Free from screens: a sheep in wolf’s clothing — what to love about screentime

Over the past few months I have overheard or been embroiled in increasingly regular conversations with parents about the detriments of ‘screentime’. One friend recently shared an Atlantic article that even went so far as to declare a mental health crisis and claim that smartphones have destroyed a whole generation.

For the most part I agree with the article and the concerned parents — I have first hand experience of this with my own children, 12 and 6 years old. Significantly, the data tells a compelling story: since the introduction of the home computer and the iPhone, the number of teenagers going to hang out with friends has declined, fewer teens move out of their parents home, and happiness amongst 10–20 year olds has declined. Younger children play outside less, ask fewer questions, and default to screens over human interaction.

While I agree with the data, I found it jarring that both the parents and the article present a reduction in screen time as the only possible solution. Parents, experts, and the article’s author, barely even mention it as a conclusion — and just assume that the reader or listener would see banning and regulation as the only way to reverse the trend. I disagree.

I find the context examined in these arguments very limited, looking back at only the preceding two generations. To truly appreciate what’s going on, we need to look at it in a larger context.

A temporary drug

When we look back at the introduction of books into culture, we can imagine a similar scenario: “When I was a child I was running around in the woods at 6 and I was an apprentice bringing home money by 13. But look at young George, 14 years old, sitting by a candle reading books all day! We’re spoiling this generation!” This wasn’t the case — partly because the transition to widely available books happened slowly. We did not go from no books to ubiquitous books in a matter of months.

Modern technological advance happens so rapidly that our relatively rigid grey matter cannot adapt with enough self-consciousness to avoid the pitfalls of applying primitive desire for gratification to digital interactions: click here, get hit of dopamine, “Cool, I can do this all day.” Consider this a temporary state of affairs.

Smartphones will not last long in society. In 10 years they will be as familiar as VHS is to us now. We need to look at them as very temporary devices as we transition to integrated technology. At the moment the phone and other screens exist as portals to a lot more data, information and experiences than any individual has previously ever had access. Our slow brains with limited memory and an inability to have multiple conscious thoughts at once get overwhelmed and addicted. However as we — inevitably — integrate tech into our own bodies and extend our personal processing power, memory and even physical abilities, the brain will be able to catch up with quantity of input and be less overwhelmed.

The new senses

Aswe integrate technology, we will not need a lot of time focussing through a connected device. Trends — including augmented reality, artificial intelligence and blockchain technology — show that as everything becomes connected and every object begins to have a digital existence, we will begin to interact with the physical and digital versions of everyone and everything at the same time.

For example, think of your Nest thermostat hanging on your wall. You can currently reach out and touch the physical device. You can also reach out digitally through your phone and ‘touch’ the device. Imagine reaching out with your mind to change the temperature. The same for your best friend. You can meet them for a cup of tea in person or you can interact with their digital self by commenting on their Facebook post. Imagine sending them a thought message directly, from your brain to theirs. This experience will adapt to all people and items: your fridge, your grocery, the traffic light, your car, the swimming pool, the Amazon shop — we will interact with the world in a profoundly different way. Imagine opening the blinds with a thought or watching three TV streams at once, comprehending them all.

Technology has already begun to integrate into us. Look at the person with Air buds in their ears, with Snapchat glasses, and a smartphone in their hand. Amber Case in her Ted talk, ‘We are all cyborgs now,’ accepts the definition of a cyborg as “an organism to which exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments.” Next we’ll have contact lenses projecting info on our eyeballs.

Soon we can connect ourselves directly to our tech using a neural link between our brain and the internet of everything. Companies like Bryan Johnson’s Kernel and Elon Musk’s Neuralink hope to provide the interface between our physical self and our digital world. We can look at the smartphone as a lame simulacrum of this link that serves as the infant phase of the full transition to cyborg.

We need to guide our biological evolution to join pace and merge with our technological one until we cannot tell the difference. This young generation represents part of that transition which started a long time ago. Anything that stands in the way of this movement will get disrupted, adapted and often displaced, no matter how permanent it may seem. This includes how we see our very selves.

Education over regulation

A more interesting path explores ways to integrate digital interaction into our children’s lives, rather than limit them. While we progress to an enhanced technology future, how can we get children to balance the instant gratification of screens with the supposedly more beneficial analogue-world interaction?

I created a chart for my kids to help them develop healthy analogue and digital habits. I seek for them to have full freedom to use their screens whenever they want, but responsibly: taking care of situations in both analogue and digital life.

The chart hangs on the fridge, with a magnet marking how much access each child has to their screens at any time. Ideally, the child maintains consistenly positive choices, gaining full control forever and making the chart redundant. It may not work for everyone, but I know a lot of adults who could benefit from this exercise too. The chart helps the kids take control over their whole life without imposing the idea that analogue life somehow holds more importance or that we consider digital an unnatural state.

As Yuval Noah Harari says in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.”

Technology comes from the natural processes of the evolution of our brains and our culture. Seeing screens as some unnatural experience or an enemy of society that we need to limit, insults history and displays extreme short-sightedness.

What’s next in this new world?

