An Optimized View

By Amanda Henry,
who has written for National Public Radio, VH1 and the Tampa Tribune
Thursday, October 9, 2008


Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives

By John Palfrey and Urs Gasser

Basic. 375 pp. $25.95

Among the items credited with altering the world as we know it, the Internet falls somewhere between the invisible-yet-ubiquitous (dust, germs) and the explosive (guns, the Bomb). In "Born Digital" John Palfrey and Urs Gasser skip the origin stories and accept the transformative power of digital technology as a given. Their interest lies squarely with the consequences of living a wired life, especially for those who have never known anything different.

If this sounds like the setup for a collection of titillating, "Dateline"-ready headlines (Identity Theft! Gaming Addiction! Texting Under the Dinner Table!), the book does not bear out that impression. Palfrey and Gasser are so busy being measured and pragmatic that they omit the apocalyptic hand-wringing. Nor do they consider today's youth to be an alien breed of exhibitionists conducting every facet of their exhaustively documented lives via digital device. Instead, the authors -- both affiliated with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School -- explore topics ranging from the formation and exploitation of Internet identity to the creation, filtering and manipulation of information with an earnest blend of data, hypotheses and gentle hints.

A central premise is that Digital Natives -- a population defined by both post-Internet birthdates and privileged access to technology -- make little distinction between the online and offline realms, virtual vs. real. This is an unfamiliar mind-set for many analog-era Digital Settlers (moderately savvy) or barely computer-literate Digital Immigrants (given to "lame jokes and warnings about urban myths that they still forward to large cc: lists").

The authors are optimistic about online culture, which they consider far more creative and participatory than previous media. Many of the evils attributed to social-networking sites or other technological platforms (e.g., bullying, stalking and the sharing of pornography) are not new, Palfrey and Gasser argue: "The Internet is just a new medium for old kinds of bad behavior." Of greater concern are Internet-specific issues, including security (not just of data but also of person, in light of the increasing reliance on tracking technology, webcams and itinerary-revealing blogs) and information overload. In the cautious manner of writers who are also academics, lawyers and fathers, Palfrey and Gasser suggest that any solution to these and related concerns, including digital piracy, online propaganda and hostile Facebook posts, should combine parental oversight, public education, corporate responsibility and, as a last resort, lawmaking.

Their eagerness to exonerate technology leads to a few rhetorical missteps. The fact that violent media content and playground bullies predate the Internet doesn't erase what seem to be essential differences between first-person-shooter games online and the passive viewing of a bloody movie or the anonymous, around-the-clock hazing that is possible on the Web. Palfrey and Gasser acknowledge these distinctions but are too quick to let cyberculture off the hook. And although great works of art may yet originate online, it's a stretch to compare fan fiction and video mash-ups to Shakespeare just because both borrow from previous texts. Surely the Bard did more with his sources than those who are setting "Gossip Girl" clips to maudlin pop songs.

"Born Digital" doesn't pretend to have all the answers; the authors are knowledgeable but never pedantic, especially in areas where research is pending. While Palfrey and Gasser can leave you longing for grandiloquent generalizations, or at least a buzzword or two ("semiotic democracy" lacks sexiness), their studious, empathic approach is both valid and reassuring, and their overarching point -- let's think about these things now, rather than trying to fix them later -- well taken. Mixed with the broad consciousness-raising is specific advice for digitally challenged parents and teachers, on subjects from the judicious use of protective technology to the value of team-based, interactive (read: Wikipedia-esque) learning.

For the Digital Natives who are not reading this formal review in a mainstream newspaper, its long sentences replete with capitalization and punctuation, let's hope someone will pass on the message to think before exposing yourself online in any of the myriad ways that you are far better qualified to enumerate than I. Should you stumble across this headline in your search results one day, you can also read the authors' blog -- and add to their wiki -- at

© 2008 The Washington Post Company