John Palfrey at Google in DC

A couple of weeks ago, I headed down into the city to attend another talk at Google. The guest this time was John Palfrey, Professor, Harvard Law School and Co-Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Like the event with Craig Newmark, it was run as an interview that was eventually opened to audience questions. Pablo Chavez, Senior Policy Counsel at Google, moderated and Palfrey brought a couple of students, Sarah Zhang and Diana Kimball.

The topic of the discussion was Palfrey’s new book, “Born Digital“. Palfrey described the purpose of the book, to identify and guide what he describes as digital natives. Also his research seeks to assess the impact on society of these digital natives. Like many books coming out recently that deal with the networked world, there is a companion site that includes a wiki. The site is meant to help foil the eventual obsolescence of the book, sharing newer developments, data and ideas.

Sarah and Diana participated in Palfrey’s research and were present for the talk as representatives of the group at the focus of this work.

For the talk, Palfrey focused on four myths about this generation and set about dispelling them. The first was whether they even are a generation. Palfrey considers those born after 1980 potentially part of the group, that time bringing the advent of social technologies, BBS’s being the first of these. He further qualified members as those who had access to these technologies and as a consequence of continual exposure have developed sophisticated skills for using them. This does brush up against some non-generational issues, namely that they are possibly exclusively on the privileged side of the digital divide.

Palfrey doesn’t really see the term, digital native, and its definition as problematic. He’s not qualifying it solely as “techies”. He thinks there is more of a spectrum, a continuum. So much so that apparently some of the book’s critics have complained it is too general. Paradoxically, others think it is too conservative. That right there pretty much supports that notion that those that fit the definition do so loosely, at any number of graduated points along one or more dimensions.

When asked how they self identified, Diana’s and Sarah’s answers reminded me of a particular metaphor of fish in the ocean. They are not aware of the water, the pressure, of being wet because to them, what else is there? Diana attributed the increased net savviness to the desire to want to understand everything. With such powerful tools, it is “obvious to use [the] internet first” to fuel that trope. It doesn’t mean digital natives are finding and using the best qualified sources and services, just that they are going online before seeking the answers anywhere else.

The second myth is that this omnipresence of technology has made them dumber. This echoes many other criticisms of netizens of all stripes. Palfrey’s answer also followed along similar lines to the response to this observation. Sure, digital natives may be less likely to read a book cover-to-cover but they are using new sources of information in new ways. Using old yardsticks will of necessity yield results that interpreted simplistically make them look like they are less intelligent. The two students present at the talk are currently attending Harvard, so were themselves also some pretty compelling counter examples.

The third myth centers around kids raised on the net as in some way being more at risk. We’ve all heard the stories about stranger danger and the forms it takes online. There are many anecdotes that are specific to these online spaces and do seem to describe new, unique dangers. Some of the risk is real, to be sure, and the Berkman Center is actually working on some materials to enhance online safety. However, objective data shows this generation is in no more danger than previous ones. The threats have simply been re-distributed, as these new spaces have opened up.

The last myth is that kids raised steeped in digital spaces are meaner. Bullying online certainly seems to be on the rise. Does this support the myth? Palfrey and his students were skeptical, Diana in particular dismissed it as the same behavior with which each generation has dealt just in new environs. In such public spaces, this activity is more easily observed by parents and teachers than when it is in the school yard or the playground. It also can have a persistence aspect, in the form of logs and other retained data that it doesn’t in traditional spaces.

Diana also felt that there was another, new dimension to online bullying that “being reactive [to this spectacle can] cause more harm than good”. She thinks it really is just part of normal socialization, as much as parents of any generation want to spare their kids the worst of it. Interference in offline spaces can be just as disruptive.

She was also skeptical that surveillance was a good answer. As a digital native, her advice to parents is to communicate openly. Talk to your kids about these spaces and the things that go on there as if they are normal, regular. Not overreacting, she felt, was the key to kids reacting with honesty and being willing to share their experiences.

Sarah bolstered this point, relating her experience dealing with parental controls. Her access was so locked down, she could not even access Google. Rather than keeping her entirely from risks, this simply encouraged her to circumvent these measures. She was aware of what was out there, despite her inability to get to it, so the controls were more of a frustration than effectively changing her behavior.

Palfrey’s research seems to be well substantiated, using data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, Danah Boyd’s work, and focus groups run by the project itself. He felt this gave the work a strong quantitative basis and even added some depth by conducting follow up conversations, around 150 of them, with parents and teachers.

Palfrey wrapped up by showing some videos produced by digital natives. These dealt with issues of youth rebellion, changing norms of use in the context of file sharing and piracy, and concerns over privacy and how the default seems to be unconsciously submitting information from before birth into a digital dossier. There is a YouTube channel for these videos and watching them really demonstrates how natural this medium is to digital natives, how facile remix comes to them. It was clear that for some, the experience of making the videos helped increase their awareness of issues all the same and stoked a desire to communicate their experiences and thoughts to help the prior generation, the digital immigrants, better empathize.

The audience questions largely dug more depth out of the myths and the videos Palfrey shared. I have worked my notes from those in where they help expand those points as I explained them above.

He concluded with a consideration of what impact digital natives will have on our future. In 10 or 15 years, no one coming into DC, into the world of public policy, will not have been exposed to online spaces and tools. He suggests at that point, we’ll see a tipping point with regards to the norms and attitudes towards them. This meshes with the final chapter of the book, on activism. The advanced guard appears to be smaller than he was expecting, but through these new technologies, they are doing more, with less.

I picked up a copy of Palfrey’s book while I was at the talk and will write or talk more about it once I have had a chance to read it. I was convinced from the talk that it had some good information for me as a parent of two of my own digital natives.

One Reply to “John Palfrey at Google in DC”

  1. > “two of my own digital natives”

    I’ve got two of my own as well (3 and 2) and I look forward to their future with excitement and trepidation. We’ve got no TV, but we have 4 or so internet-connected computers and the signs are already here. My oldest will be able to send an email before he can write a letter. Our kids will grow up with a new standard: paper is for entertainment, information is on the web.

    I think the gap has to be later than 1980. In my own childhood (I’m 27), owning a modem was unusual and cellphones were extreme luxuries. Facebook and myspace didn’t exist in any major way until I was already out of college. I don’t think it’s clear how different the worldview of children born in the last 10 years is going to be, we have very little reference for change as significant as the internet has created in that time.

    > “In 10 or 15 years, no one coming into DC, into the world of public policy, will not have been exposed to online spaces and tools. He suggests at that point, we’ll see a tipping point with regards to the norms and attitudes towards them.”

    It’ll be so much more than politics that’s flipped on its head, too. I say it’d be easy to make a strong argument that the “current financial crisis” has its roots in the same shifts in information flow (specifically speed and breadth) that it sounds like the speakers connect to the generational gap separating the digital natives from the immigrants. Watch the shifts as commerce, industry, agriculture, culture, and society in general come under control of the “natives”. It’ll be different, I know that much.

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