Among the recurring elements of what my sons call “family photos”  are the iPhone pictures snapped at family get-togethers in which we’re all looking at our iPhones. My youngest son (who is one of the worst offenders) usually labels those pictures “warm family moments” or something equally sarcastic.

I don’t think my family is unique. Enter an elevator or restaurant, or just walk down a city street, and most people you encounter are staring at the small screens. That reality–and it certainly seems to be a universal reality–raises the question: what is this seductive technology doing to our brains?

Ezra Klein recently addressed that question in an essay for the New York Times.

I am of the generation old enough to remember a time before cyberspace but young enough to have grown up a digital native. And I adored my new land. The endless expanses of information, the people you met as avatars but cared for as humans, the sense that the mind’s reach could be limitless. My life, my career and my identity were digital constructs as much as they were physical ones. I pitied those who came before me, fettered by a physical world I was among the first to escape.

A decade passed, and my certitude faded. Online life got faster, quicker, harsher, louder. “A little bit of everything all of the time,” as the comedian Bo Burnham put it. Smartphones brought the internet everywhere, colonizing moments I never imagined I’d fill. Many times I’ve walked into a public bathroom and everyone is simultaneously using a urinal and staring at a screen.

Klein referenced several of the 20th-century media theorists, including Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong and Neil Postman, who “tried to warn us.” And he quoted Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.”

The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I’d figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it — and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check email, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected.

Sound familiar? It sure does to me. And it resonated with Klein, who was particularly struck by the word “hungry.”

That was the word that hooked me. That’s how my brain felt to me, too. Hungry. Needy. Itchy. Once it wanted information. But then it was distraction. And then, with social media, validation. A drumbeat of “You exist. You are seen.”

How important is the choice of the platform–the medium–through which we receive messages? Like Klein, I’d always supposed that content is more important than the medium through which we access that content, but the theorists he cites beg to differ.

McLuhan’s famous insistence that “the medium is the message” reflected his view that mediums matter a lot–in fact, that they matter more than the content of the messages being conveyed. Different mediums create and communicate content differently, and those differences change people (and ultimately, society). As Klein concedes, “oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd.”

Like several commenters on this blog, Klein has been influenced by Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

McLuhan says: Don’t just look at what’s being expressed; look at the ways it’s being expressed. And then Postman says: Don’t just look at the way things are being expressed; look at how the way things are expressed determines what’s actually expressible.” In other words, the medium blocks certain messages.

Postman was planting a flag here: The border between entertainment and everything else was blurring, and entertainers would be the only ones able to fulfill our expectations for politicians. He spends considerable time thinking, for instance, about the people who were viable politicians in a textual era and who would be locked out of politics because they couldn’t command the screen.

Later, in this very long essay (which is well worth your time to read in its entirety,) Klein makes an important point:

There is no stable, unchanging self. People are capable of cruelty and altruism, farsightedness and myopia. We are who we are, in this moment, in this context, mediated in these ways. It is an abdication of responsibility for technologists to pretend that the technologies they make have no say in who we become.

I wonder: what have we become?


  1. Living in a college town and living near campus, I am amazed by the kids walking and texting. They aren’t experiencing their surroundings. They are avatars immersed in their digital experiences versus immersing themselves in reality.

    This is also a problem when they drive since I pay close attention when they pass by in their vehicles, and nearly all of them stare down at their phones.

    At the same time, I’ve never experienced a mass of youngsters who know their reality sucks. I was naive to the world and other cultures. When I moved from a small town in Indiana to Orlando, Florida, and then Miami, I was in culture shock.

    The kids today are immersed in foreign cultures at their fingertips. They are inquisitive about other cultures when I didn’t even know they existed.

    I’ve met twenty-year-olds who were wise beyond their years and not just “book smart.” In the Metaverse, through Google Maps, we can tour any place on the globe without ever leaving the couch. I was restrained to what happened in my county/state. 😉

  2. Technology has not advanced to the point that it can blur or block Donald Trump’s picture on the Internet after a minimum number of showings each day. We should at least have that option on our personal computers and cell phones. We do need to keep informed as to what he is up to and track his new lies but do we actually need to see his face?

