NFAIS 2009: Keynote: Born Digital

John Palfrey, co-author to Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, was our keynote speaker.

First, what a great talk! I know that this book is on a lot of our wishlists or bookshelves, but nothing gets me more excited about a book than hearing the author speak. John started by telling us that the book studies and unpacks the myths about the digital natives

He started out by giving us some of the details of the study:

  • a wrong perception that most people seem to have is that all young people use technology the same way – and adults don’t use it at all
    • there are of course a group of people who do use these tools the same way – but that doesn’t mean that everyone does.
  • He/the study defines digital natives are : Born after 1980 – have access to technologies (so this does not include young people in poorer countries) – have the skills and know how to use these technologies in enhanced ways

He then explained the Digital Landscape for us by asking what does it mean to have this constant connectivity – a phone, PDA, laptop – something always on us.  He talked about how digital natives have merged their real identity with their digital identity – there is just one identity – it’s a sense that it’s just as important what you put online as what you put on to wear in the morning – they live in a converged environment.  According to the guidelines for this study – I’m not a Digital Native – but I do see my digital identity this way.  For me, I work in a virtual office and so I only have my digital identity to go on in my professional life – until someone invites me to speak to their group in person.

Next, multi-tasking – “it’s not a distraction it’s interaction”.  John spoke of his students in a class at Harvard Law School – everyone is looking into their laptop – it’s hard as a professor to see everyone paying attention to their laptop instead of the professor.  The discomfort aside, according to some studies this is not actually good for education.  That said, some multi-tasking is task-switching – which is two tasks at once switching back and forth rapidly – which is actually good for productivity and education.

He also found that young people have a presumption that everything they deal with will come in digital format.  He told the story of his 3 year old asking where you see the picture on a digital camera – something he and his wife bought on a trip because they forgot their digital camera.  To further this point, YouTube is the number 2 search engine in the world – behind Google

John continues that that’s just part of the story – in addition to presuming it’s digital, they presume that it’s social – they’re not just blogging for themselves – they’re not taking pictures for themselves, but to upload them to Flickr or Facebook to share with everyone. He gave a great example of this from his organization.  They asked on the web for a logo and got over 170 entries without offering a prize – people just wanted to participate.

In addition to being users of digital technologies, digital natives are very often the entrepreneurs and creators of these technologies – Facebook for example.  Because of this, there is a very rapid feedback loop between the developers, the consumers and the business people (see the most recent Facebook policy change suggestion – and then withdrawal).

The last issue he addressed regarding the landscape was that people are very good at working collaboratively – across geographic and virtual boundaries (working with Google Office etc) and we under-leverage this as teachers.

Addressing Perceived Threats

  • Security
    • stranger danger, bullying, hacking (bullying is probably the biggest threat)
  • Privacy
    • young people share too much about themselves online – this is not a myth
    • they have a sense of security that is probably false
  • Intellectual property
    • young people don’t pay for their music – not a myth he can bust – it is the case for 9 out of 10 people they asked
    • they know that it is illegal, but that it’s still okay to do – they’re sticking it to the man
    • rights to remix/reuse – not surprisingly they had no idea what the laws were on this issue
    • copyright 200 years ago was the domain of publishers – now it’s relevant to everybody
    • He showed us The Ballad of Zach McCune
  • Credibility of information
    • misinformation, cheating, hidden influences
    • the threat of Wikipedia
    • when asked where they went for information – it was always “I would go to Google, look at the top 10 results and find the Wikipedia article and go to it”
    • there were some kids who thought that it was crap – that their classmates were there before them and changed the page to screw them up
    • kids don’t read the newspaper – or watch the news – we know that they get information from lots of different sources – and are they able to sort through them and filter properly?

John ended with a positive outlook for each of the points above:

  • in the context of safety and security – kids are learning new media literacy skills
  • intellectual property issue – actually leads to creativity in kids-  they’re creating new things
  • kids are participating in a global knowledge creating  endeavor – a lot of cross culture learning
  • kids have access to more information than ever before

It’s hard to see how we go from here – the time of great disruption to where we have this amazing resource – but he thinks that young people can help us.  Check out to learn more or watch move videos related to the book on YouTube.

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