CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 41. . . .June 22, 2012
CBC Doc Zone’s Are We Digital Dummies? takes viewers on a frenetic ride through staggering statistics, experts’ opinions, extreme examples, and fast paced footage as it considers how digital technology has infiltrated all aspects of society. Whether it concerns religion, politics, business, education, transportation, family relationships, or leisure activities, people’s ability to connect online has transformed the way they interact with their environment and with other human beings. Interested particularly in the technology that allows smartphone owners to send and receive text messages and emails, this documentary begins by posing the question, “Is it too much of a good thing?”
The DVD’s main menu divides the content into four chapters with the titles, “Introduction,” “Unintentional Blindness,” “Virtually Living,” and “Turn Off and Tune Out.” Viewers may choose to “play all” or to click on a single chapter title. The introduction offers up significant statistics: it informs viewers that “twelve billion text messages are sent worldwide every day,” that there are three billion cell phone users and one billion computer users in the world, and that thirteen million Canadians use Facebook. Yet, despite the additional pressures associated with reading and replying to all the resultant messages, average people on the street respond with an unequivocal “no” when asked if they could do without their computer or smartphone.
To illustrate just how pervasive smartphone technology has become, the documentary points to influential figures who have embraced it, such as President Obama, the British Royals, and the Reverend Canon David Parrot, the last having actually held a special blessing for smartphones and laptops. “It wasn’t always this way,” remarks the narrator, and introduces Jack Grushcow, a Canadian “pioneer” of email software. Grushcow recounts the challenge of persuading large corporations of the virtues of electronic messaging twenty years or so ago. In contrast, the narrator observes that these days, even within institutions with longstanding traditions like Parliament Hill, politicians and reporters rely on digital technology to stay current. Here, the video features sound bites from youthful and tech savvy MPs Justin Trudeau and Rod Bruinooge, as well as blogger journalists Kady O’Malley and Susan Delacourt. Over the course of its 43 minutes, the video turns to other professionals in Canada and the United States—university researchers, a technology consultant, a neuroscientist, an occupational therapist, addiction counsellors, and a dentist—to weigh in on the changing dynamics at work, at school, and at home. All the interviewees seem knowledgeable in their respective disciplines, and they share their findings in a manner that’s clear and comprehensible, explaining their favourite catchphrases, such as “productivity paradox” and “inattentional blindness,” for instance.
Within the context of discussions on multitasking, productivity, and the evolution of social etiquette, Are We Digital Dummies? employs some extreme examples to emphasize the potential pitfalls of digital technology. For instance, it includes a clip of a couple who interrupt their wedding ceremony to update their Facebook statuses. Later, it depicts the New York teen who fell into an open manhole while texting—and sued the city for not cordoning off the site. In another case, a Toronto teen effectively placed controls on her parents’ use of BlackBerrys in response to her father’s car accident. The documentary details other instances in which operators of planes, trains, and automobiles have become so enamoured with their digital devices that they ignore important signals, leading to damaging consequences. Even the entertaining footage of comedian Rick Mercer promoting a helmet with built in camera to protect BlackBerry users constantly on their BlackBerrys contains a sobering truth: we, as global citizens, are suffering from the delusion that we’re aware of our surroundings. In the worst case scenarios, this inattention translates to addictions, or as CrackBerry founder Kevin Michaluk puts it, “virtually living.”
If all the concern over shortened attention spans and error prone multitasking in the first two thirds of the DVD leaves viewers disheartened, the last third is more optimistic. It features individuals who demonstrate an awareness of how to “turn off and tune out” when necessary. For example, at The Regional Assembly of Text, a letter writing club that meets in a stationery store in Vancouver, digital natives learn to use typewriters to produce tangible output. Dentist Lorne Berman, on the other hand, resisted purchasing a computer until his daughter needed it to do schoolwork. Now the owner of a cell phone, too, he delights in the convenience of being able to connect to an art gallery halfway around the world or to make a call without having to locate a payphone. “Technology is neither good nor evil,” Jack Grushcow reminds viewers, “it’s a tool.” In that same spirit, the concluding chapter encourages everyone to set limits on screen time and take occasional breaks.
In opposition to the narrative, which functions as a cautionary tale against embracing technology wholesale, the videography engages in rapid, jumpy transitions as though it were tailor made for the short attention spans of digital natives—and perhaps it is. It’s as though, through the frequently shifting backgrounds, the video proves author Nicholas Carr’s assertion that “We’re losing that focus on deep thinking, deep steady thinking about one thing.” Yet the camera work also demonstrates a self reflexivity since it presents the arguments of Carr and fellow author Mark Bauerlein as online video clips; a mouse click on the “play” button precedes each portion of speech. The use of a technological frame to offer commentary on technology acts as a clever postmodern reminder that we are all already co opted by that framework. Although the camera lens refuses to train itself on interviewees’ faces for long, cutting quickly away to other images, and although the narrator is never visible, she and the interviewees speak at a moderate pace with clear enunciation. Additionally, the background music refrains from overshadowing the dialogue. Nevertheless, one can’t help wondering how these tensions between words and images will impact the amount or type of information that viewers will grasp or retain.
The DVD is closed captioned, but a word of warning to Mac users: DVD Player version 5.5 treats the captioning unkindly. It positions captions overtop of the names of interviewees, messes with the syntactical order of some lines, and skips over others. As a means of troubleshooting, online forums suggest downloading VLC Media Player for Mac and using it instead; following this advice remedied the caption issue for this reviewer. Still, it would be most helpful if the folks at Apple responsible for DVD Player would fix the problem, since it is the default DVD player in Mac OS X.
According to the CBC’s Website, “DOC ZONE presents a sweeping panoramic view of what matters most to Canadians” (http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/about.html). It means to appeal to a wide audience as informative, recreational programming, but one could envision high school teachers introducing this DVD in language arts and social sciences courses, or college and university instructors incorporating it into communication and media studies programs. Its fast pace blankets viewers with a great deal of information in a manner, if one believes the interviewees, especially suited to a population that finds it increasingly difficult to sustain focus for long periods of time. This documentary leaves its inaugural question unanswered, preferring instead to prompt viewers to process the information for themselves and arrive at their own conclusions.
Julie Chychota resides in Ottawa, ON, where, as one of the last holdouts still using a dumbphone, she is surrounded and dumbfounded by high tech geniuses who continue to expand mobile phone capabilities.
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