Thursday, June 18, 2009

Is Social Technology Making Us Smarter?

L'Oro dell' Azzurro by Joan Miro (via Spaceweaver)

Two interesting articles, one from The Atlantic called "Get Smarter", and another by Peter Daou called "The Philosophical Significance of Twitter: Consciousness Outfolding" reflect in their arguments the growing speculation that social technology is making us smarter.

Both articles come as a sort of rebuttal to the claim held by Nicolas Carr in "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" also originally published in The Atlantic, that our scattered attention in the Internet era means that we are less capable of deep contemplation.

I've written about the fact that my continuous engagement with technology has noticeably decreased my attention span for doing certain things, such as reading literature ("Is the Internet Killing Culture?").

Carr's argument in "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" draws on a similar experience. He writes, "Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do"(1). He sees the Internet as the culprit because "It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed."

Cyber-theorist Linda Stone describes the effect of technology on humans as one of "continuous partial attention"(2). Most online users, either at work or at home, can relate to being bombarded by a flurry of instant messages, emails, tweets, Facebook messages, etc. Checking your social media profiles is perhaps the most effective time-waster ever invented.

It seems as long as we are on our laptops, desktop computers, or cell phones, we are part of an information flow that never really ends. The ability to enter and exit this digital flow can be difficult, especially if you are prone to procrastination.

I believe we are coming to a greater understanding of the impact of intellectual technologies on humans. Carr's article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" only points to the drawbacks of a culture enmeshed in digital systems. What it does not do is assess the ways in which our collective and individual intelligences are growing.

We first need to concede to the fact that technological distractions are a major consequence of living during this time. If you have email, if you use the Internet, or a smart phone, you cannot escape digital distractions. Google itself is a sort of Siren that draws us to her search bar to make queries and get lost in a sea of ever-changing information. Every new social technology, from the latest Twitter app to Facebook's obsession with development, promises a cooler tool and a greater distraction.

Now that we all agree social technology limits our attention spans, let us examine the ways in which we are becoming sharper as thinkers and communicators, and more effective as individuals and societies.

Many bloggers, including myself, draw on print publications to form opinions and advance arguments. This is not to say that print publications are better, but simply that most of the time paid journalists from respectable sources have done their homework. The bridge between the blogosphere and print culture is narrowing, however; many writers for newspapers and magazines have blogs, and a new crust of elite Internet publications such as Huffington Post and TechCrunch are gaining ascendancy. The growth of citizen journalism essentially means that more people are writing about what they are reading. While it is true that I am reading less literature, I'm also reading more things that impact me in the news and arts. In short, I am engaging in a dialogue with other writers and culture as a whole.

The shift from a readerly culture which privileges paid, professional journalists to a writerly culture in which anyone can post their opinion and discuss a topic has been underway for some time now. What we are seeing, to interesting effect, is how traditional media relies on the same technology to disseminate information as citizen journalism does. Hyperlinks, Page Rank, and social media are not only leveraged by Internet publications but any publication that wants to be seen, heard, and talked about.

I believe an active, writerly culture is far more intelligent then a passive, readerly one. While both writers and readers seek patterns in information, writers do something with those patterns and that information. For example, to write this post I had to read four different articles, some of them with conflicting claims; I had to synthesize them, evaluate each of their claims, and assert my own. This is a much more complex process then reading a book. Even a great book, even literature. This is what people do in college and grad school, except I'm doing it on a regular basis for fun.

Now not every person on the Internet is a blogger. And not every blogger produces the same volume of content. The point is that everyone using the Internet is participating to some degree, forming what publisher Tim O'Reilly calls the "architecture of participation."

Built into the active component of using the Internet is also the social component. Since Daniel Goleman's groundbreaking book,"Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships", we have come to believe that there is more than one form of intelligence. Our abilities to connect with one another characterize social intelligence. What does this mean in the Internet era?

Jamais Cascio writes:
Intelligence has a strong social component; for example, we already provide crude cooperative information-filtering for each other. In time, our interactions through the use of such intimate technologies could dovetail with our use of collaborative knowledge systems (such as Wikipedia), to help us not just to build better data sets, but to filter them with greater precision. As our capacity to provide that filter gets faster and richer, it increasingly becomes something akin to collaborative intuition—in which everyone is effectively augmenting everyone else(3).
Cascio seems to suggest advanced forms of information architecture. These advanced forms are social and participatory, targeted to our needs as individuals, and productive of a kind of collective intelligence.

Communication technology has progressed from oral culture, to manuscript culture, to print culture, and now information culture(4). Digital culture infused with social technology merges the characteristics of three of these four cultures. We can use Twitter as an example. Twitter reveals certain aspects of an oral culture (telling your friends what you are doing), certain aspects of print culture (public announcements, quotations), certain aspects of information culture (hyperlinks), and lastly a more inscrutable aspect that has yet to be defined.

The role that Twitter played in Iranians protesting the presidential election points to the development of this inscrutable aspect of the technology. That is the dynamic that gets created between users and whole populations. The dynamic shapes communication, insight, and action. It is inventive, always changing, and most definitely intelligent.