    I am severely electronically challenged; know enough to use E-mail, Google for information, research Wikipedia for specific issues or people, Facebook with messenger; but being deaf these are my primary sources of communication. I have a cell phone to text family and a few friends but do not use it to run my life, still have no idea how to use the camera. Watching people scroll backward on their phones to find a picture of something from weeks or months earlier to reach the message or small picture you are no longer interested in seeing after the long wait is part of life today. I inherited my grandparents’ photo albums with pictures around 100 years old, easily recognized and treasured…and can be copied to share on the printer connected to my computer…lol

    Yesterday my Smart TVs, I have 2 of them, suddenly do not simply turn on to my Spectrum cable connection but show the name “Spectrum” moving about the screen. Clicking the Cable button on my remote turns off the TV completely, pressing the Cable button a second time brings up my programming. I did nothing but turn “off” these technological miracles the day before so, what happened? Contacting Spectrum via Chat is always at least one hour or more which is not a “chat” in my estimation but a lengthy discussion which always ends with them sending a notice to my daughter-in-law who is my phone connection for this technical piece of furniture.

    Electric cars which are provided electricity by using fossil fuels doesn’t sound like technical progress to me.

  3. For a more in depth look at this topic consider reading, “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess – The Conflict Between Word and Image”, by Leonard Shlain. A truly unique look at the effects of right-brain versus left-brain thinking throughout history.

  4. Thank you for remembering McLuhan. There was a follow up half satirical book in his era: “The Medium is the Massage.” That may be even more true now.

  5. Early morning ramblings

    I think of the old joke, he has a face for radio, or as in “Singin’ in the Rain”, she had a voice for silent pictures.

    Then I think of acting. Stage acting is different from movie acting and silent movie acting was different from talkies. Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin excelled at physical comedy while Groucho Marx was the king of the one liners.

    But, is the medium the ultimate determinate?

    In my attempt to shrink my physical library (I still prefer to read paper), I sold a book called “Underscore”. It is a text on writing music for movies, which involved syncing sound to action. Dialogue was accompanied by silence.

    Not so today. Watch many movies and TV shows and some music is going on all of the time.

    Similarly, in high school I once accompanied a friend, who thought he could sing, in a talent show. I am not a pianist and couldn’t play what was written, so I followed the “rules” and played soft, non-moving chords behind his singing, and arpeggios when he held a note. I was asked if I wanted to participate, he wasn’t. Shortly thereafter, rock music changed the rules, with singers raising their voices over constant electronic sound. But it is still music, the same medium.

    Then there is choice. I suppose I am from the “TV Generation”, but my viewing habits changed with circumstances and these were choices. As a kid, I watched a lot. As a teenager, I watched less and socialized more. As a single man, much less TV, but once married, with a wife who worked late, I watched a lot more.

    I have had a cell phone for decades, but I mostly use it as a phone. I refused to let my employer put verification software on it. I don’t play games on it (I do my crosswords and such on my desktop, but only because I don’t want to go broke buying The NY Times every day.)

    Pointing to a “Digital generation” person, my niece did NOT bury her face in her cell phone, texting away all of the time — until she met Marty. Then she was constantly texting, in the middle of family conversation, or anywhere, anytime. She was in love. To the point, they are married to each other with two sons. Like I said, circumstances (in this case meeting her mate) change and habits change with them.

    Where Klein talks about there being no stable, unchanging self, the same is true of different media, and the same is true of our choices in what we use and how we use it.

    Final anecdote – years ago, Wire magazines website, changed their “look”. The pages all had a background of alternating diagonal stripes in two shades of blue. The text was in a third shade of blue. If you can imagine it, don’t. It will make you dizzy and I could barely read an article. Their site HAD been source of information.

    I wrote to the webmaster – “Wow, you have really done it. You have achieved the impossible. You have transcended content and achieved pure form.”

    They wrote back – “I can’t tell if you are being sarcastic or complimenting us.”

    sometimes sarcasm goes to waste, but for them, the medium was the message and it said, “Look how hip and cool I am.”

  6. I was an early adopter, buying my first home computer in 1984, laptop in 1994 and I don’t even remember when I bought my first cell phone. When I moved to Maryland in 2009, I was taking my morning walks each weekend, headphones in and “groovin” to my MP3. One day I suddenly saw a flock of eastern bluebirds. There were about thirty of them and they were beautiful. As I marveled at those birds, I started to look around. I pulled my earpieces out and began to listen. It was sunrise and the birds were doing their morning calls, the foxes were hunting the rabbits, and the deer were grazing peacefully. I hung up my MP3 that day and began paying attention to the life around me.

    When I worked, I had to be on my e-mail all day, every day, because I would have to deal with over 300 questions, requests, or demands every day. Now I look at e-mail twice a day. I have a really nice cell phone, but it stays in my pocket most of the time. When I walk in the morning, I’m still listening for the bird calls (hawks, owls, ibises and mockingbirds mostly). I sometimes take pictures of sunrises and full moons, but mostly I talk to other walkers and runners. I’ve made a lot of friends that way. I feel much better knowing that I’m not just a thing at the end of a device.

