Most people agree the digital revolution has dramatically changed the way we live, with some even taking the McLuhanite line that it has fundamentally changed who we are as well. There is little agreement,
however, on whether those changes have been for better or worse.
While not a full-fledged cyber-utopian, tech columnist and blogger Clive Thompson takes the pro-technology side of the debate, arguing that our cognitive behaviour and the quality of cultural production has greatly benefited from a wired world. By “technology,” Thompson means the Internet. The new developments – or “biases of today’s digital tools” – that interest him are expanded memory, connectivity, and an explosion in publishing and communication.
Two points are worth noting in advance. First, Thompson wants to “accentuate the positive,” because he believes (the point is arguable) that writing about technology has been “flooded with apocalyptic warnings” about what technology is doing to us. Second, he is not concerned with questions of neuroscience and brain chemistry, because he doesn’t think there’s enough evidence yet to say for sure what the implications in this area will be.
The exposition is easy to follow, grounded in scientific studies among controlled groups and people interacting in the real world. The author examines the beneficial impact of the Internet in fields such as early education, health, and politics. Underlying it all is a compelling thesis: we grow, or evolve, by facing the progressively more difficult challenges our new, enhanced minds hunger for.
While providing a good read – the book is easy to skim and thick with information on a timely, complex subject – Thompson’s unabashed optimism leaves a number of doors unopened. It is not clear, for example, why the Internet has been of next to no assistance in creating art, or whether this is something to be concerned about. The interaction of the Internet and the economy is rarely addressed, and many success stories focus on non-profit or amateur endeavours, which may not be representative of larger trends.
Perhaps most troublingly, Thompson’s central image of the centaur (which is meant to represent the human-machine hybrid mind of the future) isn’t interrogated critically enough. The author recognizes that hybridization raises serious issues of dependence, but he leaves these unexamined. If the truth lies somewhere in between the prophets of doom and the cyber-utopians, it’s hard not to feel as though we are only hearing half the story here. No matter your point of view, however, this book is a worthwhile addition to an important conversation.