Kara Swisher

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PBS's "Frontline" Considers the "Digital Nation"–A Lot of Handwringing Over the Inevitable, but Watch It Anyway

Earlier this week, the reliably erudite PBS public affairs program, “Frontline,” aired a documentary called “Digital Nation,” which I caught on television in one of the rare moments I find myself actually in front of one.

Produced by Rachel Dretzin, in collaboration with tech author and pundit Douglas Rushkoff, it’s the second in a series–the first, which aired in 2008, was titled “Growing Up Online”–about how the inevitable digital onslaught is affecting everyone.

As the site for the show describes itself, in part:

Over a single generation, the Web and digital media have remade nearly every aspect of modern culture, transforming the way we work, learn and connect in ways that we’re only beginning to understand…Dretzin and her team report from the front lines of digital culture–from love affairs blossoming in virtual worlds, to the thoroughly wired classrooms of the future, to military bases where the Air Force is fighting a new form of digital warfare. Along the way, they begin to map the critical ways that technology is transforming us–and what we may be learning about ourselves in the process.

And, indeed, Dretzin and her team race hither and yon interviewing a pile of smart folks–most of whom, thankfully, are not from Silicon Valley–to uncover what’s up with this Internet thing, which the kids seem to love.

There are ruminations on the out-of-focus students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the evils of multitasking, fretting over how this digital submersion is affecting the brains of schoolchildren and more jaw-dropping over the creepily compelling oddness of virtual worlds and online relationships.

Dretzin even features and–natch!–clucks over her own computer-savvy children and what it all means to them. She plays the role of the less-plugged-in mother, complete with a furrowed brow about it all, although the kids are obviously sharp as tacks, digital French flashcards or not.

This egads-no-one-know-where-this-geekery-is-taking-us worrywartness is probably appropriate, and though nothing new, is well told.

Perhaps the best part is a visit to the spanking new gaming-heavy center the Army has built that sucks in teen boys like nobody’s business.

While the piece has aired, you still can watch the whole thing on the well done Digital Nation Web site, the best part of which is the contributions of regular people who added their own voices to the digital conversation.

Which is remarkably robust, as far as I can tell, so perhaps we have not gone to hell in a cloud-computing handbasket quite yet.

Here are two of the more adorkable of those videos:

Here is the whole “Digital Nation” doc, in nine chapters:

Distracted by Everything

What’s It Doing to Their Brains

South Korea’s Gaming Craze

Teaching With Technology

The Dumbest Generation?


Virtual Worlds

Can Virtual Experiences Change Us?

Where Are We Headed?

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work