Context Book: Born Digital

Born Digital book cover

John Palfrey: Digital Advocate

I was really enthusiastic to read John Palfrey and Urs Gassers’ book, Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. Living in Massachusetts, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing John Palfrey several times and have always admired his fearless enthusiasm for the way technology is changing the future of information.

The first time I heard him speak, the introductory speaker showed a series of infographics visualizing statistics from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. As he talked about how many different kinds of information are available at our fingertips, I got so, so excited about the potential for technology to change the way we interact with information. Then he ended his presentation by saying:

Frightening, isn’t it?

That moment made me keenly aware of the fact that, as a Digital Native myself, I have a very different perspective on things like social media and mashup culture than many of my colleagues, mentors and even teachers. In my career, my enthusiasm has been met with caution, anxiety and even fear. This speaker was not pandering to me and my enthusiasm, but to the members of the audience who do think these changes are cause for concern.

But listening to John Palfrey speak to an audience that included coworkers, supervisors and future colleagues, I was hopeful that the promise of projects like the Digital Public Library of America would win out over fear of the change technology brings.

Reading Born Digital: A Way Forward

Palfrey and Gasser provide a balanced way forward that accounts for both the way Digital Natives use technology to interact with the world and the caution an older generation can impart to them.

Key Points

The authors emphasize several key points that underlie the way forward this book suggests:

  • Digital Natives – anyone born after 1980 who has had consistent access to technology – experience the world differently than older generations because of the way technology has been integrated into their lifestyle.
  • Digital Natives have both a digital identity, a collection of digital information about themselves which is under their control, and a digital dossier, which includes their digital identity as well as items like medical records and purchase history that they don’t have control over.
  • Many of the challenges Digital Natives face, including cyberbullying, online predators and managing their digital identities, actually predate the technology where they now face them. While the technology is new, the problems are familiar and familiar ways of dealing with them will still work.
  • The Digital Gap – the gap in access to technology between poor and wealthy nations – will have consequences for the Digital Native generation that we can’t currently foresee. Those without consistent access to technology are excluded from the definition of “Digital Native” because they don’t have the opportunity to integrate technology into their lifestyles in the same way. This makes Digital Natives a population rather than a generation.
  • The way forward to help Digital Natives deal responsibly with the challenges they face requires the teaching and support of multiple networks: parents, educators, markets and legislation.

Born Digital Networks Chart

A Way Forward

Palfrey and Gasser detail the ways in which Digital Natives’ support networks can help them learn to use technology and manage their digital identities in responsible ways.

Parents, guardians and other close role models are on the front lines in terms of teaching their children responsible online behavior. This includes opening a dialogue with the Digital Natives they’re raising about what they see online, who they interact with their and what they share with that community. To do this, parents need to interact with the technologies their children use in order to be able to talk about them and model positive behavior.

Teachers, librarians and other educators also play a large role in encouraging responsible and appropriate online behavior. This includes teaching their students to critically evaluate information they read online and fully understand the strategies they can use to manage their digital identities.

Corporations and other market-controlled organizations can participate by listening to users who ask for clearer privacy statements and methods of managing their digital identities, as well as by keeping promises not to share pieces of those users’ digital dossiers. Users can respond by refusing to use services that don’t comply, allowing the market to dictate the way corporations manage users’ privacy.

Legal policy and legislation should be, according to Palfrey and Gasser, a last resort and a backstop. Each of the other groups named can contribute to teaching Digital Natives to be actively responsible for the way they interact with technology, while legislation only has the potential to control these interactions. Legislating the way Digital Natives should interact with technology is almost sure to backfire.

What this means for teachers, librarians and other educators

In general, educators should expect that Digital Native students will be more and more familiar with technology as time goes on and often have a higher skill level in using technologies than the educators themselves. In addition to teaching students how to find reliable resources online, how to critically evaluate those resources, and how to manage their digital identities, educators can teach students about their digital rights and how to stand up for them. A deep knowledge of the technologies students use both in and out of school will help teachers encourage enthusiasm as well as caution and responsibility.

