The PBS documentary series Frontline aired a new program last night called “Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier.” [You can watch it online at that link.] Produced by Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff, the 90-minute special touched on several themes we have debated here through the years including:
- concerns about information overload and multitasking;
- the role of computers and digital technology in education & learning; and,
- the nature and impact of virtual reality and virtual worlds on real-world life and culture.
As a student of information history, I’m particularly interested in these subjects because I’ve written frequently about the lively debates between techno-optimists and techno-pessimists throughout history. (See my latest essay: “Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society.“) I thought Dretzin and Rushkoff did a nice job covering a lot of ground in a very short amount of time and providing balance from folks on both sides of the optimist/pessimist spectrum. Below I’ll just summarize a few notes I took while watching “Digital Nation” and offer a few thoughts on these controversial topics. Mostly, I’ll just discuss the first two, interrelated issues. (My thoughts on the third issue — virtual worlds and virtual reality, can be found in these videos from my recent speech in Second Life).
The Pessimistic Take on the Impact of Digital Technologies
The program opens on a pessimistic note with interviews and survey data suggesting that digital multitasking strains attention spans, especially among students. We hear of studies suggesting that brain scans suggest a 2-fold increase in brain activity when individuals multitask. And a trip by Rushkoff to South Korea discusses how that early-adopting nation is trying to deal with Internet and gaming addiction among youth. “Causalities of the digital revolution,” Rushkoff calls these kids. He visits addict camps and clinics that focus on re-connecting such kids with the outside world and the simple life.
Similarly, when the program turns to the question of whether the Net and digital technologies help kids learn, we hear from several educators and parents who express concern that the Internet and digital technologies are “dumbing down” this latest generation of kids / students. We hear from critics such as Todd Oppenheimer, author of The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology, Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), and Clifford Nass of Stanford University, author of the forthcoming book, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Computers Can Teach Us About Human Interactions.
They question whether technology is helping improve learning & culture, or even suggest that it is destroying opportunities to learn. We here them and others claiming that “kids don’t read anymore” or that youngsters just “think in paragraphs” and can’t write at length or put ideas together in a coherent fashion without getting distracted. They and others express concern that, unless steps are taken, it could have a permanent impact on how future generations think or behave, although they never really get concrete about the actual ramifications or what steps should be taken to avoid them.
The Optimistic Take: Things Are Getting Better
Dretzin and Rushkoff interview others, however, who have a decidedly different view of things. First, they talk to students themselves to get their take and, unsurprisingly, most consider themselves master multitaskers and think information overload is really no big deal. We also hear from some experts who wonder aloud how much of this “problem” is really just an old-young divide. They point out that “digital natives” (those who came of age in the digital era) and “digital immigrants” (analog era folks) view these concerns quite differently, and the older digital immigrants who are having a hard time adjusting themselves are often overly concerned about the impact of digital technologies on the younger generation.
Dretzin and Rushkoff also highlight some schools that have successfully integrated digital technologies into their programs with great result. “Technology is like oxygen” we hear one school administrator note when he stresses how important is is for educators accept the reality of digital technology in the lives of students and find ways to make it work for them. While some educators continue to worry about students being driven to distraction by all the things vying for their attention today, others seem willing to embrace this as an opportunity to teach kids about new subjects using new methods of interactive instruction.
Professors James Paul Gee and Henry Jenkins, both experts on new media and its impact on youth and culture, stress that we’ve been here before to some extent. “There are always gains and losses,” Gee notes, since every new technology giveth and taketh away something simultaneously. We suffered loss of memory capability after writing and print came on the scene since we no longer needed to remember and recite long stories. Was that a Net loss for society and culture? Plato thought so. But as Jenkins notes, concerns about technology-as-distraction is not a new issue, yet humans have survived and adapted over time. [Update: Here are some of Henry's thoughts about the documentary from his blog.]
My Thoughts: We Are Adapting & Learning to Cope, But Not Without Some Heartburn Along the Way
As I pointed out in my recent “Net Optimists vs. Pessimists” essay, this is actually a very, very old debate. From the time of Plato on down, experts have been engaged in raging debate about the impact of new technologies or methods of communications on human existence. The hyper-pessimists worry deeply about the impact of technological change on culture, learning, and morality, while various techno-pollyannas proclaim that the new technology in question is improving the general lot of mankind and bringing about a better order.
