Born Digital: A review for the moment

By Andy Oram
September 10, 2008 | Comments: 1

Born Digital postulates a watershed between those born on or before 1980 and those born after. Although the book is advertised as a guide to the latter for those born earlier, I suspect that the marketing became unmoored from the authorship. That's because the book's arguments culminate in the message that its lessons need to be learned by "digital natives" most of all, and that they are the ones best positioned to alleviate the social dislocations caused by digital media and the Internet.

The last chapter also makes it clear that the authors--John Palfrey and Urs Gasser--expect their work to be read by the young people they describe in the work, not to mention being augmented, enhanced, and remixed by them. Not in book form, perhaps--everybody knows young people don't read many books. Perhaps that's why the publisher, Basic Books, aimed its advertisements at older people--people they imagined were standing outside the digital revolution, regarding it with perplexity and anxiety.

But the digital natives can discuss the book on the associated Digital Native web site. And so I went ahead (although I'm a digital immigrant with a memory going back well before 1980) and created an account on that site so I could post this review there for comment. (First memo to those trying to appeal to Digital Natives: sophisticated ones disparage closed formats.) The discussion there helped me refine some points.

Theses of Born Digital

Extricated from the potentially distracting question of what's natural or native to each generation, the topics in Born Digital will be familiar to anyone interested in Internet social policy:

  • The rush to post personal information
  • The dangers of lifelong "dossiers" of medical, legal, and purchase data
  • The problems of children viewing obscene and violent content
  • Copyright violations and copyright holder over-reactions
  • Online harrassment and stalking
  • Young people's predilection toward sampling content, whether in music, news, or education
  • Information overload
  • The urge to create and to collaborate (a wealth largely untapped by educators)
  • Online political activism (pursued by only a small group of youth, but a growing and important group)

It's a rich and well-balanced buffet, and the book's 300 pages cogently summarize how ordinary Internet users are handling these issues, some with sophistication and some with naiveté. Palfrey and Gasser are educators, parents, and lawyers, in that order. They believe that the first ring of defense around the vulnerable young Internet user is her own friends and online peers. Their most robust solutions are aimed at that ring--hence the reason this text should be read by Digital Natives.

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Parents and teachers have an important role in the next ring of defense, particularly when young children first go online and need help developing a street sense for the Internet. I find the authors' suggestions for learning to be the strongest part of the book. But even there, many of the tasks that the authors lay on educators involves creating a structure and forum where youth can help each other.

The outer rings of defense are provided by technology companies and government. It's always nice to see lawyers talk about the limits of the law (one has the confidence that they know what they're talking about) and some of their conclusions are surprising.

For instance, Born Digital provides a retrospective on omnibus privacy laws, which were developed in Europe and spread to most countries except the U.S. during the 1990s. These laws attempt to provide a top-to-bottom set of protections that cover people's purchasing histories and other "dossier" information, an approach that would seem the only way to prevent the relentless mining and recombination of information from various sources.

But Palfrey and Gasser report that the current consensus runs against these laws. Their breadth puts many social valuable activities at risk. I reported on a backlash against EU-style privacy laws as far back as 1998, but I was not aware until reading Born Digital of its strength.

Read the book to find a couple other of surprises on the other side of the laissez faire debate as well. For instance, the book suggests that governments can make a positive contribution to child safety by requiring video game manufacturers to rate the level of violence in each game.

I mention these controversies partly to see whether people will post silly comments in knee-jerk fashion, or actually do some background reading first (whether or not they read Born Digital itself). You see, one of the weaknesses ascribed by the book to Digital Natives is their tendency to form opinions by sampling a paragraph or a page from many different sources. The quality of their opinions depends on their skill and open-mindedness in choosing sources.

But I don't accept that sampling by itself produces insight. You have to be willing to visit original sources, study an author in depth, and force yourself to pursue the implications of a particular line of argument. Palfrey and Gasser also understand this aspect of true learning. I found a hint of it in their call to keep parts of traditional education alive; Palfrey confirmed my viewpoint in an exchange on the Digital Native wiki.

