Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Rushkoff Cringes About Our "Digital Nation"

I am sure that not enough people watched the new Frontline documentary film Digital Nation by Douglas Rushkoff last week. If you watched the show you would know why nobody else was watching it. Everyone is online or otherwise just too busy to sit and watch a 90 minute documentary on live TV. 

Sure you could watch the film online as it was being produced over the past year. The producers even posted rough cut footage as they shot it and gained feedback from viewers. Video blogs sent by visitors actually made it into the final version of the film. But, I didn't even know this film was in process and I'm on Rushkoff's mailing list! I literally happened upon it while channel surfing through our local PBS station KQED-TV late that night.

Really, who watches live TV any more? OK, 106 million people watched the Super Bowl, but what else?

If you watch the Frontline show "Digital Nation" you will see something amazing. Rushkoff has spent the last two plus decades promoting the uses and benefits of technology in our lives (we used to use the word evangelizing . . . I'm glad people have stopped using that word). Rushkoff has written extensively and produced several documentaries about virtual worlds and the future of a society and a world immersed with technology in our daily lives. His last Frontline piece called "Growing Up Online" explores how young people spend their time online every day.

In Digital Nation you see him literally cringing at different points in the show as he witnesses (and brings us face to face) with many of the problems technology creates for us as humans and for our society. At one point early in the show he is almost apologizing for his previous work promoting technology.

However, as Rushkoff points out some of the pitfalls in the way we use technology in our lives, he also draws our attention to success. For example, one middle school in New York was literally saved from itself when laptops were introduced into an environment that was spiraling out of control. Then we get the chance to watch the vice principal monitoring student screens. We see them off task looking at themselves in the "mirror" of the built in web cam doing their hair. They are also chatting online, watching You Tube videos, and playing computer games. Everything except what they are supposed to be doing. In the end, I believe you could argue that this particular school community is better off dealing with those problems then the ones they had before computers were introduced (fights, gangs, drop outs, and school wide dismal academic achievement).

This conversation brings me back to something I wrote last year when discussing technology and literacy and how it made me think of the National Rifle Association's slogan. The key word in this conversation is how we use the technology. "Technology doesn't make people stupid, people using technology makes people stupid."

To me the lesson for us is that people, especially parents and educators, need to promote a balance of integrating technology and not. The benefits for learning are obvious and many. The pitfalls are also obvious and many. I believe it is possible to draw ourselves into a place where we can gain most, if not all, of the benefits of technology and maintain a semblance of order that allows us to reach our goals as educators and people without turning into mindless consumers of digital entertainment.

As Rushkoff says "The trick, at least for me, is to unplug from the digital for long enough to regain my bearings; re-establish myself as an organic life form, primarily, and a virtual presence only secondarily.  And during those interludes, to remember what it is I want in the first place -- for myself, my loved ones, and my society."

Unless we get to that point we are most certainly in trouble as a society and the human race. Perhaps one day we can say that we helped society reach a place where the use of technology does not turn into an all-encompassing world that keeps us from being who we really are -- human.

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