The Internet as Cabinet of Wonders: In Conversation With Clive Thompson

Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think is something long overdue: a book that gets excited about the internet’s possibilities—for social life, for creativity, for thought—and how we’re already working them into our daily lives.

Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic.

 

It might be tempting to consider Clive Thompson’s new book an ordinary work of Internet punditry, written merely to celebrate or blast the Internet and its potentialities (cf. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, or Jeff Jarvis’s What Would Google Do?). But it turns out that Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better is something else altogether—a cabinet of wonders for fellow information enthusiasts; a book brimming with insight and excitement about what the Internet is already doing in our lives.

Thompson’s principal contention is that our society is still learning to adapt to the Internet. It’s a terrific struggle, analogous to those wrought by the technological revolutions of print and broadcasting, with countless false starts, failed experiments, and simultaneous triumphalism and hand-wringing. Thompson harks back entertainingly, and convincingly, to everyone from Socrates to Melville Dewey to the merchants of Mesopotamia in order to make this point. But right now, he argues, in what must still be considered the infancy of the information age, we need a counterweight to the apocalyptic warnings many have sounded with respect to our digital future. “We need 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.”

I was especially smitten with two key concepts from the book, ideas that I hope to explore and build on for a long time to come—”ambient awareness” and “outboard brain”—both of which I will tell you about. But the book covers so much ground that other readers might well experience a similar spark from any of dozens of Thompson’s other ideas, and take them in countless directions of their own. In this way, Smarter Than You Think resembles the work of Marshall McLuhan, a “galaxy for insight” rather than a static argument: a springboard for the reader to make use of, not a manifesto to obey.

I learned last week that Thompson’s conversation is quite like his book: challenging, absorbing, and freewheeling. His essential optimism about technology emerged when we discussed online fan behavior—a topic of abiding interest to Thompson, and one that comes up several times in Smarter Than You Think.

When you experience art that speaks to you, you feel a little less alone, but when you meet a fellow fan—someone who enjoys a work of art in exactly the way you do—there’s a far keener sense of connectedness: the meaning I’ve felt is real, I didn’t make this up, here is another who felt the same. The Internet created a real explosion in those connections. I got the sense from your book that this is something that is really important in your life, not just in your work.

It totally is. In some respects, this is why I’ve maybe had a less negative or gloomy reaction to the rise of new media… I’ve been just constantly astounded by just how many witty, interesting people there are from all walks of life, [and] I had no way of knowing they were out there.

The other thing that’s made me have a kindlier view of this transformation is that because I’m a chatty person, an extrovert in everyday life, I’ve always understood the value of bouncing ideas off of other people, always understood that my ideas are developed socially.

I was doing that in the early ‘90s, and so I saw the way that suddenly all that to-and-fro, the debate that I’d been getting by going to a bar in the evening with my friends to argue about what I was reading or seeing, was now happening all day long at my desk, in this ambient way—I was like, this is fantastic!

As we make the transition from being primarily private thinkers to thinking a lot more in public and with other people, it has these really deep and positive effects both inside us, in the way we form our ideas internally, and also in terms of how we form ideas socially. The social dimension is really quite amazing. 

Me too! Since the days of Prodigy—I’m all, this is so fun!

It’s baffled me that this could be considered a bad thing. I do understand some of the critiques, the concerns about what a lot of people see as the demise of quiet contemplation. I agree that contemplation is important for idea generation, but a lot of writers regard it as a metonym for all thought, right? If you don’t have your nose in a book you’re not thinking, and that is manifestly not true.

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Thompson’s book is a kind of survey of the positive uses we’re already making of our new technologies—the “lived experience” he proposes as the correct point of departure for understanding the web.

Social media have “produced a renaissance in witty, aphoristic, haiku-esque expression,” and are causing young people to become fantastic writers, because they write and text all day long. Gamers collude on vast wikis, fan fiction explodes. More and more of our thinking is done in public. We test and share our opinions moment by moment, in real time. There’s a global polylogue going on, so immense and transformative that we can’t quite understand its implications, not yet.

What I’d really like is a screensaver that finds a random note that I made, like years ago, and scrolls it across the screen, so that when I’m not at my computer but I glance at it I see something that I wrote three years ago.

This brings me to the idea of “ambient awareness,” which is what happens when you’re on the Internet so much that you are in a state of almost continual contact with your friends and colleagues. This idea happened to resonate particularly with me; I’d just recently spoken with a friend about Twitter, and I’d said oh yeah, I have Tweetdeck open almost all the time, as I work. And she’s like, what are you doing all day on Twitter?—and I replied, well, it’s like having all your friends in your office with you all day. So if anything interesting happens, you’re all already there, and everyone can start blabbing about it right that second.

Thompson describes “ambient awareness” as almost a kind of ESP.

It’s very striking that anyone like me, who always has a window open into a chatroom or on Twitter, isn’t actually having his own thoughts by himself anymore. You’re having your own thoughts WITH other people. Can you elaborate on that?

The idea that runs throughout the book is that as we make the transition from being primarily private thinkers to thinking a lot more in public and with other people, it has these really deep and positive effects both inside us, in the way we form our ideas internally, and also in terms of how we form ideas socially. The social dimension is really quite amazing. What you do with Twitter is exactly what I heard over and over from people in putting this picture together.

There’s a two-step process. When you’re wondering about a question or you’ve read something interesting, there’s a moment where you decide: this is interesting enough that I think I want to throw it out there, to people online, to my friends. That in itself is a really interesting intellectual moment, a great moment of metacognition; you’re paying attention to the stuff that you’re thinking about, and you’re wondering, assessing: How central is this to the things I’m interested in right now? And could I get interesting feedback if I put it out there?

