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What Our Screens Tell Us About Ourselves

A professor recorded long stretches of screen time in the lives of his test subjects and used AI to paint a portrait of modern life. 

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How life is lived in a screen-time world. 

With the emergence of touchscreen smartphones, tablets and watches, so much of our lives is spent on our devices that in many ways we are what appears on screen.

This “mediatization,” as Byron Reeves, a professor of communication at Stanford University, puts it, sparked a remarkable and unprecedented study of the way we live today.

In a series of field studies, Reeves has recorded screen time of his subjects one frame every five seconds for days on end — with promises of absolute privacy, of course. He then uses artificial intelligence to decipher it all — words and images are recorded and analyzed. The portraits that emerge play out like cinema, revealing never-before-imagined insights into how people live in the screen-time world.

Reeves says the pervading sense that everyone is multitasking and that attention spans are narrowing is not just a hunch, but demonstrable in the data. Our screens are often filled with radically different content side-by-side and each bit gets consumed in rapid-fire bursts of focus, often no more than 10 to 20 seconds each.

Join us for a fascinating look at our screen-time culture on the latest episode of Stanford Engineering’s The Future of Everything podcast, hosted by Stanford HAI associate director Russ Altman. Listen here.


Stanford HAI's mission is to advance AI research, education, policy and practice to improve the human condition. Learn more

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