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Stephen Balkam Headshot

Are We (Virtually) There Yet?

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As Joni Mitchell said so succinctly, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone."

I was reminded of the Big Yellow Taxi while watching the riveting, FRONTLINE documentary "Digital Nation" which airs on PBS Tuesday night and online thereafter. Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff guide us through a dizzying view of our new digital worlds -- both real and virtual. An overriding question that's posed is not so much what technology can do for us, but what technology is doing to us. And it's tough to get an easy answer.

Two years ago, Dretzin produced a groundbreaking look at the digital lives of kids. "Growing Up Online" is the second most downloaded video on the FRONTLINE site after "George Bush's War." Digital Nation takes up where her earlier adventure left off and actually takes us to war with the drone pilots of the US Air Force, who drop bombs from their sterile "combat stations" and then drive home to be with the kids for dinner. It seems you no longer need a pilot's license to fly missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. As one talking head quipped, perhaps all you need to be is a good hacker with a big butt. Strangely, drone pilots suffer PTSD in similar ways to soldiers on the ground. Perhaps being at war and staying at home is not the cushy number some in the military thought it would be.

The real battle grounds fought over in this film include the future of education and how we raise our kids. The recent Kaiser Family Foundation research found that kids were consuming 7.5 hours of media per day. Add in multi-tasking -- texting while watching TV while listening to music, for instance, and the figure reaches an amazing 11 hours.

Sherry Turkle of MIT, no techno-slouch, herself, is convinced that this generation of students have "drunk the Kool Aid" of multi-tasking and have done themselves a disservice in being constantly distracted in and out of class. Not surprisingly the kids beg to differ. But backing up Ms. Turkle's hunch is new research out of Stanford that uses MRI scans to show that multi-taskers are significantly slower in finishing an assignment than their one-track-minded fellow students.

The film takes a detour to South Korea to give us a painful glimpse of what may be in store for us and our children. There the levels of addiction to video games has reached epidemic levels with 24 hour internet cafes taking the place of ordinary family life. And there is a pathetic segment showing kids at an "Internet Rescue Camp" doing, well, kids' things like pitching a tent and playing tag without the aid of a screen. On a more positive note, South Korean teachers are required to teach ethics, etiquette and net manners as soon as the kids are ready to read. A civics lesson in 21st citizenship that we should import here.

Closer to home, we see a failing middle school in the Bronx transformed by a visionary principal and the introduction of one laptop per child. Truancy is down, grades are up, but then so are the distractions of social networking sites with the kids flagrantly circumventing the filters and content controls. We hear from author, Todd Oppenheimer, that technology in schools leads to "instant gratification education." Obviously not a true believer.

The documentary opens with web cam shots of Dretzin confessing, YouTube-style, that she didn't see it coming. The "it" was the total immersion of her family (husband and three young-ish kids) in technology. It hit her one morning when she realized all her family was in one room, but each was interacting with a screen of some sort and not with each other. How did we get here? And can we get out of wherever this is or at least hit the pause button?

Unfortunately, the compelling thrust of technological advance is unwilling to grant us much of a reprieve. Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life, suggests that we'll solve the alienation of digital life with (you guessed it) more technology. He and the smart people of IBM, shown using virtual worlds to gather their disparate staff together, seem convinced that high tech will bring more people together than push them apart.

That's fine as long as you don't mind being intimate with someone else's avatar. In another confessional moment, Rushkoff wonders "do virtual worlds make being utterly alone a bit more bearable?" Not exactly the techno-utopia that some envisaged in the early dawn of the net. But as the older digital immigrants give way to the younger digital natives, some of that promise may yet be realized.

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