Peter Daou writes:
In the larger picture, the most intriguing thing about Twitter is not how it is different from other online communication mechanisms, but how it is the same: one more technological innovation enabling the outfolding of consciousness -- the collective turning-outward of human thought(5).
The "collective turning-outward of human thought" is a vision that ultimately means we are growing more in tune with one another. When we are intuitive at a collective level, the potential for local, national, and global re-organization and improvement is possible and real.

The sequel to this post is, "Re-Thinking Iran and Twitter".

For more intellectual essays by the author, visit
Escape into Life.


autom said...

Chris - I appreciate how you describe the writing process, how it's very much a synthesis, a movement from one thought process to the next. As you know, we share similarities in approach so I feel quite in tune with this piece.

"the collective turning-outward of human thought", as Peter Daou points out, aptly captures an essence of the current social times. As I tend to see many things in terms of movement, I say that social technology indeed contributes a great deal to the enhancement of our awareness and appreciation for what is becoming a truly global village.

Well done. Thanks for sharing - Autom

PS - the link to my WordPress site has no content at the mo, since the WP app I use is currently hosted by IABC. Wanted a way to include a gravatar on my comment..not sure if this would work. Anyway - TGIF! Cheers

autom said...

oops i stand corrected - i have OLD content on the WP site..must find a way to sort this out.. cheers

Richard said...

This reminds me of the Steven Johnson essay on TV making us smarter which was very popular and I didn't care for the logic of.

Maybe the short of it is, "smarter" is not "wiser."

Bill Clinton is smart, but is he wise?

I'm with you 100% on what RSS, Twitter, and the barrage of information does to our ability to read long and think deep. I'd like to think that one of the many reasons that Bush was elected the second time (or maybe the first given that the first election was an "Iranian fraud") is because few took the time to think deep about what he'd done in his first term.

One of the many liabilities to social media is virtual lynch mobs. I happen to agree with Obama's conservatism about getting behind Mousavi and given what the supreme leader did today I think Obama made the right move: the US taking a side would undermine that side in the eyes of many in the Islamic world.

Anyway, I wander, nice post, this stuff makes me think.

Ilse Bendorf said...
This post has been removed by the author.
Kelvin Oliver said...

Very good blog post title. It seem like there is so much out that technological wise that we forget how things were in the past if the ways and methods of communication and social aspects are different than today. I did enjoy reading this and it deals with the topic of topics and interests that I tend to enjoy reading about. The world and how we socialize with each other is changing every day. Something new comes out and it the notices of its benefits spread like wild fires.

Odin Xenobuilder said...

Great post, I look forward to more and more people I know expanding their output and becoming more "writerly". When people are dumped into the social web, they come in with their default mode of "consume and process." People are used to the flow of information being a one way street. It takes a lot of time, or external prodding to realize that taking the time to be interactive is what makes it special.

La Couturier said...

Thank you so much for following me on Twitter - or else I never would have discovered this!

This is the ideal blog. Art, essays, writing - everything I love!


La C.

Mark Kerstetter said...

"...a more inscrutable aspect that has yet to be defined."

We are entering this new world so rapidly we don't know yet what it is. We are making it as we go, and inevitably it will make us as well. We will need conservatives and skeptics who refuse and resist to caution us to pay close attention to everything we do. Daou writes that eventually all of the social technologies will melt into one thing - almost like one brain, I wonder, and I wonder too if we are really capable of understanding such a thing (ie, will an individual be capable of a holistic view)? Will individuals of the future be compelled to 'plug-in' in order to feel capable of thinking at all?

Ginny said...

Excellent article. I think as time progresses, we will start to see more and more studies that support both sides. Personally, I think that social technology isn't making us more 'stupid,' however, it is feeding on human nature to want instant gratification. We all love to receive comments on our blogs, and responses to our tweets, etc. But at some point it is probably a good idea to take vacations from all the 'connections.' To remind us that the world does exist outside of all the electronics.

I also think that all the technology helps people to express themselves more through writing. It helps to organize our thoughts, and makes us feel like we've been heard. We make connections with people we never would have before without the technology.

One major thing I feel is on the negative side of all the technology, is that I think as time progresses, people will forget how to interact face-to-face with each other. There are always the extremes. It may not bother most at all, but others will be come more aggressive and less patient, we've seen it happening already. I guess we'll see...

A friend of mine wrote an amazing article on this subject for my blog called, "Twitter-fied." You should check it out:

Thanks for the follow on Twitter. I like your stuff.

Ginny @ MAD21

Lethe said...

Once again, grateful for the comments.

autom: thanks dude, the "global village" is growing and at the same time bringing us closer together

Richard: I'm glad my post made you think. I would say that's the underlying goal of everything I write on this blog.

Kevin: Thanks buddy, and thanks for sticking around. Really appreciate the support.

Odin: I think the "consume and process" model is definitely shifting. And you're absolutely right it takes people awhile to really learn how they can interact with the social Web.

La Coutuerier: Thank you for calling my blog the "ideal blog". A high complement indeed!

Mark: I've recently revised some of my thoughts on Dauo's essay. But in general the melting into one mind is a hopeful outlook for technology and the Internet.

Ginny: Thank you for your extensive comments. I don't think people will forget how to interact, however. Since I began using Twitter I've noticed that I'm more social in person, not less. This may be a hard argument to make, but social behavior online can possibly augment social behavior in person as well. Just another thought.

robbwindow said...

Great post thanks.

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