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New media picture gets murky

Avalanche of advances contribute to unclear digital future

Entertainment industry economics increasingly rest on a three-screen environment, as expanding media consumption bursts from the TV onto computer monitors and mobile devices.

Less understood, however, are the potential consequences of this modern immersion in media, raising unsettling questions about the dramatic effects these technologies could be having not just on livelihoods, but our lives.

Apprehensions about the impact of encroaching technology are appearing in a variety of places, from the upcoming “Frontline” documentary “Digital Nation” — chronicling how little we actually know about the unintended side effects of our multitasking ways — to the Syfy channel’s new “Battlestar Galactica” spinoff, “Caprica.”

In the latter’s parallel reality, a device called a “Holoband” allows adults and teenagers to escape into a virtual world — a realm of fantasy where extreme encounters of first-person sex and violence feel all too real.

As is so often true, science fiction in this case articulates an issue that has crept into every-day lives, from increasingly elaborate gaming to a virtual space like Second Life. “We were definitely thinking and talking a lot not just about the technology but the backlash against the technology,” says “Caprica” executive producer Jane Espenson, adding that the producers wanted to avoid the simplistic “technology is dangerous, nature is good” sci-fi trope.

Premiering in February, “Digital Nation” continues a conversation that filmmaker Rachel Dretzin began in “Growing Up Online.” Here, she works with Douglas Rushkoff, a self-proclaimed evangelist for the digital revolution who now confesses to certain qualms about “how profoundly our technologies are changing us.”

As the documentary notes, attempts to quantify the impact of shifting media usage have proved inordinately elusive, in part because researchers are chasing such a fast-moving target. By the time a study can be devised and completed, the specific applications being analyzed have often already been rendered moot.

Whatever the hard data, the anecdotal evidence is cause for concern. “Digital Nation” details how a next generation of applications will feature video avatars with our faces on them, supplanting those Wii caricatures — and making the role-playing experience even more intense and immersive.

The producers also visit South Korea, a highly wired society where the prevalence of so-called “Internet addiction” is deemed serious enough that boot camps have sprouted up to treat teens sharing the affliction. And then there’s the military’s use of new technology — including simulated therapy for post-traumatic stress, youth-oriented videogames that serve as recruiting tools, and military drones that kill by remote control.

Perhaps most insidiously, new technology keeps sprouting up so fast that we’ve moved from marveling at one innovation to adopting the next without pausing to contemplate their ethics or possible consequences — bothering to ask, as one of the academics puts it, “What is it doing to us?”

There’s no simple answer, but one needn’t be a Luddite to worry that our personalized media cocoons are drifting toward a society that’s increasingly rude, self-absorbed and disconnected. How many of us have witnessed a moron blithely answer a cellphone or send text messages during a movie? People loudly discuss intimate medical conditions, oblivious to those around them. Distracted driving is now recognized as a major hazard — with safety activists saying the practice impairs motorists more than consuming multiple cocktails.

Finally, anyone even remotely in the public eye has seen how the anonymity of the web has emboldened people to devolve to new levels of incivility. In this case, the medium does appear to influence the message, insofar as it’s so easy to instantly dash off bilious messages when senders needn’t pause to type and post a letter, much less address another person face to face.

As “Caprica’s” Espenson notes, science has always frightened people “probably more than it should” — in the same way parents fretted about rock ‘n roll and then rap. The difference is that today’s technological breakthroughs are flashing by so quickly there’s scant time to contemplate what we’re sacrificing in exchange — yielding fundamental changes that can’t be rationally considered and debated, merely reflected upon through the prism of a rear-view mirror.

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