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Now in Theaters: An Absolutely Must-See Doc About Digital Literacy

Terms and Conditions May Apply, which opened in New York on Friday and is set to roll out across several North American cities over the next month (see the end of this post), is the kind of documentary that can inspire educators to drop whatever they’re doing and tackle curriculum planning in the middle of summer. Really. Of course the related, and still-developing, Edward Snowden drama has an import that will take it far beyond the “current events” treatment, and no doubt thoughtful curriculum writers are scrambling to include it even now.

Yet while Snowden’s whistleblowing on the NSA shows up only in a brief postscript (the PRISM program made headlines after the film was completed), the entire riveting runtime of Terms and Conditions May Apply makes one, sadly, not too shocked by it. That’s because filmmaker Cullen Hoback’s work here creates massive context for it—historically, culturally, technologically—and so represents a treasure trove of ideas for those who want to connect domestic spying and the death of privacy to civics, media studies, ICT, and political theory… not to mention information literacy and digital literacy specifically, two domains where librarians reign supreme.

Plus, guess what? This is just a highly engaging film that’s extremely well-made, structured, and paced. (The only piece that didn’t quite fit is a brief segment on the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal—anomalous because users didn’t sign away access to their data, and government didn’t overstep its bounds.) But don’t just take my word for it: here’s the trailer. Actually, wait, please do take my word on the fact that for once a trailer really does hint at the richness of the content in the film itself.


By the way, pop culture surfaces time and again in TACMA. Sometimes these instances are illustrative, as when Minority Report is referenced in terms of a UK street theater group being detained before they’d even done anything. Closely related to that is a zombie event broken up by authorities because it posed some kind of undefined threat to the same royal wedding. Both of these roundups were conducted solely in response to social media chitchat among the participants—kind of scary (to say the least) if those parsing the online conversations of fandom and/or artistic communities can’t discern what a true threat is. Similarly, there’s the case of the unfortunate fellow who earned a visit from the NYPD merely because he posted an excerpt from Fight Club on his Facebook page.

For educators the most chilling incident recounted—one that you may recall from when it was in the news—concerns the seventh grader upon whom the feds descended in force. His crime? In an online post he suggest that President Obama should “watch out” for suicide bombers in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden. As TACMA points out, aside from the sheer absurdity of being so alarmed by a middle schooler, his attitude was clearly one of concern.

By citing such examples, though, I’m giving only the broadest hint of why you may want to consider TACMA for public screening, library acquisition, or eventual classroom use. But don’t wait until the film is already available in a format that would fit one of those purposes—if possible, see it on the big screen this summer and get a jump on finding a place for it in the upcoming school year.

Cities and playdates:

About Peter Gutierrez