Blog Post

"Digital Nation" Reviewed

"Digital Nation" Reviewed

Emily Long, over at The Lamp, wrote a compelling review of "Digital Nation," PBS Frontline's documentary of digital media use in the United States. With her permission, I'm posting it here, to add to Cathy Davidson's reviews here and here. HASTAC, what are your thoughts about the documentary? Did they portray the state of digital media you see and experience in your communities?

It is unfortunate for the producers of PBS Frontline’s “Digital Nation” that the Kaiser Family Foundation’s landmark survey results were released last week. I say this largely because “Digital Nation,” a 90-minute documentary on digital media use in the United States which premiered last night, did not provide much in the way of new information. My main takeaway was that young people use a lot of media, but this is something I already knew (and I would venture a guess the typical PBS viewer knew it too). The KFF results support much of what I and many others have believed for a long time, but perform the additional service of indicating through metrics just how wide the digital divide can be, and how much that divide has grown within the last five years. As “Digital Nation” presented interviews with MIT students, scholars and die-hard World of Warcraft and Second Life players talking about heavy media use, I couldn’t help thinking that this was all redundant. I get it; people are wired all the time. But what does it mean?

When I learned that that PBS Frontline was making ”Digital Nation,” I expected to see something covering the nation. Instead, we mostly saw New York City, Cambridge, parts of California and South Korea. I understand that South Korea was held up as a foil to media use in the US, perhaps even as a cautionary tale of where we could be heading: Internet Rescue Camps and classrooms of second-graders chanting songs about netiquette. However, there are so many more regions in the US which deserved treatment; I would rather have gotten a look at, for example, the ways that digital media is impacting rural areas rather than spend time on Korea. Other American communities I wish were covered include those which are impoverished, undereducated, underemployed or multinational.

As for what was covered in “Digital Nation,” the film was divided into halves. It began with education and learning, which included the segment on South Korea and also spent time speaking with people studying the cognitive effects of new media on the brain. This is where we learned that young people use an awful lot of media, and in some ways it distracts them from their studies, but in other ways using media may make students more focused. The second half covered gaming, and looked at the online and offline communities created in multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, and also how Second Life can be used to fulfill both personal fantasies and business meeting needs. Following this was a look at gaming and the military, and covered the use of video games as treatment for soldiers with PTSD, but also at the use of predator drones in war zones, a practice which is eerily reminiscent of playing video games.

None of these topics should be left out of an examination of our digital nation, but to cover essentially only learning and gaming leaves out a lot. Working in media literacy, as I do, I was disappointed to not hear media literacy mentioned once. There was also no discussion of how digital media influence our democracy, consumer habits, economy, physical health or interpersonal relationships. Right now, major decisions are being made about broadband access, net neutrality and the limits of free speech on the Internet, but none of that was included either. In all fairness, this is a tall order for a 90-minute documentary, and I do think that “Digital Nation” might have been better served as a series. I admire the work of Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff, and I am positive that they could have provided valuable insight on the complexities of a digital culture if they had more time. I agree with Cathy Davidson of HASTAC that this is a transitional documentary, and I wish it were more than that. Still, could have/should have/would have does very little good, so as it is, “Digital Nation” is valuable as a snapshot summary of a thin slice of living in a digital world. You will probably see some things in “Digital Nation” that look familiar, but you will not get a comprehensive look at our digital nation.



1 comment

Excellent review.  I especially like her point about how "nation" was compressed to a few urban locations.  It would have been so great to actually see and understand the nation in digital terms.  We don't have anything close to that in this documentary, as ably as Dretzin and Rushkoff (whom I also admire) were trying.   I have heard from at least one scholar who tried to be more nuanced that his bits ended up on the cutting room floor.


By the way, the materials on the PBS website are much richer and, well, more nuanced.  I recommend those highly.