PBS documentary questions tech and our future

Frontline's "Digital Nation," which airs on Tuesday, raises some troubling questions about technology addiction, yet provides some optimism about the positive implications of a tech-immersed world.

Larry Magid
Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.
Larry Magid
5 min read

Like Douglas Rushkoff, I've been an enthusiastic supporter of digital technology for more than 20 years and, also like Rushkoff, I've had some second thoughts as to whether--at least for some people--immersion in technology is doing more harm than good.

Rushkoff is the co-host and co-writer of TV movie "Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier," which premiers on PBS Frontline Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. The show was produced, co-written and co-hosted by Rachel Dretzin, who also produced "Growing Up Online," a show that aired on Frontline in 2007.

The new program explores the use of technology at home, school, work, and in the military, examining the pros and cons of multitasking, immersion in virtual worlds and even remote warfare.

Digital Nation producer Rachel Dretzin at home with her digital native son. Frontline Digital Nation

Dretzin begins the program by observing a night in her own household when she was cooking dinner while her husband and older son were using laptops on the dining room table and her two younger children were playing with an iPhone. "It hit me, we're all in the same house but we're also in other worlds. It just sort of snuck up on us, I didn't see it coming."

The 90-minute documentary is by no means anti-technology, but it does cause one to think about some of the unintended consequences technology may be having in our lives. At no point during the program do the producers suggest that we need to move backward. But Rushkoff, in his opening statement, sets the stage when he quips, "I kind of want to push the pause button and everything stops and we can look and say just what's going on here."

Does multitasking muddle our thinking?
Through interviews with MIT's Sherry Turkle, medical history professor David Jones, author Mark Bauerlein, and Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass, the show questions whether multitasking may actually be diminishing students' mental abilities. After saying that she teaches "the most brilliant students in the world," Turkle argues that her students "have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes." In one of Nass' studies, a Stanford student who admits to texting, chatting on Facebook, and watching YouTube while he studies, thinks that he can handle all those distractions until an experiment reveals that he is significantly slower when multitasking. "Multitaskers," said Nass, "are terrible at every aspect of multitasking." He worries that multitasking "may be creating people who are unable to think well as clearly."

Yet, in a subsequent segment, Dretzin takes us to a middle school in the Bronx that, a few years ago, was suffering from frequent fights, gang activity, and only 9 percent of students meeting state standards in math. After a new principal, Jason Levy, provided all students with laptops, violence went way down, attendance went up 90 percent, and scores improved 30 percent in reading and almost 40 percent in math. "There should never be a question as to whether students should have access to technology," said Levy. "It's like oxygen. If anything, we make school make more sense to kids when we provide them with an opportunity to use technology." Students in the school are using Ning and other social-media tools to enhance their studies.

Henry Jenkins, a professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, pointed out that there is nothing new about information overload. "The issue has been with us for most of the 20th century and the good news is that we survived it. As a culture, we learned to adapt to it."

"Digital Nation" also shows how IBM and other companies are using virtual worlds like Second Life to bring workers together by holding staff meetings in them, even among teammates from distant parts of the globe who have never met in person.

Bubbe feeds show hosts. Frontline Digital Nation

There is a charming scene with the 83-year-old host of the Web show "Feed Me Bubbe," where this quintessential Jewish grandmother teaches cooking. Bubbe's a strong believer in tech: "If you don't keep up with it a little bit you're really left behind," but admits that there is at least one downside. "It's easy for my grandchildren to go into e-mail, but I get angry with them sometimes. I'd like to hear your voice. Just call me on the telephone."

In a somewhat chilling segment, the show takes us to Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas, where drone pilots carry out real bombing missions 7,500 miles away in Afghanistan and Iraq and then go home to have dinner with their families. "This isn't a video game," said Col. William Brandt, "it's a real airplane flying through real airspace." A big difference between operating a drone and playing a game is that the drones are armed with real weapons and aimed at real people. "There is no reset button."

The show goes back and forth with good news and bad news about digital technology. In one segment, college students admit that they now write in paragraphs and are less likely to express complete thoughts, but the interview itself shows that these students are articulate, engaged, and thoughtful. Arguing that video games can improve not just skills but also judgment, author and Game2Train CEO Marc Prensky tells Rushkoff that "technology (if used correctly) increases wisdom." When asked about gaming, he said that people who don't play games often don't see "that there are rules of what to do, strategy of why you would do this, and an environment and a context that you're in."

Both troubling and reconfirming
As I watched the show, I kept revising my sense of my own work as a technology journalist and advocate during the past 25 years--alternating between wondering "what have we wrought?" and confirming that digital technology is helping to create a more connected, more knowledgeable, and more productive world.

What I finally took away is the reaffirmation of a simple truth. Technology is neither good nor bad. It's an ever-evolving set of tools that can be used and misused. While "Digital Nation" raises questions about the future of today's youth, it also provides answers that are at least somewhat reassuring.

After watching it, some will walk away optimistic and others might worry even more about the problems it raises, but we'll all be just a little wiser about how technology is changing our lives and the lives of our children.

After the show airs on national TV, it will be available on the Web. You can watch it in segments, but to get full effect I strongly recommend you watch the whole show in one sitting.

Digital Nation trailer