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.


Don’t forget that it’s National Library Week!  Check in at your local public library or your institution’s library to see how they’re celebrating.  Pictures from Slate’s slideshow tribute.

Last Friday, I attended my first library and information science conference.  It was pretty neat; I talked to some new people with whom I have a profession in common, made some observations, had several embarrassing moments (mentioned later), and got to hear John Palfrey talk about the idea of both information and generations being “born digital” as well as the Digital Public Library of America project, which is just incredible.  Gave me a new perspective on my job, the field, and the way I participate in both, which ultimately is the entire point.

Libraries: intellectually hybrid spaces by nature.

I did feel, though, that I was being talked about rather than talked to.  The first speaker of the day showed a video that was basically infographic after infographic on how people are accessing information now compared to several years ago, and the ages of people accessing it.  I got really excited, thinking, “that’s me!  That’s the way I do things!  Everyone here is excited to be part of this, too!”  The first thing he said after he showed this video was: “Frightening.”  Library directors applauded the technical services staff (old school term: “catalogers”) there for generally being the “most forward-thinking, adaptive” people in the library, and yet everyone was still repeatedly scolded for not anticipating the needs of a “born digital” generation.  Librarians, who tend to deem themselves “nerds,” were encouraged to work closely with – and hire more of – the “geeks.”  Which is great, and they can’t go wrong following that kind of advice.  But what about me, basically born with an Apple in my mouth, a freakish kind of nerd/geek hybrid?  I feel too young and inexperienced to be spoken to or taken seriously (which is partially my insecurity, partially the field, which seems to have very little faith in the abilities of LIS students/recent grads to participate in any real change), but also that I have valuable insight I can’t seem to give away.  So mostly I just tweet about it and wish I could figure out how to get to where the ideas are.

Old-school card catalog. Now we use the internet and these go in peoples' living rooms (like ours!)

And now for the embarrassing moments:

  1. My coworker told me that the conference would be full of “300-pound women and 94-pound men,” and that “no one would notice if I came in my pajamas.”  So I wore jeans and a plaid shirt.  I would say the majority of people were women of average size in professional dress – one or two people in jeans, one other girl in a plaid shirt.  Geeky guys, but no kilts, which, having worked for Apple, was really weird for me.  Then again, my nametag labelled me an LIS student, so no one took me seriously anyway!
  2. I went out to get my coworker – who doesn’t walk too well – a cup of tea before the after-lunch speakers.  I came back in while they were presenting an award, and as I was making my way back to my seat with the tea, everyone clapped and looked at me, all “Whoa, that girl in the plaid is getting an award!  Was I wrong about her!”  Then I sat down, with my tea, and the real lady – a 300-pound woman in pajamas – went up on stage to accept it.