Analysis of “Public Thinking”

Nicholas Carr is an author that writes about the harmful influences of technology and he wrote in his book The Shallows that, “We [people who go on the internet] become mindless consumers of data.” Nicholas Carr has similar beliefs about the internet to what most people believe.  In Clive Thompson’s “Public Thinking”, Thompson declares the opposite. Thompson argues the increase in public writing made possible by the internet has important beneficial effects on thought, knowledge-sharing, culture, and politics. Clive Thompson is a writer for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Wired, and he typically writes about technology and its impact on our society and culture. Knowing about the effects of the internet is important because it is being introduced to all aspects of our lives: from our social life to our school or work. In this paper, I will talk about Thompson’s claims, the evidence he uses, a rebuttal, and the strengths and weaknesses of Thompson’s argument. The three claims I will be addressing are: that the increase of writing from the internet is having beneficial effects, writing for an audience improves your writing, and people with similar interests connecting through the internet will produce more discoveries.  

Thompson insists that the increase of writing from the internet has many benefits including memory improvement. In order to justify this, he introduces the concept of the “generation effect”. The “generation effect” was formulated by a study from 1978 that compared whether writing and reading improved memory and it indicated that writing, “requires more cognitive effort than reading.”(page 57) This suggests that writing improves memory because writing something you generate yourself makes your brain works harder. Thompson uses an underlying assumption that people want to improve their writing. Which leads to his target audience having some college education to being highly educated. These people are most likely be writing more than people who just have a high school diploma and need to memorize more things or are concerned with memory loss. Thompson also gives an example of college students using this for their benefit. To show that people use the effect frequently and it works for real people. He uses logos to apply to your logical side about needing to improve your memory and writing. Thompson uses experiments and people’s experiences to show that writing has improved people’s memory.

Thompson goes on to support his main claim by  illustrating how writing for an audience improves your writing. It clarifies thoughts and allows you to get in the mind frame to write more interesting pieces. Thompson argues that no matter how big your audience is the effect still works the same so it applies to every person that posts to the internet.  The author claims that by forcing yourself to write something down you are forced to defend your position and fully understand your topic before you start to write on it. “Hand waving” is when talking to a person face-to-face and they don’t really know what they are talking about or can’t remember something, so they wave their hands as a substitute for their shortcomings. He uses the concept of “hand waving” to prove that, if you were to write a controversial blog post with the concept of hand waving people wouldn’t be persuaded or care what you wrote. By not being able to “hand wave” in writing, you have to know what you are talking about so you must clarify your thinking. Thompson uses an example of these students at MIT who have to demonstrate their projects and when they have to explain how their devices worked they end up being nervous and hand waving most of their explanation. The author uses this explanation because his audience can relate to these students and probably have experienced something similar in their lives.  Another way audience improves writing is by trying to please your audience. Thompson writes, “one of the unspoken cardinal rules of online expression is be more interesting-the sort of social pressure toward wit and engagement”(page 54). This mean when we write for an audience we want them to enjoy what we write. People feel pressured to write better and more creative stuff when they start to think about what they want as an audience. The order in which Thompson puts his evidence provides a well build foundation with lots of logos to persuade the audience. Thompson uses people’s experiences to prove how an audience changes how people write.

Thompson claims people with similar interests connecting through the internet will produce more discoveries. Thompson uses the assumption that the internet has changed how people communicate and network new ideas. With the internet, groups with similar interests can meet no matter where they are at in the world.  Thompson uses previous scientific breakthroughs that happened more than once around the same time to show that the internet will connect people and advance society. The true discoverer of penicillin was a young french scientist, unfortunately no one took his findings seriously and “It would take another thirty-two years for Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming to rediscover penicillin, independently and with no idea Duchesne had already done it.” The author used a tragic story of how penicillin was discovered to demonstrate that if the internet was around when penicillin was first discovered, so many people wouldn’t have died from various disease. If Duchesne would have been able to publish his thesis online, people could have conducted peer review studies and Duchesne could receive credit for his discovery. Thompson believes if you eliminate the, “needless duplicates,”(page 60) then its possible to move forward and trade ideas instead of taking the time to discover things that have already been found. Since the internet, people don’t waste their time discovering things again and can bounce ideas off other people who are interested and are informed. Even if you aren’t a genius, Thompson believes you still benefit from the amazing connections the internet can make. The author states that, “For everyday people: the Internet, which encourages public thinking and resolves multiples on a much larger scale,”(page 61) . Thompson shows that everyone has benefited by the internet because of the increase of public thinking. With the increase of connections provides a platform to talk about similar interests which promote public thinking.  With the internet, like-minded individuals share idea more easily to produce more discoveries.

