PBS Frontline to Take a Deep Look at the Social and Cultural Impact of Virtual Worlds

PBS Frontline is one of the few mainstream news sources really taking a look at how virtual worlds are changing our politics, policy and culture. They've looked at everything from the rise of religious organizations in worlds like Second Life to the development of a digital-age telecommuting workforce, and each area of study has advanced the discussion on virtual worlds as a permanent fixture in our lives.

Now, on February 2nd, PBS will take a look at its broadest and most interesting topic so far. In a special event called Life on the Digital Frontier, Frontline takes a look at the many ways online interaction and virtual environments are changing our culture and social norms.

Read on to check out the program's trailer and find out more.

Mapping Digital Sprawl in an Age of Constant Connection

What's so engaging about the PBS project is how it draws in potential viewers by skillfully blending different forms of media. The Digital Nation website invites you to participate in a host of interactivities, from surveys that gauge your level of interconnection to discussion forums asking you to share your web-connected stories.

The survey and discussion questions aren't lightweight fare. One of the most popular topics involves something Pixels and Policy covered a few months ago: What is the proper role of the military in virtual worlds? Should virtual world combat training take a more prominent role in the basic training suite of new recruits? PBS doesn't shy away from the promise and potential ethical dilemmas presented by digital immersion combat training.

PBS is casting a wide net, according to their press release:

"Digital Nation" takes you from the campus of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, where students confess to having increasingly
limited attention spans, to the labs at Stanford University, where
researchers are examining the impact of this split-focus attention and
the effectiveness of self-proclaimed multitaskers.

"Digital Nation" also explores the phenomenon of virtual reality
from multiplayer online games like "World of Warcraft" and 3-D virtual
worlds like "Second Life" to how the military is using technology to
fly unmanned drones over war zones and treat returning veterans'
post-traumatic stress disorder with virtual reality therapy.

Like it or not, virtual worlds are playing an increasing role in our lives in ways we may never have considered a decade ago. Facebook and Twitter now seamlessly integrate with our cell phones, and Twitter-capable automobiles are on the verge of mass production. Our conversations are increasingly peppered with previously online-only slang, and digital wide-access media is upending traditionally closed professions like the recording industry.

Though it would be easy for PBS to take an intellectually lightweight pro or con stance on the evolution of our Internet dependency, it's to their credit that Frontline decides not to take a position on the matter. It's a smart move.

By analyzing the virtualization of communication as a phenomenon that has take hold of large swaths of the world population instead of as an aberration – or worse, an addiction – Frontline proves it truly understands the topic at hand is a large-scale societal shift in mass communication and not merely a hobby for tweens.

Check out the thought-provoking trailer below. It doesn't do justice to the content- and discussion-heavy features available on the Digital Nation website, but it does provide an interesting teaser for the kinds of questions to be discussed. The project will air concurrently on PBS and online on February 2nd, 2010 at 9pm.