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Smarter Than You Think:

How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better

by Clive Thompson

'Centaur' chess where teams of humans and computers compete in 60 minute games. The winners often mid-level players expert at collaborating with computers.

Expect the unexpected. When electricity became cheap and ubiquitous, it expanded in obvious directions, like streetlights. But also in many unexpected ways - toy trains, cake mixers, vibrators.

Same pattern every time something new - older, traditionalists panic while the younger ones set about actually using the new tools. Printing loosed so many books on the world that scholars felt overwhelmed. Took years before invented paragraph breaks, page numbers or indexes to make books easier to utilise.

Today commentators tell us our brains are being 'rewired' by digital media, but in fact we know very little about how our brains work. "It's like trying to understand the political dynamics of Ohio by looking out window of a plane flying over Cleveland.

Our memories grossly unreliable. Guy recorded everything his child did from birth (multiple cameras set up in every room of house). Saw him take his first steps, but when he went back to the tape just a few weeks later, he realized he'd completely mis-recalled. He recalled a sunny afternoon with his wife in the kitchen; in fact it was evening and it was his mother in kitchen.

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We all have huge collection of photos stored on hard disks, but nobody can locate the ones they wanted.

Lifeloggers - people ok with their pic being taken, but not audio recorded. They just refuse to talk to them.

Sturgeon's Law - 90% of everything is crap

Theory of Multiples: the world's biggest breakthroughs occur simultaneously to different people. Two sociologists, William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas in 1922 study catalogued 148 examples. In 1774 oxygen discovered by Priestley in London and Scheele in Sweden. In 1610 and 1611, four different astronomers, including Galileo, independently discovered sunspots. Radio invented around 1900 by Marconi and by Tesla.

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This happens because inventions are a product of the environment. What we think is partly influenced by what everyone else is talking about, and by new technology. Sunspots found because the quality of lenses in telescopes had improved enough.

Public thinking - sharing ideas for mutual benefit - works best when people aren't worried about 'owning' ideas. Multiples - the knowledge that many people out there are puzzling over the same things as you are - is enormously exciting if you are trying to solve a problem. But if you are trying to make money, then you're trying to stake a claim, to be the first to think of something.

Change - up until now literacy has meant reading. But now many more writers. Not just book writers, but emails, business reports or proposals. But also people finding online interest groups, and writing about/discussing their hobbies.

Traditionalist scornful - see all the acronyms and abbreviations on Twitter and forums and think that new tech is dumbing down the language. But a Stanford Study of Writing concluded that having an audience actually improves writing - a lot more in common with the skills of Greek orators - how to debate, how to marshal evidence, to listen to others and to concede points.

NY Times story 2011 about a student who used a webcam to spy on gay roommate, who later committed suicide. The NYT story was pretty comprehensive 1300 words long. But the readers' were many times longer - nuanced and with complex legal and ethical arguments.

Socrates was famously opposed to the written word, because he thought it calcified debate - book couldn't argue back, expand or modify ideas. But today's online writing is part way to meeting Socrates' ideals. A roiling debate.

Wikipedia has moved past original criticism that amateurish and incorrect because not written by experts. But real value is that it makes transparent the arguments that go into the creation of any article. If you click on the "talk" button, you'll see the passionate and erudite discussions as they hash out an item.

One of most disputed entries was the Iraq War. British writer printed out the entire 5 year edit history as 12 hard cover books - 7000 pages long. "This is histiography. This is what culture looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification."

IAmA threads on forums like Reddit. As in "I am an ER nurse - any questions?" encouraging conversations and questions that might never have happened.

The Quantified Self web site, where track your own personal data. Woman use Moodscope, an online tool to monitor daily feelings. Realized the patterns behind her depression - when and why she most felt down or up - and how she could control.

TED conference videos dramatically improved standards of presentation at subsequent conferences. Speakers were able to study previous presentations and use that to craft their own.

In same way YouTube has spread innovative editing techniques.

Encyclopedia Britannica survey found owners opened them on average, only once a year.

Difference between search engines and human experts. If we ask someone a question, and they give us half the answer but also go, "Hey did you know about ( )?" we would cut them off. But when a search engine does it, we are in control, so we disappear off down the diversionary path.

Are we losing memory by outsourcing so much to computer? From Socrates onwards we've lost old cognitive skills as we've gained new ones.

Even when we have a smartphone in our pocket it's still a minor hassle to pull it out and look something up. But when you have something like Google Glass, and the screen is right in front of your eyes, even that little friction disappears.

Snobbish disdain for the glasses, but rem that similar dismissal of 'yuppie' phone in early days (25 years ago)

For any record to be useful, you must revisit it constantly.

Elderly patients with memory loss dementia given SenseCams and then shown how to review their day. Dramatic improvement in recall, sometimes for weeks afterward.

Predictable pattern of forgetting for all of us - when we learn something new, lose half of facts in an hour, 2/3 within a day, and within a month we're down to about 20 per cent. Suggestion that the SenseCams for oldies is working this process in reverse - reviewing the facts a day later - 'spaced repetition' - runs a reverse Ebbinghaus curve.

Until the Internet, big organizations had heavy transaction costs - mass co-operation feasible only if possible to make enough money to pay for it - so big companies like Ford; big religious organizations like Catholic Church. But Internet meant possible a flood of amateur (as in for love, not money) collaborations.

Google Earth bolt-on Building Maker - anyone can do a 3D rendering of any building, and if Google accepts it, is added to Google Earth. Look at Moscow's Red Square and get hundreds of detailed buildings. (Google 2013 released improved way based on satellite images, and retired BM)

Humans crave intellectual puzzles and stimulation to avert boredom, so Wikipedia and other collaborations that elevate us beyond ourselves - making humanity a little bit better.