  7. im reading here,the medium blocks certain messages.. im working and ill finish the essay.. but as ive experessed many times, the social media has become the social order. along with its far fetched BS, and absolute areas of fact,the kind that we would face to, and eye the other as absurd. your denied this function when one is hidden from view. like big brother,aka 1984. the AI vehicle to be used to direct, with little knowlege or, whos programing it,and why. seems concerning that we ignore the message,or skim over it like it doesnt exist. again,what is the end game? control baby,control…hopefully,its to our human needs over greed and deciet..

  8. I learned to write programs in FORTRAN Two in 1965 and used it until the IBM PCs provided Basic, which my students all used, so I stopped giving assignments that required them to work in FORTRAN. I have a cell-phone (a Flip phone) which I use for telephone calls. After several years I realized how to read a text message on it, but still do not know (or care to know) how to send one. I have not watched Television regularly since I was in high-school, so I am a card-carrying dinosaur. What do I do? I read.

    I use the computer in front of me to communicate with the world – for both input and output – the way most people use their cell-phones, and I keep the Amazon drivers busy delivering books. When we moved from Indiana to Florida I made a rough count of the books in the house (average number of books per shelf, times the number of shelves) and the total was about 2100. But that did not include the approximately 300 cook books that my wife uses, or the (roughly) same number of books on the fiber arts (We had a yarn shop, after all).

    Reading has been my avocation, and has been sufficient, because I can think about what I am being exposed to. And as the saying goes, “That has made all the difference.”

    So, I am amazed at how people manage to walk down the street looking at the I-phones and not walk into a street-light.

  9. Thanks JoAnn and Peggy:
    turned it off,, as i drive as a living,i seldom need tech except my on call stuff, which is once a day or maybe twice. no tube, no time, and i dont miss the paid ads for paying for a dish hooked to my farm house in the middle of nature. I do however enjoy TCM, weakness.. any of my surfing deals with lifes needs, er, reading tech and tool catalogs. (projects) and this blog is the only one.otherwise noise canceling bose keeps my brain from overheating while driving a very heavy truck over long miles thru open plains,with few headaches.
    i call it a stress free diet…

  10. It is not the folks on this blog who are being affected, it is those 40 and under. I have watched in great sadness as my grandkids parents ignore them and have their faces in their phones. I have watched in sadness as my grandkids, all under 10, spend hours on screens and whose lives revolve around superheroes and media stars and video games.

    Some readings:

  11. We all believe that we are informed when what we are is entertained. Endlessly entertained. Like all entertainment what we expose ourselves to is designed to, most of all, keep us imbibing and transported to a world that’s a combination of real and fantasy, sometimes more of one, sometimes more of the other, but it’s all composed, created, to house our brains for as long as it can.

    And, the purveyors of it are very much experts in producing it to do those things.

    Why? Simply said, to keep us paying attention to commercials. I use that common term in the hope that readers will pay new attention to it. Commercial(s). Buy, buy, buy because you do not ever have enough.

    It’s a treadmill that there is no escape from. Very often if we are not directly imbibing we are talking about what we imbibed last.

    We, literally, can’t stand up to it. It is a culture that defines who we are and how we live and what we believe. “1984” Newspeak.

    The destroyer of democracy.

  12. Hubby and I are high tech users. I read your blog, read news sites, use cookies to see restricted sites to my advantage and even have a pair of headphones that I use when I watch tv. My hearing disappeared (temporarily) while I had covid so I could wear the headsets and hubby could listen too with a reasonable sound level. I keep in touch with friends and family with social media and sometimes take 50 photos a day on my Iphone. Technology has improved our lives with banking apps, internet phone with a U.S. number and traveled extensively using online booking tools. Just this past week I used a VPN software to check into my social security account. We electronically file our taxes (every freaking year) to the IRS.

    It’s a lifestyle that seems to be required to live abroad these days.

    You can poo poo it all you want but this is the reality we’ve created.

    I try not to walk and read the phone at the same time. Hubby thinks it’s a cardinal sin to look at your phone during meals. We listen to smooth jazz Tampa Bay on our internet radio.

