In 2014, paranoia regarding the Internet and its associated tools is running higher than ever. With recent news concerning the NSA, WikiLeaks, and other revelatory issues, people don't know how to feel about the collection of gadgets we've let into our lives. Do we really know how much of ourselves we reveal on the Internet? Now, compound this paranoia with the attachment we feel with our iPhones, laptops, and other devices. Socially, are they only taking us backwards? 

To cut through all the noise, writer Clive Thompson recently released his book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, a fresh and optimistic take on the exponential growth in computer and Internet technology that has taken place over the past two decades. Touching on a wide array of cultural and social issues, Thompson works to dispel the negativity and myth-making that has ruled the public discourse as of late. 

At SXSW Interactive 2014, Thompson was kind enough to meet with Complex to explain his latest book, and dig deep into issues concerning government surveillance, fan fiction, and even FOMO.

Interview by Gus Turner (@gusturner1)

For anyone who isn’t familiar with your book, Smarter Than You Think, what can you tell them about the book’s perspective on tech and tech culture?

The main message of Smarter Than You Think is an attempt to look at the productively new and interesting ways that we have begun to learn about the world, to think about what we found, and to mull it over and argue about  it with other people as we use technology. There’s been a bunch of books over the last five or six years saying, “We’re getting dumber! We can’t pay attention to anything! We’re getting stupider!” Frankly, it didn't really correspond to my view of reality as a reporter who has spent 20 years talking to people about the ways that they use this stuff. I mean, the funny thing is that if you'd asked me 20 years ago—when the Internet first started crawling into the mainstream—if this was going to be a good thing for society, I was extremely pessimistic.

But I'm a reporter, and every time I'd be writing columns about stuff and every time a new technology would come along from text messaging to instant messaging to social networking or even crazy things like photo sharing sites, I would go out and I would talk to dozens of people and say, "So what are you doing?" Inevitably, they would tell me these crazy, amazing stories about how they'd used it to do creative things or weird, funny playful things or to solve really interesting problems or to intellectually explore the world in a way that was impossible before.

So, if you wanted to boil the book down to a nut, I would say I think the main trend that tracks throughout the whole book is the way that the Internet allows us to become more social thinkers. It allows us to be in-tune and in-touch with more people and what they're thinking about. It allows us to sort've intellectually eavesdrop on people, ranging from those we know and love to those who are just interesting strangers. We have this ambient awareness of what's going on in their minds. We learn about things in new ways. We learn about things we never could've learned about before. We do far more talking out loud about the things that we're thinking about. There's all these great transformations that happen to us as we go from people who mull things over mostly in our minds to doing a fair chunk of that out in public. It forces us to clarify what we're thinking about. When you actually have to communicate it to someone else, you can't just walk around winning an argument in your head, you have to actually make the argument to someone else and they argue back.

This is the culture that Socrates worried was going to be killed by writing. He thought that we weren't going to argue anymore. He was sort've right because we didn't do it for a couple thousand years. Most people were shut out of the world of print communication; it was just a small number of authors and scholars. Now it's blown open and we're back in the world of talking about stuff, setting down our thoughts, having to look at them, and formalizing them. That's the other part of social public thinking.

The third pillar of it is once you connect with other people online, you begin to realize, "Oh my god, I've found people who actually care about this weird, crazy thing that I thought only I cared about." Then, you start doing these nutty forms of exploration and problem-solving and collaborative work that were impossible. We'd been social thinkers for centuries. A certain part of us had been writing and formalizing our thoughts. But this collective problem-solving that happens now, that literally did not happen at all.

So, basically, the nut of the book is it's a book about social thought, and the rise of social thought, and the value of social thought.

What type of response have you received from your audience so far?

In some respects, I almost anticipated more negative response, I suppose. I thought that most people would say, "No, this is nonsense!" But I think that most people felt like they were given permission to enjoy the things they want to enjoy. 

