09 February 2011


DIGITAL NATION. Last night the PBS series Frontline aired an episode called "Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier". The show examines how, over the past twenty years, every aspect of our lives has been transformed by sophisticated electronic devices -- in school, at work, socially, at home, in the military. Advances in technology are on the threshold of outpacing the ability of humans to adapt, even though we delude ourselves that we are doing just fine, thank you very much.

Case in point: it has become common in university classrooms to see students engaged in multitasking -- lending half an ear to the professor's lecture, while simultaneously using laptop computers or other devices to check email, send text messages, talk on cell phones, Google the names of classmates, check the news feed on Facebook, or play video games. Unanimously, students believe that it's no big deal, that they are fully capable of keeping up with several tasks at once, and doing it well.

Research tells a different story. One professor at MIT noted that he intentionally presented to his advanced students a course which contained easy material, with clear guidelines on course content and testing expectations. Exam questions were drawn directly from his lectures. His high-achieving students could reasonably have been expected to score 100 percent on exams, but in fact averaged only 70 percent. The students were being profoundly distracted by digital devices from the task at hand -- learning the material.

Another researcher at Stanford University measured students' brain function using MRIs. A control group performed various learning and motor function tasks, while the test group performed those same tasks, but with access to their accustomed computers and digital devices. All students felt that they had done extremely well, but the test group, those with digital distractions, scored only two-thirds as well as the control group. By any measure, multitasking is a failure. Not only do we not learn as well, but when digital devices are thrown into the mix, there is every indication that we become socially isolated and inept. Our capacities for empathy are being reduced, and our very brain structure and function may be dwindling.

At this link to the Digital Nation program, you will discover that the program has been broken up into nine chapters, in order to easily call up specific topics. I encourage you to watch them all. They are listed as follows --
  • Distracted by everything
  • What's it doing to their brains?
  • South Korea's gaming craze
  • Teaching with Technology
  • The Dumbest Generation?
  • Relationships
  • Virtual Worlds
  • Can virtual experiences change us?
  • Where are we headed?
By no means is it suggested that we should abandon the versatile digital tools which now permeate our lives. The future is now. But it is worth a moment of alarm when someone off-handedly says, "I can't remember the last time I read a book." It is worth our thoughtful attention that increasing numbers of young people cannot read, cannot process information, have short attention spans, cannot be quietly attentive to the world around them, and are functionally illiterate in math and science. Computers and digital communications serve important, versatile functions in our lives. This notwithstanding, the adage applies -- "All things in moderation."

3D FAIL. The proliferation of 3D entertainment in movies, and the planned introduction of 3D in home television, conceal a fundamental truth -- the technology does not work. 3D images are darker, shrunken, and produce stroboscopic effects. Most fundamentally, there is a disconnect between our brain's ability to simultaneously focus on a screen X feet away, and our eyes being fooled into converging on an apparent image Y feet away (compare the images below). The discrepancy leads to neural confusion, headaches, and a generally unsatisfying esthetic experience.

Film critic Roger Ebert cites the expertise of cinematic film editor and sound designer Walter Murch, in his journal entry Why 3D Doesn't Work and Never Will. Case Closed. The entry explains in clear detail the physical and psychological issues involved, and is worth reading before you consider spending a small fortune on a 3D television -- or even spending the ripoff extra admission to watch a movie in 3D at the theater. Your eyes and your brain will thank you.

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