But there are people on either side of these debates who are closer to reasonable middle ground position. There are skeptics who understand technology brings disruptive change but rightly caution humility in the face of that change. And there are optimists who welcome change but also are willing to acknowledge the short-term growing pains associated with new technologies.
I’m generally more sympathetic to the latter position, which I have labeled “pragmatic optimism.” As I argued in a previous essay, “Can Humans Cope with Information Overload?”:
I guess I have have a bit more faith in humans than the pessimists do. We humans adapt. We learn to cope. We’re actually pretty good at it, too. It’s not like this is the first social or technological revolution we’ve lived through, after all. In fact, one could make a good case that many previous revolutions were far more jarring than our modern Digital Revolution.
On the other hand, there is absolutely no denying that technological change can force gut-wrenching changes upon culture, institutions, businesses and individuals. Digital distraction is real problem and we’d be fools to dismiss the skeptics who fear that kids (and many adults) are finding it more difficult to concentrate on specific tasks or digest long tracts. (Nick Carr penned a controversial article on this topic — “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” — and has a book coming out this year, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, that will expand upon it. John Freeman’s recent book, The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, also touches on these issues.)
We also can’t ignore evidence pointing to the very real physical toll that too much screen time takes on our eyes, ears, and body. I have seen it myself — quite literally — with the rapid deterioration of my eyesight in recent years and the increasing pains in my fingers from all these endless hammering on keyboards, which (like screens) just keep getting smaller and smaller.
And then there are concerns about how digital life is affecting real life and living — sociability and manners, in particular. I’ve noted here before how I’ve tried “push the pause button” increasingly by working mini-”digital sabbaticals” into my life. I try to find specific moments each day to shut the lid on my laptop, toss my smartphone in the drawer, and turn off all my other digital gizmos and gadgets and just go do something terribly old-fashion and non-techie in character. But the struggle continues.
At the end of the day, however, I continue to believe that we are better off in an age of information abundance that our past eras of information poverty. You don’t need to think that far back to recall a time when the sum of our informational and entertainment experiences were so limited that you could count them on one hand. When I watch my 8 year old daughter and 5 year old son sit in front of a computer today and explore the world, I simply cannot express how joyful I am for the world that lies at their fingertips — and how envious I am that I had none of that when I was growing up! Sure, when I was growing up in rural Illinois and Indiana back in the ’70s , I had a great collection of books, a nice National Geographic collection, 3 or 4 broadcast TV channels, and a local movie theater. But today my kids have all that plus much, much more at their disposal. The challenge is figuring out how to make sense of it all and assimilate all these new technologies and new informational inputs into their lives. But that’s a wonderful dilemma for me (and society) to face! I’ll take that problem over the previous one of information scarcity any day of the week.
Anyway, make sure to check out “Digital Nation.” [watch it here] It’s a terrific overview of this incredibly interesting ongoing debate. And here are some additional reactions to the program from my friends Stephen Balkam, Larry Magid, and Anne Collier. Finally, Stephen Balkam’s Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) will be hosting a screening of “Digital Nation” here in DC on February 25th. Rachel Dretzin will be on hand to discuss the program and I’ve been asked to provide some thoughts afterward. Looking forward to that and hope those of you in the DC area will join us.
Cultural / Social beliefs
|Net is participatory||Net is polarizing|
|Net facilitates personalization (welcome of “Daily Me” that digital tech allows)||Net facilitates fragmentation (fear of the “Daily Me”)|
|“a global village”||balkanization and fears of “mob rule”|
|heterogeneity / encourages diversity of thought and expression||homogeneity / Net leads to close-mindedness|
|allows self-actualization||diminishes personhood|
|Net a tool of liberation & empowerment||Net a tool of frequent misuse & abuse|
|believe Net can help educate||fear dumbing-down of masses|
|anonymous communication is a net good; encourages vibrant debate + whistleblowing||fear of anonymity; say it debases culture & leads to lack of accountability|
|welcome information abundance; believe it will create new opportunities for learning||concern about information overload; esp. impact on learning & reading|
|Economic / Business beliefs|
|benefits of “Free” (increasing importance of “gift economy”)||costs of “Free” (“free” = threat to quality & business models)|
|mass collaboration is generally more important||individual effort is generally more important|
|embrace of “amateur” creativity||superiority of “professionalism”|
|superiority of “open systems” of production||superiority of “proprietary” models of production|
|“wiki” model = wisdom of crowds; benefits of crowdsourcing||“wiki” model = stupidity of crowds; collective intelligence is oxymoron; + “Sharecropper” concern @ exploiting free labor|