I finished Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson1 today. I started it many months ago, it was a book I read in fits and starts. I thought it approached the subject of “what is technology doing to how we think” well enough, with lots of references to historical precedence (people thinking writing would ruin the mind hundreds of years ago) and non-technical studies of similar topics like shared knowledge and the overhead of organizing large and wide knowledge networks.
One of the more interesting parts, at least to me, was about solving puzzles collectively. He talks at length about video games, and wiki pages for games contributed to by large sets of people, which means every facet of a game can be documented in depth and at speed. He references Skyrim a lot but I found this playing through Elden Ring recently. The game does not present a deep story unless you know what to look for, and many of the puzzles are fair if you know what you’re looking for, but… you might honestly have no idea what you’re looking for. You can search online for the smallest part of the game and find everything you could ever want to know about it. There’s deep backstory on Reddit that you’d think was fan-fiction except it comes with references!
And it’s true of almost everything. I’ve been playing guitar more this Winter, and I like to search for “how did player X get their tone”. The information is out there, and you begin to realize that a lot of good electric guitar players from the 60s and 70s were ok guitar players who had access to the equipment and information that allowed them to get great tone. Today you can Google it and get the same tone in a digital modeler (more technology!) in five minutes. The ease is obvious when you start to search for instrumental electric guitarists in your favorite streaming music platform: there’s thousands of them, and the music skews heavily towards the last ten years or so, when not only did digital recording get easier, sharing information on how to play and inspiration for playing did too. Heck, some of the best known guitarists now don’t even record often, they post on Instagram and play live. Hard to say that’s a bad thing for humanity.
There was one salient bit later in the book about Twitter:
One study homed in on Twitter users who displayed “clear political preference,” as with right-wing Twitter users following Fox News, or left-wing Twitter users following The New York Times. It turns out these users inadvertently got a more diverse set of news delivered via other people they followed, because their friends would tweet tidbits from the other side of the political spectrum. Indeed, 17.8 percent of the left-wing Twitter users were seeing right-wing media via retweets from people they followed, and the right-wing Twitter users saw even more—57.2 percent of them were seeing left-wing media.
So someone right leaning goes and buys Twitter and now how do you think that skews? And what impact does that skewing (and the algorithm behind the skewing) have on us as a society? That’s a question the book can’t answer, we’re learning that one in real time.