So, yes, there is something incredibly dangerous about the government wanting to scoop all this stuff up because every lesson we have from history tells us that if this goes on for a long time, it really starts to deform the public. When people start getting worried, as they should be right now, they start becoming cagier. They start becoming less willing to say the scary and dangerous things that are a necessary part of healthy civic debate.

[Laughs.] Exactly. That's what I noticed at your book signing yesterday. People want to feel good about what they're doing.

They were already doing all of this stuff and feeling a little guilty. They kept on doing it because they were enjoying it. They were getting this great value out of it. What I've tried to do with people is give them a way to help them appreciate what they're already doing. So, already, I've had a lot of enormously positive response. I've had some fantastic debates with people who pointed out the fact that throughout the book a constant point I make is that these digital tools only help you if you learn how to use them mindfully. It's the same way we had to learn how to use everything before. We didn't know how to use libraries, someone had to train us how to do that.

We got thrown online in the last 15 years with absolutely no training, and whenever I would talk to people who were getting the most out of it, they had thought carefully about what they were doing. When they were engaged in public thinking, they were mindful at sharing. They weren't just babbling at length. They were good at being giving. The people who tend to get the most out of being social thinkers are the people who themselves are helpful. They're always talking or answering people's questions or engaging in productive conversations. They're not being trolls. They're tamping down other people that are being trolls.

But it requires a certain amount of EQ in a way. It requires this social work. At one point, I say in the book how the cognitive benefits of the Internet require social work. That turns out to be a problem for the 10 percent of the population who regards social work with absolute horror. It's really funny. If you pie-chart them, a lot of the negative pieces about the Internet are written by novelists. About a year and a half ago, Jonathan Franzen was on this tear where he was writing piece after piece about how social networking is dreadful and everyone is turning into an idiot. Every time I would read one of these pieces, it would always be written by a novelist. That's because writing a novel actually requires you to be alone in a room with your thoughts, without any interruptions. It's really hard to write a novel. People think they can just dash one off. Man, you try. It is hard. You've gotta get in there, keep your nose to the page, and do that for three years. Interruptions are bad. There's no social work at all. It is you and the page. So, I think the world is genuinely worse for them. All these social pings and things are actually corrosive to their way of life. And I really respect and understand that. It's a troubling time for them.

Zeynep Tufekci—who is a wonderful researcher—has also been fascinated recently with what she calls, "refuseniks." Whenever she would go from campus to campus, she would find that there was consistently 10 percent of people who just had absolutely no interest in talking to anyone online, in any format. They reacted with horror about this. She came to the conclusion that wherever you go, you're going to find people who find this fashion of thinking antithetical to them. They don't get anything out of it. It doesn't help them out. I've become more aware of the plight of those people, because I think in some respects it is harder for them to live in this world. For everyone who finds value in social thinking with people, it's enormously terrific, but it's a real problem for the folks where it's just not their cognitive style.

And, with the NSA coming to light recently, what about the people who are just paranoid about technology in general?

There are a couple of big concerns I have about the effect of digital tools and the way we think. I think they're totally valid. The talk about narcissism and stuff, that's wrong. We've had those concerns for thousands of years. They never come true. There is no incipient social collapse. We're not about to become automatons unable to talk to one another. They worried about that with the telephone. They worried about that with the Walkman.

The persistence of these narcissism fears is huge. That stuff, I don't buy, and I try to dismantle it in my book. But the really big concerns, there are two or three. Privacy is almost the wrong word. There's nothing wrong with talking out loud in public, but there is something wrong with the government sucking up all those utter instances in a database just in case they maybe want to bust you in five years. Or so they can look for patterns that are, frankly, going to be spurious. Data science suggests that when you get a mountain of information that big, there's just too much noise. You're not going to find any signal. We know that from everything that's been analyzed. The NSA's work has suggested that, by their own admission, they haven't busted any terrorist ploys at all with these mountains of data. Everything they've busted has been through these old-fashioned leaks, cultivation of sources, spy work of the sort that is genuinely valuable and necessary if you want to have a safe state. Spying is actually still useful.

