In the past, media had no role in our health, trans­porta­tion or infra­struc­ture but tech­nol­o­gy has dis­rupt­ed the bound­ary between media and non-media inter­ac­tions.

But dad, I can’t live with­out them!”

My daugh­ter Judy and I were once again locked in the bat­tle over screen time by now famil­iar to many of today’s par­ents and sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers. We had turned a day of errands into some father-daugh­ter time with a few fun diver­sions and I was hop­ing she would sur­face from her screens long enough for us to enjoy it.

Although her plea was not as heart­felt as Nilsson’s 1971 pow­er hit, “With­out You,” Judy was quite seri­ous about not being able to live with­out her screens.

My oft-rehearsed “don’t be so dra­mat­ic” speech was at the tip of my tongue when it hit me: maybe she is right. With me behind the wheel and her behind a screen, we had effort­less­ly checked off errand after errand, leav­ing us with more time to appre­ci­ate our day togeth­er.

Pocket-sized portals to pervasive media

Judy got direc­tions via Waze, checked store hours with Google, com­pared prices for a hair dry­er she need­ed on Ama­zon, found an amaz­ing taco place for lunch through Yelp, helped me install a new key fob bat­tery with YouTube, searched LinkedIn to advise her broth­er on a resume entry, filled a pre­scrip­tion at, chose a movie and the­ater on Fan­dan­go and amused us through­out with her friends’ Insta­gram posts and my Face­book feed.

With­out our dig­i­tal media screens, we like­ly would have spent most of the day on the phone with var­i­ous cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tives, pour­ing through news­pa­per reviews, vis­it­ing retail loca­tion after loca­tion (arriv­ing at times too ear­ly or too late) and grum­bling all the while.

If we now rely so much on screens as indi­vid­u­als, can we as a soci­ety func­tion with­out them?

Our smart­phones and tablets are mobile por­tals to the dig­i­tal media realm, where tools and resources that his­tor­i­cal­ly exist­ed in sep­a­rate spheres have been brought under a sin­gle roof. Though media has long played a role in spe­cif­ic social inter­ac­tions, dig­i­tal media con­sol­i­dates almost all domains of social exchange in a man­ner pre­vi­ous­ly unthink­able.

In the dig­i­tal age, media is no longer mere­ly the realm of enter­tain­ment or infor­ma­tion; it is now per­va­sive, touch­ing every aspect of our being, from how we live to how we work, play, com­mu­ni­cate, con­nect – and even find love. We lit­er­al­ly can’t live with­out media.


But wait, what exactly is media?

Media” (sing. medi­um) is derived from the Latin word Medius, mean­ing “mid­dle.”

Even in today’s dig­i­tal­ly-dri­ven usage, this con­no­ta­tion per­sists: media are the cre­ative and phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture that con­nect con­tent pro­duc­ers and con­sumers. Media can be more gran­u­lar­ly under­stood as a process of medi­a­tion, whose stages pro­gres­sive­ly encode and then decode con­tent “pack­ages” as they move from pro­duc­er to con­sumer.

Imag­ine writ­ing a let­ter by hand, putting it in an enve­lope and send­ing it (crazy, right?). You take your thoughts and turn them into writ­ten words, which you then pack­age in a form that the postal ser­vice can ship. The recip­i­ent must then invert the process: open­ing the enve­lope to read the let­ter and inter­pret­ing the writ­ten words back into thought.

Though undoubt­ed­ly more com­pli­cat­ed, all media under­takes a large­ly sim­i­lar project. It con­fig­ures con­tent so that it can be effi­cient­ly trans­ferred to and then con­sumed by the recip­i­ent. Vari­a­tions of this process have facil­i­tat­ed the exchange of enter­tain­ment and infor­ma­tion for mil­len­nia, but the inter­net century’s tech­nol­o­gy-dri­ven shifts pro­found­ly expand­ed media’s role in soci­ety.

Back in the day, media was just for fun!

Since the begin­ning of his­to­ry, media act­ed almost exclu­sive­ly as a vehi­cle for infor­ma­tion and enter­tain­ment, play­ing a sin­gu­lar and dis­crete role in people’s every­day lives. The ear­li­est sto­ries enthralled their audi­ences and impart­ed social val­ues – much as they did lat­er via net­work prime­time – while town criers, and even­tu­al­ly news­pa­pers, kept peo­ple informed.

