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TELEVISION REVIEW

Making the digital connection

Eliza Eddison, an MIT engineering student, in the 'Frontline'' installment 'Digital Nation.'' Eliza Eddison, an MIT engineering student, in the "Frontline'' installment "Digital Nation.'' (mark ostow/pbs)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 2, 2010

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One of the many surreal moments in PBS’s “Digital Nation’’ occurs during a segment about drone pilots. We see American soldiers planted in front of screens in a desert facility near Las Vegas, as they deploy and fire armed, unmanned planes flying over Iraq and Afghanistan. Then we follow one of these soldiers leaving his remote control station to drive home, a suburban haven where he’s cheerfully greeted by his two kids. He has gone from combat to car-commercial bliss in minutes.

The disconnect is jarring for the viewer, if not for the soldier. We know about bloggers waging verbal war from coffee shops, but soldiers literally blowing up people from desktops - and never seeing the consequences of their fire? The concept sounds very paranoid sci-fi thrillerish, but “Digital Nation,’’ tonight at 9 on Channel 2, clearly spells out the reality of it. Indeed, last year for the first time, the Army trained a crew of drone pilots who’d never actually flown airplanes.

It’s a testament to the excellence of this installment of “Frontline’’ that filmmaker Rachel Dretzin cuts from Las Vegas to an “Army Experience Center’’ in Philadelphia. Utilizing rows of action gaming stations that aren’t too, too different from drone pilot stations, the Army invites kids to think about joining up while they feverishly thumb the controls. The Army’s gaming arcade is what one Army major calls “a sampling experience,’’ priming kids for later recruitment.

But the relationship between the military and the digital world is just one stop on the 90-minute “Digital Nation’’ train ride. This broad documentary tours through all kinds of digitally related issues, many of them rich enough to support documentaries of their own. Dretzin and her fellow host, digital maven and author Douglas Rushkoff, also look at nonstop multitaskers, focusing on MIT students who’ve never known a world without digital distractions. They talk to Stanford experts who’ve studied the brain imaging of multitaskers, they go to South Korea to meet young gaming addicts and visit the detox camps set up for them, and they spy on classes that teach netiquette to children.

At times, “Digital Nation’’ can be jumpy, as it moves among so many locations and generations and manifestations of being connected. And yet it all ultimately hangs together nicely, as a wide portrait of current digital technology and what we don’t yet know about its human cost. Rushkoff, who has become less enthusiastic about the new world over the years, summarizes the documentary’s unifying question: “How are we changing what it really means to be a human being by using all this stuff?’’

“Digital Nation’’ does proceed with skepticism. But it never becomes a screed against the unstoppable wiring of global culture, or a string of apocalyptic cliches about the digital world. The tone is more appealing and considered. While many of the experts express fear about the future of reading skills and attention spans and emotional presence, Dretzin and Rushkoff make a point of exploring the advantages of their subject matter, too. They talk to teachers actively using digital methods in the classroom with great success, and they show how virtual reality can treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

They don’t seem bent on scaring us away from the digital journey, so much as asking us to think about what valuables we’d like to bring along with us.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

DIGITAL NATION On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 9-10:30