Saturday, November 5, 2011

Book Review--Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by Palfrey and Gasser

Listen to my Book Review podcast by clicking the link below, and then the LISTEN icon:

EME 5054, Module 7, Fall 2011  

Podcast Transcript:
   My name is Fran Siracusa and welcome to my book review podcast. The book is called Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. The two co-authors, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, wrote and published the book in 2008.  John Palfrey is a Professor of Law and Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School. He is also a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Dr. Urs Gasser is the Berkman Center for Internet & Society's Executive Director and was previously an Associate Professor of Law at the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland), where he led the Research Center for Information Law as Faculty Director. One can find more information about the book and authors at the and the website links.
   This volume is topically divided into 13 chapters, which include chapter titles such as “privacy,” “safety,” “overload,” “innovators,” and “learners.” The authors wrote from an expert perspective, and stated that due to the changing face of technology, some parts of the book will already be outdated by the time a reader obtains it. (However, the book does include a current relevant Afterword chapter.) The intended audience is comprised of parents, teachers, future employers, policymakers, technology creators and others who intend to figure out how better to work with Digital Natives. Moreover, digital natives themselves would truly benefit from reading this book.
   Palfrey and Gasser endeavored to explicate Digital Natives, or people who were born after the year 1980. The term was first coined by Marc Prensky (2001) in his article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” Digital Natives are connected to each other through a common culture facilitated by digital technology immersion. They have only known a life full of technology, not without. Their human-to-human connections very much involve digital spaces, also resulting in the formation of relationships, quite different than that of other generations before them.
   Palfrey and Gasser scholarly presented each chapter with clarity and full development of the topic at hand, and vastly supported their arguments with  evidence and research. The writing style is semi-formal and candid, as they explored the habits and role of digital natives, while clarifying their viewpoints.  To me, the book reads like a discussion, with educated opinions, expert views, and includes quotes from digital natives focus group members. In my opinion, the authors have successfully succeeded in educating the reader.
   I believe this book is quite valuable to parents, educators, and digital natives themselves. Palfrey and Gasser made numerous important points that clarify critical issues of today’s digital world immersed by youth. For example, that digital natives’ digital identity can be remixed but will always exist somewhere else in cyberspace; or that from before they were born, each digital native has an expansive digital dossier outside one’s true control (p. 45); or that even if one posts something privately, it can be accessed by the world (possibly illegally or without one’s permission) (p. 57). The book affirms that parents and educators need to have productive conversations with youth so that they themselves may develop skills and tools to keep themselves safe online; that young people harness amazing talents evidenced by their creations (narratives, blogs, mash-ups, videos, and pictures); and that students are overloaded with digital content on the web, and again need the skills and tools to deal with the situation effectively (p. 194).
   This book reinforced my previous teacher perspective that students ought to receive the necessary tools and develop the skills NOW that they will need to succeed later in life. I was pleased to examine the authors’ interpretations of digital natives, which gave me new perspective and suggestions for comprehending digital natives’ choices and habits. The book asserts that digital natives are outstanding in their thinking and learning processes; and that it wise for teachers to let students be the guides in navigating these new ways of connecting with people all over the world.  Similarly the authors point out that some old-fashioned solutions that worked in the past also apply to the problems of the digital age: that is, “engaged parenting, a good education, and common sense” (p. 10). Palfrey and Gasser made a valid point I had not previously contemplated when speaking about identity: they reiterated that “some aspects of online engagement are cause for concern” (p. 21) and it is more important than ever to help them develop strong literacy skills.
   Born Digital was praised by Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig who called it a “beautifully written book…(that) is required reading for parents, educators, and anyone who cares about the future.” He is the author of Code and Free Culture. Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor from Harvard, recommended the book when he stated, “From now on, any attempt to understand what it is like to grow up or to live one's life in a digital world must begin with this outstanding, original synthesis.” Gardner is the author of Five Minds for the Future and Multiple Intelligences.
   I highly recommend this book for parents and teachers, and would assign it a 4.5 on a 5 point scale. This book warrants such a high score because it raises awareness of parents and educators about current significant topics and issues. It has such a timely focus, as it speaks to the vulnerability and opportunity of Digital Natives.


Palfrey, J. and Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5).

Additional Resources:

1 comment:

  1. Recently, I learned of the work done by Marc Prensky and was very enlightened studying the concepts of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. With current educational systems designed for linear thought processes consistent with cognitive structures of the past, as an educator I am eager to learn how to best teach my “native” students with my “immigrant” dialect. Your review was quite insightful. I particularly was drawn to the concept that, regardless of changing times and evolving technology, basic truths still hold true; “engaged parenting, a good education, and common sense” are constants in a world that changes faster than a published book can keep up with! Great review! I look forward to learning more by reading this book!