Computers can beat people at chess, but the most powerful intelligence doesn’t come from “thinking machines” on their own, but from a symbiotic interaction between computers and people. In Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better , Clive Thompson argues that as computer technology develops, “humans will find themselves working in partnership with the progeny of these supercomputers to diagnose diseases, solve crimes, write poetry and become (as the clever double meaning of the book’s title puts it) smarter than we think” (this summary and all quotations from Walter Isaacson’s NYTRB review).

It’s already happening, he thinks, and he counters the received wisdom about how computers make us dumb: “The use of digital devices and social networks, he shows, helps to facilitate collaborative creativity and an ambient awareness of what’s happening in the world, while reducing the need to perform simple memory tasks.”

Socrates worried that writing would weaken the mind, but “Thompson counters that Socrates failed to foresee ‘the types of complex thought that would be possible once you no longer needed to mentally store everything you’d encountered,’ and he surmises that the same will turn out to be true of our ability to digitally store and easily access huge amounts of information and memories outside of our own brains. ‘What’s the line between our own, in-brain knowledge and the sea of information around us?’ he asks. ‘Does it make us smarter when we can dip in so instantly? Or dumber with every search?’ His answer is that our creative minds are being strengthened rather than atrophied by the ability to interact easily with the Web and Wikipedia.”

Computers also make it far easier to disseminate ideas, and even if the blogosphere is notoriously unsophisticated, Thompson points out that “the type of people who 50 years ago were likely to be sitting immobile in front of television sets all evening are now expressing their ideas, tailoring them for public consumption and getting feedback. This change is a cause for derision among intellectual sophisticates partly because they (we) have not noticed what a social transformation it represents. ‘Before the Internet came along, most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college,’ Thompson notes. ‘This is something that’s particularly hard to grasp for professionals whose jobs require incessant writing, like academics, journalists, lawyers or marketers. For them, the act of writing and hashing out your ideas seems commonplace. But until the late 1990s, this simply wasn’t true of the average nonliterary person.’”

No doubt the reality is more complicated, more a matter of pros and cons, but it’s refreshing to have our skepticism checked by a contrarian like Thompson.

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