Is the book effective?

Partly to deal with my own feeling of information overload and partly because I'm an editor by trade, I take an instrumental approach to books. Will Born Digital satisfy the audience of digital immigrants or outsiders to which Basic Books addressed its advertising: parents, librarians, copyright-holders? And will the book satisfy a more digitally literate audience who are already embedded in the world it describes?

I'm afraid the book will frustrate the outsider audience. Although it aims for pragmatism and balance, its readers will complain that it offers inadequate solutions to cyberbullying, peer-to-peer file sharing, and the distribution of pornography and hate speech.

They could even be confused by the authors' assessments and categorizations. The book offers reassurances that online activities in each area of concern are basically the same as their off-line counterparts. One of my favorite sentences is, "Too often, the Internet is a metaphor for all that is hard to understand about youth culture." (p. 220) And yet--the Internet "changes the contours," exacerbates problems, brings them into the home from outside, etc. Such continual "on the other hand" statements make one wish for a one-handed lawyer.

Ultimately, the authors leave us hanging with their tantalizing suggestion that "we must synchronize the legislative process with the rapid pace of development of Internet technology and the dynamic use of it by Digital Natives." Who is "we," and what do the authors believe will work better than the deliberately ponderous legal process that careful constitutionalists have built up over the centuries?

Also thinking as an editor, I worry that readers who haven't interacted with the basic technologies will find themselves lost among the explanations. I would have advised the authors to add a set of appendixes that take the reader through the basic steps of the more sophisticated current technologies. Tag a photo with a name and watch it appear on friends' sites. Show a list of weblogs and what turns up as they are filtered through an RSS reader. Would it be so difficult to include a few screen shots? Of course, the precise user activities change from month to month with new interface candy, but a clear view of a snapshot in time is critical to grasping the technology's impact.

Readers with more background could easily skim the book and throw it down, saying, "Yeah, I know all that." This review may persuade them that there's depth in it to explore.

After birth

In the end, I wish Born Digital reflected the ever-changing environment that modern technology presents. In the final chapter, Gasser announces, "we are moving toward an Internet that in ten years will look significantly different from what we see today." But what does that say about the book's key thesis dichotomizing Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants?

Current adults are perplexed by the Digital Native's eagerness to post details of last night's date online. That Digital Native in the near future, married and holding a managerial position, may be amazed to find an employee from the next generation sending a minute-by-minute update of his blood pressure and heart rate to selected recipients. This employee is completely comfortable when his colleague walks in (or his boyfriend calls) to say, "What's getting you upset, George?"

My contention is that there's nothing special about 1980. The pace of technology is getting ever more frantic. The Digital Natives started in an online environment dominated by email and forums. Interactivity and socialization took a great leap when America Online bought the ICQ chat service in 1998, bringing a bit of formerly geek culture onto every child's screen. And even the use of chat could not prepare young people for the much more public interactivity of blogs and social networking sites.

I think Digital Natives will continually face challenges just as wrenching and confusing as their older counterparts. I dislike the terms Digital Native and Born Digital because they offer an implicit assurance that young people have it easy in the Internet environment--an assurance belied by the research in the book itself. The terms also put up an unwarranted barrier that risks keeping out older observers who, as the book shows, have much to offer.

Already, one major point in the book is that going online requires some street smarts, which kids develop over time. Some develop it faster than others, and some think more about the consequences of their online behavior than others.

So I don't think in terms of differences between generations--a discouraging concept that puts up barriers and divisions--but of an every-changing environment that puts pressure on everyone to learn and adapt.

As the authors say, this book is part of a longer discussion--not the history of a watershed in time, but the record of a moment. Let's make sure everybody is included.

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1 Comment

Because of the difference in styles between the two described digital generations, it seems that the book could also become a point of contention between contiguous readers (digital immigrants) and non-contiguous readers (digital natives)... which almost seems self-defeating. That said, I'll give the book a look-see myself...

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