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digital_nation pros and cons

February 18, 2010

On Feb 2 an excellent documentary debuted on PBS. “digital_nation – life on the virtual frontier” explores what being human means in a world consumed by technology – and how that may impact our future.

If you missed the original broadcast, no problem – all ninety minutes are on the website, neatly divided into segments. The website is excellent – it features video statements from Patrick Stewart, Henry Louis Gates, Jamie Lee Curtis, and scores of others.

The first part of the film talks about multitasking, distraction, short attention spans, and other cognitive effects of our technology obsession. Brain researchers are featured. To me the results of their work seem inconclusive and contradictory. As I write this, I am multitasking – going back and forth between the video and a blog post editing screen.

Using the Internet has changed from something one does to the way one lives

The next topic is the effect of compulsive gaming and other technology obsessions on our health. Concerns like eye strain, hearing problems, and obesity appear to be on the rise.

On the subject of teaching with technology, one person questioned whether reading skills are worsening. [what’s so new about students using Cliffs Notes instead reading?] Another expert saw gaming as a vehicle for engagement in problem solving

The film then moved on to discuss the pros and cons of multiplayer games and virtual worlds.  Businesses are beginning to use virtual worlds as meeting spaces. In this way and others, technology allows more and more people to work at home.

If it looks real and it feels real, the brain tells us it’s real.

One of the last segments dealt with controversial aspects of military use of technology, including unmanned drones and a pre-recruiting center where teens play war games.

Overall, I enjoyed the documentary, but the topic was too broad. There was simply too much to cover in a balanced way. For my tastes, too much of the information in the documentary was anecdotal and too little based on scientific research.

I was particularly disappointed by with Sherry Turkle’s observations. They struck me as pure opinion, but many people will take them as hard fact.

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