STEVE THOMAS: This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Clive Thompson; he’s an award-winning journalist who writes about the impact of technology and science on everyday life. He’s the author of “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For The Better,” and is a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine and Wired. He blogs at collisiondetection.net and can be found at Twitter @pomeranian99.
Clive, welcome to the show!
CLIVE THOMPSON: Good to be here!
ST: You have a new book out called “Smarter Than You Think,” and I was just listening, actually, to another podcast that you did on the… The other smarter one. Not as smart as you think.
CT: Oh, no. “You Are Not So Smart.”
ST: “You Are Not So Smart,” that’s what… I was getting it all mixed up with your title and their title and everything. [Laughter] And actually it’s funny that you kind of… I encourage everybody to listen to that one as well. And you kind of leave off there where I was gonna pick up, in a little bit after we get a little introduction on the book, because you leave off with saying something about how librarians are really the ones that are doing a lot of testing around in the space of using computers and human knowledge together.
ST: I was wondering, if you could start out with talking about the idea that you start your book about, with the centaur, ’cause I really think that’s… I think librarians have really embraced what that idea is.
CT: Sure, sure. Well, so the centaur is this wonderful metaphor that came out the evolution of chess in the 1990s, because the story begins with Garry Kasparov losing to Deep Blue back in 1996. And I think everyone remembers that was this kind of shocking moment when people thought, “Oh my god, that’s it! Human intelligence is doomed!” You know, like “The machines are taking over, they can play chess better than the best humans!” So it sort of felt like this dispiriting moment. But Kasparov himself was… I mean, he was a smart guy, and he had known – anyone in chess had known – that at some point in time a computer was going to beat a human, because they think in these fundamentally different ways. I mean, a human, you know, learns chess by learning… By sort of slowly imbibing and, you know, studying thousands and thousands of games, playing thousands and thousands of games, and developing this intuition for what’s the right move. You know, like it’s like you don’t see 20 moves out. You ask someone, chessmaster, “What’s the best move?” They’ll say, “Well, this is the move to make.” They won’t tell you, “Here’s a thousand moves you could make and here’s the one I’m picking.” They just go, “This is the one I’m picking because it feels… Like I can tell a story behind this move.” Human intuition is at work there. The computer does it just brute force. I mean, they just go every single possible move, 8 moves out, pick the best one, go with it. And so Kasparov knew if you get a strong enough computer, at some point in time, you’re going to lose to it because that brute force will overwhelm human intuition. Then he decided, “Okay, well, that’s not a very interesting thing. Let’s do something really cool.” Let’s say, “Okay, these are two very different modes of thought. Sort of the human intuition, and wisdom, and meaning-making, and the machine’s ability to sort of just do this brute force finding of invisible patterns that humans can’t see. Let’s put them together!” So he creates Advanced Chess where you have two teams playing, a human and a laptop versus a human and a laptop, right? And so each human basically takes the moves on the chess board, programs them into the chess software, finds out what the chess software recommends, like you know, doing its brute force stuff. And they use that to inform the human judgment, they could… you know, you could sort of “war game” the game. You could “Well, if I did this, what would happen? If I did this, what would happen?” And so what happened, when Kasparov played his first game like this, is that this crazy new form of amazingly advanced chess emerged, where he was able – because he was not having to focus solely on just having everything in his head – he could consult a wider array of moves than he’d ever found possible. His opponent could do the same, and so these new creative that had never happened before emerged. And the same thing happened when everyday people started using it. You had these tournaments, and it really opened up what they call the “mid game,” and the opening moves were quite daring. Because normally, you know, you had–if you were a chess player, if you had to work with only the knowledge you had of chess, you tended to stick to the same bunch of small number of opening ploys. You were fairly intellectually cautious. But once you could work with software to help you war game a greater array of possibilities, you became much more intellectually daring, and these crazy fascinating moves emerged. It was really interesting. And so this is essentially… Chess player call this the “centaur,” the half-human, half-machine working not in opposition to try and beat each other, but together. And it’s this really wonderful metaphor that I start my book with, because when I learned about this almost 3 or 4 years ago, it struck me as a great metaphor for how it is we live today at our best. You know, in situations where we have new tools that allow us to juggle more information and knowledge, to make connections that we couldn’t make on our own, to bring together sources we couldn’t bring on our own. You know, when we learn how to use that well, we really do become these intellectual centaurs; way smarter than we are individually. And the reason why that brought me again and again… Actually throughout the entire book, in my research, I kept on returning to librarians and librarian science because they have been wrestling with this for a couple hundred years, right? Like how do you take what humans are good at doing and merge it to external mechanisms for stored and re-accessed knowledge? I mean, that is the essence of library science, and we now live in this library science age on a everyday basis.
