Digital tools have a mind of their own: yours

Clive Thompson says that there are three principal biases that today's digital tools introduce to human thought.

By Clive Thompson at 4:40 am Tue, Aug 26, 2014

Every new tool shapes the way we think, as well as what we think about. The printed word helped make our cognition linear and abstract, along with vastly enlarging our stores of knowledge. Newspapers shrank the world; then the telegraph shrank it even more dramatically. With every innovation, cultural prophets bickered over whether we were facing a technological apocalypse or a utopia.

Depending on which Victorian-age pundit you asked, the telegraph was either going usher in an era of world peace (“It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist,” as Charles F. Briggs and Augustus Maverick intoned) or drown us in a Sargasso of idiotic trivia (“We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic . . . but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough,” as Thoreau opined).

Neither prediction was quite right, yet neither was quite wrong. 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. Harold Innis—the lesser-known but arguably more interesting intellectual midwife of Marshall McLuhan—called this the bias of a new tool. Living with new technologies means understanding how they bias everyday life.


Excerpted from SMARTER THAN YOU THINK: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

What are the central biases of today’s digital tools? There are many, but I see three big ones that have a huge impact on our cognition.

First, they allow for prodigious external memory: smartphones, hard drives, cameras, and sensors routinely record more information than any tool before them. We’re shifting from a stance of rarely recording our ideas and the events of our lives to doing it habitually.

Second, today’s tools make it easier for us to find connections—between ideas, pictures, people, bits of news—that were previously invisible.

Third, they encourage a superfluity of communication and publishing.

This last feature has many surprising effects that are often ill understood. Any economist can tell you that when you suddenly increase the availability of a resource, people do more things with it, which also means they do increasingly unpredictable things. As electricity became cheap and ubiquitous in the West, its role expanded from things you’d expect—like nighttime lighting—to the unexpected and seemingly trivial: battery driven toy trains, electric blenders, vibrators.

The superfluity of communication today has produced everything from a rise in crowd-organized projects like Wikipedia to curious new forms of expression: television-show recaps, map-based storytelling, discussion threads that spin out of a photo posted to a smartphone app, Amazon product-review threads wittily hijacked for political satire. Now, none of these three digital biases is immutable, because they’re the product of software and hardware, and can easily be altered or ended if the architects of today’s tools (often corporate and governmental) decide to regulate the tools or find they’re not profitable enough.

But right now, these big effects dominate our current and near-term landscape.

In one sense, these three shifts—infinite memory, dot connecting, explosive publishing—are screamingly obvious to anyone who’s ever used a computer. Yet they also somehow constantly surprise us by producing ever-new “tools for thought” (to use the writer Howard Rheingold’s lovely phrase) that upend our mental habits in ways we never expected and often don’t apprehend even as they take hold. Indeed, these phenomena have already woven themselves so deeply into the lives of people around the globe that it’s difficult to stand back and take account of how much things have changed and why.

Though this can be mapped out as the future of thought, it’s also frankly rooted in the present, because many parts of our future have already arrived, even if they are only dimly understood. As the sci-fi author William Gibson famously quipped: “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

What is important is that be understand what’s happening to us right now, the better to see where our augmented thought is headed. Rather than dwell in abstractions, like so many marketers and pundits—not to mention the creators of technology, who are often remarkably poor at predicting how people will use their tools—we should focus more on the experiences of real people.

From Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Clive Thompson, 2013.

Published 4:40 am Tue, Aug 26, 2014

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