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Born DigitalReview - Born Digital
Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives
by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser
Basic Books, 2008
Review by David Jank
Nov 4th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 45)

Palfrey and Gasser's Born Digital is one of those rare finds in the trade press world, a true page-turner in the tradition of a well-woven novel. This is a book that is hard not to keep flipping through even after you've read it, and one that you can't quite refrain from talking about after you finish it. Though at times the attentive reader may ponder certain inclusions and exclusions of content within the text, it is still a substantive work.

The authors approach their book primarily as outside observers to phenomena that are all too familiar to everyone today: the ubiquity of gadgets, society's mass migration toward electronic mail and MP-3 players, the preeminence of second life and online chat, and the continued reliance on the Web as the social community of first resort. This perspective works admirably in discursive rather than critical terms, but its emphasis on a particular generation of technology users can at times paint an unfair picture of "them" (specifically, all those born since 1980) versus "us" (seemingly, everybody else). Members of the former group, the authors tell us, can be anthropologically viewed as digital natives, given the proximity of their social lives to the emergence of digital technology products. Members of the latter, we are similarly told, are best termed digital immigrants, given their more adoptive roles in the absorption of digital products and their use.

The title of Palfrey and Gasser's work, according to their introduction, explicitly relates to the so-called "Generation-Y" and "millennial" populations. This theme is preeminent throughout the book, and unfortunately tends to support rather stereotypical pictures of luddites (those born prior to 1980 who apparently eschew most digital technologies) and technophiles (the rest of society who, because of their date of birth, apparently can't seem to stop texting each other). Once the reader is able to get past this pigeonholing technique, however, the vast majority of scholarship in the book hits home on a variety of levels.

In its discussion of lifestyle characteristics of digital natives, the book gives admirable attention to a variety of sociological concerns, including diversity, international relationships, and the socio-epistemological view of technology. The authors clearly know their material and have a firm grasp of current digital technology, the functional application of digital products, and the cultural role played by all of these in society today. Yet in spite of the attention given to so many socioeconomic factors at work within digital technology adoption, there is only passing discussion of information economics or gender issues relating to technology adoption.

The most substantive discussions by far, however, are found in the book's examination of the legal, regulatory, and policy making environments in which digital technologies thrive. Both Palfrey and Gasser are attorneys and law school academics, and possess a solid grasp of society's undeniable lifestyle migration to the digital frontier. Throughout the book, the authors' understanding of technology, culture, and social relationships is quite evident. The structure of Born Digital is not so much logical as topical, however. There does not appear to be any explanation of the reasoning behind the selection of chapter titles, or the reasons for discussing them in the order in which they appear. Admittedly, the title belies a necessary emphasis on digital technology users under the age of thirty, and presumably each chapter is intended to focus on these factors individually. The chapters exist almost as standalone essays, and appear to serve primarily discursive roles. They examine, for example, digital technology adoption and usage patterns, but do not address any related sociological drivers that could help to explain why these patterns have evolved. The authors hold to their thesis that because people were born during a certain timeframe, it is somehow inevitable that they be digitally inclined. In a book with very few drawbacks, this one is major.

The most valuable contribution of Palfrey and Gasser's work may not even lie in those chapters that provide the first substantive discussion of the shared social experiences of digital natives. Their clear, comprehensive overview of digital identities (Web tracking of online activities of digital technology users) and their detailed description of what they term "digital dossiers," provide powerful insight into the technological functions at work within digital environments. These chapters are a must read for all technology users, regardless of their age, who at times may feel even slightly at a loss concerning the online tracking of their digital footprints. These chapters are not necessarily tied topically to the generational focus of the rest of the book, so it is a little disappointing that similar discussions of cultural phenomena are not prevalent in other chapters.

Given the extensive discussion of the legal aspects of digital identity, it is hard to understand the book's lack of discussion of the work of Larry Lessig, also a prominent attorney and academic, whose widely read scholarship and research also focus on digital lifestyles. Lessig's work parallels Palfrey and Gasser's in its emphasis on the impact of digital technology on society across the board. The reader can only assume that the lack of mention of any of  Lessig's research within certain chapters "Born Digital" is because Lessig does not typically focus on millennially born populations. It is almost impossible, however, to imagine how such discussion could not be relevant, given the extent of Lessig's contributions to cyber-culture studies that focus on cyber-users across generations. By extension, though, Lessig's work is especially relevant with respect to digital natives and their apparent lack of understanding (according to the Palfrey and Gasser) of the legal ramifications of digital technology use.  

