Clive Thompson presents at the 2014 IdeaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky.
Image: Conner Forrest/TechRepublic

There are a myriad of arguments for and against the increased use of technology in everyday life. Futurists and technophiles encourage its use, sure that technology will welcome a new utopia, while luddites rail against the “destructive” nature of technology use.

We sense that tech is changing the way we think. The big question is how it is changing the way we think and what are the results of that?

That is what Clive Thompson, a writer for Wired and The New York Times, decided to explore in his new book, Smarter Than You Think. Thompson presented the key points of the book at the 2014 IdeaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky on Friday, October 3. According to Thompson, technology is changing the way we think in four major ways:

  1. Public thinking
  2. Ambient awareness
  3. New literacies
  4. Collaborative thought

During the Stalin regime, government photos were augmented to remove people that fell out of favor with Stalin. Thompson noted that, in part, George Orwell’s 1984 derived many of its literary motifs from the Soviet Union’s practices at this time. Orwell’s big fear was that if you could change the past (by changing historical content as on a photo), then you could change the future.

This was seen in the 1990s when Adobe Photoshop rose to prominence. The scare that people would be fooled by fake photos was a real fear for some people. Once photomanipulation became a folk art, though, Thompson said that people are getting better at detecting it. The way we think about photos, especially digital photography is changing, For example, bloggers figured out that the four missiles in a famous 2008 press photo from Iran were fake, even after they were published.

As we engage these technologies, Thompson argues that we are trending towards public thinking, or thinking out loud. This was typically not the case before the internet came along. After completing college, most people didn’t write anything publicly unless it was their profession. Now, according to Thompson’s estimate, 3.6 trillion words are written per day. New publishing platforms, such as blogging tools like WordPress, and social media tools such as Twitter have enabled this.

There is an audience effect that, as soon as an audience is present, we feel that we have to bring out the best in what we are doing. Public thinking connects us to other thinkers. You can find, as Thompson said, “Some other weirdo that cares about the same things you care about.” It’s easier than ever to connect and collaborate, and that is changing the way we approach our hobbies and interests.

These online “utterances” like short tweets or status updates increase our sense of ambient awareness. Thompson said that ambient awareness is the ability to be aware of the happenings in peoples’ everyday lives without being physically present. Much like we pick up on subtleties through body language, these small utterances help us to understand how our friends are feeling.

Thompson also referenced the seminal 1973 work by Mark Granovetter, The Strength of Weak Ties. Granovetter found that people who found jobs heard about that job from what is known as a weak tie, such as an acquaintance or someone you know in passing. It used to be difficult to connect to weak ties, but now we live in a world where we have constant persistent contact with weak ties through social media.

Technology is also giving us new literacies, or new ways to gain knowledge about a specific subject. For example, as cameras become smaller and cheaper, it changes the kinds of videos we take and how we consume them. Live television recording technologies like TiVo and DVR give us the opportunity to pour over video frames and better analyze and think about content.

Another new literacy we have access to is data. Health trackers like the FitBit give users the ability to identify trends that were invisible before these tools were available. Thompson gave the example of his friend being able to track when he was due for a running injury, based on the data he collected about his performance.

As we explore new ideas, we have new ways to connect and collaborate over those ideas thanks to technology. This is the concept of connected thinking. The concept is similar to that of the “collective intelligence” explored by Pierre Levy who wrote, “No one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity.”

What Thompson wanted to get across is that the audience is no longer just one person, it is thousands of people connected together, thinking together. We see connected thinking influence tools such as Wikipedia and Quora, bringing people together to figure out a problem or criticize work.

What do you think?

We want to know. What technology do you think has had the most profound impact on the way humans think?

More coverage from IdeaFestival 2014