PBS Frontline – Digital Nation

“Over the past 20 years, the net has changed from a thing one does to the way one lives.” – Doug Rushkoff, Digital Nation

I made it a point to sit myself down for 90 full minutes and watch PBS Frontline’s “Digital Nation”. The video played in full-screen so that I couldn’t even see my various notifications pop up. Aside from one stray text message to my girlfriend, I even stayed off the phone. Given the subject matter at hand, I think that this is an entirely commendable thing, given that the digital native- HEY LOOK A FUNNY CAT VIDEO!!1! OMGZADORBZ!!

Ahem. The subject matter of Digital Nation is familiar to us. Is the internet making us stupider or smarter, and depending on how you answer that, which kind of stupider or smarter is it making us? Is multitasking real, and are the Gen Y/Digital Native generations really prepared to make it in a world where talking on the phone, emailing, and IMing all happen at once? Aside from a too-long chapter at the end dealing with our military’s Predator drone fixation (dehumanizing combat through computers), the film really put together all the contemporary issues and laid them out before us, with nifty researchers and thought leaders all weighing in. Note: “Digital Nation” was released in February 2010 – a bazillion tweet-years ago – so even its scope of things is limited.

Is the future of the internet and our life on it scary?

Hells yes it’s scary. I was born near the far end of Gen Y (1983), where we really only dipped our toes into the web-water midway through adolescence. It wasn’t really until my junior/senior year in college that I developed a healthy addiction (not shy about using that word) to all things digital. Some of the Millennials interviewed during the film were the kind that I like to make fun of: folks who “can’t live without” their mobile device, students who have not recently, and probably never will again, read a full book, and game-addicted loners.

That being said, I have had gaming problems in the past, spend far too much time reading online when I should be buried in a book, and just recently took the plunge into smartphoneland. Check out my pre-Droid X post about the Incursion Lifestyle.

But the people in the film seemed to be taking this stuff way too far. They were asked “Are you a kick-ass multitasker?” Naturally, they all responded “YEAH!” because they can tweet, email, chat and read SparkNotes all at the same time. I call bullshit, and so do researcher at Stanford who show that the time that it takes for the brain to switch tracks slows the mind down so far as to make analytic reasoning more difficult.

The bright side of being connected

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, of course. Many of the guests (including the loopy creator of Second Life) extolled the virtues of the connected life. There was surprisingly little chat about the great ways in which the social web has helped us get to know one another. Even though the film has a big section on WoW and Everquest gamers connecting IRL, there was no discussion of the advent of social media and what it means for journalism, disaster response, and activism (sometimes all at once!).

The overarching tenor of the film, for me, seemed to be the idea that we truly are moving towards, if not a fully bifurcated existence, at least one where our internet selves take the place of our real selves very often. All in all, it was a remarkably simplistic overview, perfect for the casual viewer, but not enough to make me either smash my “personal computer” or fully wire up Lawnmower Man style.

I don’t know where it’s all headed. I just hope that we can get along responsibly and with integrity, online and off.

“Jumping brain” courtesy of Flickr user lapolab.

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