  13. Carr’s mentioning of the “hunger” of the brain’s need to be fed dovetails with the tenets of Tim Miller’s new book, “Why We Did It.” The “red meat” addiction of those forgotten souls created the Trump “army”. They simply couldn’t stop needing another fix of bullshit, lies, hate and fear. As a result, these people became mindless drones of propaganda of the Trump phenomenon. No wonder they won’t change. They need Trump’s political/social heroine shot all the time.

    I attend Colorado Rockies baseball games regularly as a season ticket holder. My seats aren’t the most expensive, but they cost about $30 per game. I see people come to the games, sit near us and buy food and beer at outrageous prices: #14.50 for a lite beer and $8.00 for a plate of nachos. There they sit pecking away at their cell phones while the game goes on. Astounding. Walking down a street can be perilous too. I’ve had people gawking at their cell phones walk right into me. Amazing.

    Imagine being a school teacher who had the temerity to ban the use of cell phones in class. Yes. That teacher actually intended to teach knowledge, not just information. Sorry. My idealism runs away with me sometimes.

  14. Comment by a 30 year old recently as to why he doesn’t listen to music anymore: “The sheer volume of culture makes it easy to feel as though we are trapped within a huge content-spewing factory working harder than ever to keep up with the production line.”

  15. We’re all infected with ‘sound-bite-itis’. Attention spans ARE definitely shorter, and I’m infected. I hate it when people don’t get to the point, and quickly.

    The cell phone doesn’t have to be in my hands all the time. I actually enjoy the ‘vacations’ from it and can go days before remembering to check texts (I’m more of an e-mail user). But if I accidentally leave the house without that phone, I turn the car around to retrieve it. If I’m too far away for that, I’m definitely uncomfortable without it.

    Nevertheless, once I get into my emails and Facebook messages, I can’t get out. There IS a lot to learn on that phone. Frankly it’s endless, and it takes will power even to shut it down for a few moments to go to the restroom. My parents always said I didn’t want to miss anything. That’s another ‘disorder’ with which I’m infected, and apparently that’s contagious too.

  16. Last time the grandkids visited, found all three with their eyes glued to pads, laptops or whatever…playing games, reading stuff or… whatever. Meantime their parents were glued to their iPhones, doing… whatever. My wife, however, was in the kitchen prepar….. on her iPad. I’ve got to get a picture of all this. So I whipped out my iPhone. I needed evidence. Sorry… it was self-defense, your honor!

  17. There is no way to go back to the way things used to be every time Pandora lets something new out of her box. Cave Paintings, a common language, storytellers, pictographs on clay tablets, alphabets, words written on paper, printing press, books, libraries, postal service, telegraph, telephone, radio, movies, television, computers, WWW, cellphones, smart Phones… Every innovation led the pundits of the era to lament the loss of the old ways. So far, we have survived (evolved through) every new creation.
    We will deal with the “Oh God, ain’t it awful” pundits lament about how the attractions and distractions of modern technology are corrupting our children and grandchildren and destroying the treasured “way things used to be”. I will await the inevitable next new thing that will make the cherished old things of today obsolete and start the cycle all over again.
    Things are changing… I choose to believe that that is a good thing.

  18. Interesting today,

    Has technology actually made lives better? I highly doubt it. The radio absolutely connected humanity in a way that it never had been before, then around the same time the telephone joined the club.

    Then the pagers, then text messaging, then personal computers, then smartphones! We have new constellations in the skies because of technology. Has it made anything better?

    One direct hit from a coronal mass ejection, all of this technology will be useless. Many of our devices, the GPS units and the satellites that make them work, or telephones that we carry around in our pocket, that window to the world, will have its shade pulled down. Your electronic banking will not be functional, some cars will not run, how will the world react at that point?

    It’s all driven by profit, it’s all driven by power and money! These young folks cannot read a map, they find it difficult or undesirable to research something in a library or an encyclopedia or a thesaurus or a dictionary! Write a check? Write a withdrawal slip? Even a deposit slip? LOL not a chance! If the so-called smartphone can’t do it or becomes incapacitated, there actually will be people dying because of it.

    There is no independent thinking, it’s manipulated by social media and all the technology that goes with it. When everything we do depends on it, relationships, financial issues, religious issues, political issues, we are attached to that crap sack by the umbilical cord we carry around in our pocket or have on our desk.

    Brainwashing is easy, because the more you read or digest that garbage sucked in every day, by that umbilical cord, it changes your humanity by its DNA!

    Not only are children susceptible, but grown folks! Giving out information that can allow criminal elements to steal or manipulate and worse! Catfishing is a pandemic! So is Phishing! I never knew I was related to so many Royal lines in Nigeria, lol, I always wondered why they can’t solve their own issues being royalty and all!