Out­side of these chan­nels, peo­ple com­mu­ni­cat­ed large­ly in per­son. Pol­i­tics were debat­ed in town cen­ters, dat­ing and mar­riage were arranged by friends and rel­a­tives and shop­ping was done at pub­lic mar­kets. In oth­er words, most trans­ac­tions have his­tor­i­cal­ly been unmedi­at­ed: there was no per­son, process or tech­nol­o­gy that stood between us and the rest of soci­ety.

Over cen­turies, inno­va­tion increased the time we all spend with media, but its role in inform­ing and enter­tain­ing main­ly remained the same, as did its sta­tus as a dis­tinct inter­ac­tive mode, along­side pol­i­tics, cul­ture, health­care, social­iza­tion, trans­porta­tion, infra­struc­ture and eco­nom­ics. Each of these was a dis­tinct domain and trans­ac­tions in one were con­duct­ed dif­fer­ent­ly than in anoth­er.

The bound­aries between domains were defined by time and space. We used writ­ing to keep records and exchange mes­sages, but these were stored in a phys­i­cal loca­tion or sent to a phys­i­cal address; like­wise, the­atri­cal per­for­mances took place in a space dif­fer­ent from the one used to exe­cute legal pro­ceed­ings or exchange goods and ser­vices.

Most of the time, though, we were media-free as we par­tic­i­pat­ed in our com­mu­ni­ty or the econ­o­my. Media cer­tain­ly had no role in our health, trans­porta­tion or infra­struc­ture. We turned media on and off at well-defined times and in famil­iar con­texts: read­ing the news­pa­per in the morn­ing, lis­ten­ing to radio pro­grams dur­ing our dai­ly com­mute and watch­ing tele­vi­sion at night.

Dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy dis­rupt­ed this clear bound­ary between media and non-media interactions—today, media is per­va­sive.

Pervasive media isn’t just a new tool, it’s a new way

We need look no fur­ther than the lat­est elec­tion cycle to see that media is a part of pol­i­tics; vir­tu­al doc­tor vis­its make health­care imme­di­ate­ly acces­si­ble; dat­ing would be seem­ing­ly non-exis­tent with­out a cache of apps; cars are becom­ing media plat­forms, as is our homes’ infra­struc­ture; and, of course, our work lives are per­me­at­ed with media from search to LinkedIn.

Today it is unthink­able to leave the house with­out a mobile media device. We use them to con­duct a grow­ing share of dai­ly busi­ness. Liv­ing in an urban cen­ter, it is equal­ly unthink­able to leave home with­out a cred­it card. Just as we can use cred­it cards to pay our rent and util­i­ties, sub­scribe to stream­ing ser­vices and buy gro­ceries, we use dig­i­tal media to meet many of our dai­ly needs.

Many of the trans­ac­tions above are con­duct­ed not mere­ly with a cred­it card, but specif­i­cal­ly through dig­i­tal media plat­forms. Few social exchanges have escaped dig­i­ti­za­tion. Any­thing that isn’t mate­r­i­al can be reduced to ones and zeroes and any­thing that can be ordered and shipped with them. Like water, dig­i­tal is an almost uni­ver­sal con­duc­tor.

Mediating anytime, anywhere

The dig­i­tal medi­a­tion of even our most inti­mate exchanges has atom­ized our rela­tion­ship with soci­ety. No longer bound by con­ven­tions of time and space, we can con­sume enter­tain­ment, sched­ule appoint­ments or sat­is­fy our curios­i­ty wher­ev­er and when­ev­er we please.

It looks to me like Judy is always “on her phone” but, in truth, she’s orga­niz­ing her time, con­nect­ing with friends, help­ing her broth­er nail an inter­view, vet­ting lunch spots or keep­ing up on cur­rent events. It’s just hard to tell with­out the myr­i­ad accou­ter­ment we need­ed in my day.

I’m still not thrilled about how much time she (or I, for that mat­ter) spends on her media screens. It’s all too easy to get sucked in by our pock­et-sized por­tals to every­thing. But it’s hard to imag­ine our day would have been bet­ter spent scour­ing maps or pour­ing through phone books, so maybe Judy is right – we real­ly can’t live with­out them.