Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives

Reviewed: Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Basic Books

I remember the moment it dawned on me that our old social rules and norms might not be adequate to this digital era we live in. I was chasing down a story in Philly about a unionizing drive at a local restaurant, which happened to be owned by a well-known progressive activist. The organizers were a bit skittish, but I contacted them via their MySpace pages, and persuaded them to talk about the details of the drive and the ironies of the situation (the owner supported unions in principle, but didn't want one in her shop). It proved more difficult to get them talking about the antipathy that had developed between the parties: one woman in particular, who worked at the restaurant, was understandably measured in her criticism of her boss. On her MySpace page, however, she displayed no such restraint.

Like any journalist, I wanted to render the dynamic of the situation I was documenting as accurately as possible. So, reasoning that the MySpace profile was available to anyone (and not thinking much else about it), I quoted something from it in the story I eventually wrote. The night the piece went live online, the organizer called me, frantic (and possibly tearful): though I'd found her through her public page, it had never occurred to her to consider the thing, you know, public. She felt betrayed, exposed, and vulnerable. And she thought I was an asshole.

That was the moment.

Digitization means social change -- an undeniable reality after an awkward epiphany like that one. Still, I'll admit I was a bit skeptical when my editor sent me Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. Much of the attention paid to digitization seems to be hysterical in nature, and a book by two professors about the proclivities of people raised in the digital era sounded to me like a recipe for hyperbole. I expected to write a review gently mocking it, and making the clear-headed observation that, no, kids today are not some new breed of human/iPhone hybrid.

Unfortunately, that approach won't be available to me here. Because after a slew of interviews with what they call "Digital Natives" and a thorough survey of the digital world, Palfrey and Gasser have written a book about this social transformation that is both insightful and responsible. It may even help people prepare a little better for clumsy digital-era interactions like mine.

The premise here is indeed that Digital Natives are different. The authors are wise to be clear that, by Digital Natives, they refer not to a generation, but a population: those people born after 1980 who were raised with digital technologies and who "don't remember a world in which letters were printed and sent, much less hand-written, or where people met up at formal dances rather than on Facebook." I could quibble with this -- I was born in 1981, and think I belong to an in-between group that does remember those things; plus, technical aptitude varies greatly even within the Digital Native cohort. But these distinctions aren't that important here, because the book is written for people who came of age before digitization really took off, and takes a "We-as-parents" sort of outlook. The fact that the terms are defined a bit too broadly doesn't really sidetrack this mission.

The most helpful thing that Palfrey and Gasser do is to catalog the various ways and realms in which digital technologies, and the people who use them, are changing society: things like personal identity, privacy, safety, property rights, distribution of information, and political activism. As I expected to point out when I thought I'd be reviewing a ten-o'clock-news, oh-my-god-your-children-are-alone-on-the-Internets kind of book, in some of these arenas people are simply doing things they've always done, but using a new medium. Cyber-bullying, for example, is motivated by the same impulses as classic bullying; now it's just disembodied, and performed in front of a potentially larger audience. Political activism, similarly, has been made hugely more effective and democratic by the highly social nature of the digital world, but is still, in large part, about fund-raising and persuasion.

In other arenas, the authors identify what do strike me as fundamental changes. Take property rights, for instance. The transformation here goes beyond the strange willingness of so many people who would never have shoplifted a CD from Tower Records to illegally download music online. In Born Digital's "Pirates" chapter, Palfrey and Gasser point to studies indicating that it barely even occurs to many Digital Natives that downloading music is "stealing." In the digital age, people are just not going to have the same understanding of intellectual property.

Or take the abstract concepts of identity and privacy. There was a time, the authors say, when the range of identities available to a sixteen-year-old girl were limited in scope, but aspects of her identity were escapable -- she could hide her Goth clothes from her grandma, say. Now that everyone posts thoughts and pictures on the Web, "a sixteen-year-old girl can create multiple identities online with ease, [but] she is more bound to a single identity than ever before." To live online is to live in a sort of permanent public, and it's not clear that people have grasped this. Certainly there's a teenager somewhere today posting something on her MySpace page that she wouldn't want her grandmother or a future employer (or a journalist) to see -- and that's not even taking into account today's Digital Infant, whose every development is being recorded, whether through Flickr, Snapfish, or a less-than-perfectly-secure medical database all in a potentially public domain.

