Born Digital

For the past few years, Urs Gasser and I have been working on a book project together about a phenomenon that we have become obsessed with: how some young people, including our kids, use technologies in ways that are different that what we’ve seen before. The book is called Born Digital (Amazon seems not yet to know of Urs’ involvement; we’ll have to tell them). It’ll be out sometime in 2008, published by the good people at Basic Books.

(We decided to go with Basic Books because it is wonderful and we love the editors, and because they published the most important book in our field, Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and its sequel, Code 2.0. and other classics of the emerging digital literature, like The Cluetrain Manifesto.)

Our goals, among other things, in writing this book are to address and take seriously the concerns of parents and teachers and others perplexed by what’s going on; to highlight the wonderful things that some Digital Natives are up to; to make a series of policy arguments about what we ought to do about this phenomenon; and to set this issue in a global context — as part of the bigger story of globalization.

Two things prompt this blog-post: 1) to answer a persistent question we’ve been hearing from our friends and collaborators; and 2) to engage the assistance of anyone who wants to participate.

As with many overly-ambitious research projects, you start in one place and — you hope, I suppose — end up someplace a bit different that where you expected to get. That’s surely the case for us on this project.

So, first off, the issue. It’s a definitional issue, always an important starting point in a research project. We began this project interested in a distinction that others thought up and have pursued in various way: the difference between “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants.” (There’s an interesting short history, which we track, of the etymology of these terms, a subject for another day.)

We wanted to hone in on what it means to be a Digital Native and what the practices and lives of Digital Natives tell us about our society and about our future. One of the primary struggles we’ve faced is that these two terms alone — Digital Native and Digital Immigrant — are unsatisfactory on their own. They give rise to discomfort on several levels.

One, we’ve heard a few times that the term “Digital Native” carries with it connotations that are not all good, that it’s un-PC. That concern is worth acknowledging and talking through with anyone concerned about it, but given that we think it’s a wonderful thing in most ways to be a Digital Native (or, indeed, native to many other environments, like Boston, my hometown — “I am a Boston native” and am proud of it), I think that’s not a crisis.

The deeper discomfort comes from what is a little math problem:

– Not all people born during a certain period of history (say, after the advent of BBSes) are Digital Natives. Not everyone born today lives a life that is digital in every, or indeed any, way. For starters, only about 1 billion of the 6.7 billion people in the world have regular access to the supposedly “World Wide Web.” In other cases, young people we are meeting choose to have little to do with digital life.

– Not all of the people who have the character traits of Digital Natives are young. The term “Digital Immigrant” doesn’t describe those people either — people like Urs and me, like our colleagues at the Berkman Center who are over a certain age — who live digital lives in as many ways, if not more, than many Digital Natives. Many of us have been here as the whole digital age has come about, and many of our colleagues have participated in making it happen in lots and lots of crucial ways.

We’ve been struggling hard with this problem. One of the benefits of “still writing” this book (we have a full draft, but are far from ready to go to print) and being in the throes of interviews and focus groups is that we are still working on getting it right.

We started out asking whether there is a straight “generational gap” between those Born Digital and those who were not. The point of our research, in the first instance, is to take up these terms Digital Native and Digital Immigrant, and work them over. What I think we’ve found is that age is relevant, but not dispositive. What I think we are describing in our book is a set of traits — having to do with how people interact with information, with one another, and with institutions — that are more likely to be found in those Born Digital, but not certainly so. Many people Born Digital have some but not all of these traits. Many people who were not Born Digital — you (who read this blogpost) and me and Urs and perhaps most Berkmaniacs, to be sure — have these traits and more, more even than most Digital Natives. That’s essential to the puzzle of the book. There is a generational gap, but it’s not purely a generational gap. It’s more complicated.

So, here is a typology which we think emerges from what we’ve learned:

1) those who are Born Digital and also Live Digital = the *Digital Natives* we focus on in this book (to complicate things further: there is a spectrum of what it means to live digitally, with a series of factors to help define where a Digital Native falls on it);

2) those who are Born Digital (i.e., at a moment in history, today) and are *not* Living Digital (and are hence not Digital Natives);

3) those who are not Born Digital but Live Digital = us (for whom we do not have a satisfactory term; perhaps we need one — our colleague David Weinberger suggests “Digital Settlers”);

4) those who are not Born Digital, don’t Live Digital in any substantial way, but are finding their way in a digital world = Digital Immigrants; and,

5) those who weren’t Born Digital and don’t have anything to do with the digital world, whether by choice, reasons of access or cash, and so forth.