ST: Yeah, and you come back to libraries over and over again in the book, like you have the one part where you’re talking about Melvil Dewey.
ST: And creating the… Because we got to the point–a long time ago, you talk about where originally when we started writing things down, people got upset because, “Oh, you know, you should just be able to remember everything.”
CT: That’s right.
ST: But then that was sort of the beginning of what your book is kind of about. I mean, that was sort of… the book was the technology that we were kind of storing, and sort of unpacking our brains so that we could do other things with our brains.
CT: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
ST: So you don’t have to keep all that stuff in your head.
CT: Yeah, the tale of the book is essentially, you know, “What is the 3 or 4 or 5,000 year story of us humans using outside resources to help staffold and enlargen and enrichen our thinking?” And yeah, I mean, that goes right back to, you know, the invention of writing. So 5000 years ago, Mesopotamian merchants start realizing, well, it would be advantageous to their commerce to be able to have an external record of how many, like, sheep they have, right? So you get these scratching glyphs that finally emerge into numbers, and you get this abstract idea of a number as a thing separate from the quantity. If you have 5 sheep, you have 5 sheep, you have this thing called fiveness, you know? And then that turns into language, and pretty soon we’re able to encode our thought and our ideas. And you know, and so this is the first great media for the externalization of thought, and as with every media since then, we freak about it. You know, so Socrates has the Phaedrus, and he basically says, “This is going to cause… Or this writing thing is going to cause forgetfulness in men’s souls. Because if knowledge is all inside our heads, can it truly be used for wisdom?” And this is a really interesting debate. You know, and he was wrong and right. He was right in that once we had writing we stopped… We sort of lost, you know, the arts of massive memorization. You know, like nobody these days really uses the memory palaces to remember huge amounts of text. But what he failed to sort of understand, or to predict – and you know, you can’t blame him, the future is hard to predict, you know – is the ways, and these very flexible, interesting new thoughts we’d be able to have when we were able to set down knowledge and then reconsult it, and reconsult a more massive array of knowledge than we could ever hold in our heads. And of course, you know, that was great for us, but it required us to begin organizing that knowledge, and that’s where–and that really is the beginnings of sort of a, you know, a thousand to 2000 year-long journey towards library science, modern library science.
ST: Right, ’cause I mean, technology – especially now – it puts more in our grasp, that we can… There’s just more and more things that we can access now, and the people who will come out and say, “Oh, well, libraries are dead because of technology. I can just Google everything.” But now it’s more… the haystack is just bigger now.
ST: So you still need to know those skills. And you had written something a few years back about the digital native myth, too, of… That we talk about that all the time in the library world of, people just think that, “Oh, they’re kids, they understand technology.” But they don’t… They get it in a certain way, that I mean, yeah, you can give a 3-year old now an iPad and they can do it better than a 50-year old or whatever, but they don’t really get how to organize the information. So that’s really what libraries are for now.
CT: Yeah library science has been about, you know, teaching people how to use existing tools and new tools as new tools emerge. ‘Cause I mean, like, librarians are also comfortable with this fairly constant rate of change, right? I mean, if you walked a library – the Harvard Library – 200 years ago, it looks nothing like the Harvard Library today. And decade by decade, new things would come along that librarians have had to figure out how it works, what’s good about it, what’s bad about it, and how to impart that knowledge. So they’re also really good at adapting to change. And this digital natives thing, I think, is a really pernicious myth that needs to be, you know, confronted everywhere it arrives.
