Smarter Than You Think: A book review by Bob Morris

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better
Clive Thompson
The Penguin Press (2014)

How and why humans and technology can achieve much more when their respective strengths are in creative collaboration

Clive Thompson poses an especially interesting question: “What would happen if, instead of competing against one another, humans and computers collaborated? Which, for example, is smarter at chess? “Neither. It’s the two together, working side by side.” Most of us do not as yet realize that we are now playing advanced chess. “We just haven’t learned to appreciate it. Our tools are everywhere, linked with or minds, working in tandem…This transformation is rippling through every part of our cognition — how we learn, how we remember, and how we act upon that knowledge emotionally, intellectually, and politically.”

Thompson examines three “shifts” that involve infinite memory, dot connecting, and explosive publishing, shifts that are evolving into the future of thought. In fact, he suggests, parts of that future have already arrived and quotes William Gibson: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” That said, Thompson adds, “we’ll be on firmer ground if we stick to what’s observably happening in the world around us: our cognitive behavior, the quality of our cultural production, and the social science that tries to measure what we do in everyday life.”

These are among the dozens of subjects he discusses that were (and are) of greatest interest to me:

o The advantages that the human brain has over a computer
o The advantages that the computer has over a human brain
o The meaning and significance of the victory of IBM’s Deep Blue computer in chess competition with Gary Kasparov, then world champion (1997)
o How and why humans and computers working in collaboration can outperform humans or computers
o How and why infinite memory (not connectivity) and explosive publishing produce ever-new “tools for thought that upend our mental habits in ways we never expected and often don’t appreciate even as they take hold”

o What the “new literacies” are and how to become fluent with them
o How to accommodate the preferences and expectations of a “puzzle-crazy world”
o What ambient awareness is and why possessing it is so important
o The defining characteristics (fir better or worse) of the connected society
o What to do with — and how to use — powerful new tools for finding answers to questions and solutions to problems

I agree with Thompson that each person who reads this book can be smarter than they were before reading it. That is because he provides an abundance of valuable information, mini-case studies, insights, exercises, and counsel. Obviously, it remains for each reader to determine which of the material is most relevant to their own needs, interests, concerns, goals, and resources. There is indeed much of great value to be learned from recent research in cognitive science.

Experts throughout the world have only begun to explore the nature and potentiality of what is generally referred to as “metacognition,” although the concept has been in play for several decades. Clive Thompson suggests several lessons can be learning from expanding research in the field of “cognition beyond cognition,” “thinking about thinking,” etc. However, those who read this book must answer this question: “Why do I want to think smarter?” Then, what they do — or not do — is their responsibility. To paraphrase its subtitle, they will determine whether or not technology changes their minds for the better.

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