Book Review: Born Digital–Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives

Do you have a hard time understanding why your 15-year-old niece speaks the same language she texts? Disturbed by her series of ever-changing Facebook profile pictures taken in the bathroom mirror? Are you baffled by the 23-year-old whiz kid who’s taken over your company’s IT department? Better yet, do you find yourself asking your 10-year-old son to set up the networked printer at home? Rest assured my friend, you aren’t the first (nor will you be the last) non-tech savvy person to be completely mystified by the digital generation.

The motivating factors behind this segment of technologically literate progeny has eluded and intrigued parents, educators and lawmakers for the past decade. While each of the previous groups have taken a different approach to dealing with these digi-babies, more often than not, the end results are reactionary policies that do everything but deter kids from using technology.

Born Digital book cover In “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives”, authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser–both of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School–address various concerns over the Millennial generation’s digital pathology.

Gasser and Palfrey compiled extensive original research, including interviews with Digital Natives from around the world. The authors categorize all their research into 13 chapters, each covering a different aspect of a digital native’s life. Starting with “Identity” and coursing through a broad range of topics, such as “Safety”, “Privacy”, “Creators”, “Overload”, and ending with “Synthesis”.

Across all these issues, Palfrey and Gasser offer an eerily balanced argument on the pros and cons of technology. On many instances, the book heralds digital natives for their progressions and strives in moving the world forward, while at the same time offers advice to authoritative figures on how to be proactive in their approaches.

Time and time again, the authors fall back on education as the key to lessening the disconnect between the Digital and Analog generations. Educators and parents must educate themselves on these issues, and involve digital natives in that conversation. There’s a conversation, not a lecture, that needs to take place in order for all parties involved to be more at ease in this rapidly changing world. Palfrey and Gasser state, “People are generally afraid of the unknown, and they project these fears and fantasies onto the new technologies…” but “…Many of these fears are totally ungrounded in reality.” The paragraph goes on to give examples of how the media sensationalizes people’s fears of technology (e.g. microwaves & radiation). But the data doesn’t support any of these claims, and the same issues that parents faced before still exist in the digital age; the medium has just changed (bullying to cyberbulling). The authors suggest that this technology doesn’t make the actions any more or less severe, but it does make the need for parents and educators to actively engage digital natives more imminent.

In my opinion, Palfrey and Gasser sum up their entire book in chapter 5 (“Creators”) by saying, “The hardest question we’ll have to answer is whether we will attempt to thwart this burgeoning online creativity in Digital Natives in the name of protecting crumbling institutions, or foster it, and the participatory culture it can lead us to.”

For me, that is the biggest takeaway from this book. In a non-connected world, it was easy to use laws and exclusion to create a false sense of privacy, safety and security. Often times, parents and educators thought they could shield children from danger by not talking about it, but the Internet has drastically changed that. As this first generation of digital natives comes of age (and subsequent generations start to navigate through a digital world), it becomes a threat to all of the old systems and societal norms that have held our society together. However, the Internet, technology and young people are not mutually exclusive areas. Dismissing an entire generation, while regulating the medium will not stop the advancement. The combination of all three working in tandem are pushing us to a more open, transparent and democratic, global society “where social norms  exert much more sway over…behavior,” and can outweigh outdated legal norms.

**Born Digital is an initiative of the Digital Natives project, an interdisciplinary collaboration of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen.**


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