This semester I’ve been teaching a master’s-level course for teachers called “Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom,” and as usual, teaching the course pushes me to think about how digital tools fit into the pedagogical needs of today’s student population. With that in mind, I’ve been curious for a while to see the PBS documentary, Digital Nation, directed by Rachel Dretzin, with contributions from Douglas Rushkoff, in part because of the attempt by the filmmakers to extend the conversation about the issues presented in the film to the web. Like Henry Jenkins, who has posted a negative review of the film (but a positive review of the website), I found myself feeling frustrated at how the documentary framed a number of important questions about digital media literacy, but as an example of a transmedia documentary, I think it’s a fascinating case study, something that media scholars and others can use to powerful effect in their classrooms.
Jenkins raises some significant concerns about the frames through which the documentary engages with digital media. We are presented at the very beginning of the film with scenes depicted addicted South Korean gamers, some of whom undergo a two-week “Internet Rescue Camp” designed to teach them to withdraw from the internet. Other sequences seem to depict family life as transformed with parents and children glancing at each other over a set of illuminated screens in what Dretzin referred to as her “kitchen experience,” while some students (rather anecdotally) report being able to write an “awesome paragraph” but not being able to focus for the length of an entire paper. Douglas Rushkoff’s “conversion narrative” isn’t entirely convincing, either, and seems to be somewhat imposed on the film to give it a (somewhat tenuous) narrative arc. Perhaps a bigger problem is the lack of understanding of what it means to “multitask.” As Jenkins points out, some forms of multitasking have existed for a long time and often involve combining several mundane activities: watching a sporting event or listening to music or talking on the phone while washing dishes, for example.
As Jenkins and others have commented, however, many of these changes need to be placed in a historical context, and to be fair to the filmmakers, they did include Jenkins’ remark that these debates about distraction and multitasking and information overload have a much longer history dating back at least to the Progressive era. Yeah, movies and kinetoscopes aren’t iPods or Crackberries, but it’s reductive to suggest that these problems and debates about literacy are entirely new. More frustrating for me was the tendency to refer to today’s students as “digital natives,” an assumption that was (from what I can recall) never really challenged in the film. To be sure, students today barely remember a time when Google didn’t exist, and many can navigate using a mouse in ways that surprise many adults, but that dexterity may not correspond to the more complicated forms of information literacy raised by web search and other activities.
In places, I found the documentary relatively helpful, especially in its recognition that real communities form in the virtual worlds of online games and Second Life, and the segment focusing on “Cooking with Bubbe,” an online cooking show featuring an 80-something Jewish grandmother, showed the power of online communities, as well. The questions that the film raised about military uses of digital media were timely and important, especially the concerns about using done aircraft, in which pilots operating machines in Las Vegas direct airplanes to drop bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think it’s well worth asking about the moral implications of this kind of war: what does it mean when we can fire missiles or drop bombs 7,000 miles from any real danger and then go home and have dinner with our families or go to a PTA meeting? It’s an unsettling question, one that the PBS version of the documentary can only begin to cover.
Which is why I think any critique of the film needs to acknowledge the mediating role of the Digital Nation website. Although it is no doubt true that many viewers will only encounter the film via the PBS broadcast, the conversation has spilled out onto the PBS website and beyond, illustrating the potential of transmedia documentary to create engagements with the world that are not always defined by a single perspective. Viewers, like me, who are concerned about military uses of digital media can follow that path. Or, we could learn more about one teacher’s use of a Ning to make Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird more accessible. Jenkins is absolutely right that the supplemental material (a vast archive of deleted scenes, user contributions, viewer comments, and other material) can offer us a valuable lesson in media literacy: What was included in the PBS film? How was it organized? What might that tell us about the biases of the PBS audience? For that reason, rather than dismissing the PBS documentary, I think it makes more sense to see it as just one component of a much larger work, one that is contradictory, complicated, messy, and often very compelling, much like the digital age in which we are living.