Some of these developments are good, and some are cause for concern; some, like what's happening in the realm of information -- the democratization, and de-professionalization, of publishing -- are both (although the authors argue, and I agree, that it's more good than bad). The point, in any case, is that the pace of these changes is outstripping the rules and social norms that govern the way we live, and that, when nondigital society has reacted, it's often done so in panicky fashion -- by seeking to prohibit children under eighteen from using MySpace, for instance (as a former attorney general of Massachusetts proposed in the midst of an unsuccessful run for governor), or by trying to attract the business of music fans by suing them en masse (as record companies have done). So, after identifying each arena of change, Palfrey and
Gasser set out to suggest how society might adapt, to help Digital Natives build an optimal digital world.

It took me a couple of days to pinpoint what the advice portions of Born Digital feel like, but I think I've got it: they feel like a professional development seminar, run by a consultant who has lots of charts and catchphrases and feel-good talking points. That's not to say the advice is bad. It's just kind of hokey.

The hokiest element of all is a chart Palfrey and Gasser draw of the various actors they believe can help Digital Natives navigate their digital lives. It contains five concentric circles, with the Digital Native, of course, at the center. The closer an actor is to that center, the more intimate a role the authors believe it has to play.

In the outermost circle we find "State and Law Enforcement." This is a little disconcerting, since the first instinct in any discussion of how society needs to DO SOMETHING! tends to be to ask what law can be passed. But Palfrey and Gasser, both lawyers, counsel against this, observing that the law is an imperfect tool online, both because the Web often renders jurisdictions irrelevant and because much online activity is difficult to police. Still, they identify several areas where the law can do some good: I particularly liked the idea of mandated, standardized labeling of Web services' privacy policies, such as how long data is kept before it is deleted, or with whom it might be shared. This would raise consumers' awareness of privacy issues, and encourage companies to institute more responsible policies. (Right now, Palfrey and Gasser write, "virtually every service reserves the right to change its privacy settings at any time." So information disclosed under one set of rules could later be given away under another.)

The next circle in contains what the authors call "(trusted) companies and software providers." Throughout the book, Palfrey and Gasser suggest ways that the private sector could make the digital world a better place: in the "Pirates" chapter, for instance, they argue that "the incentive system is out of whack in the context of digital media," and recommend that, rather than fighting them tooth and nail, content providers like the NFL should start striking revenue-sharing deals with companies like YouTube. I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at some of this stuff, particularly when the authors call on companies to do things that aren't clearly in their short-term economic interest (like instituting better privacy policies without a government mandate -- why would they?). But it is true, as the authors say, that the social, feedback-friendly nature of the online world might help push smarter companies in the right direction.

The final two circles contain "Teachers, Coaches, Mentors" and "Friends and Family," respectively. I suppose there's some reason for grouping these two separately besides making the circle chart prettier, but for the most part, when Palfrey and Gasser discuss these actors, they're talking about the same fundamental issue. "There's an unnecessary technology gap between young people and many of their parents and teachers," they write. "The net result of this gap is that our kids are too often at risk in an environment where some of them are prone to risky behavior, like conversing with strangers they'd never talk to in 'real space.' "

Time and again, Palfrey and Gasser declare that "education is the best way" to solve some problem or other, and call on "Digital Immigrants" to better acquaint themselves with the digital world -- by learning about copyright laws, playing their children's video games, familiarizing themselves with the Web sites young people visit, etc., and then, of course, talking to kids. A lot of this has an easier-said-than-done quality to it, since parents have a hard enough time talking to teens about things they do understand. That said, I don't want to be the one arguing against a call for more involved parenting. It's true that kids in online society, like any other, need adult guidance, and that many adults are currently even less equipped to lend it than they are in other contexts.

The only thing I'd add here is that there's a more cynical case to be made for this sort of engagement than the one Palfrey and Gasser offer. The authors of Born Digital generally present their argument to parents looking to do right by their kids, to help them build a healthy digital society. But there are, obviously, already a lot of adults online, and a fairly well-established digital society with its own rules and norms. We're still at a point where you can get away with being ignorant of these rules. But we won't always be. I don't think I violated an unwritten Web rule by pulling that quote off of MySpace, but if I did, I won't always be able to get away with it so easily. There will come a time when the digital rules are just the rules, and many of the people Palfrey and Gasser are talking to will be around to see it. Better to prepare yourselves now.

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