Attention -- The Internet Is Killing Ours: An Interview With Rachel Dretzin, Producer of Frontline 's Digital Nation

Exclusive from Motherboard

While some of the best documentaries like to draw our attention to little-known corners of the world or the past, producer Rachel Dretzin and media critic Doug Rushkoff have been blowing up our preconceptions by training their lenses on the stuff that's all around us right now. A decade ago, The Merchants of Cool tore the lid off the circle jerk of market research and advertising that created what passed for late 90s youth culture. With their new doc, Digital Nation, they've brought our attention to, well, our attentions in the internet age. Expanding on themes raised in Dretzin's 2008 Growing Up Online, it's a sobering look at our augmented realities, video game addiction centers, Second Life meetings, and withering click-happy attention spans. You can almost hear Marshall McLuhan saying, "I told you so," right after losing his lunch.

(Watch Rachel Dretzin's new Frontline documentary "Digital Nation" at Motherboard)

Last week, just before the premiere of the film, I tore myself away from my hundred tabs long enough to speak with Dretzin about how she managed to make a documentary about something as big and messy as internet culture, why technology helped and hurt the process, how older people might be more vulnerable to 'net nausea than kids, and a dark facet of the story that still deserves its own documentary.

To prepare for this interview, I opened up about 27 tabs in my browser and started browsing.
Rachel Dretzin: Oh no, you Googled me.

Was there something I wasn't supposed to see?
Well if there is, I better get rid of it right away because I'm about to be on national television!

Actually that's the thing -- I didn't look too carefully. I wonder if you think the internet is making us better multitasking researchers, or has it just forced all to be multitaskers, whether we're good at it or not, whether we like it or not? I mean, did I learn anything about you, or was I just feeling like I was learning?
Well that's sort of the 10,000 dollar question right now. The research on the question of nature vs. nurture in multitasking hasn't been finished yet, we're just beginning to look at whether the brain can become better at multitasking over time just by doing it. What we know about multitasking is that the people who think they're really good at it are actually bad it. Those of us who do a lot of it tend to be worse at it than people who do less of it. It's counter-intuitive but it's true. The people who tend to do a lot of multitasking tend to be distracted all the time.

I do a lot of multitasking, more and more, and I do think in some ways I've learned tricks to make it easier for myself. But I also think that you're painting over the surface, but underneath the surface there are a lot of holes. We don't really know what we're missing when we're multitasking, but I think we're missing a lot.

Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff (PBS)

The documentary isn't just about how much we're missing, but how much we're losing. It seems though that every new technology brings loss with it, and of course hand-wringing and alarm. Is this new digital era significantly different -- and worth more concern -- than previous technological revolutions? Or are we being a bit naively nostalgic?
I would put it in the category of the printing press. [The digital revolution] is bigger than TV. Bigger than the telegraph. I think it's huge. I do think that when gigantic revolutions like the printing press came along, there was a lot of fear, a lot of misunderstanding about what that technology represented. There was a lot of fear of predators on the internet when I made my last film. But it turns out that's just not a real issue. So one of the things we're trying to do with the documentary is step back a bit and pause and say, "What is changing?" And "What don't we want to change?"

Well let's just get to the heart of the matter: Is the internet good or is it bad?
[Laughter] I can't answer that question. I think it's both, I really do. It's touching so many different areas of our lives, some in good ways, some in bad ways. It's a really complex subject. It's a bit challenging to make this film. You can't draw easy conclusions about it. All we can do is ask sharp questions.

How do you even begin to make a documentary about something as messy and sprawling as the internet?
It was definitely easier with my last film, which was a much narrower, more targeted look. It was called Growing Up Online, and what I wanted to do was look at the way the internet was affecting the social and emotional experience of being an adolescent. Which is still a big topic but at least it was more focused. This film was much broader. We've been working on this project for over a year and a half now. And a lot of that time was spent trying to narrow down our focus and decide what piece of this to bite off.

It helped that we were doing a lot of reporting online from the beginning. So we were just kind of following our noses for a while, and at a certain point, we had to say, "what are we really asking here?" The stories we found were all about how digital technology was changing what it means to be a human being. We weren't really looking at politics -- which is a whole show I'd love to do one day. But that was sort of a different question from what we were asking: "how is the way we think and interact changing as a result of technology."

