By this point, I think everybody knows that technology is making our society stupider. Kids these days would rather sit inside and watch mindless trash television than think for themselves, and as a result we have a generation hitting adulthood now whose brains are mushy and whose bodies are atrophied from sitting in the dark. Everyone knows that, right?
Everyone but Clive Thompson, apparently.
In his book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, Thompson argues that, actually, all of this reliance on technology can be a good thing. Over the course of nine thematic chapters and an epilogue, Thompson lays out his explanations, and while some of his points are more convincing than others by the end of the book it’s nearly impossible to disagree with him. The reader is left with a sense of excitement about the future.
One chapter that particularly resonated with me was “The Art of Finding,” in which Thompson discusses the history of information retrieval (although, of course, he doesn’t call it that). He begins with society’s transition from an oral to a literate tradition and how “as the purely oral world died, the world of library science was born.” He discusses the evolution of libraries, and how they changed from repositories of books that only the librarian could navigate into centers for self-serve knowledge seeking. With the Dewey Decimal system, he says, “Librarians began to reinvent their roles, transforming from mechanical grabbers-of-books to intellectual guides, helping their patrons figure out what to read and how to conduct complex research.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t tease this thread out further, but his unspoken implication is that, as traditional ways of storing and finding knowledge are being supplanted with digital alternatives, librarians will need to reinvent themselves again.
Another chapter I found interesting is entitled “Ambient Awareness,” and it does pretty much what it says on the package. Ambient awareness is when “you create a picture of someone else’s internal state gradually, almost unconsciously, by assembling many small observations.” It enables the construction of communities, and allows us to remain close to people even if we don’t speak with them regularly — and allows us to draw upon the knowledge and resources of casual acquaintances we would never have asked for help. For example, last semester I was compiling a research guide for first-time authors of Regency Romance Novels, and being somewhat new to the Romance community I didn’t trust my own knowledge to be sufficient to form a base. I posted something about it on Facebook, and got dozens of replies – people I hadn’t spoken to in years came out of the woodwork to recommend a particular author or series or title. (It worked! I got an A.)
The last chapter before the epilogue is the one that has the most direct bearing on the hyperlinked library, I think. It’s called “The Connected Society,” and it explores the relationship between online community participation and IRL community participation. Apparently, networked people are more likely to be involved in the meatspace: “80 percent of people who use the Internet participated in an offline group or volunteer organization, compared to only 56 percent of those who weren’t Internet users.” This could be because so many non-Internet users are elderly, and the elderly may be disinclined to participate in group events for other reasons (as Jessamyn West has discussed).
But couldn’t it also be that people who are active on the internet are more informed, aware, and involved than their non-digital counterparts? Perhaps, in addition to making it easier to recall facts, technology is making it easier to become a citizen of the world. And perhaps this is where libraries come in. We could create groups, on- and offline. We could facilitate meetups. We could encourage friendships to form. And we could encourage people to feel like the library is where it happens.
Arlington Public Library. “Lit Up: Literary Style in Arlington.” http://library.arlingtonva.us/lit-up/ Accessed September 17, 2015.
Thompson, C. Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better. New York, NY: Penguin. 2013.
West, J. “21st Century Digital Divide.” http://librarian.net/talks/rlc14 Accessed September 17, 2015