This is a completely new question that we can now ask ourselves, [a capability] we didn’t use to have when reading alone. In no way am I [saying] that reading alone is not a good thing to do as well; it clearly is. But the fact that this is now an option is unbelievably interesting for the way we observe our own thoughts. That’s the first step—an internal step.

The second step is exactly what you talked about: a sense that you now exist in this kind of lightweight ESP-like intellectual contact with people, where when you say something, the odds are extremely high that someone else—no matter how weird what you’ve just said—you are going to find the three other people who are thinking about exactly the same thing.

Knowing that friends who are expert in a particular field happen to be on Twitter draws me to them when a new development in that field emerges, so I learn more much, much faster. A news story comes together very quickly when many linked minds are assembling it at once. For all the foolishness we see there sometimes, a good Twitter feed isn’t just invaluable for information: it’s also a source of comfort in times of trouble, and of camaraderie and fun. I’m a Twitter fiend myself, but I’m sure the same is true of other social networks, each in its own way (and as bulletin boards and mailing lists used to be for many of us, especially in the days before the world wide web.)

It seems to me, too, that our ability to form a new, online family (or two, or six, or ten of them) might become increasingly beneficial in helping people heal from despair, grief, and depression. The Internet can enhance the pleasures of solitude as well, because when we choose to withdraw—say, to read a book alone—we can enjoy a new appreciation of the quiet and contemplative. (I do, anyway!)

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The “outboard brain” idea came as an even bigger surprise to me. As a Knight Science Journalism fellow some years ago, Thompson developed an interest in wearable computing, and got to know a number of the so-called “Borg”: a group of MIT researchers who built and experimented with the earliest wearables. In Smarter Than You Think he focuses on Thad Starner, who’s been wearing a computer for the last two decades. Starner is able to type queries to a screen attached to his glasses through a one-handed keyboard called a Twiddler.

The Borg appear to have known all along that the widespread adoption of wearable computing was just a matter of time. “As Thad points out, in a funny way, wearable computers did eventually emerge, but in our pockets,” Thompson told me. “The shift to something that rides in your eye [comes with] a totally different set of ergonomics and implications. The thing that most impressed me was that it allowed him to improve the access to stored knowledge.”

Much as I’ve read about Google Glass, and as fascinating as I’ve found Steve Mann’s writing on sousveillance as a political tool, I never remotely imagined wanting a wearable computer myself until I read Smarter Than You Think. Thad Starner is able to access everything he’s ever written on any topic—for example, choosing at random the topic “artificial nose technology” yielded notes beginning in the 1990s and going up to last year. This finally caused a deep and sudden bong! of desire in me. That burning feeling: I have to have this.

I’d have thought it would be confusing to have so much information available, but Starner’s access was so amazing. Whatever file system he was using, that made it possible for him to access everything so easily on the fly, in conversation! Do you think you’ll be able to duplicate something like that for yourself? Will you try?

When I got Google Glass, I originally wanted to do exactly what people like Starner are doing. In the process of researching the book, I made three or four thousand of these note cards inside [the writing program] Scrivener. And I use them all the time! When I’m at my desk, someone asks me a question and I’ll go oh, I think I have something on that—it really helps me come up with new ideas, to reaccess things I vaguely remember, but can refresh myself on the details. The searchability is really fantastic, and I wanted to have that on me. But it turns out that you can’t do that yet, really, in Google Glass, for a number of reasons. It just isn’t set up to do inputs—to type queries—the voice recognition isn’t adequate for that, and also, at the moment, it’s doing everything through the cloud.

Whether or not tools like that will emerge remains to be seen; my suspicion is that yeah, there is enough of a demand […]

The other thing that’s made me have a kindlier view of this transformation is that because I’m a chatty person, an extrovert in everyday life, I’ve always understood the value of bouncing ideas off of other people, always understood that my ideas are developed socially.

Right now Google Glass is about talking to other people: here’s what I’m looking at, I can send a message, an email and so on. To a certain extent, I consider it a maturity point with regard to communications technologies, when they go from being a technology you use to broadcast to others, to being a tool that you use to talk to yourself.

This possibility is incredibly appealing. I don’t know, maybe because I’m a writer?

Well yeah, I think people who are very text-focused are sort of aware that we rely on a lot of stored knowledge to help make sense of what we know. And so, we often feel, like on the fly: God, I wish I had access to this now.

Imagine having access to all your own email, everything you ever wrote, online and off, the contents of your own library—all the things that meant the most to you, that you’d generated yourself, all indexed and searchable, and you could query it in a really natural, easy way, instantly.

The outboard brain, I love that phrase.

What I’d really like is a screensaver that finds a random note that I made, like years ago, and scrolls it across the screen, so that when I’m not at my computer but I glance at it I see something that I wrote three years ago.

That reminds me of Brian Eno’s old Oblique Strategies card system [a similarly randomized system for stimulating inspiration].

I actually own a deck of Oblique Strategies! I want kind of an Oblique Strategies of my own ideas; I want random reencounters with things I’ve forgotten I ever thought about. Creativity comes from these serendipitous encounters, but there’s something particularly great about a serendipitous encounter with something that you yourself thought about and found interesting four years ago, but have ceased to think about since…

Exactly like his conversation, Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think aims to stimulate more questions: expanding the conversation, rather than putting an end to it by providing “answers.” The book’s closing words clearly, and exhilaratingly, endorse this reading:

How should you respond when you get powerful new tools for finding answers?

Think of harder questions.


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