed since the ancient Greeks. The things kids can do on screens can be really delightful â€" if they are age appropriate. But no, they shouldn’t spend all their time on a screen, they should split up their time doing multiple, different things. It’s not good for adults either to spend all their days on screens. I talk about cognitive diversity in the book, if you grant that argument that these new technologies help us think in new ways, then the old ways are still useful also, like going for a walk, or writing with a pencil.

Q. You talk about “tip-of-the-tongue syndrome” in your book. What is that, and how is it affected by technology?
A. Tip-of-the-tongue syndrome is when people almost remember something but need a computer, or someone else, to help them find it. The problem is, our brains have always been terrible at remembering details. They were like that way before the Internet came along. We’re very good at remember meaning, but we constantly mess up the details. One of the ways we’ve always resolved tip-of-the-tongue was by using other people. Now we have machines that help us resolve tip-of-the-tongue.

Q. You’re very bullish on technology, so if you could only take one piece of technology with you on a deserted island, what would it be?
A. I would probably take an e-reader loaded down with a gazillion books. (Making the assumption it has a solar ray so I can power that e-reader.) I am frankly really excited that modern technology allows us to read so many books in the way it does now. That was the dream of H. G. Wells and other science fiction writers, that all of knowledge could exist on a single device â€" which it does now. But, if I couldn’t bring electronics with me to my deserted island, I’d probably bring penicillin.