‘Digital_Nation’ – A Digital_Dud

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Published 18 Feb. 2010

The use of personal digital communication devices (PDCDs) is growing exponentially in the U.S. and the rest of the world, pervading nearly every aspect of our lives. Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff’s Frontline special, “Digital_Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier” (2 Feb. 2010), purports to examine this phenomenon, this invasion of electronic devices, if you will, and to provide a report on its implications for the nation.

The fact that the program tries to cover the impact of PDCDs in one 90-minute special should have been ample warning that Dretzin and Rushkoff really couldn’t be serious. But I was curious and logged in to the site to view the segments in order.

I had my paper notebook and pen ready, planning to take notes for this article. However, I quickly gave up all hope of notetaking when it became obvious from the get-go that the pace was going to be frenetic and fragmented. So I watched, instead, and went along for the ride, allowing the rush of images and comments to lead me to the gist or point of the program.

In the end, after 90 minutes, I had the kind of “Huh?” moment that comes after I’ve watched a video out of sequence with key scenes omitted. I must’ve missed something because that couldn’t be all there was.

So I downloaded and replayed the sequence once more, beginning to end, fast-forwarding through parts that were familiar and reviewing key segments.

After the second time through, I realized that I hadn’t missed anything. The sequence was correct. And this was all there was.

The this is some generalizations, poorly guised as implications, that emerged from the disjointed blasts of video bites that were barely coherent from one segment to the next. The logic that bound the parts into a whole was elusive if not totally absent.

Perhaps the most damning is the idea that the nation’s brightest college students are growing dumber because of their preoccupation with PDCDs. The proof or evidence comprises a few testimonials by college faculty and alleged authorities on the subject matter as well as interviews with a handful of students. The charge is that today’s college students can no longer express themselves coherently in sustained pieces of writing. They’re capable of thinking in paragraph fragments only with little or no connection between thoughts. The proof is a student’s admission that he did, indeed, think and write in paragraph fragments.

The evidence also includes a “scientific” study of multitasking and its effect on performance. The conclusion, similar to that of driving while talking on a cellphone, is that performance suffers. But the experiment is far too simplistic and fails to address the notion that complex cognitive activities such as writing are inherently multitasking, requiring the control and coordination of many different cognitive procedures all at the same time. In fact, PDCDs actually ease the cognitive load by providing a means to instantly locate information and references, schedules and resources, with a click of the mouse.

Douglas Rushkoff’ and Rachel Dretzin

Without further evidence, the claim that students today are dumber because of digital distractions is hogwash. It doesn’t match my experience, and I’ve been teaching college composition for over thirty years.

One prof says that his students averaged only 75% in a midterm that tested them on their ability to recall info from his lectures and assigned readings. Had they not been distracted by their web-connected laptops and cellphones, he claims, they would have easily gotten 100%. Ironically, he says they’re not dumb — they’re just distracted. This is ironic because they’re really not dumb in the sense that they’re not limiting themselves to the prescribed sources and modes of information provided by the prof. There are many more ways of learning the same info, and the midterm tests but two.

One of the “experts” cites the results of a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and claims that writing and reading skills of college students are deteriorating. What the expert and correspondents fail to consider is today’s radically altered rhetorical context. The context they’re using as a reference is based in 19th century technology. In the 21st century, classrooms, lectures, books, blackboards, paper and pencil have been augmented or replaced by electronic media that extends the rhetorical context to the entire planet, across time and space barriers, allowing potential access to all the world’s knowledge 24-7 and giving Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric a whole new meaning. For today’s students, “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle’s Rhetoric, book 1) includes PDCDs.

Throughout the program, we see similar shortsighted conclusions for the American home, social relationships, work, etc.

In the segment on the home, we see a typical middle-class family (Dretzin’s) living the American dream. Dretzin’s comment is that the family is physically together but alone at the same time, separated by PDCDs. In one sense, yes, this is true. But in another, the members of the family are connected in ways that transcend the traditional family-at-home model. Through PDCDs, they are instantly accessible to one another 24-7 — not only when they’re at home, together.

In the segment on people who socialize and meet others online, the implication is that many of us are losing sight of the distinction between real and virtual interactions. The assumption seems to be that we’re becoming alienated and delusional, less human. But are we? The fact is, we may have reached the tipping point for maintaining a distinction between F2F (face-to-face) and virtual. For digital natives, there may be no distinction, and insisting that there is may be delusional. Thus, conversing with someone digitally is simply an extension of F2F communication. In both cases, the interaction is real.

In the segment on work, Rushkoff takes us to an IBM business complex. The drive up through the manicured park and parking lot is eerily quiet and static. No one’s around. The vast lobby of the building is empty of people, and so are the hallways and offices that are open to our view. He finally finds a single worker in an office, sitting with a laptop and headset. She explains that she’s collaborating in real-time with distant colleagues via a virtual reality program. They are physically separated, and, no, they have never met F2F.

The point seems to be that the American worker is becoming increasingly alone and that business offices are becoming ghost towns. A walk through most college faculty office buildings on any given day would reveal the same. The hallways are empty, and the offices are locked tight. No one seems to be around. And the assumption is that there is something wrong with this picture.

One could argue that there’s nothing wrong with this picture. In fact, workers and faculty are realizing that they can communicate with others much more efficiently and effectively via PDCDs. An office or conference room is no longer the only or best medium for communication.

Other segments of the program take a look at addiction to video games and the use of video simulations and remotely controlled weapons by the military. The warning is that overdoing games is unhealthy and that digital distance may blur the distinction between real and virtual violence. My reaction to the dangers of game addiction is “So what else is new.” Too much of anything is bad for your health. Period. The comments from those interviewed re the military’s use of digital devices seem to pooh-pooh the fear that the young can’t distinguish between real and faked. They can.

I won’t try to cover all the points made in the program, but there’s one more that ought to be mentioned. This is the segment where a researcher claims that reading uses less brain energy than digital multitasking, and this is somehow healthier. During the latter, the person is supposedly distracted and confused while in the former the person is focused and relaxed. I’d need to hear other interpretations before deciding that multitasking is, indeed, bad for your health.

In conclusion, I’d say that Dretzin and Rushkoff simply tried to cover too much of a complex subject in a relatively brief program. To do the subject justice, no less than a well-researched 12-part series spread out over a year would suffice. Each segment would need to be 90 minutes or longer, and the pace would need to be slowed to allow for thoughtful viewing.

Beyond just the scope of coverage, however, there’s need for a more intelligent approach to the underlying issues. Producers, writers, and correspondents have to get beyond the sensational and zero in on the more profound and complex implications of PDCDs in our lives. How are they making us more instead of less human? How are they positively changing the way we live and define our lives? How are they promoting a global village mentality and thus underscoring similarities rather than differences? How are they removing boundaries that separate nations and peoples and promoting world peace? How are they providing a means for everyone, regardless of age, gender, socio-economic status, or national origin to get a first-rate K-16 education? How are they improving the ways in which we learn and teach? How are they erasing the discrepancies that doom so many to poverty and suffering? How are they contributing to a more just and humane world? How are they being used to battle crime and political corruption? How are they helping us to recover and maintain the health of our environment?

So many questions, so many issues, so much to be learned. As a topic that impacts all our lives and the world we share, our digital nation deserves more than 90 minutes of our time.

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