This review of PBS's Digital Nation is a reblog from my own blog, buried yesterday in an announcement that our "Reimagining Learning" competition was opening yesterday. I got carried away. For those who have emailed me confused about where I offered my comments on the PBS special, I'm reblogging here. Feel free to add your own comments and opinions below.
Last night I watched the PBS Special "Digital Nation." It was an excellent example of a "transitional" documentary. It began with the tired harangue about how youth today are going to the dogs. It included some alarmist sound bites by scientists whose actual work is far more interesting and nuanced than the punditry that appeared on TV (especially that of Clifford Nass and Gary Small). It included ominous moments in South Korea, with automaton-like children singing rhymes about polite and wise use of the Internet and where the Orientalism was, to my mind, really repugnant. Cultural differences about peer identification and peer group, very much part of Korean culture for hundreds of year, were mashed into horror stories of Internet addiction, as if the one were somehow the other.
I admire the narrators of this show, Rachel Dretzin, who appeared intermittently, and new media commentator Douglas Rushkoff. But the ambivalence of the narrators permeated the schizophrenic design of the show. It wasn't two views, with lots of nuanced space in between, the documentary was marred by careening and competing views, from jeremiads to utopianism, without much middle ground, thoughtful synthesis, or questioning of either extreme. It felt a bit like the tv journalism where "the right" and "the left" battle it out and the viewer is left to say, "Wait! There are plus and minuses on both sides---plus a range of ideas to think about that your binary excludes." I found myself with far too many "Wait!" moments in a documentary that felt unresolved but (this was the most dubious part) passionate, emphatic, and polemical in its positions, even while contradicting them later.
And some of the distopian commentary was just wrong. I am bored by the pompous pronouncements of English professors on how kids today cannot read novels. Do we really know that's true? I do remember that when I was an undergrad, long before the Internet existed, I was shocked (nerd that I was) to come into class where our prof gave us a one-question quiz on Moby Dick, to discover that, out of about 75 students, I was the sole one who had read the actual book and not the Cliff Notes. When profs remember nostalgically back to the good old days when students read Moby Dick, I wish they would be less narcisstic and remember that, although they read long novels, most of their non-grad-school-bound classmates made due with the Cliff Notes, even before the Internet purportedly destroyed their ability to read. (I'm guessing that no one is lamenting the birth of the Internet more than the Cliff Notes people. Just think about how much of their market share they've lost to Wikipedia and other convenient online sources. So, yes, if English professors of the world want to lament that the Internet has wreaked havoc with Cliff Notes consumption, they may well be correct.)
The argument that "kids can no longer read novels" is particularly interesting to me because I've written a lot about the creation of the popular form of the novel in the post-Revolutionary Era in America. The popularity of the novel as a popular form both contributed to and could not have happened without the changes in literacy that came along with mass printing, public schooling, and the invention of circulating and lending libraries that made books available to the masses.
Back in the last great information age, from the late eighteenth- to the mid-nineteenth century, when steam-powered presses and mass produced ink and paper meant that people were reading not just the Bible and the psalm book but popular literature, a lot of pundits made pompous pronouncements about how novels (yes, NOVELS) were destroying attention span, distracting youth, leading to compulsive behaviors that made them prefer fantasy to real life, were leading them into sexual deviance, violence, asocial behavior, and rudeness to parents. Instead of being able to sit in church or the public square, in a community, all listening to oratory by some gifted preacher or statesman or poet, mass printing and especially the novel was destroying memory, a love of great literature, the oral tradition, civic and family relationships, and all sense of community.
NB: It's very helpful to be a historian of the last Information Age by training when listening to frightening, inflammatory blather about the current Information Age. I have huge sympathy for parents bewildered by the Internet passions of their kids. But I am also skeptical when the Internet is posed as the great danger to our children--"the dumbest generation," in the words of one pundit quoted more than once in the PBS special--in almost exactly the same terms as pundits used two hundred years ago to describe the terrible impact of novels. Yes, the novel was the video game of the Industrial Age. Pundits back around the time of the signing of the American Constitution were sure it would destroy youth forever and jeopardize the new nation. (I wrote a book about this before the Internet was public, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, and came out with an expanded edition a few years ago that takes on the parallels between that previous Information Age and our own.) Given how frightened many Enlightenment intellectuals were of the degraded genre known as the novel, it is ironic that English professors on this PBS special warn us that the digital age is destroying youth forever and so hurting their attention span that they will never more be able to read (drumroll) . . . novels.
