Why technology could be making you smarter than you think

After reading countless articles about how technology is supposedly making us less intelligent, more shallow and narcissistic, author Clive Thompson decided to launch an investigation. He wasn’t convinced any of this was true, especially after two decades of reporting on the subject for such publications as the New York Times and Wired.

What Thompson ultimately discovered is that technology — social media in particular — helps the average person to perform much more interesting and intellectual tasks than he ever imagined. He makes a compelling case for this in his latest book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better. 

One of your basic arguments is that how we use technology determines in large part whether it makes us better or worse off.

That’s absolutely true. As with past tools, such as the library, pencils and the printing press, the real benefits come to those who actually understand how best to use them. For instance, you can use sites such as Twitter and Facebook to kill time, or you can get more intellectual “nutrition” out of them. The first time I saw Twitter, I thought that forcing people to write with just 140 characters was a complete collapse of civilization. What I failed to understand was that this actually gives you a new way of paying attention to what someone is saying, doing and thinking over a longer period of time. When you follow a person for weeks, months or years, a completely different picture emerges. You get this more complicated and involved map of what’s going on in their minds. The same thing is true of reading posts on Facebook.

How does knowing what people are thinking about in their own lives benefit us?

There’s a very well-known area of social science called the theory of strong and weak links. Strong links are those we know and see a lot, essentially the spiritual supports in our everyday lives. The weak links are those we are aware of through word of mouth or maybe see once or twice a year. The stunning thing is that research shows we get our most crucial information from those whose existence we have nearly forgotten or rarely have contact with. These people turn out to be amazing information brokers that are in touch with lots of people. You couldn’t possibly reach out to all of these people by phone, but you can keep up with them through social media.

Is there such a thing as information overload, though?

If there’s too much stuff coming in, it becomes hard to break through the noise, and you start to suffer from decision fatigue. Clearly, you can’t follow 10,000 people and expect the stream to be useful. Almost all the people I met who received enormous benefit out of this were gardeners of their online social lives and “unfollowed” those who were less useful in the grand scheme of things. Interestingly, this complaint about information overload is repetitive throughout history. Even before Gutenberg invented the printing press, people argued that we had too many books. They said the same thing about the telegraph, radio and cellular phones. We’ve always found a way to deal with the surpluses that come along with each new technology.

Is there a downside to communicating so much through electronic means, as opposed to engaging in human interactions? After all, most people today opt to fire off an e-mail or text instead of picking up the phone.

I would contend that all of this is still a form of social contact. When it first came out, they said the phone wasn’t as good as meeting face-to-face. Of course, we came to realize that’s wrong. Social media can be a delightful form of contact. Studies by the Pew Research Center and other scholars have found that the most prolific social media users also tend to have the most face-to-face contact with their friends. This kind of makes sense. If you’re a social person, you’re likely to be social in every medium. One area you could say has grown a bit out of proportion is corporate e-mail. About 28 percent of the average person’s week is consumed with work e-mail. Some of this is valuable, but a lot of it is worthless back-and-forth, copying the world so that everyone knows you’ve done something.

Young people today have grown up doing everything online, to the point that some no longer even read physical books for school. Are they at a disadvantage from those of us who grew up on paper books and visited libraries?

I looked at a huge amount of research on the subject of reading paper versus electronic devices and determined there simply wasn’t enough information to conclude whether one was better than the other. Among the great things about reading digitally is you can easily take notes, which is crucial for remembering key concepts. In terms of students not going to the library, I’m not sure that matters. When I was in college, there were about 8,000 students in my incoming class. At the library orientation session, only about six people showed up. More important is how you use technology. I would argue that kids today have poor search skills and don’t properly compare multiple sources to confirm information they find. The educational system hasn’t figured out how to teach this stuff yet, but that’s changing. Interestingly, librarians seem to be among the most proficient at this skill. Using the Internet is actually a much more efficient way of doing research. Instead of spending hours copying from library journals and then going home to sift through them, you have enormous information right at your fingertips.

Are we becoming too reliant on computers to do all of the thinking for us?

I don’t think so. Our brains are actually quite terrible at remembering details, and various devices can help with this. Think about all the pictures we take with our smartphones that help us recall experiences and points in our lives.

One major downside of technology is that it has essentially taken away any notion of privacy. Some of that is self-imposed by what we share online. But companies also track our every move and then use this information for marketing purposes. Any concerns about that?

That is a very real issue. The problem is that most of the tools we like to use are run by for-profit corporations that need to make money. Many have made a decision that they aren’t going to charge us for the service and instead will make money off advertisements. They are therefore incentivized to share more and more information about us. American law in particular is sort of frozen on what to do about it.

What’s the best way for us to use technology to become smarter?

Step one is to take advantage of the enormous value of thinking out loud in public. Find an online place that speaks to your interests to talk with others about topics you are passionate about. Second is to be a good listener. Don’t overwhelm yourself with pointless feeds, but be a good gardener of what comes in. At the same time, use tools that help you store memories and capture what you’re seeing and thinking. After a few years of this, you’ll have an incredible record, or encyclopedic map, of your life and interests.

So who is smarter: humans or machines?

Humans, without question. Machines are very good at finding patterns, connecting the dots and seeing what was previously invisible. Machines let us do remarkable things, but humans are able to discern meaning and coax wisdom out of information. Technology allows us to think and communicate in different forms, but only humans are able to interpret this in a meaningful way.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of everyone at Capital Group Private Client Services. The thoughts expressed herein are current as of the publication date, are based upon sources believed to be reliable, are subject to change at any time and should not be construed as advice. There is no guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion will be realized. Past results are no guarantee of future results. This material is provided for informational purposes only and does not take into account your particular investment objectives, financial situation or needs. You should discuss your individual circumstances with an Private Wealth Advisor. 

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