Khan Academy videos offer tracking data for teachers - for each student, what videos they've looked at, which problems they've tackled, how many times they had to work at a problem before they solved it. Real-time measurement of whether student struggling or not - where the gaps are and what needs to be explained better.

Looked at video games and found huge collaborative efforts behind the scenes - players pooling resources into big spreadsheets to track attributes of games obstacles. They are actually doing science without realizing it. Schools traditionally teach 'science' as a whole lot of facts and rules. But it's basically a quest - how to approach and solve problems - how to uncover the invisible rules that govern the world around us.

And, study where kids playing either World of Warcraft or Civilization 3. Got kids to identify a problem they were having in the game, then found them a text to read which would help them. The motivated kids happily read texts up to 6 year levels above their normal reading level.

We need to teach kids 'crap detection'. Can be trained to distinguish between academic, hobbyist and advocacy writing, and to recognize the mediocre.

One of best ways to improve reading is to practice writing. But difficult. Tamaki College Pt England Auckand NZ initiative which changed audience for student writing. Instead of writing for teachers, they posted to public blogs. And whole community - parents and family, peers and strangers encouraged to read blogs. Then when comments were posted in response, kids electrified. Writing twice as often, with a lot more care about research, and close attention to grammar and punctuation. Some began to edit each other's posts to remove ambiguities or slang.

Author likes Twitter. Says the constant feed of little details means he keeps up with what his friends are doing and so feels closer, more intimate. Each little scrap on its own insignificant, even banal. But taken together over time, the snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated picture of your friends lives, like dots forming into a pointillist painting.

Historical pattern that every new comm tool has provoked panic that society will devolve into silly chatter. Appearance of coffee shops in C17 worries that scholars so greedy for latest 'news' that seduced away from real work. In C18 mass market novel dangerous because excessive reading 'inevitably excludes thought'. Women in particular in danger because it might cause her to despise her husband and grow fond of every coxcomb who pretends to knowledge of any book. The telephone would kill society, because who would bother to leave the house when you could just pick up the phone and talk to someone?

(London Times)

Digital technology, you might think, is in danger of making human brain power redundant. We no longer need to retain facts as much as we did - we just google them. And yet, as the American journalist Clive Thompson argues in this enjoyable study of the digital world, technology is also exerting a potentially profound (and beneficial) effect on our behaviour.

Technology in itself, of course, isn't making us any cleverer. By way of proof, Thompson recounts an amusing and alarming study of a group of teenagers in an Illinois high school who struggled to distinguish between the real website of the World Trade Organisation, and a left-wing parody of it.

But the sheer availability of information in the wired world, Thompson suggests, has wreaked some staggering changes on human behaviour. In the 1970s, for instance, budding young Russian chess players would be taken to study games in Moscow's elite chess library. In the 1980s, however, these games became commonly available on CD-Roms. The effect on chess prodigies not just in Russia but around the world was startling. Between 1958 and 1991, only a single teenager - Bobby Fischer - achieved grandmaster status. In the ensuing decade, there were 20 of them.

CD-Roms didn't, of course, make chess players inherently smarter. Rather, the accessibility of previous games in digital media simply galvanised myriad imaginative possibilities in younger players. There is a mass of new, easily accessible information out there - Thompson estimates that humanity is now producing the equivalent of the entire contents of the US Library of Congress every day in emails, texts and tweets - and new technologies are allowing us to make quick, ingenious use of that information. In so doing, technology is often just amplifying or speeding up processes that humans had already developed, long before the dawn of the internet.

Take Google. In the 1980s, a Harvard psychologist noted how couples who have been together for a long time neatly share their memories between them, and use one another as prompts to trigger and retrieve those memories (we are good at googling each other's brains). Now, Thompson implies, we simply type those kinds of prompts into Google to get it to retrieve information for us.

This knack for collaborative cognition, or 'conversational thinking' as Thompson calls it (the phenomenon of 'two brains being better than one'), is the human aptitude that has enjoyed perhaps the wildest success on the web - from question-and-answer forums, to the use of social-media networks such as Twitter and Facebook as tools for organisation and communication in the Arab Spring.

The same goes for an open resource such as Wikipedia. It should be a shambles, and yet it's remarkably reliable. The reason, Thompson explains, is that collaborative online endeavours make a virtue of an innate human trait: we like to do things to a high degree of excellence when we're being observed by our peers.

Thompson cites some fascinating cases of teachers who have exploited this trait to stimulate their pupils. Students asked to produce their assignments as blogs or Wikipedia entries, rather than as essays that only the teacher sees, have apparently been spurred to bring an unprecedented level of scrupulousness to their work. The visibility of the web can turn us into saintly scholars, as much as online bullies.

Thompson suggests other changes - and improvements - that new technology is making to our ways of thinking. He argues that the touchy-feely communication of social-media sites is subtly 'feminising' our culture through its emphasis on the primacy of social interaction. British neuroscientists have also begun giving SenseCams - neck-worn cameras that automatically take a picture every 30 seconds, originally developed by 'lifeloggers' to record their existences - to people suffering from Alzheimer's. Patients who were encouraged to review their daily visual log experienced a dramatic improvement in their ability to retain memories.

Much of this is both fascinating and thought-provoking, but, like the internet itself, Thompson's book is more a chatty, engaging trawl through eye-catching nuggets than a compelling, crystal-clear argument. He can also be a bit insiderishly smug about the wonders of the web (he is a writer for the American technology magazine Wired). But he remains admirably sober about the limits of technology's edifying influence on us: technology, he reminds us, is only ever as smart as the person using it.

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