Youth Culture   /   Spring 2009   /    Books

It’s A (Digital) Jungle Out There

Review of John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives

Felicia Wu Song

Child on a tablet. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1996, Nicholas Negroponte’s bestseller Being Digital was one of the first books to proclaim the end of the analog era and the beginning of the digital era, exuding great confidence in technology’s ability to bring about human progress. With utopian promises of global harmony, enhanced intelligence, and unprecedented levels of creativity, it celebrated the impending demise of libraries filled with dusty books, identities and relationships constrained by time and space, and hierarchical systems of governance and administration.

Twelve years later, Born Digital, by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, is a different kind of book, but often not as different as one might hope. Like Being Digital, Palfrey and Gasser’s recent publication is a book about “firsts”—a first generation of “Digital Natives” born after 1980, who have grown up with and taken for granted both access to and sophisticated uses of social digital technologies. Written for the broader audience, Born Digital targets parents and teachers concerned with the online dimension of young people’s lives. Seeking to quell the fears commonly generated through media hype about the radical changes and menacing threats that the internet and digital technologies introduce to contemporary life, Palfrey and Gasser set out to consider sensibly which tendencies of Digital Natives and which aspects of online life are worth worrying about, and which deserve support and encouragement.

While Palfrey and Gasser are both professors of law affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, they write primarily as parents who have synthesized an enormous amount of research on topics from privacy to digital piracy, online safety to information overload. They hone in on a number of issues that vex and confound most parents and teachers today: Why do Digital Natives easily disclose information about themselves so publicly online? Is it healthy for Digital Natives to spend so much time online socializing? What can parents do to protect Digital Natives from being exposed to cyberbullying or the unwelcome attention of strangers? In the process of addressing these questions, they sketch a composite picture of Digital Natives that is a pastiche at best: on the one hand, they are creative, innovative, and active; on the other hand, they may be vulnerable to internet addiction, acts of aggression, and harassment, and prone to disregard copyright law, uncritically accept information that they receive online, and multitask in an apparently permanent state of distraction. Besides reviewing the salient scholarly research on each of these topics, Palfrey and Gasser familiarize their readers with concise summaries of watershed moments that have influenced internet culture, such as the history of Napster and the rise of iTunes, the teenage suicide that resulted from online deception and harassment on MySpace, and the heralded instance of user-based activism that Facebook encountered when a privacy-threatening feature was introduced.

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