Frontline: Digital Nation

“Students are different now. They need to be stimulated in ways they didn’t need to be stimulated before.” Sherry Turkle’s observation won’t be news for anyone who’s been a student or been near one in the past five years. Still, her point is not the usual one, namely, that students (and everyone else immersed in digital worlds) need to be put back on course by people who know better. In fact, her more nuanced observation begins with the “difference” as a given condition, and she’s looking for ways to help students — and their teachers — make sense of it, use it, and shape it productively.

Turkle continues. In multitasking, sliding between worlds and screens, she says, “I feel like I’m a master of the universe. At end of the day, I’ve been busy all day, but I haven’t thought about anything hard. The point of it is to be our most creative selves, not to distract ourselves to death.” And this is the dilemma explored in Frontline: Digital Nation, airing 2 February — how advancing technologies not only bring faster and changed ways of processing, communicating, and conjuring ideas, but also produce gaps in experience and expectations.

Producer Rachel Dretzin and correspondent Douglas Rushkoff begin their investigation of these gaps at MIT, where Turkle teaches. This follows from Dretzin’s 2007 Frontline episode, Growing Up Online, and corresponds with Digital Nation‘s focus on the sorts of immersive environments typically at hand on college campuses. Rushkoff interviews students who are immersed in various ways, not only virtual but also physical, sitting next to one another on sofas or at cafeteria tables, downloading and uploading as they chat F2F (or at least profile to profile). Still, as its title suggests, Digital Nation skips quickly past the physical interactions and sounds a series of alarms about the virtual. Does googling affect the brain adversely? Is addiction to gaming a disease? Can computers be used “responsibly”?

Such questions set up tidy segments, and the program is divided into several. At MIT, Rushkoff observes wireless connections, to BlackBerrys and laptops, iTunes and FaceBook and Twitter, as well as tests on “high chronic multitaskers” (the results: they’re not as brilliant at it as they think they are, their memories are “disorganized”). Then he heads to South Korea, where he visits an internet rescue camp, declaring that the nation is “a decade ahead of us” in dealing with digital distractions (not to say obsessions).

When he stops off at BlizzCon, the annual convention attended by gamers and sponsored by makers (of Warcraft, Starcraft, etc.), Rushkoff makes the case that digital interactions can be efforts to connect with actual human beings. He speaks with heterosexual couples who met through gaming, and observes the carefully made and rather sensational costumes, as well as

The genuine seeming warmth exhibited by gamers when they meet in person. “Games,” Rushkoff concludes, “weren’t isolating them, but were giving them a new way to be intimate.”

Digital Nation tends to celebrate such intimacies, even as it allows for range of opinions on them: while Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation worries that English teachers can no longer assign novels over 200 pages, owing to students’ short attention spans and lack of time, Philip Rosedale, creator of Second Life, impresses Rushkoff as having “confidence that he could solve the alienation that technology has helped to create with more technology.” Even more disturbing is the report from Jeremy Bailenson of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, that in his “swimming with whales” experiment, 50% of children who are showed images of themselves with virtual fish believe they have had the experience.

But if this and other examples submit that boundaries are blurred by digital experiences, the program eventually spotlights an egregious counter-example, namely, the use of drones in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The show suggests that the military seeks to blur some boundaries, requiring drone pilots working in the Nevada desert to wear flight suits to work, even though some have never even flown a real plane, “the Air Force’s way of reminding these men that they’re fighting a real war.”

But the war is only real for those who are targeted — whether combatants or civilians. While one pilot insists he’s never hit anyone by accident, and others suffer combat stress and PTSD, the program doesn’t examine the “distinctions between worlds” that are imagined, collapsed, and turned inside out to make such warfare work. As recruiters use technology on display at an Army Experience Center (essentially a gaming fair) to get their job done, and recruits insist they understand differences between fiction and not, the reality remains that if Iraq used such technology against the U.S., few Americans would see this as legitimate warfare.

What’s missing here is a consideration of the expansion and ambiguity imagined by the very title, “digital nation.” For if boundaries are not in fact national or even state-secured or supported, then no one seems quite accountable for or even very careful about crossing and transgressing. Even as some users share a utopian appreciation for immersive technologies, others exploit them.

RATING 6 / 10