Today, the effects of screen-watching is a topic of renewed interest – especially about how children are affected. I say ‘renewed’ interest because 30 years ago, similar worries were expressed over TV watching. Not surprisingly, most of the current serious research (discussed on screen, of course) focuses again on children. What age groups spend how much time, on which media? How have these numbers changed? What is too much according to professional thinking? In my view, it’s beyond question that harmful sociological, cognitive and physiological effects – possibly even brain damage – can result from involvement with screens. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to get a clear picture of these questions in a time of very rapid technological change – in fact, as Jose Luis Orihuela puts it, the digital age has totally changed the paradigms for understanding all forms of communication.
Back in the digital dark ages (1988), I gave a speech on this topic at my community college, recorded in Vital Speeches of the Day – “TV, No! Get Off the Couch!” The issues discussed there still apply, and more so. And the pushback is similar. A professor of literature at Pepperdine University shared my speech with her students at the time, and surprised me with a telephone interview. She also sent me their written responses – which can be summarized, “What’s wrong with TV? It’s recreational, and harmless and besides, it’s a free country.” My claims 30 years ago may have struck them as unrealistic, preachy and even smacking of censorship. I wonder what the students’ reactions might be today.
Though we’re in a time when college students are more concerned than ever with freedom and self expression, it’s still relevant to ask “What good are you getting out of it?” and especially “What harm is it doing you (and others)?” More importantly, I would add an emphatic warning to current undergrads: “It’s naive to view your screen behavior as ‘free self-expression’. It’s neither free nor genuine self-expression. It’s highly manipulated, and hinders your efforts to find who you really are, or learn who you can and should become.”
The light from screens of all sorts – increasingly on smart phones – keeps people in the dark. The content – more and more of it visuals (especially videos) – provides marketers endless ways of learning about users, and alluring them into increasing debt. In short, we’re experiencing another aspect of the social consequences of financialization that benefits those who own and control the growing debt pyramid.
If you’re unsure what the financialization phenomenon is about, Carolyn Sisisko recently wrote a good summary and critique of it. She uses an unfamiliar term HAMP, which is the U.S. Treasury’s Home Affordable Modification Program, passed by the Obama adminstration in 2011, as a reaction to the global financial crisis. Its stated purpose is to offer at-risk home owners lower mortgage payments over a longer payback time. As Sissisko argues, this is not at all what they need, but it illustrates the corrupting influence of Wall Street executives on government policy, also discussed in her piece on the problem with financialization.
Many older people – myself included – who haven’t mastered new technology, may be frustrated to see younger people quite at home with smart phones filled with apps that provide them endless conveniences to shop (Amazon), travel (Uber), transfer money (Venmo), send money to a friend (WhatsApp), control their motorized skateboard, etc. Feeling behind the times is normal for older people. Besides, the ‘younger generation’ has always had special terminology, mannerisms, dress styles, activites and interests that intentionally keep elders out of the loop, and gain peer respect. We did that too.
Interaction and communication among teenagers through social media is especially fast changing, so if you’re over 20, forget trying to keep in the loop. For what it’s worth, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube are currently on top; Facebook is way down. No doubt these and other media trends – described on this website – will change quickly. And I expect those changes will correlate closely to marketing efforts of the top-tier technology giants and their financial associates.
Digital technology makes possible the increasing indebtedness of ordinary people. Technology itself is not the problem, though. It’s neutral, but it can be weaponized to harm people who buy into the conveniences it apparently offers. Any time of rapid change brings anxiety to some people, especially if they perceive threats to their livelihood or sense of worth. Early 19th century Luddites in England tried to destroy the textile machines they considered unfair labor practice. That approach can’t work. A true democracy is against a revolutionary cure for bad government, which is why some people think revolution is inevitable, and that democracy has failed.
The current spirit of divisiveness is encouraged by money interests, because it provides them more opportunities to take advantage of people. How? People in high states of emotion ordinarily view those with different opinions as “the other” – i.e., as a threat or an enemy. They’re looking for a fight. Social problems caused by financialization can only be corrected by clear understanding, and appropriate governmental involvement. That won’t happen however, while the general public remains angry and divided, and government is beholden to those money interests.
The problem of excessive screen time has caused some groups and communities – including social scientist, educators and parent groups – to advocate for improvements they believe are important. Instead of holding hearings and reasoned public discourse, however, where compromise should be expected, opposing parties demonstrate noisily, and threaten law suits at local, state and federal levels.
It’s easy to atribute our current divisiveness to mindless political allegiance of Red v. Blue parties, or Conservative v. Liberal ideologies discussed widely today. My approach (obvious in this discussion) has been to look for deeper causes of conflict which are not so easily seen. These typically involve behind-the-scenes oligarchs who stand to double their gain – e.g. by offering ‘help’ to those they’ve already harmed by their influence on education, news media, social services, health care, housing costs, etc. The saying is truer now than ever before – to understanding harmful cultural changes, we should “follow the money”. But the money trail is well hidden by design, and hard to follow. Think, e.g., of overseas tax shelters, or not-for-profit think tanks which turn out scholars who put a good face on oligarchic efforts, or firms whose only purpose is to hide oligarchic dealings – so-called ‘shell corporations‘.
In principle, every adult American citizen can vote to determine what’s best for the society; this really defines democracy. But our representative government is distorted by the political power and influence of oligarchs. Jeffrey Winters has made a thorough study in his book Oligarchy (2011), giving the history of its forms, and the means used by oligarchs in various cultures around the world to protect their wealth. He recently wrote a short HuffPost article, summarizing his understanding of oligarchy in relation to Democracy in America.
