Subscribe

Share

Need to Know

How We’re Wired

Humans are social thinkers—and technology makes it easier to connect.

by Kate Pavao

November 2014

Twenty years ago, science journalist Clive Thompson was a self-described curmudgeon who thought technologies such as e-mail and social networking were “merely devolved versions of existing modes of thinking.” But as he delved deeper, he began to think again.

PN14-OnTopic-pic

Here, read what the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better says about the research that changed his own mind, and why he now believes that technology is helping us think more clearly, communicate better, and dream up innovative solutions.

On thinking: We now live in a world where we can use modern communications tools to start thinking out loud, in front of other people.This not only crystalizes our thoughts, but it also puts us in contact with other people and resources that we didn’t know existed. This essentially explodes out our intellectual resources beyond what they’ve ever been before. We have these new, fascinating modes of communication—with text, pictures, video, and more—and we’re really in the very early stages of learning how to use these modes to think, remember, and communicate.

On technology: I am a science journalist, and I learned a long time ago that you have to test what you think is going on theoretically against what’s actually happening in the real world. Over and over again, I would tell an editor, “OK, I’m going to write a story about how instant messaging is making everyone stupid, because it’s just short-form utterances, and they’re totally illiterate and incoherent.” But when I’d go and interview a couple of dozen people who were using instant messaging, I would discover they were doing these incredibly creative and interesting things, and they were having conversations that were impossible to have either via e-mail or face-to-face.

We have these new, fascinating modes of communication—with text, pictures, video, and more—and we’re really in the very early stages of learning how to use these modes to think, remember, and communicate.”

On writing: Stanford Professor Andrea Lunsford wondered if kids today wrote worse than they did 100 years ago. Studying freshman composition essays from 1917, the 1940s, 1980s, and 2006, she found basic linguistic errors, like spelling mistakes or run-on sentences, were indistinguishably the same for 100 years. But the length and intellectual complexity of the essays had exploded.

Some of this has to do with compositional technologies. It was really hard 100 years ago to write a single sentence because you had pens you had to dip in ink. When you’re writing 10 words a minute, it is hard to iterate your thoughts. In 2006, you’ve got word processing, so you can write 40 to 60 words a minute. And you have access to global resources. So it’s not that kids have become smarter, but the technologies have allowed them to unlock and show off the intelligence that’s native within them.

230 million

Number of instructional videos that students have viewed from Khan Academy, a free math, science, and economics site. (Source: Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better)


More

On 3-D printing: After adopting a two-year-old with no hands, an engineer custom-makes a spoon for him. He measures his son’s wrists, then goes to the public library where there’s a 3-D printer, and bang, he’s got it.

What types of thinking does 3-D printing let us do? For one, it is allowing physical problem-solving of physical challenges that were not possible to solve before.

Photography by Shutterstock