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.


Now, along with this issue, you also mentioned how Socrates had his problems with changes in technology and oral culture. Aside from this paranoia about the NSA, do you notice any key differences between the discourse of today and the concerns of the past?

I think the concern about distractions and interruptions is real. Every computer and every phone, when you look at it dispassionately, is just dreadfully designed. It's just a mess. You've got all these applications, all running at the same time, all trying to get your attention in one actually kinda small window. People sort've brag about having a 27-inch iMac like it's huge. Well, that's great, but let's do a thought experiment. Let's say I get a new job, and they say, "Clive, this job is going to be awesome. You get your private office. You get a window! We're going to give you a plant. We're going to give you a sofa you can sleep on." I say, "This is great. Show me in." They say, "Okay, c'mon over here. Here's your desk." It's beautiful, teak-oak wood. It's fantastic, and lovely, and it's 27 inches across. I'd be like, "What are you talking about?" I can't get anything done on a desk that size. I'd have these mounds of crap that I can't spread out.

That's exactly the problem we have with these screens. We're trying to shove everything onto one little window, and things get piled up on top of each other, and we wind up getting distracted. To further that problem is this very subtle problem that's become pernicious in the last 10 years which is the advertising-based nature of many social networks. When you have a social network that's based on advertising, you want the people to look at the social network as much as possible. That means you want to stop them doing what they're doing, and look at the social network. So, of course, you create a social network that's constantly e-mailing you and pinging you saying, "Hey, Clive. Someone just mentioned your name on Facebook. You should go look at it."

When you base an economy on advertising, you base it on interruptions. That's exactly one of the problems we've gotten ourselves into. It's been interesting watching people create services that actually say, "No, y'know, I'm going to charge you money for this." A dollar a month, or a dollar a year. Suddenly, they have a revenue stream and they don't need ads and they can create tools that don't interrupt you that way.

It requires some seriously better design on our computer's side, but also, when I was researching my book, when I talked to people who were really productive, and really energized by their use of the stuff, they were all pretty good at self-control too. They were all able to say, “Y'know, I'm just going to spend 10 hours not looking at this at all. I'm going to spend the weekend not looking at it. I'm going to use Twitter to do this awesome public thinking but I'm not going to stare at it as if I'm in the Korean Missile Silo waiting for the red alert. I'm going to go in for an hour in the morning and maybe a half-hour in the evening and that's it. I'm not going to be some crystal meth tweaker lunging at it all the time.”

Gloria Mark, a fantastic researcher, wants to find out what really interrupts people. She sits for herself behind people at work for a week and just watches. Every time they change tasks she makes notes of it, on a second-by-second level, and she finds out why they change tasks. Here's the really funny thing: about half the interruptions are what they call, "externally generated." It's a bell dinging, an alert popping up on your screen, someone tapping on the shoulder, someone poking their nose in. But the other half is what they call, "internally generated." There was nothing interrupting you but yourself. It was your brain saying, "Huh. I wonder what people are doing on Instagram. Let me check it out." On the one hand, that's terrible. We're so trained like Pavlov's dog to lunge at these things that we're interrupting ourselves. But the positive news is that you can control that stuff. You learn a little bit of mindfulness and you can actually learn self-control tools.

Pay attention to where your attention is going, because once you get in the habit, it becomes this sub-routine that runs in your brain where you're always noticing what you're paying attention to. You notice when your mind is trying to drift.

Have you noticed any generational differences in the way of embracing this etiquette, or technology in general? You're very pro-technology, but do you think that you're an anomaly within your demographic? 

[Laughs.] Well, I think I am. I think a lot of middle-aged people are very disgruntled about this, though I think that some of their disgruntlement is misplaced. Middle-aged people are in the workplace a lot. When you actually ask them why they're on their phone so much, half of the time it's because they have to because of work. I'm like, well, you don't have a phone problem. You have a labor problem, my friend. You need to read some Karl Marx! [Laughs.

But problem-solving and science, if you get a bunch of people together for that you will get some amazing stuff out of it. But competition is also a powerful intellectual tool because the desire to be the one who figures it out or said the most amazing thing is useful. Competition inspires us to be our bests and to work harder than the guy down the road or the woman sitting next to us because we're going to get the credit. So these things have always been in tension for us.

I'm writing an essay for Mother Jones right now about this. We have depoliticized these devices, and pretend that the problems emerge in the devices. They don't always emerge in the devices. If your boss is saying that they expect a response in five minutes after they email you on a Saturday, then you have a workplace problem. You need to deal with that in whatever way you can.

