A brief history of our brains and screens

Originally published in Media Magazine.

A screen is defined as a surface where pictures can be projected for viewing. This term is not just related to media, it defines it; the screen is the membrane that “mediates” or stands between, an image and the individual viewing it. What happens without a literal screen? That image simply pipes directly into our mind’s eye so that we can “see” it in the same way we “see” a dream.

Before we discuss the future of the brain, let’s look at the history of screens. Plato talked about “The Cave,” a thought experiment about ancient people projecting flickering shadows on the wall of a subterranean dwelling – although we should focus more on the past 100 years. At the beginning of the 20th century, cinema, in the form of nickelodeons began to replace live theater. By 1950, television screens had become predominant, ushering in the golden age of broadcasting yet still connecting many brains to a single story.

By the time the Web and mobile’s tiny screens burst onto the scene in the mid 1990s, cinema and television had begun fragmenting into multiplexes and cable stations respectively. The Web changed this all. Suddenly, Moore’s Law met Melcalfe’s Law and the result was an explosion of processing power attached to a network that grew in value exponentially as more computers linked to it.

In 2007, in a now-famous TED talk, futurist Kevin Kelly rattled off a series of staggering statistics about the size of the Internet: 170 quadrillion transistors, 240 exabytes of memory and 7 terabytes of data transferred per second (about 35 percent of the Library of Congress). A few minutes into the talk, he pointed out that the World Wide Web was roughly the same size as one human brain. This was one of those magical and surprising statistics. How could something as vast and interconnected as the Web simply boil down to one trivial human brain? More interesting perhaps, is the fact that although the human brain has taken millions (or billions) of years to evolve, the Web has arisen in less than 6,000 days.

What this means is that computers are becoming intertwined with our brains and actually rewiring them. While children 10 years ago needed to memorize facts, now they can Google them. We can outsource individual memory to that of the collective; all a person needs to know is what question to ask. Facebook took this a step further – if Google made data findable, Facebook linked people. And what about the real-time Web? Twitter has given us the immediate ability to know what the planet is thinking. Global ESP.

The future of media is one of paradox. On the one hand, data will continue to explode and the number of screens displaying it will continue to proliferate rapidly. Yet oddly and mysteriously, screens will also begin disappearing. What does this mean? It means that a global brain is forming, one in which the network connects man and machine and media flows seamlessly between all the brains on the planet.