Digital Nation Documentary Review Essay

Selections from Digital Nation Transcript

To assist readers unfamiliar with Digital Nation, this page transcribes selections from the documentary that are relevant to understanding the analysis presented in the webtext. Although readers should watch the full documentary or read the entire transcript to better contextualize these selections within the more balanced presentation depicted by the whole film, the following transcriptions can serve as a temporary way to better understand selections discussed. The presentation of these selections is in keeping with fair use guidelines of using copyrighted work for scholarship and reproducing a "relatively small amount" of non-original copyrighted text.

Selection 1: MIT Professors discuss learning in the 21st century

Prof. SHERRY TURKLE: Every professor who looks out onto a sea of students these days knows there's email, FaceBook, Googling me, Googling them, Googling their next-door neighbor, that's happening in the classroom.

RACHEL DRETZIN: Like most universities, MIT allows laptops in its classes at the professor's discretion.

Prof. SHERRY TURKLE: I mean, it even changes how teachers teach because now the- the pressure is on teaching kind of scintillating PowerPoint things that will distract them from the Web.

DAVID JONES, Associate Professor, MIT: There are two sorts of things you can test students about. You can test how well they're paying attention in lecture and you can test how well they're absorbing information from readings that you assign. And I don't think they're doing either of those things well.

I just gave my class a midterm, and I was really asking obvious questions that, had they been attending carefully in lecture and had they been doing the readings carefully, everyone should have gotten 100 percent on this exam. And the mean score was probably about a 75 percent. It's not that the students are dumb, it's not that they're not trying, I think they're trying in a way that's not as effective as it could be because they're distracted by everything else.

Prof. SHERRY TURKLE: I teach at MIT. I teach the most brilliant students in the world. But they have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes. There really are important things you cannot think about unless it's still and you're only thinking about one thing at a time. There are just some things that are not amenable to being thought about in conjunction with 15 other things.

Selection 2: Monitoring students' laptop use

RACHEL DRETZIN: The school is often battling the lures of on-line Distractions. Its firewall blocks access to sites like YouTube and MySpace, but the kids figure out how to get to them anyway.

OSAFO: Sometimes the teachers bore us, and instead of listening to them, we go on the Web sites.

TANIJA: If a teacher comes or something, they'll switch it so the teacher won't see, you know? It's mostly MySpace, AIM, and games. But at the same time, doing our schoolwork.

DANIEL ACKERMAN, Asst. Principal, I.S. 339: So I click, and there's an "observe" button, and it brings up their screen.

RACHEL DRETZIN: The school's assistant principal spends part of each day remotely monitoring what the kids are doing on their laptops.

DANIEL ACKERMAN: Oh, we have a Photo Booth.

RACHEL DRETZIN: He can see them, but they can't see him.

DANIEL ACKERMAN: These kids are goofing off, taking pictures of themselves in class.

RACHEL DRETZIN: [on camera] So wait. Do all the kids have the cameras on?

DANIEL ACKERMAN: 6th and 7th grade have cameras. A lot of kids are just on it to just check their hair, do their makeup. They just use it like it's a mirror. And I always like to mess with them and take a picture. Nine times out of ten, they duck out of the way. And then they shut down and they get right back to work.

Selection 3: Mark Bauerlein, Clifford Nass, and students discuss the impact of interruptions on literacy

Prof. MARK BAUERLEIN, Emory University: You will find a lot of English professors saying, "I can't assign a novel more than 200 pages. I used to. I can't anymore."

RACHEL DRETZIN: Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University, wrote a book called The Dumbest Generation. It's filled with data suggesting that kids aren't as academically capable as they used to be, before all these digital distractions.

MARK BAUERLEIN: What I would like more than anything else is for young people to prove every single harsh judgment in that book flat wrong, right? We want them to grow up and to blow us away with their literacies, their reading and writing skills, their knowledge about- about history and art, and their civic activity. But we just don't see it.

RACHEL DRETZIN: Bauerlein quotes a 2007 NEA study that shows that while younger students' reading skills are improving, as kids get older and ostensibly more wired, their reading deteriorates. And he claims that writing skills are suffering, too.

MARK BAUERLEIN: When the Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed college professors about basic skills today as compared to 10 years ago, only 6 percent of them said that college students come into their classes very well prepared in writing. By a 2-to-1 margin they said basic skills are worse today than they were a decade ago.

Prof. CLIFFORD NASS, Stanford University: You already hear professors and others talking about changes in the way kids write, so that instead of writing an essay, they write in paragraphs. They write a paragraph and they say, "Oh, now I'll look at FaceBook for a while." Or they write a paragraph and say, "Oh, a chance to play poker," or to do all of these at once. So what we're seeing is less of a notion of a big idea carried through and much more little bursts and snippets.

RACHEL DRETZIN: The MIT students we met confirmed that constant interruptions have an effect on their writing.

[on camera] Like, we've talked to professors, not necessarily here, but who say that students of your generation write in paragraphs. In other words, there isn't this kind of connection between paragraphs. It's like the paragraphs are kind of separate and-

KAMO: Oh, I do that all the time! [laughter] My papers, my first draft, it's always, like "All right, paragraph one, awesome. Two, awesome. Three, awesome. I don't see the connection." And in my head, well, I was probably thinking about something else during then or I wasn't look at the big picture. It was short term, short term, short term. Let me write out an awesome paragraph and then go to the next one, my next idea.