 So, yes, there is something incredibly dangerous about the government wanting to scoop all this stuff up because every lesson we have from history tells us that if this goes on for a long time, it really starts to deform the public. When people start getting worried, as they should be right now, they start becoming cagier. They start becoming less willing to say the scary and dangerous things that are a necessary part of healthy civic debate.

Now, we have this problem that we have out-of-control spy agencies. But how do we solve that problem? Well, on one hand, I think that one thing we could do is we need to decentralize the way our technology tools work right now. For the last 15 years, the way that everyone built a tool for thought, a way to communicate with other people, or a way to communicate with yourself was to set up a big central server and say, "Okay, we're going to run Facebook on this server, and we're going to run Twitter on this server, and we're going to run Instagram on this server, and all the messages we archive there and deliver them to your browser when you ask for them." But, of course, that just creates a huge honey pot that is irresistible to something like the NSA and they go in there with their National Security letter and they demand the information. And because the National Security letter says that you can't talk to anyone, we don't even realize it's happening. This is completely illiberal. 

The leading flank in discovering how to use technology in cool, interesting, thoughtful ways will generally always be the amateurs. If you want to see what's going on, and you want to figure out what's happening, then you should pay attention to what weirdos are doing.

But there's no reason for things to be that centralized. We live in a world where your phone is connected to the Internet, my home computer is connected to the Internet pretty much 24/7. We could break this stuff up into pieces. There's no reason not to have a decentralized Facebook, a decentralized network. I experimented recently with what they call a personal cloud software. It turns out there a lot of them out there now, and they're cheap or free and they work really well. So I took a seven year old desktop computer that now you could probably buy for $40 on Craigslist and I wiped the hard drive clean and I installed Ubuntu. Then I downloaded what's called Tonido, which a software that basically sets you up with your own domain name. Then, when you go there, it's your own hard drive, anywhere online in the world. You can use it to store documents and retrieve them anywhere in the world. There's a little social networking space where you can discussion boards and chat. You can put music there and stream it to your phone.

This took 15 minutes. I'm not that much of a hard-core geek, and this was so easy to set up. You can even do it on Windows or Mac if you want. You don't need to Ubuntu. So, putting something online is not rocket science anymore. It could be done by any of us in our houses. If I'm sitting there, and I invite all my friends in, and we're all horsing around and BS-ing on this discussion board, and the NSA wants to know what's on that board, they have to come and knock on my door and hand me the subpoena. It makes it harder for them to do that surveillance because it's no longer in one space. It's broken up into a million spaces. So you can still have this fantastic social networking culture and this public thinking, it just doesn't have to happen on these servers. That's the first step that I think should happen.

Is it going to happen? I don't really know. There was definitely an explosive use of these personal clouds. Ever since Snowden hit, they've at least doubled and sometimes had a 10x increase in their user base just in the last year. People are getting the message, y'know? I find that kind of heartening. But the second thing that has to happen is that we need the legal regime to change. The reason why the NSA was turned loose was bad laws. The Patriot Act: terrible law, allowing all sorts of intrusions. There have been all sorts of bad laws written and, frankly, this is a political problem that needs a political solution. It's only going to happen when there's enough public pressure on Congress for them to go, "We need to rewrite these laws."

On the one hand, that seems like wishful thinking, but as Ann Cavoukian, who is the privacy commissioner for Ontario, pointed out, last year the House—which is majority Republican and you would think totally in favor of law and order—came within eight votes of defunding the NSA's phone-call collection plan. It was 217 votes to 205. That's a really close vote! It is astonishing that the House, which is the more unruly of the bodies right now, came that close to that.

So, there's a technological solution, and there's political solution. Both things need to be pursued. I talk about it in my book a little bit because I was keenly aware of how autocracies around the world were surveying and paying attention to what dissonance we're doing. I knew that the government in the U.S. was doing it at some scale because there'd been leaks about the FBI being busted illegally Hoovering up information. But, thankfully, we've had these leaks since that's made it a real thing. We actually know what's going on and that issue is not going away.

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