Sunday, October 13, 2013

Smarter Than You Think and its Lessons for the Legal Profession

I just finished Clive Thompson's Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Brains for the Better

Thompson examines the ways technology tools are changing how we learn, remember and use knowledge, and concludes that these transformations are on balance positive.  His views are not blindly “techno-optimist” in character, but historically based: new tools (writing, printed books, paper and pens, telegraph, telephone) have always shaped the way we think, as well as what we think about.

Computer technologies are just the latest tools of our "extended mind" (Harold Innis) – the way we outsource parts of the way we think so we can free ourselves up for higher-level thinking. 

And each innovation that has helped our memories and the way we communicate encourages new behaviors and pushes us away from familiar behaviors.  This process has been called “the bias of a new tool.”

According to Thompson, the main biases of digital tools are
  • external memory: meaning information that is outside your head (and lots of it)
  • more connections: not just between and among people (Facebook, LinkedIn) but also between ideas, news, and types of data
  • communication and publishing

Figuring out how to live with these technologies means understanding them and how they are changing us.  Or, brought to a more topical and practical level for attorneys, “understanding the risks and benefits of relevant technology.

Below are several points made in Smarter Than You Think, along with some thoughts on how attorneys may consider them in evaluating the risks and benefits of digital tools.

Study and Practice the Art of Finding (Be Your Own Librarian)

Digital tools, both those within the walls (servers?) of our law practices and outside them, provide a mind-boggling amount of external memory.  This is undoubtedly a good thing for lawyers, as we have the ability to store all of our information and knowledge very inexpensively.  Taking advantage of external memory spares finite brain resources from having to store information in our heads, and allows us to reach higher levels of thought by focusing on the important stuff (finding creative solutions for clients).  See here for additional discussion about freeing up your mind to do the heavy thinking.

The challenge, (aside from protecting this information), is being able to find the right information when we need it. And the explosion of electronic information appears to make that an impossible task.  However, the challenge of organizing information is not a new one.  By way of analogy, it took a very long time to make books useful as reference tools.  Aids like indexes, paragraph breaks, and page numbers evolved over a long period of time.

To manage large amounts of digital information effectively, lawyers need to develop and use their own reference aids. Within your organization, this means taking full advantage of the capabilities of search tools.  And while search has become very powerful in navigating your data haystack, lawyers will also want to draw attention to the needles, by naming and organizing documents with an eye toward future use, and “tagging” documents by subject and keyword so that a search will find them. When your information has been captured and organized for future retrieval, then you can use it effectively to provide value for your clients.  For more on ways for lawyers to manage information, click here.

And searching outside your organization requires the same critical thinking you employ for other reference materials.  In other words, “check everything” in the digital world with the same discerning eye you have always used in evaluating the efficacy of cases, treatises, or other sources.

Connection Has Its Costs- The Risks of Being Always On

The connection and collaboration enabled by digital tools offers countless opportunities for lawyers (and everyone else).  Of course, instant and constant access to so much and so many has a downside.  Thompson is not the first to point out that the creativity necessary for problem-solving requires what he calls “interiority” and the ability to mull over things. As I have discussed before, a great deal of what attorneys do requires sustained attention, and the time to absorb information.  Switching back and forth from a brief to the email inbox or the Web destroys attention and focus. 

There are ways to mitigate the distracting qualities of computer tools, such as turning off notifications, or employing software tools like Freedom or OMMWriter.  Thompson also recognizes that practicing mindfulness (“paying attention to your attention,”) can help you keep from getting caught up in interruptions without even realizing it. 

Of course, as I have also discussed, many of the distractions and interruptions that destroy attention and focus- unannounced office visits and purposeless meetings, for example- aren’t digital at all.

Writing For More Audiences

The digital world offers more opportunities for lawyers to write, but the best reason for doing so is not necessarily what you may think.  Lawyers know that writing clarifies thinking.  Thompson cites Sir Francis Bacon’s observation that "reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man."  Externalizing thoughts allows you to evaluate them more objectively.

And writing for an audience further clarifies thinking.  It is easy to win an argument in your head. Knowing that you are writing for somebody makes the weaknesses in your writing stand out very prominently.  As Thompson points out, the "audience effect" of communicating to someone else "forces you to think more precisely, make deeper connections, and learn more." Moreover, the “generation effect” of writing about a topic improves your memory.

So the real benefit of writing a blog or posting for an audience is not the number of people who tune in (thank goodness), or how much information or understanding is conveyed to that audience, but rather the learning effect on the writer.  Thompson’s quote by Cecil Day-Lewis captures this point perfectly: “We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand."  And so more writing platforms and audiences provide more learning opportunities for attorneys, hopefully in the subjects that exist in the margins of your attention.

Conclusion- Not Either/Or Or But Both

What I like most about this book is Thompson’s demonstration that the strengths of humans (intuition, creative thinking) and computers (storage, search, calculation, number-crunching) are not mutually exclusive.  On the contrary, as Thompson’s chess example demonstrates, collaboration between people and computers resulted in “higher levels of human excellence in chess.”  Likewise, computer technology is undoubtedly one of several essential tools that will continue to help attorneys get better.  

As Thompson puts it, “let the human continue to do what it does best, but let the machine work.” His reframing of the debate about whether computers or humans are “smarter” is a pretty good lesson for lawyers:

Which is smarter at chess – humans or computers?
It’s the two together, working side by side.