So, I think a part of me is an outlier in my demographic. Generational change, that's an interesting question, because half the time I think there's definitely something different happening with younger people. They have a very different experience to the world. They've grown up with way more connection to other people, expecting that, and forming their mental habits around it. Habits stick. Once you develop the habit of lunging for your phone every five minutes, you've got that habit. You're only going to unbreak that by carefully and patiently acquiring a new habit. Is there something they're gaining, and something they're losing? Probably yes, and yes.

When I talk to younger people and people who observe them, they'll tell you that they're more comfortable with this social thing and they're more comfortable with collaboration, more comfortable with the idea that you can get things done by working with other people, more quickly and often more intelligently. They're definitely more comfortable with that than people my age were, who had that Rodin idea that they're going to solve a problem by sitting quietly in a room by myself. That's to the good.

The dangerous part, and any young person will tell me this, is that they feel like they're getting pecked at by ducks, and that they need more moments of that remove and solitude.

At the same time, there's also the FOMO phenomenon.

Totally! Fear of missing out. There's this sense of awesome stuff going on, and needing to check up on what's happening. But here's the thing about fear of missing out and generational change: when you see young people acting differently from middle-aged people like me, how much of that is permanent? If you looked at my behavior when I was 18, I behave differently now. I moved into a different stage of life.

One of the nice things about being middle-aged is that you stop caring about what people think about you so much. [Laughs.] Part of what I think is hellish right now for young people is when you're 18 or 19 or 12 or even in your early 20s, there's a huge amount of social status and questions like, "Who the hell am I? Where do I fit into the world? Where do I fit into the pecking order? Oh my god, am I going to have any life here?" All that stuff is about social rank and social status. An environment where there's so much more social status and ranking going on is really a perfect storm for weathering that moment. I think it's harder to be young right now than it was 20 years ago, but I also don't think all those behaviors are going to maintain for the rest of everyone's lives.

I find it hard to look at what's happening right now to someone who is in their teens or early 20s and tell them what the picture of the future is. In the same way that if you looked at a picture of me when I was young, you would not necessarily get a picture of my future either.

I don't know of any easy way to tease apart those differences. One of the reasons that I don't write about the future is because it's too damn hard to predict. I realized a long time ago that it's way more valuable to try and report in a nuanced way on what's happening right now because nobody does that. Everyone's busy speculating about the future. It turns out to be a competitive advantage to just report what's happening right now. The advantage is that it's actually happening and you can report it and it's a reality. I discovered that if you report in a nuanced way about what's happening now, people think you're talking about the future.

That's a long-winded way of saying that I do think that there are some differences between generations. I'm not sure how consequential they'll be in the long run. The other thing to note is that human nature doesn't change much in the long run.

We're creatures of habit.

Pretty much, yeah. We're worried about what other people think of us. Do we love other people? Do they love us? Are we going to get ahead in life? Every time I think something drastic and new is happening with young people, I go back in history and realize that people always felt some new, strange creature was evolving that was going to be dramatically different from their forebears.

It happened with the novel. It's really interesting to look back at the history of the novel. Religious authorities were in an absolute lather. They were worried about the young ladies. Whenever you hear people talking about young ladies, you can tell you're in the middle of a massive, probably bogus, social panic. With the novel, they were worried about people spending all this time reading about people's internal lives instead of reading the Bible. They were saying how it's hypnotic and people couldn't pull themselves away from these things! Of course, now we've recognized that the novel was actually this wonderful vehicle for helping us explore the interiority of humanity. Now, we're defending it against the onrush of the Internet and websites!

We have this habit of being unable to see the good things that are happening right now because we're aware of the downsides. We have a name for pain, but no name for pleasure. It's not that we don't actually lose things as technological change happens. Those religious authorities were actually sort've right. They were worried that as a generation of people were trained to think about the psyche and psychology and someone's internal life and relationships with other people as the prime agony of everyday life, they'd stop worrying about religion as the moral order. And they were right! The novel kind of did that. They correctly predicted their own demise.

