Book Review: Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Lives for the Better by Clive Thompson

I got hold of this book fairly quickly from my trusty public library soon after reading Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows”.  I didn’t like the Carr book.  It was negative and reactionary about ubiquitous technology that is here to stay.  It proposed historical examples that made no sense in light of its premise.  Yes, it had some good ideas, but it was unnecessarily backward-thinking instead of forward-thinking.  So I was looking to the Thompson book “Smarter Than You Think” for some sort of perspective.  I mean, look at the subtitle.  Overall, the book is interesting, much more so than the starkly negative “The Shallows” – but it is not as entertaining and informative as I thought it would be.

To explain, I have to let you in on where most of my money comes from these days.  I have mentioned it before in these essays.  Basically, I write short articles for other people’s blog posts.  They are published under other people’s bylines on websites that use compiled information to solicit hits and links and so on.  I have written so many of these types of articles, in fact, that I often come across my own articles while doing research for writing new articles.  You’d be amazed at how much content repeats itself online.  I write for a few different content mills, as they are called, each of which have different rules about style and sources, but each of which do require specific styles and types of sources.  So what I do, once I have the basic subject, is go to a search engine and call up a half dozen or so different sites I can use for source material, read through the gist of what they say, write the article as a compilation of information, and then cite the sources.

In a way, that’s the way this book came across to me.  It is written in an informal, conversational tone which is all very well, but it seemed a compilation of information I have heard before with very little in the way of new ideas.  Don’t get me wrong.  It was interesting, and the information was very well-compiled and professionally handled.  It’s just that I had heard it all before.

The book devotes a chapter to each of a number of different modern technological realities, including the melding of humans and machines in such fields as chess-play, the use of artificial memory in the augmentation of human intellect, blogging not only as a form of idea exchange but as a stimulus for reading and writing education, new online literacies of sharing videos and photos, search engines as knowledge augmentation, video games and other programs as collaborative exercises, interactive platforms such as Khan Academy as aids to education, social networking as a means of creating ambient awareness, and the Internet as a means of bringing about political and societal change.  Some of these sections are fascinating, but none bring up much in the way of new ideas.

One subject that Thompson did not discuss that I was waiting and hoping for as I read was the impact of self-publishing platforms in the evolution of the publishing industry.  The rise of e-books and print-on-demand technology is an integral facet of the way knowledge is presented and dispersed online, and yet he does not give this, which is one of the most controversial and cutting-edge topics online nowadays, even a passing mention.

In conclusion, I don’t know whether I would recommend this book or not.  It started dragging for me a bit, as I read on and began to realize it was not what I had expected and hoped for.  It’s okay, and might be informative for someone unfamiliar with what is happening in technology nowadays, but to anyone who keeps up with technological trends it offers little in the way of new ideas.  I don’t even have to agree with everything I read to find a book stimulating and exciting, as in the case of “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.  That book dealt with a lot of controversial ideas, but it is interesting for its succinct and arresting way of presenting those ideas.  It opens new horizons of thought.  This book rehashes ideas that admittedly are interesting, but ultimately it does not live up to its promise.

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