Thursday, February 4, 2010

Coming From a Digital Native

I just got done watching PBS Frontline's Digital Nation on the Web, and overall, I think it was a pretty decent production as far as made-for-TV documentaries go.

While it tread lightly on the surface of the true complexity of our networked lives, the show did frame the contemporary human condition in a fair-ish (albeit a bit clich├ęd) light by questioning networked culture with a slightly more-than-healthy dose of skepticism. An urgent call to action for bringing schools into the 21st century certainly pleased me (minus Todd Oppenheimer's whacked-out ludditism).

But one thing that Digital Nation touched on but did not emphasize enough is the lens through which we look at networked postmodernity. Are peoples' cognition getting weaker and less focused for functioning in society? Or are our expectations of what comprises a functioning society changing? Can we really look at where we are today through the lens of who we were yesterday and judge it by any sociocultural absolutism? Do students have a hard time paying attention to lectures and books because they are over saturated by media and distracted by multitasking? Or have these institutions failed to connect with students' lived experiences in the 21st century in a way that engages them, misleading older, third-wave academics to perceive them as less motivated?

Certainly, new technologies come with new implications and the program articulated this well. The idea of treating technological side-effects (a need for connectedness with Second Life, combat PTSD with combat simulations, etc.) is a fascinating paradox.

Yet the biggest disappointment was how little creators Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff talked about the highly empowering qualities of the writable Web. My ability to talk through this very blog-- even to the five or six people who actually read it-- marks a profoundly different experience with the media universe than ever before. Mix that with peer filtering and you've got yourself a technologically mediated universe that displays peoples' experiences of the world so-far, and encourages them to articulate it in creative ways, pushing our experiences to new levels of public reflection (linked to an iTunes podcast with a slightly different opinion about media universes).

Our ability to play with culture liberated by networked computers and share it with each other makes right now one of the most exciting times in modern history. If used thoughtfully, the digital tools that make up our digital nation places human agency in the intersection of thinking humans and networked machines. If used thoughtfully- that's quite a loaded phrase. Brings us back to education, really...

In the end, Digital Nation seems to accept balance over total skepticism which I am totally on-board with. Sherry Turkle poignantly states that "technology is powerful and complicated." I couldn't agree more. But to me, that's not such a bad thing. As Rushkoff says in his final video-blog-ish interstitial, our ability to "remake the world on our own terms" keeps me a technology enthusiast on the edge of my desk chair, both glued to the screen with fascination of the virtual universe, and a new-found perspective on the physical universe; a territory not taken over by the map, but one oozing with potential to be navigated and annotated in infinite, keenly percipient ways.

The trick is to get all other users to see that, which brings us back to education, really...

For an in-depth review of the program from someone who was in it, check out Henry Jenkins' blog post:
"As someone who works through ethnography, I do not necessarily see any group as representative of the national norms. There is no one digital culture or digital generation, simply many different ways that groups have integrated digital technologies and practices into their lives, some rewarding, some potentially destructive, but each distinctive."

Also, killer intro and credit bed by video extraordinaire Tom Guilmette, who has empowered himself with the Web to impressive ends.

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