“Born Digital” by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser
I am pleased to announce that John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives is out in the wild! This book grows out of the digital natives project at the Berkman Center (with which I am loosely affiliated). “Born Digital” investigates what it means to grow up in a mediated culture and the ways in which technology inflects issues like privacy, safety, intellectual property, media creation, and learning.
Intended for broad audiences, “Born Digital” creates a conversation between adult concerns, policy approaches, technological capabilities, and youth practice. This is not an ethnography, but JP and Urs build on and connect to ongoing ethnographic research concerning digital youth culture. This is not a parent’s guide, but JP and Urs’s framework will benefit any parent who wishes to actually understand what’s taking place and what the implications are. This is not a policy white paper, but policy makers would be foolish to ignore the book because JP and Urs provide a valuable map for understanding how the policy debates connect to practice and technology. The contribution “Born Digital” makes is in the connections that it makes between youth practices, adult fears, technology, and policy. If you care at all about these issues, this book is a MUST-READ.
To the academics in the room….
I want to take a moment to address the academics and academic-minded that read this blog because I know that many of you are very wary of pop books in this area. I also know how much y’all hate the term “digital natives” and I too feel my skin crawl when that term emerges. When I first learned about this book, I was very wary. I didn’t know JP or Urs at the time and I didn’t want to offend, but I reached out with a few of my concerns. To my astonishment, JP invited me to sit down with him and hash out my thoughts. Thus began a discussion that has truly shaped my thinking about these issues and has made me deeply appreciate this book and what it’s doing. Said conversation is also how I got involved in efforts to leverage my scholarship to make change.
From the beginning, JP acknowledged that the term “digital natives” is hugely problematic, but also pointed out that it’s the kind of term that makes interventions possible. Society and mass media has already done the othering and rather than pretend as though this wasn’t happening, they wanted to tackle it head-on. Throughout the book, they bring up adult fears, myths, and techno-phobic frameworks in order to dismantle, ground, and/or situate them. This is not an academic intervention, but a socio-political one. They purposefully and intentionally take an approach that speaks to those who are doing the othering, those who are thinking “kids these days…” At first, I was very resistant to their approach, but the more time I spent with parents, teachers, and policy makers, the more that I realized how effective such a tactic is.
Academics tend to err on the side of nuance and precision, eschewing generalizations and coarse labels. This is great for documenting cultural dynamics, but not so great for making interventions. Creating an impression, an image in the minds of those who are fearful requires more than accurate data. It requires a compelling story and a framework that can replace the boogie monster. This is why polemics tend to speak in extremes. They key to using generalizations responsibly is to work hard to make certain that the impressions rendered are as representative of cultural frames as bloody possible. It’s easy to convince people to generalize from extremes; it’s much harder to get them to build images from what’s normative.
Combatting pre-existing images requires more than accuracy, more than nuance. It requires either a new more-sticky image or a reworking of the original image. By working inside the frame of “digital natives,” JP and Urs seek to ground that concept through a realistic image of practice. Reclaiming a term does not relieve it of all of its baggage, but it is a service to discourse if you can accept that the term won’t just disappear by ignoring it. Once it’s grounded, nuance becomes possible in entirely new ways.
I had the great honor of being able to read an early draft and provide feedback. I’ve read lots of parenting guides and white papers and other pop culture coverage of these issues. What struck me about “Born Digital” is how well it is connected to what is actually going on, how well it speaks to the research that we do. It’s not sensationalist or extreme, but very even-handed. They move between different perspectives to try to paint a full picture. Sometimes, they are too patient with idiotic perspectives, but that’s when I breathe and remind myself that telling people that their ideas are stupid is not a good intervention tactic. Sometimes they are also too techno-centric, but once again, this makes sense if you recognize what they’re trying to do. Of course, the only reason that these things stick out is that they do such a good job of addressing the practices of the population they map out.
As I got to know JP over the last year, I developed a deep appreciation for his approach to life, the universe, and everything. He tries to help people from different sides see the others’ perspective, using whatever tactics are necessary. He’s calm, even-handed, and works hard to stay true to cultural complexities. He’s the compromiser and he’s willing to take the heat in order to help bridge gaps and ease tensions. This shines through in “Born Digital.” As I read the book in the context of its mission, my wariness slipped away. They’ve done a tremendous job of building on what we know and connecting it to systems of power.
If you’re an academic and you choose to pick up this book – and I strongly encourage you to do so – try to read it in context. Because it is deeply grounded in research, it might be tempting to see it as an academic book with too few citations. I’d encourage you to resist the critical reflex that comes with being piled higher and deeper and appreciate the ways in which scholarly work is being leveraged as a tool for cultural intervention. I think that JP and Urs have done an astonishing job and believe that they deserve our deepest gratitude. I for one am VERY thankful of their efforts to make change based on what we know instead of what we fear.