So, as I like to say, conservatives' fears are worth paying attention to because they're always partially right. They just have a hard time figuring out what the humanly useful thing will be to come out of it. Socrates correctly predicted that when we write things down, we're going to stop needing to remember everything. He said that the arts of memorization would diminish, and we'd lose the cut-and-thrust of debate. For him, knowledge was formed not by quietly reading about it by yourself, but by arguing about it with someone else. He was sort've right about that. We stopped mass-remembering things. But he was unable to foresee what fascinating new forms of thought were going to be possible when you could consult and re-consult a huge array of knowledge. We were able to use this to scaffold ourselves upwards into amazing new forms of thought. We could begin to develop concepts like evidence. These were some really powerful intellectual tools.

He couldn't foresee that stuff, and I can't blame him. It's always hard to. If you ask me what it's going to be like 20 years from now, I don't really know.

Well, you were talking about how kids were growing up and learning how to collaborate with one another more effectively. In your book, you mention certain instances throughout history when people were working on the same thing, but had no way of knowing it. Along with that, you note how people want to hold onto their ideas in order to obtain credit. Do you think technology can solve these tensions at all?

In one sense, probably not. Collaboration and competition have always been in tension with each other. On one hand, we understand that collaboration is unbelievably powerful. Many heads together think way better than one does individually, in most cases. Not always. You can't collaboratively write a poem. Maybe you can, but it's different.

But problem-solving and science, if you get a bunch of people together for that you will get some amazing stuff out of it. But competition is also a powerful intellectual tool because the desire to be the one who figures it out or said the most amazing thing is useful. Competition inspires us to be our bests and to work harder than the guy down the road or the woman sitting next to us because we're going to get the credit. So these things have always been in tension for us.

I often think that, in many respects, we're moving into the world that science has been inhabiting for three or four years. Scientists were the first ones to realize that they'd been spending 10 years working on a theory of Uranus, and wrote about it, and then it turned out some dude in Stockholm was doing the same thing. They would always have this push and pull, where they knew they should work together, but if they did, one of them wouldn't get the credit. They were always trying to figure out how to do it. Very painstakingly, they set structures for public thinking that also allowed them to give and get credit. The scientific enterprise has done its best to make people think in public because other people need to benefit from it, while also saying, "Maybe you need to be in first."

But they've never really figured it out because there's no way to solve that problem. You can only balance back and forth. I think the real intellectual action and the real benefits of our new thinking environment are going to be first realized by amateurs. When I say, "amateurs," I don't mean people doing things badly. I mean people doing things for the love of it and not for money. Because when there are no money stakes, people do the most unbelievable things. They'll be like, "Alright, I'm doing this awesome thing. Who's in?" Suddenly, there's 20 people cranking away at it, and something just awesome happens.

Yeah, you brought up a number of examples in Smarter Than You Think. Are there any you would highlight in particular?

It's something as simple as video game guides. One person is writing it, and they put up half of it, and before you know it, 20 other people are e-mailing tips and the document becomes complete. I'm playing a lot of video games, and I'm always using GameFaqs, where one person started it, and then a bunch of other people piled on, and it became this collaborative thing. It's super cool. Or game wikis, like when I started playing Skyrim, and was wondering how to get past a certain thing. It's only two weeks after the game is out, and there's already 17,000 documents. [Laughs.]

It's like ants building a mountain of information, and they're able to do it because no one is worrying about making money off of it. It happens in music and it happens in the arts and it happens in all sorts of things. As I did the research for my book and in everyday life, I found that the interesting intellectual discoveries and habits are in the amateurs. The people needing to make money off of it are always stroking their chins saying, "That would work great if I could do it in a competitive way." They're always sort've scurrying behind. They will eventually figure out. Most large companies now have an internal wiki because they know they need to pool knowledge if they’re going to be smarter internally. They can't do it externally because they don't want to give away their stuff, but they have 2,000 people in their company and want to work together and if someone does something awesome they want to give them credit for it. They figure out a way to do that stuff.

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.

I have a whole theory, actually, that the world of fan fiction is the most technologically explosive thing I've ever seen in my life. Every single technology that has come along, fan fiction people have come along and colonized it and stress-tested it and found the most amazing things. They were the first people to realize the potential of meta-tagging and bookmarking sites. Like, here's a link with four tags, and then you go to a fan fiction person, and they have a link, and it has 70 tags. They are pushing this to absolute limit, and they are finding these amazing ways to sort knowledge.

It's all because they're passionate and nobody is making any money off of it and they don't want to make any money off of it. They get some amazing stuff done. If you're ever wondering about a future technology, just drop what you're doing and find out what fan fiction people are doing with it. What are fan fiction people doing right now with WhatsApp? I don't know. But, whatever it is, it's the future.

Smarter Than You Think is available now via Penguin Press.