On brains, screens and the cross-eyed future of labor

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Push the power button. The icon appears. We have a few seconds. Sip coffee. Look out the window. Sunny now, but look to the west where clouds gather just above the trees. Did we check the weather last night? Power on. Here we go. First the notifications pour over the top of the screen. Then e-mail populates. Twitter and Facebook light up. Junk. Junk. Junk. Friend. Junk. Job. Junk. Meeting at 10? Today? Looks dicey, but we think so. We type, “No Prob.” Hit send.

How familiar or how foreign this routine feels has everything to do with your fluency with screens, new technology that delivers information in attractive packets of audio and visual sensation. A lot of it has to do with your age, but there are outliers among both the older and youngest generations. No, it has to do with screens. The revolution may not be televised, but that’s probably only because we won’t call it a television. Not anymore. The revolution is on the screen. The revolution is the screen.

So today, on Labor Day, let us consider the nature of work in the future.

These are the screens: Television, computers, tablets, smart phones, smart watches, and now even eyeglasses that project screens directly into your brain. The idea of watching a screen for information is as old as the cathode ray tube; everyone alive has known screens most of their lives. The notion of using screened personal devices to work, to simultaneously send and receive messages, images, voices and information, however, is barely a decade old.

For those ten years it was perfectly acceptable for a large portion, maybe even a majority of the population to check out at this point in the conversation. “Those crazy kids and their ticky-ticky phone-ma-jigs,” or “I only use mine to make calls and get directions.” We’ve now reached a point where it’s a very, very bad idea for anyone to check out of the coming changes. Americans use these screens to make a living, and then live their lives.

Why? Because our brains are changing.

Scientific evidence shows this. More than that, I can feel how my own mind has changed in just a few short years. Many I know say the same thing: our brains are becoming rewired. We’re attached to our phones. Ready access to source work is part of the creative benefit, but also a detriment. Technology makes me more efficient, but also feels like an addiction. Some aspects of my mind feel sharper than ever, but other aspects — like memory and attention — feel like they are dulling prematurely.

Many say they wish they could have grown up in a different time. I wouldn’t trade my time for any. I learned how to type on a manual typewriter, did reports on an electronic word processor and learned about this crazy thing called the internet when I was about to graduate from high school. I came home for my first Christmas break having learned enough HTML to start my own website. As a kid I read encyclopedias cover to cover, absorbing information randomly. Now I am able to leap to any specific information I want with the flick of of a finger. I think it was very important for me to experience both worlds.

Technology allows individuals to quickly connect with a collective library of everything. Technology does NOT give us ways to solve problems, generate curiosity or create or enrich our souls. In other words, having a library of everything is pretty meaningless if we can’t even conceive of what “everything” might include. Or what we might not yet know. That’s the difference between paging through an encyclopedia manually and having access to one online. To create, we must first discover.

Do not dismiss new technology. It’s ability to effect positive changes on the world is both enormous and exciting. But the “Uncle Ben from Spiderman” rule applies fully here: “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.” Dropping a truckload of iPads into our classrooms as an educational model will only work if we also invest in teaching the critical thinking and problem solving skills that are required to properly operate the machinery.

The screens are here. The screens aren’t going away. If future Labor Days are to properly celebrate accomplishment for workers, we must remember something from the old days. Capitalism, democracy and freedom are concepts. Labor is an act. Labor requires work. Labor requires creation. So long as we use new technology to create, we will be celebrating Labor Day for a long, long time. Do we have the patience and wisdom to do so?

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. It is quite likely that many of the students in a class already are familiar with iPads, iPhones, etc., regardless of age. My adult kids have let their little boys play games on old iPods even when they were preschoolers for several years already. It is only a few more steps to “more knowledge” once the kids get their hands on something that is connected to WiFi. They will be comfortable with the devices. It is quite likely that they may be more familiar and more comfortable than some of the teachers.

    When my oldest, who is your age, was in 6th grade, learning some word processing was part of the official curriculum. We didn’t yet have a computer, and apparently the three 6th grade teachers didn’t know beans about computers either. They basically ignored the official curriculum that year, though the school did provide some computers for the classrooms. There were, however, some kids in those classes who could have taught the basics of computers and word processing.

    These days, computers are everywhere. My husband has had to use them constantly for his work since about Jan 2005, when he switched employers. He already was a decent typist. That employer had computers for years before that. But I’m aware that he has had a number of co-workers since then who have struggled with the typing aspect of the work. Traditionally, the professionals in his field have either written short handwritten notes or they have dictated their notes. In either case, there is a theoretical improvement when the information is in a computer format that can be more easily shared. [Theoretical only, since he has encountered a number of programs that are very inefficient.] It is also somewhat ridiculous to have a well paid person who has had to take years of schooling and further training each year do their own typing, but that is now the norm.

    What has made me wonder, however, is how these people got through high school, college, and graduate school without knowing how to type. I started typing in junior high school and had to write plenty of reports, essays, and research papers that had to be typed…on the old typewriters without the benefit of spell check.

  2. It’s true we are dependent on our devices. I don’t know what I would do w/o the internet. Research on most any topic is fast and easy. For instance, I discovered this morning a link from a blog commenter to 217 Iron Range photos including mines from 1937 to 1941 via photogrammer.yale.edu.

    • Exactly, I love that about working online. I’ve made so many professional connections online and even found new friends and colleagues from all over the world. But I’m also isolated in my home office a lot of the time. It helps that I know what I’m interested in and how to process all this information, but as time passes it’s hard to tell the difference between curiosity and boredom. Does that make sense? If I’m siting there, I have to fight the idea that it’s not OK to sit there, that I need to check if I got an e-mail or if something broke on Twitter. That can rule your life if you let it, and I often do.

  3. I totally know what you mean. It’s addictive for me because it’s just so darn fascinating, all that information out there that used to take weeks to find the old fashioned ways, if ever.

    My 94 fil was the most curious guy, curious about history and so many other topics. He would ask his kids to look up something for him just about every time we saw him. If he had been younger and more able to learn these newfangled inventions (alas the cable tv remote guide was already frustrating him) when the internet became available in the boonies, I know he would have had a great time looking up all those answers himself. It might have even competed with his life long love of cutting firewood and other outdoor projects which he did until the day he passed away.

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