We have not lost this new generation to smartphones. As parents, belonging to an older generation, we have been left behind as a new technological transition advances beyond our willigness to comprehend. This new world requires new skills which children crave and which we complain about just like our parents complained about TV or the PC.

We assume our solution means we have to get kids back to being ‘normal’, but they consider screen life the new normal. They need these skills to transition to what comes next. Like the generations before us, we can either get on board, get out of the way, or simply become irrelevant. You choose.


This is part of the Freedom series, looking at how near future technology will change civilisation.

Originally published on Medium

See also: Free energy will change your life

free energy will change your life

The entire history of all living things relies on a simple principle: we live in a world of limited resources. It defines how organisms evolve, how societies act, how economies change, and how governments run (or fail). We take this assumption so much for granted that if anyone refutes it, they’re considered ignorant or insane. Tell someone that one day we will have unlimited food or energy and see their response. Civilisation as we know it is going to have the biggest shake-up yet: because this guiding principle will no longer be relevant.

The hunter about to spear fish

Scarcity as truth

Until now, scarcity has ruled our existence. We base the value of anything on how much effort it takes to get it or make it. Make a pair of sandals in India for 89 cents, sell it in London for 89 pounds. The time, skills and effort needed to source it, transport it, package it, and market it adds the value. De Beers has bought, shut down, and lobbied for regulations against, at least 5 companies that have developed large pressure containers that can create a real diamond the size of an almond in a few days. Economics 101: rarity creates value for useful things.

Moreover, the person who can get it, gets rich. An oil company that builds the rigs and ships gets the money. A hunter who could provide fresh meat regularly ruled the tribe and got his choice of meat, shelter and companionship. How much payment depends on the energy expended to get the item and the scarcity of the item. Whether moving a product from one side of the world to another, or killing your prey faster, value comes from effort expended, which we measure in energy.

Efficiency as a driver

Efficiency rules. The hunter that brought back the most food did not necessarily have the most strength. He may have used his wits to hide at the right vantage point and used his skills to distract and bring down his prey. He would finish the hunt early, after expending less energy. He uses this extra energy to either hunt more, bringing more value, or enjoy his spoils more, living a better life. Spending less energy to get more product makes for more wealth.

The more energy and efficiency a group has, the wealthier it becomes. We only have to look at the GDP across the globe to see this. But all of this has begun to change. The decentralisation of energy production that comes from renewable power — especially solar, wind, nuclear and hydro — changes the equation. In the last 40 years, installation cost of solar panels has dropped from $77 per watt to $1 per watt, and it continues to drop.

solar panels as far as the eye can see

Free energy changes everything

Recently Elon Musk (who arguably has done more for making solar practical than any other person alive) told government officials that the entire US could be powered with 100 square miles of panels in a sunny state. In the last 6 months alone, 3 separate new technologies have emerged that can radically drop this cost. A few weeks ago a paper came out that shows how to make a solar cell 50% more efficient. Solar has now become cheaper than any other power source. Soon we will have more energy than we can consume.

An abundance of energy will mean the cost of energy will approach — and eventually reach — zero. When energy has no cost, how do we value everything else? The cost of production will approach zero. The cost of mining will approach zero. The cost of development will approach zero.

What about material resources?

We also have to consider the limit of material resources. Abundant energy will allow for ease of creation of heavier materials. Material scientists already create more complex and useful materials that more and more will replace the materials created naturally by pressure and time.

Just look at graphene, a superconductor stronger than steel, lighter than metal and made of carbon, one of the most abundant elements on earth. Once we overcome a few engineering challenges, the only real barrier to mass production lies in the energy consumption cost. Free energy, free graphene.

Even if we were to deplete earth’s resources, the main thing holding back asteroid mining? Yes, the high energy cost of getting into space.

Remember the hunter? If any tribe member could go out and grab a free burger instead of waiting for the bounty of the hunt, how would the hunter be valued? The single underlying truth of how we organise everything, a world of limited resources, will no longer exist.

The current state of play

This process is not about to happen. In fact, it has been happening all around us for the whole of human history, accelerating in the last 450 years since the establishment of science, and moving even faster in the last 20 because of computing technology.

We can see it in the politics of today as the people who rely on the status quo to remain wealthy lash out. They rage against the machine their companies made possible, fighting to maintain scarcity, reducing distribution of wealth, reducing education and brainwashing the resulting dullards to act against their own interests. We see it as businesses that follow the old guard struggle to maintain the economic system, even as startups emerge that use hyper-efficiency to nibble away at their profits, then get bought by tech giants and we watch the old companies die. Only a few learn to adapt. The choice becomes a choice as old as time: adapt or die.

The world as we desperately cling to knowing it, has a new foundation: unlimited energy, leading to abundance of all things. Space mining requires energy: solved. New material production requires energy: solved. Artificial intelligence requires energy to run machines: solved. And so on and so on, abundance, abundance, abundance.

What’s next in this new world?

How will we live in this new world? How will we organise ourselves when nation states and the economy we know no longer have a place? Will we fight this losing battle against this change and traumatise ourselves as a species, or will we embrace it and speed towards a future of abundance, choice and wealth? What do you choose?


This is part of the Freedom series, looking at how near future technology will change civilisation.

Reposted from Medium

See also: A sheep in wolf’s clothing: what to love about screentime