Smarter Than You Think (2013) by Clive Thompson is a book that puts forward the hypothesis that the internet is making us collectively smarter. Thompson is a journalist who currently writes for Wired magazine, once wittily described as ‘Vogue for Nerds’ and a magazine that espouses technology as a cure for many ills.
Thompson starts out by looking at how the combination of people and computers is better at playing chess than either computers or humans and that as people network more they become better at things. Next complete recording of recording of people’s lives and how they show the fragility of memory and how people have been recording detailed diaries and now complete video and audio recordings of what they do. This chapter also demonstrates how we use artificial memory ourselves and now regularly check facts on our phones, tablets and laptops.
The book then looks at public thinking and this is where it really takes off. A blog on Kenyan politics is used to show how public writing and public thinking can rapidly take off on the modern internet. Thompson points out how writing for the public and getting others to contribute can create impressive, detailed, sprawling works on almost anything that people find to be of interest.
Next up is an investigation of how online collaboration and data use can allow people to do analysis that was very hard prior to the internet. Calculating fair electoral districts and writing out detailed ways to get through games, create software and a myriad of other tasks have been transformed by mass online sharing.
Thompson then goes on to look at how folding at home and online searching and cataloguing of stars has helped science. It shows just what the new online collaboration can do. He also looks at how using online teaching resources in conjunction with normal teachers will hopefully improve education. Thompson also eloquently defends Twitter, a common target of those who dislike the speed and penetration of modern online community sites. He also writes about how social media and the ubiquitousness of digital cameras have helped in modern protest movements.
Curiously Thompson does not look much at how open source software and Linux has been so instrumental in the creation of the internet.
Today, prior to writing this book I found some spare parts for an old Lego set, looked at some crowd sourced Lego designs, watched some instructional YouTube videos on remote controlled aircraft and read a number of crowd sourced reviews of a number of books. All these activities would have been impossible 20 years ago. The internet has really changed what people are able to do and how they do it. Smarter Than You Think looks at what a remarkable, mostly positive change it has made. The book celebrates the internet but it’s not Utopian or over the top. It’s highly recommended.