Conclusion: A Shift in Perspective

After reading Born Digital and noticing the balanced way in which the authors approach the very real challenges facing Digital Natives, I realized that my enthusiasm for technology would do well to be tempered by the caution Palfrey and Gasser suggest. Like many other Digital Natives, I often ignore privacy statements and in many cases am not aware of the strategies I could be using to more responsibly manage my digital identity. The concern I’ve seen members of other generations show when it comes to technology has taken on a new quality as well – while I do believe this concern is most helpful when backed by a deep understanding of the technology in question, an awareness of the possible consequences of adopting a new technology is essential to understanding the challenges it may pose.


Palfrey, J. G., & Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York: Basic Books.


6 thoughts on “Context Book: Born Digital

  1. I am at the cusp of being a digital native. Born in 1977, privacy is a big concern for me. At the same time I am intrigued and excited by new technology. I work at a high school and we are always telling the students to put their cellphones and ipods away. I feel so old and un-hip but those are the school rules. I think it’s important to learn about digital natives as a unique generation. Char Booth talks about getting to know the learners. This, I think, is a big portion of the “Understand” part of the USER method.

    • Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment – my mom is actually a high school teacher, and I asked her about her experience while working on the context book assignment and her reaction was much the same. She wants to encourage the use of technology, but it’s hard to find a balance between productive uses, like taking a picture of a formula on the board, and disruptive uses, like texting in class. I think you’re right that it’s a matter of getting to know the users as closely as possible to try and encourage those productive uses.

      For what it’s worth, some teachers provide envelopes for each student that they put their cell phones in at the beginning of class – my mom just takes them away if she sees them being used disruptively. It makes her feel old and un-hip too!

  2. Deirdre,

    It is interesting to read peoples thoughts on what Digital Natives are like. The digital gap part was a new observation for me. To think that Digital Native is a population not a generation. Trueisim about the world we live in. Now on a different note, many people would say that Digital Natives as a group are not too computer literate and would like to see more effort put into teaching real computer skills. Being able to cut and past is nice but does not really compare to coding or robotics. So while some people are worried about a random picture of there kid on the Web, others are worried about the same kid not understanding how a computer works or able to do anything technical with it. So it is like FaceBook vs STEM education. Just wanted to add that to the mix.

    Great post!

    • Hi Ben,

      Thanks for your thoughts on this – I know it was a wake-up call to absorb the point about Digital Natives as a group, not a generation, because of the Digital Gap.

      Your thoughts about Digital Natives’ computer literacy are right on, too – there have been studies done (a couple on the “Google generation”) that show that Digital Natives feel very comfortable with technology, but those skills don’t run very deep. They use many technologies very superficially, and their information literacy skills are on par with the skills of people learning to do research before computers even existed.

      Fascinating! Thank you for your thoughts – I wasn’t even thinking about connecting those ideas!

  3. Deirdre,

    I’m about to turn age 58, so I’m most definitely not a digital native!:). It’s interesting to read about the take that Palfrey and Gasser have in regard to digital natives. However, I can’t help but wonder if things are moving so fast that some of their observations may already be outdated and almost quaint. Technological advances require almost everyone to become steeped in the environment. I’ll bet in the years to come, the digital native characteristics that they describe will be true of the populace generally. What do you think?

    I am acquainted with John Palfrey in connection with getting the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) going. DPLA is about to launch in a couple weeks, and there is already an exciting collaborative virtual exhibit between DPLA and Europeana that is available online. Be sure to check it out, if you have not already. DPLA needs everyone’s continuing support in order to reach its promise.

    Nice content report!


    • Hi Walt,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!

      I think there are definitely some things about the book that are already outdated, as there always will be when writing about technology – for example, they talk about MySpace where someone writing today might talk about Facebook, which, as you mention, seems quaint. I also felt the way you do at first, but as I kept reading I was very surprised about the statistics they cite that tell the story of poorer populations without access to technology and their low technology literacy rates. Coming from a background where I’ve had at least access to computers and learning technologies for most of my life, I’ve had the opportunity to develop skills I assumed were widespread and true of the populace generally, but reading this book made me realize that that’s not true and could have real consequences for the future of learning worldwide.

      I’m actually volunteering at the launch of the DPLA here in Boston next month! So exciting!

      Thanks again for writing, and for the part you play in the DPLA. What an inspiring project, and a project I think really gets to the heart of both of our comments in terms of making information and technology as widely available as possible.

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