CT: Because, you know, it’s disastrous to lead young people… To not give them training in how to use these cognitive tools that are around them, under the assumption that they will be fluent in them on their own. I mean, in a way, what it is – what the problem is – is that young people can be comfortable with technologies without understanding how they work, right? You know, you can use a tool comfortably without really having a grasp of how it works. And to a certain extent, this is one of the problems… Nicholas Carr is actually–I think his next book is partly about this, and I think it’s a good area for inquiry. It’s about, sort of, about like, you know, when you seed judgment to algorithmic systems, you can wind up not thinking about what’s going on beneath the hood, and that can be dangerous, right? You know, in the example that I talked about in that column and also in my book, you had this guy being panned… Charleston College professor, he did a study where he basically took a bunch of college students, and they all had a fair amount of experience using Google. And he said, “Okay, I want you to… I’m gonna ask you a question, I want you to find an answer.” And by and large, they picked the first link off. They would Google something and they would pick the first link that came up in Google. And then he sort of did a little experimental shift where he wrote a script that would take the top 10 results and invert them; so number 10 is a number 1, number 9 is number 2, 8 is number 3. And he, again, he asked the next set, “Okay, so here’s a question, what’s the best answer?” And they still picked number one. Like… [Laughs] So they were just simply putting blind faith in Google. And if you asked them how Google works, you would get a very bad, or incomplete, or non-existent answer. You know, they didn’t understand that, you know, this is the different processes that Google uses to sort knowledge. Google, you know, starts by finding pages that have that phrase in it, then they sort on them based on social ranking; how many, you know, inbound links these pages have, so it’s kind of a popularity contest. So that means that, you know, things that are valuable but unpopular may not be on that front page. This is not rocket science to impart this to someone, right? I mean, you can teach kids this in like 15 minutes, but no one had bothered to do so in the academic world, in part because well, you know, librarians aren’t giving enough time to students, frankly, at the K-12 level. And at the curricular level, you know, the curriculum had not evolved in any way to deal with this. Now, thankfully the Common Core seems to have a few small standards. I mean, I’m not… I have problems with the Common Core, believe me, but the one thing, at least, is it seems to be attempting to do is to suggest some of this literacy should be in there. But frankly, I mean, what I found when I researched the book was that across the country, all the librarians were totally on top of this. They just didn’t have–the teachers were not sending the kids to them, they didn’t have enough time with the kids. There were these disconnects where, like, the teachers were discovering in their classroom that kids were inept at finding information online, but they would sort of try and reinvent the wheel and teach it themselves, rather than just saying, “Let’s just get the librarian in here,” right?” I mean, I actually went to a private school recently, a fairly well-off private school, lots of resources, you know. And I was talking to the teachers on their professional development day, and we were talking about this Google problem. And one teacher – you know, like an English teacher, maybe history teacher – got up and said, “Yeah, you know, the students are frankly, you know, they’re just not very good… You know, not very persistent in looking for things. They, you know, they pick the top thing, they just go with that, they go ‘that answer’s good enough’. You know, and I can’t seem to train them that way.” And you know, across the room – it’s a room of like a hundred teachers – you know, the librarian gets up and goes, “You know, I can come in and teach them that!” Like, “Just call me,” you know? Like there’s a sort of… I mean, this is something that’s not news to your audience at all, but there’s a structural disconnect inside schools, where schools, you know… Library science is more important on a everyday level than ever before, but schools haven’t figured out that they need to integrate that, and their librarians, into everyday teaching, you know?
ST: Right, and as you say, we’re one of the few professions that are really teaching these information literacy skills that are important not just to kids, but to kind of everybody.
CT: Part of the problem, part of the issue, here is motivation, which is super interesting. And again, this is something that you know, John Dewey could have told you. When students are motivated, they work harder. They persist more, they read more deeply, analyze more deeply, write longer, you know? And again, any teacher knows this. So I think… I might be getting this wrong, but I think it was Project Information Literacy did a study of someone – I’ll have to look into this – did a study of students and their information-searching habits for their quote unquote “life research.” Right? So the school research is, you know, “Tell me the origins and causes of the War of 1812.” You know, a subject that is probably boring for most kids so they didn’t work very hard at it. You know, they lunge for the first plausible answer and they hand it in. But… so you see all that terrible, terrible searching habits. But when this study said to them, “Okay, what do you do when you’re looking for information on buying a new MP3 player, or picking a phone plan, or trying to answer a religious question, or a relationship question, or a health-related question?” Well, it turns out they’re way more persistent. They go deeper into search results, they ask for advice from their friends, from their parents, from their teachers. [Laughs] And like, they would do all the sort of good, critical thinking things. They would do far more critical thinking for their life research than they ever did for their school research. So again, what this indicates, is like… you know, that this is an age-old challenge. If you can actually get kids to care about the stuff that you’re trying to teach them, they’ll actually work really hard at it. And they’ll be better; they’ll be better scholars, you know. But you know, that’s a problem we’ve been wrestling with for hundreds and hundreds of years, you know, unfortunately. You know, there’s no silver bullet there.
ST: You also… You talk a lot about collective thinking, and collaboration, and groups. Do you think libraries can work as coordination points in their communities to help solve these kind of problems, and…?
