digital nation - life on the virtual frontier

From somewhere above America, at 35,308 feet

April 05, 2009 _ 21:08 / Caitlin McNally / comments (0)

on the street.jpgShooting on the street in San Francisco.

Thanks to wireless in the sky, I'm writing and posting this on the plane from San Francisco to New York. Maybe for some of you, Internet on the plane is old news, but for me, it's the first time getting online on a flight (and an appropriate place to start, I think, considering the purpose of the trip).

I have something to admit: I wasn't thrilled when I discovered wifi available on this cross-country journey. In the past, I've appreciated a long flight as a chance to hide out from the world - no email, no web, just you and some mediocre movies and bad food, or some music and daydreaming, or some sleep. Now, even thousands of feet in the air, it appears there's no escaping constant contact. I might as well embrace it.

The Internet everywhere - the ubiquity of connection and what that means - was very much a theme of our shoot this past week in the San Francisco area. We spent a couple of long, full days visiting places at the heart of tech theory and innovation, from academia to business to a glorious garden.

bailenson and doug.jpgJeremy Bailenson, the head of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, under the lights with Doug.

On the sun-drenched Stanford campus, we saw Jeremy Bailenson, the head of the Department of Communication's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. He showed us his studies examining what our interactions with avatars in virtual worlds say about human behavior in the real world, and he and Doug Rushkoff, our correspondent, debated the various applications of his lab's work, from confidence-building psychological exercise to cutting edge marketing tool.

rosedale.jpgA snapshot off the monitor from our interview with Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life.

We also spent time with Philip Rosedale, the magnetic founder of the virtual world Second Life. Doug and Philip had a fascinating, far-reaching conversation that compared today's digital revolution to other moments in history when the tectonic plates of technology have shifted. They also talked about Second Life's evolution after some roller coaster years and the pendulum swing of under-the-microscope media coverage. We joined the company's end of the week lunch, and we got a tour of a new way in which Second Life enables meetings - it's pretty cool to watch, involving layers of physical people anywhere in the world and digital people as avatars, all seeing and talking to each other in a virtual room in real time (something for the Digital Nation team to try, despite our office's notoriously bad Internet connection?).

Finally, in a sublime garden in the oasis of Marin County, far from the bustle of the city, we checked in with Howard Rheingold. Howard, an author and professor, is one of Doug's mentors and original compatriots from the halcyon days of early web communities. It was a warm, intimate and inspiring conversation. For me, one of the most important points Howard made was about choices: the more technology's possibilities and temptations surround us, the more important it is to consciously carve out places and moments of gadget-free quiet. Digital-less mindfulness.

lini directing.jpgsam and coyotes.jpg


In the Marin County woods with Doug and Howard. And Sam, our intrepid cameraman, braves the possibility of coyotes to get the shot.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, with bodies tired and minds full, Doug and the crew and I got into a conversation about what we'd seen and heard. Maybe all of this isn't as simple as the black and white of digital immersion - what's good and what's bad, what we should foster and what we should try to control or stop. It's a polarity that I think sometimes seduces with its deceptive elegance. Instead, what if we start by assuming that a fundamental shift in how we think, learn and interact is inevitable and already well underway? If there's anything you're left with after a few days in San Francisco's tech businesses and labs, it's that the genie is out of the bottle. Maybe we need to accept this, and evaluate what we have and should be doing to prepare ourselves for all that digital society demands and offers.

But tonight, as soon as I'm done taking advantage of Virgin America's onboard wireless, I'm going back to listening to music (Feist's "The Reminder" right now) and daydreaming. After spending some hours in Howard Rheingold's lush and lovely garden, it's an activity that seems increasingly valuable these days.

-- Caitlin

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posted February 2, 2010

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