You put a lot of content up online as you went, and asked for people to contribute their own content, which seemed like both a smart way to get feedback, but also a good way to get people excited about a 90 minute documentary in an era of tiny attention spans. How did that fit into the process of making the film?
A lot of what it's meant to the process is only becoming clear now. It took a really long time for people to find out about us. We were putting all this content up, but we didn't know how to get the word out. You know, when you have a broadcast it's easier for people to know about your website. But otherwise, it's kind of like we were shouting into space.

But now that we have a lot of press going on around the broadcast, the web site's beginning to have a real life. All of this building of a resource online is reaping great benefits. We're also doing things with our site that's really exciting. One of these things is something called "Your Stories." We invited people to submit digital stories. It's an amazing patchwork of experiences people have had. And some of those people ended up in the program. We'll have roundtable discussions on the site, which is going to start with responses from people in the film. It could be a really interesting conversation among viewers as well.

It's interesting that while you were making the film and putting up content, it didn't seem to go viral. It seems like it should have. What does that say about how this kind of topic spreads online?
It's a really smart question. It's been a great learning experience for all of us. It's the first time I've worked online like this. I'm the first to say, I naively thought if we put up great content, people will just find it. But we didn't have much time, and we didn't know much about how to create this kind of buzz online, as opposed to broadcast. In the process I hired a woman named Ramona Pringle. She created the "Your Stories" page and did outreach. I think she did some amazing work. She created this partnership with Smith magazine, she got us on Youtube. Now we have this video that I just heard attained viral status. So I kind of feel like we're figuring it out now.

And you know for years I've been making documentaries in a little bubble in the editing room, all by myself. For me to be doing this, it's a good start, and I'm actually really excited about involving more of a community.

How did technology effect the process of making the documentary itself?
I've been waiting for someone to ask me this. I'm an almost technophobic person but I have gotten so plugged in doing this film. We used technology in ways that that are so exciting. It started with Google Docs, which, when you work collaboratively, which is the way that I work, it's an incredible resource. Most of our print work was done that way.

Doug Rushkoff and I would write together online, sometimes in real time. I've spent a lot of time in the editing room, but a lot of the time my editors would just upload cuts on Boxx, I would look at them and then Gchat about the cut, she'd make the changes, and upload a new version. There were a couple of times when we worked on Skype, and sometimes we used Second Life...

How was that?
I really enjoyed it. I haven't done the collaborative work in Second Life that IBM does. I've done some seminars in there, and it's been a really itneresting experience.

What's your avatar look like?
It's funny. When I first got my avatar I just chose whatever was there basically but as I got into this conference environment, with a lot of educators, and someone came up to me and was like, "you're outfitted like a gamer girl." I didn't even really realize it that I was in this absurd outfit. So I found something more subdued, business fab, and I needed some help actually with that. But you know, that's what it's like when you start on Second Life.

Yup. I remember my first time in Second Life -- I was living in China, and I went on looking for Chinese people to talk to in this virtual space -- and I met all kinds of great people, one of whom was a programmer living in Beijing who moonlighted as a virtual artist and designer. He outfitted me in a great punk outfit, complete with wolf t-shirt. Starting then, I realized the value of something like this, not just for making me more fashionable, but making it easy for people to meet each other in a way that's significantly different from the textual internet. Especially for shy people, or people who have a hard time interacting with others in real life, it seemed transformative.
Yeah, I get you. I actually think that Second Life and virtual environments change how I think about the web. It's really a substantially different experience than talking to someone in person, but it's not necessarily less valuable. I mean, it's intense! And they're bonding. It explains why so many people meet each other through Ning. It's just a very intense way of meeting people, in this physical virtual space. That's my favorite part of the show, the Second Life part, and how IBM is using it [to conduct meetings]. I think it's really new, and I know that some people say it's really far out, but I think it's really amazing.

Would you say Second Life and virtual spaces were the most optimistic aspect of internet culture you encountered?
I would. It wasn't trying to imitate what goes on in real life, and serve as a pale imitation of it, but actually to create something new. I think Rosedale is a really fascinating guy. He's a real idealist but he has some very fascinating ideas about what virtual worlds can do, and how they can change us. You know, it's not a very commercial environment -- well, that's not entirely true, I suppose it's taken a lot of criticism for being all about the way you dress and what you buy. But there a lot of really interesting things going on in Second Life.