Except, of course, for Harry Potter. Somehow those kids whose brain cells have been burned into distraction by the Internet were also lining up at midnight for the latest installment of 800-page novels about a British boy at boarding school.
Fortunately, amid a lot of scary stuff about the Internet in this PBS special, there were also saner voices, and that is why I say it was a classic transitional documentary. In the post-Revolutionary period, too, there were people who decried the novel and others were wondering if it might not be useful in some way. And many documents from the time show both poles at once, as in Digital Nation. It terrifies us, then it calms us down, and then, at the end, it turns us off (literally, the narrator turns off the screen which is to say the TV, in an interesting mixed metaphor of the TV and the Internet age). Sane voices prevailed in the last par of Digital Nation, including Marc Prensky who said, of course you lose some things in any cultural change, even as you gain them. That has always been the case. There were also excellent, if too short, moments by James Gee, Henry Jenkins, and Katie Salen who offered creative, positive, instructive, and helpful ways of addressing a digital age that is not going to go away. No, we don't have to (as in the abominable South Korean segment) send our children off to deprogramming camps where they unlearn the Internet!
Rather, the approach by Gee, Jenkins, and Salen was to suggest that, if indeed the Internet is this powerful new force in our lives, then, as educators, we should be thinking about the very best, most imaginative, most creative ways of using this powerful force both to educate our kids and to use their own talents and interests to help make the Internet better. I wish they had shown more of Katie's amazing Quest 2 Learn school in NY, based on gaming principles, and with the most dedicated cadre of teachers and the most excited students imaginable. (All of the day's lesson plans and activities are on line. You can go to the school and spend hours and hours lost in accounts by these dedicated and inspiring teachers, and by their students.) There were moments where the PBS Special focused on what is possible. There was even a moving story of a school in what appeared to be an impoverished area of New Jersey that was turned around not by remedial 3 R drilling but by getting connected. No one thought it could happen. It happened. The school turned from failure to success, the kids from indifference to inspiration. But the special did nothing to tell us about how that possibly could have happened given the array of "data" about cognition that had already been presented and that made it seem as if such a transformation by way of the Internet was humanly, cognitively impossible. Given the dire warnings about how the Internet fries your brain, one had to wonder if the sparkling eyes of kids at the Internet school were from learning or from the dangerous drug known as the Internet.
"Digital Nation" was a mash-up of "Reefer Madness" and "Glee." Those are the two classic and perennial youth genres it careened between: our kids are lost! our kids are found! Are the kids of today Internet-addicted misfits on the road to perdition and ruin? Or are they valiantly struggling against odds and able to work together to put on one heck of a show?
That's what I blogged about yesterday, the reopening of our "Reimagining Learning" competition by popular demand, sidetracked and distracted by my lingering thoughts about this documentary. It is gratifying, especially as the rhetoric roars, to be seeing hundreds of people thinking of creative new ways to use the technology that our kids have inherited and will help to shape in the most creative, imaginative, and inspiring ways. If kids are addicted to video games, why not make better ones that instill learning principles and inspire them to want to think boldly? If the Internet is about cooperative behaviors and interaction, why not create new learning "labs" where kids can learn how to cooperate and collaborate better?
Fortunately, the actual PBS website has lots of material that wasn't in the show, and also has fuller versions, with a lot more nuance, of some of the material that was in the show. i recommend it highly. I also like the conversation the TV show inspired, and I appreciate how difficult it is to represent many points of view in one hour. As I've said, it was "transitional." I am sure that Dretzin and Rushkoff tried hard to represent multiple points of view and that is not easy, especially in a transitional moment. So that's the positive. This provoked discussion. It identified different voices. It will be interesting to see what comes next.
And there will be a "next." You can wring your hands and lament what is, but you aren't going to stop the digital age. Why not, instead, roll up your sleeves and do something to make this digital age better?