    Has technology given us foresight? Technology has actually divided Society. When a certain group I used to communicate with talked about drought proofing the United States by building pipelines and desalinization plants, that was 25 years ago! Actually 30 years ago. Communicating with legislators communicating with organizations, the handwriting was on the wall! Everyone knew things were going to get worse, but then you had those who use technology to sway common sense. Nothing was accomplished! It was a waste of time. Time that mortals really can’t afford to waste.

    Today, the West is running out of water, and I mean the western part of the United states. The central plains are supposed to continue to heat up, that will make planting difficult. Right now, farmers are pulling up their orchards and plowing under their crops because they don’t have water to irrigate. They are selling off their cattle and other animals because they have no water for them to drink. As of today, this applies to 33% of farmers and ranchers in the United States.

    The Colorado River looks like a drainage ditch, this was talked about more than 30 years ago, did anything happen? Now, not only in the united states, but Europe, the Danube River, it’s drying up! In China, the Yangtze is also critically low.

    It’s a global crisis that will cause food shortages on a scale never before realized, and, drinking water will be the new oil! Wars are going to be fought over these resources. Humanity cannot direct it’s own steps.

    With the Advent of technology, with the ability of the insane to influence millions upon millions, gridlock has only increased! Soon, it will lead to the demise of society.

    Quote from the book “Environmental Ethics” states, “Technology is a servant of only limited usefulness and highly unreliable. When it does solve a problem, it often creates two new ones and their side effects are usually hard to foresee.”

    So, instead of Humanity uniting to solve a global crisis which will lead to a Culling of life that has never happened before in human history, these supposedly intellectual beings are busy measuring their Willie winkies, even as the band stops playing while the ship slips below the surface!

    All the information is available! But people would rather follow the Kardashians and the myriads of influencers, or enthrall themselves with the freak shows that permeate social media or giving credence to those who belong in an asylum! Yep, the warnings have been yelled from the mountain tops, but, that umbilical cord attached to that crap sack deafens those Clarion calls! The gods of sex, drugs, and money, will cease to be a respite.. So many willingly sacrificed their lives to these gods! So how can they complain? But complain they will, “nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide!”

  19. I was going to comment, but I lost track of what the post was about because there were so many comments. Oh well….

  20. Seriously, As I drive around the city, I see the direct effect. People can no longer sit in a car and just drive from point a to b. Every stop light is an opportunity to check out of the car and start staring at the phone. Almost once a day I honk at someone that is in front of me at the light to distracted by their phone to notice that the light has changed.

    Give up the phone. Live in the moment. Pay attention to the task at hand. There is nothing on that phone that can’t wait. If you want to waste your time on the phone, do it out of my way.

  21. I asked my 14 year daughter if she knows how to get home from school. She asked why I would ask and I stated her head is always down on her phone. She got a phone last year and we have all types of time limits on it, she can’t download any application or contacts without us logging into the account.

    The only reason we got her the phone is there has been too many times and one time in particular when her school bus was over an hour late and we were frantically calling the school and transportation office and the sherriff’s office to find out what happened.

    The comment Klein makes about how the brain hungers for more and more–this is such a similar description used for those addicted to benzo’s, pain meds, etc… the brain hungers for more and so it an addiction. We are addicted to these phones and other cyber sources. Its a double-edge sword like all technology.

  22. Elaine, and Dan,

    Absolutely, I’ve witnessed what you both have been talking about. That’s why, I’ve really given up watching television, except for a few episodes of Perry Mason lol! But, absolutely technology is considered a gateway drug! You become addicted to being a lawyer! And voyeurism is definitely an addiction. The only thing about it, back in the day, the voyers would be the peeping toms or paying people to do stuff while they watched. Now, you just have to dial it up on your smartphone or your tablet or laptop or whatever! So, that addiction is like having a candy dish available at all times, no effort involved! This technological genie is one of many genies that can never be put back in the bottle.

    Technology can be such a useful tool, it could eliminate the water shortages, it could clean up the environment, it can provide amazing sources of transportation, it could provide clean energy, but, we use it for self-gratification, pornography and such, and to build even more horrific weapons to kill each other with! So, there you have it! Mankind/humanity is really a stupid species. We’re supposed to be the Apex species on this planet, but do you see any of the other species wreaking havoc on the only home we have?

  23. I thought the whole point of life was to develop a “stable, unchanging self” that is resilient and adaptable to circumstances (not the latest social media notification).

    Technology clearly undermines the struggle to be human.

    But what do I know?!

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