Douglas, you asked for my initial response to the film so I am going to be brutally honest.

I have found the Digital Nation website to be an extraordinary resource which I used repeatedly in my teaching last semester, drawing in many different segments to stimulate discussion, to allow students to hear more directly the point of view and see the personalities of writers we were engaging with through our readings. What works for me about the website is that it is multi-vocal, allowing many points of view to be expressed on more or less equal footing, encouraging reflection as people make their own decisions about what to watch and how to juxtapose the pieces. I doubt any two readers took the same path through this material or any two teachers used the resources the website provides in precisely the same ways. Yet, it is hard to argue that the materials on the website did not provoke thought about the set of questions that the filmmakers were posing.

I frankly found the documentary itself mind-numbing and relentless. It rarely trusts the viewer to draw their own conclusions about what they are seeing and it deploys much of the material in ways which point towards a much less nuanced conclusion than any of the participants in the conversation might have advocated. The website allows us to ask our own questions, while the documentary tells us what to think.

I appreciate that the website allows us to see so much of the material which ended up on the cutting room floor and thus to second guess the judgements the producers made in organizing and presenting the materials. In that sense, the two read side by side will make a valuable contribution to fostering critical media literacy skills.

For example, I might use the documentary to talk about the primacy effect -- the degree to which what comes first in a linear media experience sets the horizon of expectations and frames how we understand the material which follows. It strikes me that we go more than 20 minutes into the film before we hear what might be considered an authoritative voice offering a sympathetic comment about the value of digital media and that initial critical framing of media as a social problem gets reasserted multiple times in the course of the documentary. This surely encourages greater skepticism when alternative viewpoints get expressed later.

We might talk about the ways that voice-over narrators carry much greater weight in our response to documentaries than the subjects they are drawing upon -- they are allowed to cast judgements and when they raise doubts, they carry extra weight, which again gets used here mostly to point us back to an interpretation of media use as a social problem.

We might talk about conversion narratives such as the way Rushkoff deploys his own shifts in thinking to add greater credibility to his current position in the classic "once was lost but now am found" tradition of religious witnessing.

We might talk about notions of juxtaposition -- the ways that each positive claim is followed by a critical perspective, while for the most part, people who are more sympathetic to new media practices are not allowed to interject or challenge claims made in the more critical segments.

We can talk about how selections of clips can frame and limit the conversation -- see how we are already focusing on the kid who claims to have read Romeo and Juliet as if he were representative of anything other than his own misguided understanding of how to engage in literature. As someone who taught at MIT for 20 years, I scarcely recognized the place depicted on the documentary -- I certainly would have no trouble creating a documentary which arrived at the exact opposite conclusion about what was going on when those students used their computers in the classroom.

And we can talk about the polarizing effect of traditional broadcasting where every issue has two and only two sides. Witness the ways that the more qualified statements chosen from James Paul Gee or myself are made to look as if we were arguing against digital media, which means that any time you cede a point in an interview, you run the risk of having it used against the case you are trying to make. Critics of new media are allowed to make unqualified statements, while advocates are shown to be more equivocating. The result of such practices over time has served to polarize the conversation -- so we are either for or against digital media, it is either good or bad, rather than allowing a meaningful discussion of its potentials and risks, its benefits and problems, which might allow for us over time to find common ground and act meaningfully in response to a situation none of us fully understand. Every one of us, no matter what their perspective, comes across as a more nuanced speaker and thinker in the web clips than we do in the context of this documentary -- and yes, this is an inevitable consequence of trying to cover too much territory in too short a time.

I wouldn't object to the fact that the documentary had a point of view, if it were not for the fact that the point of view is so predictable a reflection of the culture war that keeps getting framed between the kinds of people who watch public broadcasting and the kinds of people who play video games. I am struck by how consistently the documentary connects new media practices to hot button issues within the demographic which is most apt to watch PBS -- framing digital media in opposition to books, say, or linking it to the military or to corporations. Again, this is part of the story but would digital media come across differently to this audience if it was presented in relation to home schoolers, online book clubs, or say, if we showed how the people protesting the military-entertainment complex had used new media to mobilize their supporters.

You had a chance to do so much more than this -- creating a context where serious thinkers with a range of different perspectives can talk through their differences and try to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of a complex situation. I believe the website did this. I believe an online conversation may do this. I don't think the documentary does. What does this tell us about television as a vehicle for serious reflection? What does this suggest about the value of the kinds of social spaces for open ended inquiry and discussion digital media at its best can provide? For example, what does it suggest about the need of television to compress for time and the potential of the web to offer unlimited material?

Seriously, I don't think we can use one instance of media use or misuse to sum up the medium -- whether television or the web -- and that's part of the point I am making. It is nonsensical to make a judgement about whether the web is good or bad. The web is. How do we use it in a way which maximizes the benefits and lowers the risks? That's more or less where you end the documentary -- but at most steps along the way, it's pretty clear the documentary is more interested in the "dangers" than the "benefits" of digital life.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *