All of us have a human genome, which is basically a composite of our genes. But we also have a “screenome,” a composite of our digital lives, according to a group of researchers from the United States. Their goal is to make sense of how the screens in our lives are affecting us.
A decade ago, the Human Genome Project worked to identify and map all of the genes of the human genome. In a nod to their research, academics Byron Reeves, Thomas Robinson and Nilam Ram created the concept of the ‘screenome’ to describe the entity formed by all the digital activity individuals subject themselves to.
The three argued that everything we know about the effects of media use on individuals and societies could be incomplete, irrelevant or wrong. We are all doing more online and as this expanding form of behavior is digitalized, it is open to all forms of manipulation, they said.
In a comment article in the latest edition of the journal Nature, the authors argued that a large-scale analysis of detailed recordings of digital life could provide far greater insights than simply measuring screen time. Americans now spend over half of their day interacting with digital media.
The academics said most of the thousands of studies investigating the effects of media over the past decade used people’s estimates of the amount of time they spend engaging with technologies or broadly categorized platforms such as ‘smartphone’, ‘social media’ or ‘entertainment media’.
Nevertheless, the range of content has become “too broad, patterns of consumption too fragmented, information diets too idiosyncratic, experiences too interactive, and devices too mobile,” for such simplistic characterization. Technologies now available can “allow researchers to record digital life in exquisite detail,” they said.
“Digital life is life these days. As we spend more of our life on our devices, so more of our life is expressed through these screens. This gives us a tremendous opportunity to learn about all aspects of human behaviour,” said Robinson to the Australian Financial Review.
Screenomics – the new tech
Tracking our digital life has become much easier. Instead of using a range of devices for different things, applications have been consolidated into smartphones and other mobile devices. At the same time, there are now tools available to see what people are doing on their screens.
The researchers are using so-called screenomics technologies to observe and understand our digital lives, minute by minute. The result of their initial work is a call for the Human Screenome Project, a collection of large-scale data that will inform knowledge of and solutions to a wide variety of social issues.
“Screenomics emerges from the development of systems for capturing and recording the details of individuals’ digital experiences,” said Ram to Penn News. “The system includes software that collects screenshots every five seconds on smartphones and laptop computers, extracts text and images, and allows analysis of the timing, content, function and context of digital life.”
In their article in Nature, the researchers outlined the possibilities of the technology. Over 600 participants have so far consented to use screenomics software on laptops and Android smartphones that were linked to the researchers’ secure computational infrastructure.
Participants then went about their daily lives while the system unobtrusively recorded their device use. In their initial analyses of these data, the researchers found that participants quickly changed tasks, approximately every 19 seconds on a laptop, and every 10 seconds on a smartphone.
All the information collected includes indicators of health and well-being and can be shared with larger interdisciplinary projects. Reeves, Robinson and Ram suggested that researchers wishing to study digital life could even create a repository that everyone can contribute to and use.
That type of large interdisciplinary project they call for would have far-reaching benefits for all areas of life touched by digital technology. “In the future, it might be possible for various apps to ‘interact’ with an individual’s screenome and to deliver interventions that alter how people think, learn, feel and behave,” said Ram.