Here’s a little background about our topic of screen life. The first theater devoted to moving pictures was the Nickelodeon of Pittsburgh, PA in 1905. Almost from the beginning, communities raised objections to what they saw as breaches of public decency by what was shown. To avoid harsh government controls, the industry voluntarily imposed a set of standards on itself, called the ‘Hays Code’, later changed to the current familiar Ratings used by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) – to help parents guide children.
When TV became the screen entertainment giant pushing movies out, educators, parent groups, and concerned social scientists sought similar limits and self-regulation of TV content and ads aimed at children, and unsuitable programming during prime-time hours. Washington politics kept these from ever being implemented. Although there are voluntary self-rating organizations for the Recording Industry (RIAA), and Video Games industry (ESRB), parents have no guidance about what is suitable TV. Despite strong support by Congress to put some limits on TV ads and prime time content in 1988, President Reagan vetoed the bill .
It’s a curious illustration of growing corporate power that an early (1915) Supreme Court decision about controlling Moving Pictures [Mutual Film, Corp v. Industrial Commission of Ohio] ruled that films don’t fall under ‘free speech’ guarantees, because they are not made to educate; they are purely for entertainment – i.e. they are businesses with no interest in education. [Education has always been key in considering questions of free speech as explained in this recent (long) paper in National Affairs magazine, by Harvey Mansfield, professor at the Hoover Institute and Harvard.] That 1915 decision was overturned in 1952 [Jos Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson].
These two court reversals (1915 and 1952) pretty well ‘liberated’ corporations from any community efforts to protect themselves against too much corporate influence on public opinion. But these ‘liberating’ decisions pale in comparison to the complete free rein corporations (and the oligarchs they represent) have today. Since 2010, corporations can make unlimited political contributions, based on the argument (passionately backed by Senator McCain) that they are speech which must not be controlled [Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission]. It’s certainly true now that money talks, and the biggest money talks loud enough to drown out voices of ordinary people.
Returning to the effects of ‘screen time’, no one will doubt the pervasiveness of cell phones today. There are even cities which are making special walkways for the safety of distracted citizens.
These lanes don’t appear to be very helpful. That little girl and her mother with no phones are moving into the cell phone lane. The man with no phone is walking in the street which seems more risky than the dedicated lanes. And those with their backs to us are oblivious to wherever they are going.
A recent Guardian article argues that Facebook has all but destroyed “self-identity“. In my view, self-image is distinct from self-awareness. True – i.e. objective – self-awareness is good; “self-consciousness” is bad. At least that’s what my mother taught us!
Adam Alter speaks convincingly about ‘behavioral addiction’ to internet devices in his 2017 book – Irresistible; The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked – although many psychologists insist that addictions must be organic. This has been a recurring theme in my many years of discussing ethics and critical thinking with philosophy students. During almost 5 decades of teaching, I watched people’s ability to think independently and rationally steadily decline, along with any interest in doing so.
On the ethics side, to suggest that manipulating people’s beliefs and emotions in order to control them, and make profit from that control, is strait up wrong, was almost incomprehensible to my students. But this is what Kant argued in the 18th century – correctly, I believe. He said “We should never act in such a way that we treat humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end in itself.” For those looking for a challenging read, an explanation of this version of Kant’s difficult and famous “Categorical Imperative” (CI) can be found here.
Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves To Death (updated 20 years later by his son Andrew) was prescient of how screen time affects behavior today, when entertainment hampers careful thinking, and thumbs-up Likes influence choices. He compares George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1949) to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and judges that Huxley’s prediction has happened. Orwell was reacting to the Communist takeover by terror and thought-control. Huxley was reacting to an earlier threat – the Great Depression – which led to artificially marketed optimism, and the desire to have fun (especially in America, among young people). I think somehow both dystopias are in today’s culture – on one hand, many “mindless idiots” being entertained; and on the other hand, many protesters deluded by promises of equality, shouting ‘Why are some more equal that I am?’. Both groups take ideas from their screen watching addiction, and are carefully, charmingly won over to support policies that favor oligarchs – i.e. the ‘One Percent’ – in the F.I.R.E. sector, with it’s Wall Street-Washington alliance.
What’s next? As 3D enhances 2 dimensional screen displays, so can 3D be digitally ‘enhanced’, not only in communication, but also in the Internet of Things (IoT) using AR (augmented reality). One can buy a life-size digitized sex robot! A 2017 UK poll showed 1 in 4 men would consider it, Today companies are selling interactive AI-assisted personalized Sex Robots to meet men’s fantasies.
I wonder how this market will try to attract women.
A final note. All these new digital technologies and developments of AI used by financiers have the same end in view. Yes, their addictive effects, diminishment of democracy, corruption of government, scorn for truth, etc, are certainly issues of great concern. But underlying them all is ‘surveillance capitalism’ with its algorithms that tell people what to do, be, believe and buy. Jennifer Cobbe is the co-ordinator of Cambridge University’s Trustworthy Technologies strategic research initiative specializing in law, tech and surveillance issues. In a February 2019 article for Open Democracy, from which the following paragraph is quoted, she critiques what unregulated internet capitalism is now doing, and what can correct its abuses.
‘Surveillance capitalism’, as it’s known, involves gathering as much data as possible about as many people as possible doing as many things as possible from as many sources as possible. These huge datasets are then algorithmically analysed so as to spot patterns and correlations from which future behaviour can be predicted. A personalised, highly dynamic, and responsive form of behavioural nudging then seeks to influence that future behaviour to drive engagement and profit for platforms and advertisers. These targeted behaviour modification tools rely on triggering cognitive biases and known short-cuts in human decision-making. Platforms and advertisers extensively experiment to find the most effective way to influence behaviour.”
Here is Cobbe’s Article. So watch your screen time with critical thought.