30 June 2017 09:35:12 IST

So you think you’re smart?

A dangerous idea being peddled by bookstores: that some books will make you feel more intelligent

I noticed a new section in my local bookstore recently, which made me scratch my head.

“Smart Thinking?” I asked the young woman at the desk. “What’s that even mean?”

She gave a five-star, Michelin-rated, Oscar-winning eye-roll. “It’s basically ‘Philosophy’ but with added, you know, bestseller.”

All Waterstones stores now feature ‘Smart Thinking’ as one of their categories — showcasing a range of books from business studies and self-help, to popular science and new nature writing.

The sign got me thinking about all the different kinds of smart you can be. ‘Smart’ can refer to how you dress — snappy and with pizazz or, most prosaically, suited-booted and buttoned up. It can describe the way you walk — walking smartly down the road, you’re on a different mission than when you amble along. If someone accuses someone else — usually younger — of being “too smart,” it’s because they’re giving you ‘sass’ (lovely word) and being a bit too clever for their own good. Too much of that is likely to result in a tight slap — which itself would smart, a bit. Smart, in this sense, closely linked to the word’s Old English roots in the verb ‘smeortan’ meaning ‘to cause sharp pain’.

On the other hand, kids can be described as being ‘smart as a whip’, crackling with insight, sharp perception and rapier-like wit. It also suggests someone who is streetwise: savvy, practical and able to think on their feet. “She may not have much education,” you might say, “but she’s street-smart.”

‘Smart thinking’ contains elements of all of the above, but mainly it suggests a modern, chic way to rid your mind of clutter, teasing out the tangles and chopping off the split ends: no-nonsense, no mess, neatened up into a spiffy bob. But thoughts, as everyone knows, are notoriously hard to pin down (or pin up). The mind’s natural state is fluid, not fixed — a sort of mental soup, bubbling away with bits of this and bits of that bobbing about. Endlessly buffeted by sensory inputs, it is the ‘monkey-mind, picking up and putting down and going: “Oooh, look! Shiny…”

These days, more than ever, our mind-fields are bombarded with shiny things. Pop-up ads, LED screens, scrolling text, hyperlinks, multiple tabs, click-bait… all screaming for our attention (or what little scraps of that illusive thing are left rattling around in our digitally overextended little heads).

No wonder the marketing dudes at Waterstones saw the opportunity, zooming in to target this thoroughly modern malaise with some smart thinking of their own, cash registers in their eyes. “Smart thinking! That’s £29.99. Contactless? That’ll do nicely.” Ka-chiiinggg!

Smart cards, with data invisibly embedded in their innocuous plastic, zip past smart-readers and automatically deduct non-existent cash from our cloud-based bank accounts. Smartphones are, by definition, internet-enabled. They are like the tiny fruiting bodies, the mushrooms if you like, of the vast underground network of mycelium connecting us all — the web through which we are all connected and in which we are all, increasingly, caught.

‘Smart’ also suggests ‘practical’ and effective. “If we jimmy the carburetta to the main fuel outlet we can…” “Ooh, smart,” you exclaim, as the engine roars to life. Okay — I’m making this up and you can probably tell that I know nothing about cars, but this brings me on to my main point, which is that these days, our vehicles are so wired and circuited and preprogrammed, they are, let’s face it, smarter than us. And this goes for our phones, our kettles, our heating systems… in fact, more and more of our tools (for that’s what they are) are outsmarting us. Smartcars are not only better than humans at calibrating fuel efficiency, they tell us about traffic conditions, weather, where we’re going, how much longer before we reach our destination, and whether we’re wearing our seatbelt, as we navigate our way through our smart cities.

Voice recognition software virtual assistants such as Amazon’s ‘Alexa’ and Apple’s ‘Siri’ and Google’s, um, “Google” — take ‘smart’ to a whole new level. They save us from the botheration of having to use our bodies at all — even down to our click-happy little fingers — to access information, order a pizza, call up a friend, do our shopping. We are parking more and more of our brains outside of our skulls, and, as Adam Greenfield points out in his book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life , technologies like these foster “an approach to the world that is literally thoughtless, leaving users disinclined to sit out any prolonged frustration of desire, and ever less critical about the processes that result in gratification.”

Unlike ‘Smart thinking’, ‘Philosophy’ suggests that critical thought is absolutely essential. The problem is that ‘philosophy’ sounds hard: it sounds elite, obsolete, even, in today’s age of populism. In taking ‘philosophy’ and mashing it together with ‘bestseller’ to make ‘smart thinking’, Waterstones promotes the idea that these books will make you feel more intelligent, well-informed and thought-full without any real effort on your part. This is not to put down any of the individual titles you might find here: there are some absolute humdingers — Noah Yuval Harris’s Sapiens , Jay Griffiths’s Kith , Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal to name but three.

I picked up a book with the same title as the genre. Smart Thinking by Art Markman. The book is all about short-cut one-upmanship as the subtitle reveals: ‘How to Think Big, Innovate and Out-perform your Rivals’.

More revealing still is the author’s name on the cover: ‘Art Markman PhD’. Just as the prefix ‘smart’ doesn’t make it so — neither does the suffix ‘PhD’, I thought to myself and left it on the shelf.

(Anita Roy is a writer, editor and publisher; www.anitaroy.net. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)