There may be more categories, but these are the essential ones. Our book focuses on the first — those Born Digital and who Live Digital lives.  Though it’s not the focus of this particular book, the third category is also deeply relevant to the narrative.

It may well be that there will prove to be a generational divide between those Born Digital and those not Born Digital. What we are focused on here, though, is the particular population — rather than the generation — of those who were both Born Digital and Live Digital, and what their lifestyles and habits and mores mean for the present and the future.

As it often the case, danah boyd says it better than I could in her talk at 4S earlier this fall:

“While I groan whenever the buzzword ‘digital native’ is jockeyed about, I also know that there is salience to this term. It is not a term that demarcates a generation, but a state of experience. The term is referencing those who understand that the world is networked, that cultures exist beyond geographical coordinates, and that mediating technologies allow cultures to flourish in new ways. Digital natives are not invested in ‘life on the screen’ or ‘going virtual’ but on using technology as an artifact that allows them to negotiate culture. In other words, a ‘digital native’ understands that there is no such thing as ‘going online’ but rather, what is important is the way in which people move between geographically-organized interactions and network-organized interactions. To them, it’s all about the networks, even if those networks have coherent geographical boundaries.”

What we seek to describe in this book is an emerging global culture of people relating to information, one another, and institutions in ways that, taken together, has great promise for the future of democracies. Digital Natives — people born digital — give us reason for hope that this global culture could emerge. Some of their behaviors also give reason to worry, at the same time, about things like privacy, safety, information overload, and IP worries. We need to take these problems seriously and get in front of them, without ruining the environment that makes all the wonderful things possible.

In this book, we argue in favor of greater connectivity. That connectivity might be between parents or teachers or lawmakers who don’t live any part of their lives online and our kids who do. That connectivity might be between those in industry who are threatened by what these kids and others (us) are up to online and the culture that we represent. That connectivity might be between technology companies and their users, whose identities they seek otherwise to control. That connectivity might be between those of us in the rich world and those in less rich parts of the world, as GV makes possible. And so forth.

That leads to the request for help, or at least invitation to participate. Our goal is to carry out much of this research and writing in a public way. To that end, we’ve got a wiki at where anyone can come and contribute. Much of what we’re reading and learning shows up on this wiki. We’d love to plug our work into the work of others, and learn from what others are learning.

We are lucky to have an amazing team of people at the Berkman Center and the Research Center on Information Law at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland working with us on this research, too, including the focus groups and interviews we’re conducting. Our work is coming along much better than it otherwise would with the able guidance and critiques of this team at our backs. We are lucky, too, to be able to read the work of many social scientists, cultural anthropologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, teachers, and others — people like Mimi Ito and our colleagues at the Berkman Center, danah boyd, Corinna di Gennaro, Shenja van der Graaf, and Miriam Simun — who understand aspects (or the whole) of the phenomenon we take up here far better than we do. We’d love to have your help, too, in working through these problems online.

40 thoughts on “Born Digital

  1. […] John Palfrey’s blog post on the Berkman Center’s project on Digital Natives raises the question who are actually these so-called Digital Natives? In his and Urs Gasser’s upcoming book ‘Born Digital’ (Basic Books, 2008) they explore and address an emerging global culture of connectivity, communication and content. Where the world is the network and the people the content… Where multi presence no longer differentiates between analogue players and the digital world. Are we then all Digital Natives? No. Are we all Born Digital? Heck, I’m not and even if I were, there would be no guarantee that I would be a Digital Native. […]

  2. […] John Palfrey schreibt in seinem Weblog über das Projekt “Digital Natives”. Darin geht es um die Mitglieder der jungen Generation, deren Denken die Grenzen zwischen online und offline bereits aufgehoben hat. It may well be that there will prove to be a generational divide between those Born Digital and those not Born Digital. What we are focused on here, though, is the particular population — rather than the generation — of those who were both Born Digital and Live Digital, and what their lifestyles and habits and mores mean for the present and the future. Geschrieben in Digitalkultur […]

  3. Fascinating stuff, JP!

    It seems to me that the thing about being native-born to a culture — any culture — is that you don’t have to work so hard to participate. A newcomer (or “settler”) can eventually learn the ways of the natives, but it requires effort. That culture could be a city, a country, a religious world-view, an academic methodology, and on and on.

