Thoughts on Born Digital #borndigital

cover of Born Digital
Born Digital

Born Digital: How Children Grow Up in a Digital Age

In 2008, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser wrote the first edition of Born Digital. It was one of several books to appear at the time that focused on the nature of “digital generations.” The timing of those books was reasonable as the generations who had never known life without digital tools and information had matured to the point where they could be reasonably studied, and the research had matured to the point where generalizations were clearly supported.

In the time since the first edition of this book, the genre has been less active, The Revised and Expanded edition of Born Digital: How Children Grow Up in a Digital Age revives the genre and demonstrates the transition to life in the digital world is incomplete. It should be added to the reading list of any teacher, school administrator, parent, or other individual who need a lens to understand young people’s use of digital tools and information.

Contents of the Book

The organization of the book is familiar and it is very effective for the purpose. Palfrey and Gasser list 10 trends that are affecting young people (and all others) who live a digital life:

  • Identities- The fact that our identities are becoming more public, thus more permanent, despite that fact one can try out new identities with relative anonymity online;
  • Dossiers- The existence of a large collection of digital documents linked to us, and the fact that no individual controls his or her digital dossier;
  • Protections- Of our privacy and our data;
  • Safety- From ourselves (e.g. sexting), from others (e.g. cyberbullying), and information (e.g. pornography, violence, and extreme views);
  • Creators- Which focuses on social media and the many other online spaces where communities form;
  • Navigators- An essential capacity in the landscape of effectively infinite information;
  • Aggressors- A characteristic that is troubling, especially in light of the continued terrorist activity;
  • Learners- Which recognizes the strong and active effects of digital information on schooling;
  • Activists- Which describes young people’s continued concern about social, environmental, and political issues.

It is interesting to compare this list to the 2008 edition of the book. Previous chapters entitled “Overload” and “Quality” have converged into the current chapter “Navigators,” which demonstrates how issues and strategies converge in the digital world. It is also notable also that Palfrey and Gasser have illustrated these trends with examples and evidence that has emerged since the original version, which demonstrates these issues are both more deeply embedded in culture and continuously evolving.

The previous chapter on “Piracy” has been removed. It appears to gloom-and-doom predictions from the recording industry have not become reality. Based on the number of students’ computers I see which have clients for music streaming services installed, I assume digital generations have abandoned piracy as they have adopted other methods of accessing media that have emerged and been monetized by publishers. It is ironic, however, that I noticed “Piracy” was missing in the same week there was much fervor on social media over a speech, which contained several plagiarized sections.

As a reader, I hope for two outcomes when I reach the end of a book; I hope to have answers or questions. Palfrey and Gasser provide neither, but given the evolving nature of the topic, I am not sure it is reasonable to hope for either.

A valued colleague used to ask for “helicopter views.” She wanted a brief summary of the problems and issues relevant to a topic, so she could understand what she was observing and predict the problems she might encounter. This is what readers of this book will get. In effect, Palfey and Gasser give us a view of the landscape of digital media, and we more completely explain the patterns we observe and more accurately predict the challenges of living in the digital world as a result of their work.

What is Stable?

Palfrey and Gasser end both editions of this book with a chapter entitled “Synthesis,” which comprises an email conversation between the two. The conversation occurred after the book was completed and it demonstrates the dynamic nature of the issues, and the issues they believe are most pressing.

In this edition, the question, “What is stable?” is posed in “Synthesis.” This is an excellent question as there are differences in the contents of the 2008 and 2016 versions of the book, but there are also similarities. By reflecting on what is stable, we can come to clearer understanding of life in the digital world.

My answer is that “quantum and irreversible change” is a stable part of digital life. Consider “Piracy,” the removed chapter. In 2008, young people were making and sharing copies of files (especially music) in ways that violated copyrights. Their behavior changed, and it illustrates both the quantum and irreversible nature of the changes we see.

The pattern I have observed in students’ music listening habits explains why “Piracy” is no longer an issue (hence its absence from this book), and supports the prediction it will never return. For several years, I observed students listening to iPod’s and other .mp3 players. They managed large libraries of pirated files or they made significant investments in digital files. In this step, they had taken the quantum change of managing music as bytes of data rather than bits of physical media. They never returned to the habit of purchasing music as physical media, thus “record” stores have largely disappeared.

It is unusual to see students today managing libraries of media. Most have adopted music streaming services. They have a client installed on their computers and digital devices, and connect to a service that they pay for or that is supported with advertisements. These youngsters show very little interest in changing their music habits; streaming music services have permanently become their preferred method of consuming music, and it will dominate until it too is replaced. (It is interesting that they have returned to the pattern of music consumption familiar to my age peers and me—we listened to the radio and listened to the music a person selected for us. Digital youth listen to the music an algorithm selects for them.)


It is time to stop using the adjective “digital” to describe generations. All generations exist in a digital world, and adults (those of us who lived through adolescence before computers are on our desks and in our pockets) are as affected by digital tools and digital media as younger generations are.

While is may be no longer necessary to differentiate digital generations, this book illustrates the characteristics of youth and the realities of digital fie that they must negotiate are challenging and permanent. Reading this book will leave those of us who care about young people and the world we share with them better prepared to understand the nature of that world.