CT: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, in fact, all the libraries I know – all the librarians I know – are sort of realizing, “Okay, so our role is changing. You know, what’s our new role?” Well, then there’s a lot of answers to that, ranging from, you know… Libraries are now a combination of places where you go to get basic training in finding books, to where you go now to get the training in finding information. You know, teaching adults, frankly. I mean, adults need as much training in this information finding as anyone else, and they don’t have school to go and teach it to them. But they’re also evolving into these really interesting community information hubs. Like a number of libraries I’ve seen, I’ve read stories about around the country, are now starting to become like kind of… They’ve set up like these hyper-local portals for people, you know, wikis and blogs and stuff, where people are talking about what’s going on in their community, and they’re gathering and archiving that stuff. And they’re having these like, you know, these sort of wiki-athons where like kids and local citizens will come and they’ll spend the day researching a subject and contributing it to like a local repository of local knowledge. And this is something, of course, that libraries… A local library always did that. If you want to read the local history of an area, you go to the library because that’s the only place that saved their crazy, weird, local paper, you know? I mean, it’s probably not in the academic library, you’ve got to go to that neighbor–that township and go to that library, and you’ll get that weird, local paper. I have friends of mine, here, that have gone to.. That have found out about–I like in Brooklyn. So Brooklyn’s got a really old library system, and if you want… And this is kind of a fun thing some people I know have done; you can go and get copies of the Brooklyn Eagle, the longest publishing local newspaper, and you can… And back in the day, like a hundred years ago, they frequently–news stories, apparently when you were called for jury duty, listed like your occupation and where you lived and stuff like that. It’s like “who knew?” You know? And so you can use this to find who was living at your house and what they did.
ST: Oh, wow.
CT: Like a hundred years ago, right? And this is a totally fascinating thing to do. So libraries have always been these repositories of local knowledge in this passive sense, and they’re becoming that in this active sense now. They’re like, “Well maybe we should be the hub that reports on these things,” you know? So there’s… and that’s just one, I mean, I’ve seen so many other interesting things libraries are doing. Some of them have started to realize that maybe they should start to become kind of creative spaces. You know, like, in so far as kids are doing more writing online, there’s all this huge explosion of fan fiction writing, discussion writing. That’s great. Well, maybe we should… You know, it’s good that they’re doing that writing, and studies show that that can improve the quality of their writing, can improve the quality of their reading, but wouldn’t it great if we also could, you know, tack formal instruction onto that, you know? So they’ve started having these, you know, fan fiction days, or like, let’s all, like, contribute articles to Wikipedia day, and stuff like that. These are all really, I think, amazing new ways that librarians are finding to say “Okay, we are the information docents of the world.” And there is this new information commons where we not only consume and we need to learn how to consume well, and learn how to read, and parse, and think well, but we also are learning how to be creators, right? And that is super interesting, you know, to be a hub not just for the parsing and reconsultation of information, but for the creation of cool information.
ST: Right, and a lot of libraries… I want to come back to this, but I want to take a little detour for a second.
ST: About to come back to libraries as maker-spaces, but you’re talking about writing, and that’s one thing that was in the book that not necessarily related to libraries specifically, but what I really thought fascinating, was the fact that I’d never really thought of it in this way… That people are doing a lot more writing now than they ever did before, just because they’re on Twitter and Facebook and everything. But as before, people would do their high school writing and then aside from writing memos at work, they’d never write again in their lives.
CT: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s right.
ST: So it’s an interesting way of sort of working through who we are and what we have passions for.
CT: Yeah. Yeah, no, exactly. The writing explosion is one of these things where, like… It’s one of the things that is most interesting to me about the modern internet world, is the explosion of writing. And what is most interesting to me is how unremarked upon this has gone. I think it’s because all the people that write about society and social change are themselves writers. You know, journalists, think-tank people, academics. And so they’re accustomed to the idea that they’ve basically spent their whole adult life churning out mountains of text, right? That’s what they were paid to do. And so they have not noticed that for everyone else, before the internet came along, you graduated high school, you graduated college, and you know, you basically wrote… You know, unless except for the occasional memo for work, you wrote nothing for the rest of your life. And certainly when it comes to your passions, things you’re interested in, you wrote absolutely nothing; there was just no call for it. But the people who have noticed this are scholars of literacy. Sorry, scholars of rhetoric and scholars of literacy, who look at things like, “What are the situations in which people are asked to write something?” So the literacy scholar, let me think.. Which one am I trying to cite here? The concept of–oh, her name will come to me in a second. She cites the concept of… Brandt is her last name. B-R-A-N-D-T. I will think of her first name in a second. She cites the idea of sponsorship. Like, so, their religious-sponsored reading; you had to learn to write to be able to read the Good Book, or Talmud, or pretty much any religious tradition required you to become literate to raid.
