Digital Nation

In 2008, Harvard Law School blog commented on the lives of Digital Natives with insights from PBS’ excellent documentary Growing up online. Last year, PBS did an equally informative follow up called digital_nation – life on the virtual frontier. The documentary attempts to cross-examine popular phenomenon and seeks explanations using the latest research in neurology, psychology and philosophy.

The Multitaskers

The report starts with analysis of a Stanford study, lead by Clifford Nass, on Chronic Multitaskers that reveals most of the self-reported multi-taskers are lousy at the very multi-tasking they claim to excel at; the brain studies indicate sluggish switching between task (as compared with doing the same task consistently) and weak analytic reasoning; as the lead researcher put, multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multi-tasking i) distracted easily, ii) disorganized memory and worse at analytic reasoning. The upshot of the study warns that we are making people who are incapable of thinking clearly let alone critically.

Is this a problem?

The notion that new generation needs technology is questioned in the most wired place in the world: South Korea, which is also the first country to treat internet addiction as psychiatric disorder; in other parts of the world the effects are still under debate.
The Korean government has opened free, two-week-long “Internet rescue camps” throughout the country, and starting in the second grade, children are required to take “netiquette” classes to learn how to use computers responsibly. On a related note, in South Korea, the kids are taught to go online at the same age when they start to read!

Dr. Ahn Dong-hyun, of Hanyang University, conducted a three-year study on the question of internet addiction: about 90 percent of Korean children use the Internet in their daily life. Of those, about 10 to 15 percent are in the high-risk group.

Question of Ethics

The report also explored the domain of virtual reality. For instance, giving example of an amusement park where the false reality headsets that are being made for young children, as young as 2 years old. These headsets put these young children into a virtual world where they think virtual reality is actual reality: swimming with whales, afterward they believed they had done so in real life.

The reports seeks explanation from Jeremy Bailenson, director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University studying the impact of virtual immersions via online personas or avatars on people’s perceptions of reality: “digital stuff is such a new phenomenon that if it looks real and feels real, the brain tells us it is real,” says Dr. Bailenson. “We’ve done studies with children where they see themselves swimming around with whales in virtual reality. … About 50 percent of them will believe that in physical space, they actually went to SeaWorld and swam with whales.”

Philosophical Ground (or absence of it)

On life on the internet, a young person remarks “I’m closer to everyone on-line than in real life.” as the distinctions between real and virtual space are disappearing. The question of what is real has always been at the heart of the human experience – Plato ingeniously explains it in the Allegory of the Cave in The Republic. But, leaping away from the firm philosophical ground, we enter the shaky realm of the technological determinism as the interviewed futurists assure us that words were going to be usurped by the experiences given to us by virtual reality. We’d be able to exchange experiences and not have to rely on the clumsiness of  language to do it for us. There will be no need for symbolism, and certainly not for metaphor. What you see, hear, touch and smell can be made available to us.

War and the Digital

The report also examined how ICTs have transformed many aspects of warfare, for instance Army recruitment center (called Army Experience centers) that offers teenagers as young as 13 free access to commercial combat video games; or, Air Force pilots (with no flying experience whatsoever) who remotely fly drones over the war zones while sitting in their offices. The same center also provides virtual reality therapy to returning veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The report reveals that some drone pilots have shown the symptoms of PTSD and anxiety levels of a real space pilot: “This disconnect of being at war and being at home is very tough for the human mind to wrap itself around,” P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute remarked; “And we’re finding that some of these drone pilots actually have combat stress and PTSD even, just like the units physically deployed into Iraq and Afghanistan.” The psychological toll increases with the increase detachement from field and decreased distance from home/family i.e. you can be in combat in the day and at dinner with family in evening.

On a departing question regarding the ethics of warfare, the center defended their strategy “It is a sampling experience… to encourage you to learn more just as Apple is trying to do.”

See the PBS 90 minute documentary Digital Nation online.

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