Blog Post

The Digital Nation Writes Back

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?





Thanks for sharing your views on the documentary - reading this post helped me feel more comfortable about feeling ambivalent and unresolved by the end of the show. That said, I often have those kinds of feelings after watching Frontline - if I were to enumerate the most unsettling and disturbing shows I've seen on TV, I suspect half of them would be Frontline episodes.

I like - and tweeted about - your observation that the novel was the online game of the last Information Age . One of the segments of the show I found most provocative was the interview with Marc Presky, particularly in considering the question, Do Books Have a Future? I remember another segment where the interviewee was noting that something was [also] lost when books were created - the ability to memorize long stories and the oral traditions that were required in the days before writing. These segments toward the end of the show helped loosen up some of my biases about the relative value of different media, at least with respect to their ability to educate us and/or enrich our lives.

However, I do think that some of the critiques during the early segments are also important to consider. Three years ago, I was prompted to write a blog post on self-reflection vs. self-expression after reading an article by Sherry Turkle (who, of course, was interviewed for Digital Nation), "Living Online: I'll Have to Ask My Friends". As I wrote then:

According to Turkle, the increasing prevalence of talk culture, wherein "people share the feeling to see if they have the feeling", comes at the expense of introspection and probing more deeply into complex thoughts and emotions. Questioning society's tendency toward breathless techno-enthusiasm, with the increasing means available to quickly communicate our state, she champions self-reflection: "having an emotion, experiencing it, taking one's time to think it through and understand it, but only sometimes electing to share it."

I also think the segments dealing with split focus / multitasking - especially the segments on the work of Cliff Nass you noted - offer an opportunity to pause, and reflect on the relative costs and benefits of our increasingly accelerated and fragmented lives. As Cliff notes [pun partially intended]:

obviously the world's changing, and more and more people, especially young people, but even older people, are becoming multitaskers. ...

It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They're terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they're terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they're terrible at switching from one task to another.

... we're starting to see some higher-level effects [of multitasking]. For example, recent work we've done suggests we're worse at analytic reasoning, which of course is extremely valuable for school, for life, etc. ... And frankly, we're seeing this across the world, from the least developed countries to the most developed countries. Multitasking is one of the most dominant trends in the use of media, so we could be essentially dumbing down the world.

Cliff concludes with an observation that cuts to the core of my concerns about snack culture (in a much more concise form than my recent rant about Twitter as a witness projection program):

One of the biggest points here I think is, when I grew up, the greatest gift you could give someone was attention, and the best way to insult someone was to ignore them. ... The greatest gift was attention. Well, if we're in a society where the notion of attention as important is breaking apart, what now is the relationship glue between us? Because it's always been attention.


Thanks for writing, Joe.  I share your interest in Attention---in fact, I have a book coming out from Viking in the Fall called Now You See it:  The Science of Attention in the Classroom, at Work, and Everywhere Else.  I argue that we're seeing a new form of attention.  We, who are old enough to have the old form, may not like what we see, may not share it, but it's just wrong to use old metrics for single-focused attention to measure what Linda Stone so wisely called continuous partial attention.  I also don't think there is a "better" or "worse"----but we tend to register as "worse" or even "disabled" that which feels to us as negative.  The whole process is circular.   But my editor will murder me if I give away any more.  That's the teaser.   Thanks again for your thoughts. 


I'm familiar with Linda Stone's views on continuous partial attention - and when distraction is good -  although I do think she's making value judgments between "receptive" distractions such as long walks and "deceptive" distractions such as email and Twitter.

One of the most interesting hours I've ever spent was in a Foo Camp 2007 session with Linda, Kathy Sierra and Dan Russell (which was also attended by Blaine Cook, one of Twitter's founders). As I wrote in a blog post regarding their different perspectives on attention and inattention ... appreciation and depreciation , I find the views expressed by Kathy very much aligned with my own (and others ... including [perhaps ironically] Doug Rushkoff):

Kathy concluded by raising the issue of how all of this affects our ability to develop expertise, noting that the difference between real experts and non-experts seem to be more dependent upon genetic predispositions on the ability (or willingness?) to focus than on any other particular ability, very much in alignment with observations made by Art Benjamin at ETech 2007 on the importance of dedication and practice (or, as he put it, "misspent youth"), and Doug Rushkoff on "discovering what it is about what we do that genuinely fascinates us, and then going as deep into that joy of investigation, commitment and process as we can stand."

Re-reading (and re-posting) that paragraph leads me to distinguish between the type of rapt attention we saw with the gamers in the Digital Nation episode and the type of scattered attention exhibited by multi-taskers. As I noted in my last comment (here), Digital Nation helped me open up to the possibility that letting go of older forms of expression (for me, Olde English verse) may not be a net negative development. I find it hard to imagine that new forms of attention - in which our ability to focus is diminished - will lead to a better world.

Please note my intention is not to provoke you to revealing [much] more about your upcoming book on attention. I will say, though, that I find it interesting that you plan to share the larger picture in the form of a book ... and wonder whether you'll be using blog posts, tweets, videos or other new media channels for sharing bits and pieces. In any case, I'm an old attention / old media guy, and so will look forward to the book.


Well, I blog almost every day and there's often scattered work on attention.  And I'll be doing all kinds of other media, podcasts, tweets, blogs, Facebook, open chats, webinars, etc etc.   Here's one of my blogs on the Stanford multitasking study that came out last summer:



The issue for me is why we are blaming "the Internet."   MMOPG gamers have astonishing concentration.  That's the Internet.  The Internet is almost as diverse as the rest of everyday life, sometimes focused, sometimes distracted.  We enter in and use it in multiple ways.  More to come!   Thanks so much for your blogs and your insights here.