ST: It’s Debra Brandt.
CT: Debra Brandt, that’s it! Thank you. Debra Brandt, fantastic, fantastic scholar of literacy. So she talks about sponsorship. There’s religious sponsorship, there’s work sponsorship, and there’s self sponsorship; like when you’re writing for something that you are yourself are just interested, passionate. Self sponsorship is the one that had languished, really, for hundreds and hundreds of years. You know, you had a small percentage of people that were serious diarists. You had a relatively small number that were serious letter-writers. Back in the 19th century, around 1870, I guess, the per-capita number of letters written by the average American is 5 in a year. And that conceals the fact that the vast majority of people wrote none, and a small hyper-literate wrote tons. So you have this explosion of writing as things come along, like first you have email, and people are just writing tons more missives on a everyday basis, personally. And then you start getting things like modes of expression, like blogs and micro-blogs. And then you have social networks; people engage in these conversations. And then hobby and hobbyist discussion boards. I mean, just yesterday I was on a discussion board for computer-controlled milling machines, you know, which are used by everything from, like, people that make stuff for a living, to hobbyists. And they’ve got their discussion board and there are, you know, 50,000 members, and they’re all in there writing, writing, writing all-day long. So there’s just this… I tried to total this up, actually. I tried to get an estimate, a very, very crude estimate. I figured it was something like 3.4 trillion words a day, which is roughly equivalent to the Library of Congress every day. Now, this is not all good writing, of course, like a lot of it’s crud. But the stuff that’s at the top is really astonishing, and it’s so much larger than what we did before. It’s great to see this happening, but you know, there is… But when you talk to even kids who do a lot of writing, they still are aware that they need–that they could use instruction, you know? They’ll say, “Well, what’s gonna make you a better writer?” Like, well, practice, “And I’m getting that,” but instruction, and that’s gonna be at school or it’s gonna be from a formal teacher. And again, libraries are fantastic places for this stuff to happen. One of the things that’s so great about libraries, frankly, is that they can do stuff that is divorced from the… you know, frankly, deformed by “no child left behind” curriculum that happens in the classroom, right? You know, so like a lot of librarians are able to say, “Okay, what’s your weird, crazy passion? Let’s go with that.” You know? So you, you’re into, you know, sports. You know, and you’re really into basketball, let’s go with that as a congregate to getting you literate in grazing and finding information, and reading and reading it deeply, and parsing it. You, you’re into, you know, this crazy anime thing. You are into music. Whatever, you know, like, they’re able to sort of cease on stuff in a way that, you know, frankly, most teachers wish they could, but they’re being forced to march to this metronome of the “No Child Left Behind” curriculum and standards. So I think the explosion of writing is really fantastic. We’re in this age of an enormous amount of writing literacy. It would be good to also weld that to more formal instruction; be able to sort of–to take those moments of, like, fantastic amateur production, and try and raise them to even higher standards. And I think one of the places that could happen is in the libraries.
ST: Yeah That’s what–libraries are sort of uniquely setup to be able to take advantage of those multiple literacies, that it’s just as important to be… Kids are gonna get more excited about things that they’re already passionate about.
ST: So if you can focus that and then show them why it’s important, then they’ll be able to expand that out to other places in their lives, and…
CT: Yeah, I mean, like… Yeah. This is the thing, if you… And you know, librarians have told me this, teachers have told me this, parents have told me this. You know, lots of studies have shown this. If, you know, if a kid can be encouraged to go deep, research wise, reading wise, into any subject, really deeply, at least once in their lives, you know, that has a spillover effect into how they understand the role of reading and research in the rest of their lives, you know? Like if they ever get that taste of just going, burrowing deep and learning crazy stuff that no one else knows, that is intoxicating. And that is extensible. Like it becomes something that you can say, “Well, what you did to figure that crazy thing out in origami, or your favorite video game, do that here.” And this is kind of funny, I mean, I would have this experience a couple times. So I play video games, and one of the things that I use a lot of… If you play video games, there’s these things called walkthroughs.