Thompson further builds his argument by using ethos and logos to address a rebuttal stance: that college students are worse at writing now compared to people in the past. Thompson used a study from a Stanford English professor, Andrea Lunsford, as supporting evidence that people now write more than ever before. She has compiled a century’s worth of freshman composition essays and had a five-year study on all writing students do, which includes what they do outside the classroom. The findings were that the error rate stayed mostly consistent throughout the years, but what was interesting was that essays had gotten six times longer. Not only is grammar not getting worse, but current students are actually better than previous students. The Professor also stated that the type of writing throughout the years had changed from narratives to more academic papers with evidence to back them up. This also shows that students now are smarter and more hardworking than previous students. Thompson uses ethos by using a reputable university with a study that had been researches for an extensive amount of time. He uses logos in the fact that this rebuttal has such strong evidence and it seems foolproof. The internet is not making students grammar worse nor are students getting stupider than previous generations.

Thompson strengths include using many other people’s experiences, expert quotes, facts, and studies to support his argument. The author uses all four of these to support his claim about the audience effect, but what makes Thompson’s support is well thought out. Thompson starts by drawing the audience in with a quote from a blogger and his experience with the audience effect. The blogger said that if there is an audience reading his work, then the blogger will take his work much more serious than if there isn’t. To backup the bloggers experience, Thompson uses a social effect is from two formal studies: Vanderbilt University professors published in 2008 and a professor at Douglas College in British Columbia. Thompson has built a solid foundation of support of his idea before he brings up his more controversial idea. He finishes his argument with an experience by a small blogger claiming that anyone can feel the social effect. Thompson evidence is strong which helps persuade readers his argument is correct. By using prestigious sounding schools, he relies on ethos to show that if they believe in the audience effect than it must be real. Thompson also chooses to include bloggers big and small to show that everyone can experience it. On many levels Thompson has strong evidences, he uses facts and he slowly builds to his claim which all makes his piece very persuasive.

Thompson’s weaknesses include using an old studies and having poorly supported claims.  When the author claims that writing helps your memory, he uses an out of date study from 1978 and the study was 35 years old when Thompson published his book. There are better study that are more recent and more related to his claim that he should have used. Thompson may have not felt the need to support his claim because it is a common practice to write down notes in school to remember facts, but this is one of his least supported claims. Thompson uses one out of date study to prove his claim, when he previously has used multiply different studies and experiences to persuade the readers with previous claims. Another claim that was poorly supported was that the introduction of the internet in less democratic countries would allow citizens to speak out about more rights and free speech but his hypothesis was wrong. Thomson talked to a famous blogger from China and she said most people only talk about popular shows and movies as well as their personal life. Thompson still believes that the internet facilitates political conversations and is crucial to democratic societies. Thompson has claims that lack the support they need to fully convince his audience.

Clive Thompson has written some well-supported claims and some poorly supported claims about how the internet has changed our lives for the better, but overall his evidence is powerful. Thompson brings up very prestigious universities and very strong studies as evidence to support his argument. Cognitive thought, knowledge-sharing, culture, and politics all have gone through significant changes by the increase in public writing from internet. The main claims typically have strong evidence that convince the audience that writing for an audience improves your writing and people with similar interests connecting through the internet can produce more discoveries. These topics about the internet are extremely important to talk about because of how heavily we rely on technology throughout our everyday life.

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