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Byron Reeves: What our screens tell us about us

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

A digital illustration of a retro-style computer window and cursor, with a pixelated rendering of half of the face of a marble bust

Life in a screen-time world. | AdobeStock/local_doctor

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. Listen here.