CT: And what a walkthrough is is basically, so you’re playing a game, and at some point in time you might get stuck. You know, maybe there’s some mission you’re trying to complete and it’s just not clear what you’re supposed to do. Maybe the game wasn’t designed terrible well. This often happens, you know, the game makers think they’ve made it kind of clear what you’re supposed to do, but they haven’t, so you get stuck. And you know, in the old days, you know, 20 years ago you just stopped playing the game ’cause it’s just too frustrating. But nowadays, what you do is you go online and you find gamefaqs.com. That’s F-A-Q-S, gamefaqs.com, or any game FAQs site. And you look for a game FAQ. Now, a game FAQ is someone who sat and said, “I’m going to write a, sort of, an instructional document that says, you know, that describes scene-by-scene what’s going on in this game, what you’re looking at, what the goals are, and how to navigate it, and what to do.” Now these are actually really hard documents to write, because you have to be incredibly… As non-fiction goes, it’s hard stuff to write. It’s like writing a really amazing manual, you know, for like an airplane engine. You have to be unbelievably clear, because if you’re not clear, people will not be able to follow your instructions. You have to be able to – when you’re playing the game – minutely observe what’s going on and take careful notes. You know, so like the way these game FAQ people do it, they’ll play the first scene, noting everything down, often taking little notes, taking little, you know, post-it notes, or typing it into another computer, and then going onto the next one and playing through and writing it all down. So they have to expert in every aspect of the game; they have to explore it, they have to make these careful notes. And then when they write it, they have to write it–they have to do this very complex active domain adoption. They have to adopt the domain of a neophyte. The person writing the guide knows everything about it. They’re an expert. But they have to write for an audience of someone who has no idea what’s going on. And so I was often startled at how well these things were written. And so… I mean, and they’re long! I would, like… Anywhere from, you know, I’ve seen ones–they generally, they’re at least a couple thousand words long, and I’ve read ones that go well into the 40 and 50,000 words long, right? So I started emailing, occasionally, people who had written these to find out “Who are you? You know, who did this?” [Laughs] And a lot of the times they were teenagers. They were teenage boys and teenage girls–minority teenage girls, more teenage boys, but they were teenagers. And I would go, “Alright, so you wrote this 13,000 word document over a year, you know, with like 50,000 post-it notes in your room. What’s the longest piece–in that period you wrote that, what’s the longest piece of writing you were asked to write for school?” And they were like, “Oh, about 500 words, you know.” So like, so for their passion, they were just doing this actually extremely well-written and clear… And I was like, you know, “You need to take this thing and put this in your resume. Like this is proof of a fungible, amazing skill that you have honed. You know, I mean, like show this to an employer, you know?” Like, ’cause they need people that can do this! That can communicate clearly, you know, to other… across domains to do all these complicated things. So yeah, again, this is exactly what you can do when you get someone, you know, with their obsession. And, you know, librarians have the opportunity to approach kids and embrace their obsessions, as opposed to have to chase them out of the classroom as a waste of time.
ST: Yeah, and I think that’s what a lot of libraries, I think, are trying to embrace now, is becoming maker spaces and providing those spaces for people to come in and create themselves. And not only, sort of, not just providing them with the tools and the space to create, but then to be able to put them into our catalogs and so other people can see them, so they can share that with everybody else, too.
CT: You know, this would be a fun thing to do. Pick a new… this would be a crazy thing to do. So one of the fun things about a game FAQ is it’s fun to have the first one up, right? But they’re hard to write because, you know, again, it takes a long times, takes a lot of writing. So a lot of game FAQs actually wind up being collaborative; someone writes a whole bunch of stuff, but then other people add to it. And so you could almost have some fun, like, by picking a new big game that’s gonna come out, and then get a couple game machines brought into a conference room in the library. And find, you know, the 10 or 15 kids who are really into games. Say, “We’re gonna have like a crazy game playing hackathon to create a game FAQ, the most comprehensive game FAQ for this new game in one weekend.” Like, “We’re gonna create a 20,000 word document.” And get them all basically playing and taking notes, and helping each other out to describe this stuff, and pound the thing out and be the first group in the world to have, like, the Call of Duty, you know, game FAQ up. And, like, and again, you could have a adult there who’s like actually helping copy-edit the thing, and show them how to improve the writing and make it even better. You could have this amazing moment of literacy and it would be this product that would actually go and live online, that they could be proud of and point to people that they had created. Like there’s all these amazing projects you could do that would harness all these values of literacy that we treasure, and that libraries exist to protect.
ST: Yeah, that’s such a good idea. I should edit this part out and not share it with anybody else, and just steal it for myself. [Laughter] But no, I will let everybody else here this, too.
