Date: 5/23/18
 
Phones, computers, tablets, and televisions: screens are everywhere. And while complaining about excessive screen time may seem cliche, there is something unnatural about its place in our lives. Are the fears of screen overload overblown? Is digital addiction really a thing? And how did we get here anyway?

It turns out that you can trace a lot of Silicon Valley history through the backstory of the screen. Visionaries like Vannevar Bush (Raytheon), Doug Engelbart (The Mothers of All Demos), Steve Jobs (Apple Computer) and Stewart Brand (The WELL) inspired people to develop the technologies now at work behind our screens. All these men (and so often it was just men)  were deeply idealistic, believing that technology could and should unlock our potential. They wanted to empower and amplify the human mind – and the screen was the essential portal.

Along the way, though, things got out of hand. Today there are studies showing that Americans now spend an estimated 11 hours a day looking at screens.

So now there’s a growing sense that the techno-visionaries’ goal of technology for “mind amplification” has morphed into something that looks more like mind control. Perhaps that’s because the data that fuels our screentime experience is hidden from view and/or in the hands of huge corporations that can profit from it in obscure ways. Or, perhaps it’s because we increasingly look to our screen in order to fulfill needs that can only be met by other humans.

This is a point that’s easily lost when we think about screen time. What are we actually interacting with? Are we spending too much time with programs that occupy work, or are we trying to connect with actual people on the other end? Increasingly, the screen has become  the portal through which we socialize. When we complain about too much screen time, the implication is that it comes at the expense of something more physically real – like another person. If screentime feels unnatural, it’s probably because we’re not used to having our social selves so profoundly intermediated by technology.

Digital addiction is closely tied to other issues that we’re grappling with, like post-truth, post-fact, and post-privacy. Since the screen is the essential technology, maybe it’s worth understanding its history more deeply.

Guests: 

Leslie Berlin, John Markoff, Howard Rheingold