    So: I was always an interloper in Boston during my brief time there, though maybe over a long time I could have made it “home” if I really tried. For you, proud Bostonian (or really Cantabrigian I suppose), it was available as a “home” automatically because you were born there and absorbed its ways by osmosis. (And congrats on the Sox, btw) Finally, of course, some people who grow up in Boston choose to leave, settle elsewhere, and shed their Bostonian selves.

    Likewise, I am guessing that those Born Digital have digital lives more easily available to them, by natural osmosis, with no requirement that they study up or ask around to find out what’s possible in that Digital culture. Us older folks, non-natives, must do that legwork. Does that explain the typology you are discerning?

  4. I found out about this blog posting via my network – via Twitter. I found out about this project also via Twitter. So I thoroughly agree about the importance of networks. My 15-year-old daughter also has networks: Facebook, LiveJournal, IM, Anime, and Harry Potter’s fan fiction sites. Her network is almost 100% social, my networks are largely professional.

    I agree that there is controversy about the “digital natives/digital immigrants” concept but this posting clarified a lot and is most appreciated. However, some of the digital immigrant thinking has a number of us in education worried – some of us have seen some K-12 teachers saying “these kids are digital natives, they know more than me. I’m not going to use technology in my classroom.” Some are also saying “I’m a digital immigrant, this isn’t native to me, I’m not going to get involved.” Now this is a small group for sure however you may want to sign up on – a Ning social network for teachers talking about Web 2.0 – and see the discussion that has been very lively all about digital natives/digital immigrants.

    Also please consider me very interested in this project. I have signed up for the Wiki but haven’t contributed yet but would like to.

    Thanks so much for this discussion and I look forward very much to the book.

  5. Outstanding! Please let me know if there is any way I can participate in this project.

    During a Berkman class on Internet and Society I was drawn to the same goal you listed to “…take seriously the concerns of parents and teachers and others perplexed by what’s going on; to highlight the wonderful things that some Digital Natives are up to; to make a series of policy arguments about what we ought to do about this phenomenon; and to set this issue in a global context — as part of the bigger story of globalization.”

    I am fascinated by the challenge of setting the issue in a global context. Being from a technology background, I am also focused in helping mobilize technology to provide temporary bridging points into the global conversation.

  6. Thanks for the glimpse of the fascinating research, JP! As I was re-reading this post, I realized Ms. Pamela Livingston raised a interesting fact, the popularity of anime(Japanese cartoon) among American teens. I am wondering if anybody from your focus group are anime fans? For one, I have always been amazed at the soaring popularity anime is gaining among American young audience, thanks to online forums where fan-subbed anime episodes are timely uploaded. Unlike many trends among the digital natives, I think this is the one trend that brings an impact we CAN predict. In early 90s, China started broadcasting anime on TV, and the generations that grew up watching Chinese-dubbed anime (me included) became hopeless worshipers of Japanese culture (of course our parents are horrified.) I can only imagine how American kids now, downloading anime that’s dubbed in Japanese, would romanticize Japan and more importantly, her way of right and wrong, her perspective on world history, etc. Thus the question: as the digital natives spend their formative years online, how can we preserve our own cultures? Let’s face it: first, the online culture is dominated by some and not others; second, when a whole generation embraces a foreign culture, part of their own culture is irretrievably gone. That’s my primary concern with the digital natives. Embracing a common online culture is great; I just pray they won’t get carried away:)

  7. Hopefully the book will touch on the billions of Digital Poor who are born into poverty and will never “live digital” by choice. These people are like the untouchables that will never be part of the Digital World where individuals have a disposable income that determines the extent as well as the quality of digital life they can afford. And at the extreme, you have the zealots who worship Digital as the new Digital Faith.

    The question to define the new species will continue to persist until it breaks off to a new human(oid) group.

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