CT: Yeah, excellent.
ST: The last thing I wanted to kind of talk about was, libraries and journalism kind of face one of the same things, is that everybody is telling us we’re did. [Laughs] So I didn’t know if newspapers in particular, and print journalism… I was wondering, do you think there’s any lessons that libraries can learn with how journalism has changed to meet the digital age?
CT: [Laughs] Well, sir… Actually, in a weird way, I think newspapers are one of the worst places to look for advice, because I’m not sure they’ve done it very well, frankly.
ST: Yeah. Wired has, no one else.
CT: Yeah, Wired’s done okay. I would say, actually, the two places I work for, I think, have done some of the best jobs. Wired has a very thriving website that manages to mix the type of quick hit stuff that gets a lot of traffic on blogs, with actually reported things. You know, they have a staff, they pay for real writing, they have real editors, and reasonably good discussion boards. New York Times is kind of killing it online, they’re doing a great job. You know, like they have, like… When you dip beneath the hood of their main page and look at all the thriving blogs they’ve got, and the quality it’s written at…
ST: Right, right.
CT: You’re like, “How in God’s name are you doing this?” You know? I mean, I don’t know. I’m a contributing writer but I’m not… and staffer, I just sit there at the other end of the fire hose going, “This is amazing,” you know? So I mean, you know, to the extent that they’ve done anything right… I think one of the things that has happened to magazines and newspapers – almost without them really understanding it, I think – is that they have become kind of platforms in which people create. By which I mean, if you, like–and this is not a defense of the quality of their comment threads, because I think they’re actually off… sometimes not good enough, although the Times does a pretty good job; they’ve got a team of people moderating their stuff, you know, keeping the absolute crap from coming out. But I’ll bet if you did a pound-for-pound count up of the number of comments versus the number of actual stuff written, there is more text generated by the readers on the site of the New York Times than there is by the staff of the New York Times. And the same might even apply for Wired, I’m not as sure there. So what I’m saying is that they’ve kind of become these curious things where people both go there to read stuff, but also to communicate their thoughts about it, and to see what other people think about it. And that is the one thing that they have partially managed well; their transition to. They’re not as good at it as I think they should be, because I don’t think they grasp the truly social nature of online commentator. Which is that when you… If you open yourself–if you open a story or what not up to comments, you are creating a social environment that you have to go in and participate in. I learned a long time ago, when I was blogging, that you need to be in there responding to all the comments. You know, like sort of agreeing with, and talking to, and encouraging the good actors, and spanking and discouraging the bad actors. That’s how you create a really convivial environment where the smart people hang around and say really smart things and get to know each other, and then you have this cross talk, and the bad people just stop even posting because they know they’re not getting any traction, you know? So there’s this… As I say over and over again in my book, the cognitive value of conversational environment requires social work. And whereas I think places like Wired and New York Times magazine have done a pretty good job at just basic screening out of abusive comments – you know, they get rid of those – there’s no culture of the staff or the writers going in and cross-talking, you know, with the people to create that next higher level of conversation. And that’s partly because, frankly, the writers are not paid to do that, like they don’t have enough hours in the day. Like if you want to do that, if you want to have really high quality conversation, you have to make that a priority for which you actually remunerate your staff. You know, you pay people like… You know, “Alright, for 80% of the week you write, and 20% of the week you’re paid to talk to these people.” No one’s paid for that right now. So, alright, now I unpack that to sort of say there’s this… What newspapers have realized is that when you create stuff, when there is culture, and information, and data in a place, people like to show up and they like to talk about it, right? And newspapers and Wired have done an imperfect job of creating a good environment for that; they’ve done an okay job, they could do a much better job. Libraries, you know, potentially could have similar sort of engagement and conversational elements in them. You know, and you see that creeping a little bit into view here and there, with you know, libraries that have setup, you know, blogs, have setup discussion boards, have setup wikis and what not to try and encourage the community to sort of talk to itself, and to talk about books. In some respects, you know, like… If I wanted to say who they should learn from, it’s not so much newspapers, but probably sites like Goodreads. You know, where you see this unbelievably thriving community of people who love books, and are reviewing them and talking about them, and setting up discussion boards. I mean, there is a discussion board for anything in Goodreads. And when I joined it about a couple years ago… I have this weird side interest in UFO books, like they just fascinate me, like crazy books about UFOs.