As a matter of fact I just got an email -- I'm multitasking -- and it says the show is going to be debuted in Second Life. It's been very active all along, one of the few communities that I think has been tracking the progress of our website and our project.

It seems like one of those technologies that was really hyped for a little while, and then it basically disappeared. But I kind of feel like it has to come back, in some form.
Yeah, whether it's that company or not, I think the technology itself is going to come back. I think it was written off because so many companies thought it was going to be a marketplace and it didn't really happen. But there's something else going on in there that's really interesting.

I want to talk about the internet's relationship to the marketplace, but first: what were the darkest moments for you in the making of the film?
Definitely spending time in Korea, hanging out with these 13 year old kids and some of the kids at the internet addiction treatment center. You see them physically change. A lot of them are having physical problems, hearing problems and eye problems. And they also seem to have a low level autism or something. And it's a chicken-or-egg question -- did the technology create it, or where they like that before, and were drawn to the technology as a result. But you get kids who've been hardcore, playing games for years, 18 hours a day. It was burning them, and it was really disturbing to see that.

On a more close-to-home basis, I guess I would say that the multitasking surveys that we followed out in San Francisco. Actually I didn't put this in the final cut, but they did that on me. I actually thought I was doing pretty well while I was taking the test. My results were so terrible. They were just awful. You know, I multitask a lot, and I'm constantly doing several things at once. But it was really eye-opening that I was losing a lot of time and focus. My lack of awareness of that was was kind of amazing.

I know there's a lot of research and concern around the impact of the internet and digital media on children. But hanging out with my dad recently, it hit me that his relationship with or addiction to the computer is somewhat different from mine. While I'm also probably addicted, I might have developed a certain kind of filter or technique earlier on for dealing with all this information. But what about older people?
One of the reasons I really wanted to make this film was that after making Growing Up Online, there was this kind of idea out there of all these kids having issues to deal with. But there were issues that I was dealing with, when I started that film. I was attracted personally anyway to my phone having internet access. But it was huge in terms of my constant connectivity. My oldest kid isn't even 12 yet, but it's much more a problem for me than it is for him. They have no trouble being offline. But I do. And my husband does. And most people I know do.

I've been at the dinner table, out to dinner with our friends, and we'll habitually check our phones. And I just think when you're not being honest how much this is a problem, and how much we're modeling something for our children -- that's something we need to be aware of.

Speaking of awareness, The Merchants of Cool was the first documentary to really open my eyes to the influence that corporations were having on the very formation of my generation's culture. It's still great. But I wonder how corporate and commercial influence on culture has changed in recent years, given an internet saturated with ads, but where almost anyone, from the girl in her basement to the ad man in a corner office, can have a viral voice.
Having done Merchants of Cool and then The Persuaders, I'm really interested in the ways in which kids relationship to advertising is changing. I think it's very possible that we'll do another film in this series and it will have more to do with marketing and corporate control. It feels like its own film to me. I know it's something that Doug Rushkoff is really interested in.

But it's amazing to me how today young people just don't object to being marketed to. It's just kind of like a given, it's like the air they breathe. When we made Merchants it was much more of an issue. I think it's opened up all kinds of opportunities in terms of online marketing, and obviously corporations are taking advantage of it.

And it's very troubling, particularly as they find out more about our relationships between us and our avatars -- I think more and more we're going to have avatars that look like us, and that's going to give more manipulative power to the people who want to make us do things or want to sell us things. I think it's something to be really aware of, and I'd definitely like to do more reporting on it.

In this kind of an environment, have you seen promising ways that people were becoming more aware, that your subjects and your audience are concerned?
People care a lot about multitasking, i think because it touches everyone. I do think there's a way in which we're all troubled by how distracted we are. There's a vague sense that there's something a little off about it.
In terms of the other issues you're talking about and the influence of companies and marketers on us, I hate to say it, but the public doesn't seem to care that much. And part of that is, they're so sophisticated now, they know how to ignore it. I don't notice Google ads on my screen at all -- I just don't even register them, they go right by me...

And I click right through all those pop-up ads, so to some extent we've just gotten better at avoiding it when we want to. But there may be something a little more sinister going on. I definitely want to pursue it. Definitely it's the next frontier in terms of reporting this story.

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