This article appears in the December edition of Reason Magazine
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.”