Other referential oversights come to mind throughout the book. One would expect that Lisa Nakamura's research on online Cyber-types, Patricia Wallace's work in Cyber-psychology, or even John Seely Brown's classic literature on the social life of information, merit at least cursory discussion in a work dedicated to documenting the cyber-lives of digital natives. The book also does not present any philosophical discussion of the adoption of digital technology within a particular lifestyle, which the reader might expect to see drawn from the works of Frederick Ferré or Michel Foucault, or from the literature on social connecting within digital lifestyles, such as that of Mary Chayko or Angela Heath. Further, there are no chapters focusing on the ethical use of digital information, a presumably critical concern vis a vis digital natives, and which could have drawn from the works of Toni Carbo or Luciano Floridi. Consideration of such omissions, however, is not meant to imply that "Born Digital" is somehow lacking in recognition of related scholarship. As an ontological description of a previously unexplored social terrain, it stands well on its own. It at times almost exclusively takes the perspective of the frustrated parent, but easily adjusts its perspective to that of the lawyer, the teacher, the librarian, the product developer, and perhaps most importantly, the digital natives themselves.

Clearly, Palfrey and Gasser have set out to present an epistemological view of a particular social group, which has never been discussed so extensively. In this mission, they have succeeded admirably. They rely heavily on qualitative research methodologies, surveys of popular and trade press articles, and surprisingly effective bridging of technological functionality within a psycho-social perspective. This approach serves to present the work in a rather unique light: a commentary on technology adoption founded largely on shared cultural experience rather than efficient application to shared tasks. To this extent, the book's apparent lack of logical flow from chapter to chapter is less bothersome when considered along with the unique discussion within each chapter of the social bonds shared by digital natives.

Palfrey and Gasser succeed in painting a picture of such "natives" that necessarily contrasts digital "immigrants," those who may indeed be technophiles, but have had to learn to be so. The authors continually shape their argument around this idea. While most social scientists would argue that there are multiple post-1980s generations, the authors seem to believe that anyone born since that time shares single citizenship as a digital native. This view is somewhat suspect, in that it assumes everyone born following the 1970s has experienced digital childhoods similar to so-called millennials, a generation that many social scientists might claim are not yet old enough to have developed any self-identity, never mind a digital one. The book would have benefited from at least some discussion of the social evolution that has occurred in parallel to the digital revolution. Still, the power of this book is not lessened by such omissions.

In fact, one of the many strengths of Born Digital is its ability to categorize the technological talents evident among digital natives. Many of the book's chapters are dedicated to each of those talents, and the uniqueness of the discourse within them helps to explain why there is necessarily little reference to the research of any other scholars in the digital cultures literature. This book may be the first to set this stage, serving to paint digital natives as innovators, aggressors, and activists on the one hand, and as learners, creators, and cybercitizens on the other. These so-named chapters of Born Digital help frame this work as something of a concordance to the shared cultural experiences among digital natives. Continual references to insights gleaned from focus group interviews and survey research abound within almost every chapter, but are supported only by off-hand references to things "we" have learned, rather than to any meaningful methodology that would support many of the authors' claims about digital natives, and there are many. Although it is hard to shake the feeling that there is not much science to support the authors' claims, this does not take away from the realization that this is a meaningful contribution to social science research in an area that has not been seriously studied.

Fortunately, the authors provide a substantive number of references in their very crowded appendix, which also includes a useful, though all too short, glossary of expressions and terms. The reader may better have been served by the inclusion of endnotes at the close of each chapter. Most of these notes are taken from the popular literature and from a variety of Web-based sources, which makes it hard to appreciate the few truly meaningful references to scholarly literature. Although no index was included in the review copy of this book, it is assumed there will be a meaty one. If the index is not as substantive as the reference notes, the reader's access to a wealth of meaningful writing could be seriously hindered.

In the end, this may not matter at all. Born Digital offers highly readable intellectual discourse in the spirit of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, but even that work at times could be tiresome in its repetitive off-hand references to intelligent concepts lacking in scholarly grounding. Given the subtitle of this book, however, the reader may find comfort in Palfrey and Gasser's not-so-passing reference to their study of the "first generation of digital natives." As with immigrants in all walks of life, digital adopters ultimately will be outnumbered by digital natives eventually. It appears the authors understand this quite well, and their likely subsequent works deserve to be enthusiastically anticipated.

© 2008 David Jank

David Jank is a Ph.D. candidate at the College of Information Science of Long Island University, and works as a faculty librarian at Dowling College, Oakdale, New York. He is co-author of "The Internet Fact-Finder for Lawyers," published by the American Bar Association, and has published articles on the social impact of information technology for Advances in Human-Computer Interaction, Information Technology and Libraries, and The Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. His doctoral dissertation focuses on the Human-Information Dyad, and the socio-cognitive view of information interaction and use. Contact information:  http://www.dowling.edu/library/about/dj.html or jankd@dowling.edu


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