Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

A newspaper runs a story, a friend posts a link on Facebook, a blogger writes a post, and it’s interesting. But the real intellectual action often takes place in the comments.

As Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman document in their book Networked, people who are heavily socially active online tend to be also heavily socially active offline; they’re just, well, social people.

Before the Internet came along, most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college.

Blogging forces you to write down your arguments and assumptions. This is the single biggest reason to do it, and I think it alone makes it worth it. You have a lot of opinions. I’m sure some of them you hold strongly. Pick one and write it up in a post—I’m sure your opinion will change somewhat, or at least become more nuanced. When you move from your head to “paper,” a lot of the hand-waveyness goes away and you are left to really defend your position to yourself.

But studies have found that particularly when it comes to analytic or critical thought, the effort of communicating to someone else forces you to think more precisely, make deeper connections, and learn more.

Consider these current rough estimates: Each day, we compose 154 billion e-mails, more than 500 million tweets on Twitter, and over 1 million blog posts and 1.3 million blog comments on WordPress alone. On Facebook, we write about 16 billion words per day. That’s just in the United States:


generating text yourself “requires more cognitive effort than does reading, and effort increases memorability,

Hobbesian individualism;

Literacy in North America has historically been focused on reading, not writing; consumption, not production.

Microsoft is still living down its disastrous introduction of Clippy, a ghastly piece of artificial intelligence - I'm using that term very loosely - that would observe people's behavior as they worked on a document and try to bust in, offering 'advice' that tended to be spectacularly useless

One of the great challenges of today’s digital thinking tools is knowing when not to use them, when to rely on the powers of older and slower technologies, like paper and books.

Others have found that kids who message a lot appear to have have slightly better spelling and literacy abilities than those who don’t.

PowerPoint presentations, the cesspool of data visualization that Microsoft has visited upon the earth. PowerPoint, indeed, is a cautionary tale in our emerging data literacy. It shows that tools matter: Good ones help us think well and bad ones do the opposite. Ever since it was first released in 1990, PowerPoint has become an omnipresent tool for showing charts and info during corporate presentations.

Professional writers have long described the way that the act of writing forces them to distill their vague notions into clear ideas. By putting half-formed thoughts on the page, we externalize them and are able to evaluate them much more objectively. This is why writers often find that it’s only when they start writing that they figure out what they want to say.

Readers are already streaming “highlights” of what they’re reading onto services like Goodreads, Findings, or Amazon’s Kindle.



Today we have something that works in the same way, but for everyday people: the Internet, which encourages public thinking and resolves multiples on a much larger scale and at a pace more dementedly rapid. It’s now the world’s most powerful engine for putting heads together. Failed networks kill ideas, but successful ones trigger them.

We know that reading changes the way we think. Among other things, it helps us formulate thoughts that are more abstract, categorical, and logical.

We’re social creatures, so we think socially.

when people hear negative, critical views, they regard them as inherently more intelligent than optimistic ones; when we’re trying to seem smart to others, we tend to say critical, negative things.

When you broadcast your book reading voluntarily, it creates moments of fascinating serendipity.

While reading Kasparov’s book How Life Imitates Chess on my Kindle, I idly clicked on “popular highlights” to see what passages other readers had found interesting—and wound up becoming fascinated by a section on chess strategy I’d only lightly skimmed myself.

Why would the same ideas occur to different people at the same time? Ogburn and Thomas argued that it was because our ideas are, in a crucial way, partly products of our environment. They’re “inevitable.” When they’re ready to emerge, they do. This is because we, the folks coming up with the ideas, do not work in a sealed-off, Rodin’s Thinker fashion.

Writing about things has other salutary cognitive effects. For one, it improves your memory: write about something and you’ll remember it better, in what’s known as the “generation effect.