CT: I mean, I’ve read like gazillions of them, they’re an utterly fascinating subculture. Sure enough, there’s like 4 groups devoted to UFO books, and they’ve got like 200 people in them, you know? So it’s like “Awesome, I have finally found my tribe. I can find people that I can talk to about these insane foil-embossed books, that you know, like no one I know around me has read.” And one of the classic problems of readerly culture is intellectual isolation. You are obsessed with a book. You’re fascinated with a genre, no one around you is interested in it, right? And so Goodreads, and these other sites, have exploded as this way to decrease intellectual isolation of the reader, and give them a community in which they can care about things, and talk about them, and get ideas and what not. I sometimes wonder, like, is there a way for libraries to become part of that? I’m not sure there is… I’m sorry, I’m sure there is, I’m not sure the resources are there ’cause libraries are getting pounded on every level.
CT: You know, like, it’s a… The last thing I wanna do is give a librarian more work to do at this time, right? You know, it’s like, “Oh, and you should do this!” You know, like, “No, shut up, go away.” But, you know… Like one can imagine this Halcyon world where we do not have insane, you know, cutting of the forces of literacy. Where, you know, a librarian actually had the staffing and the time to, sort of, either individually or collectively – on a national, or regional, or county level – band together to help, sort of, figure out, you know, “What are the things we could do that could help kick-start these interesting conversations?” Are there places where conversations already happening that we can join in on? Because I mean, the other thing I think that is a valuable thing to learn online is that rather than try and create something from scratch, just see if people are already doing it, and see how you can get in on the action, right? So if there’s already people talking about books somewhere, well, maybe it’s just a matter of helping to direct your existing there, you know? Like do all the people walking inside the library know that Goodreads exists? You know, like, are there posters showing, you know, how this stuff works? You know, and are there evenings when people are encouraged to come in and have an online book club with people from around the country, that the places already existing? In some cases, I don’t think it’s even stuff you have to build. It’s more like saying, “Well, what’s out there? What are people doing, and can we help? You know, is there a way that we can become a place that’s part of that?” You know?
ST: Yeah, I mean, basically libraries facilitate conversations. We make those connections together, so...
ST: Well, where can people go to find out more about you and your book, Clive?
CT: Let’s see, so… Well, if you go to smarterthanyouthink.net, that’s the site for the book. It’s got an excerpt, it’s got reviews and what not, and a great big “Buy the book” button, which I would encourage everyone to click on and follow through on.
CT: I also tweet a lot on Twitter. I’m Pomeranian99. There’s a story behind that. If you Google Clive Thompson, pomeranian99, “Why are you called Pomeranian99?” You’ll read the explanation, it’s in the Atlantic. And I blog irregularly at collisiondetection.net. Every once in a while I get a head of steam and I write a whole bunch of posts, and I let it vanish for several moments. I mean, in the process of writing my book, I thought of about 4000 blog posts I need to find time to write. So maybe this will incite me to get off my butt and do them.
ST: Alright, well, thanks a lot, Clive, for joining me today.
CT: Not at all. I had a lot of fun.
ST: Alright, bye. If you’d like to learn more about the podcast, you can visit circulatingideas.com, or you can follow the show at Twitter at circideas, or on Tumblr at circulatingideas.tumblr.com. You can also like the show on Facebook at facebook.com/circulatingideas. And if you have comments, questions, or suggestions for future interviews, you can contact the show at firstname.lastname@example.org. Music is by Pamela Klicka. Thank you for listening, and I hope you’ll join me again next time.
ST: I wish I could say this is the first time I’ve had trouble with Skype.
CT: Yeah, I know, I know. You know, it’s kind of funny. It used to be back, back when I started reported in the mid-90s… Oh. You know, the interesting thing was everyone, you know, was like, “Well, voice over IP will never take off because it’s the quality isn’t as good,” right? And that was because in the 90s, everyone expected a business phone call meant you were each in a completely silent room.
CT: On a crystal clear sound line, no disturbances. There was something unprofessional about it if there was noise contaging in the background, right? And what happens–and so they listened to voice over IP and they heard all these little noise artifacts, “Oh, it’s never gonna work,” right? What actually happened, though, is quite interesting is that mobile phones come along in the late 90s, in a big way, and suddenly a huge amount of business phone calls start taking place over crappy sounding lines, that drop several times in the course of a single phone call, with a lot of noise in the background because people are doing business calls in the back of cabs, and at airports, and what not. And so the average quality of the average business phone call gets dragged downwards so far that voice over IP is able to fairly easily vault over it in the mid-2000s, basically, when Skype sort of comes along.
ST: Right, right.
CT: Very interesting how that happened.