Born Digital

Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013
5-7 pm


How is the generation born in the digital age different from its analog ancestors?  Are those who are born digital likely to have different notions of privacy, community, identity itself? How do educators approach this generation to help prepare them for scholarship and for citizenship? Speakers: John Palfrey, Head of School at Phillips Academy and author of Born Digital; and Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, an initiative the Media Lab and CMS/W. 


Video | Podcast



[this is an edited summary, and not a verbatim transcript]

By Jason Martin Lipshin, CMS '14

Ethan Zuckerman introduced his friend John Palfrey by joking that his restless, remarkable career – as a practicing lawyer, then professor at the Harvard Law School, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, co-founder of the Digital Public Library of America, and now Head of School at Phillips Academy – seemed to belong not to a typical lawyer but to “a frustrated librarian in a lawyer’s body.”

Palfrey began by acknowledging the controversial label of the “digital native” and his reasons for retaining some dimensions of this concept in his book Born Digital. For Palfrey, one of the book’s purposes was to combat the idea that kids born after 1980 all displayed a natural fluency with computers. Such assumptions, he said, ignore significant participation gaps across lines of race, class, and gender.

Palfrey then jumped into the topic of youth and online identity. Citing research done at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society which monitored kids’ use of Second Life and other virtual worlds, Palfrey argued that youth frequently use the internet as a site of identity creation and identity play. But Palfrey also admitted many “downsides” to youth experimentation with online identity in both virtual worlds and social media. For instance, while students before the Internet might have viewed transferring to a new school or city as an opportunity to reinvent themselves, Palfrey noted that, with the proliferation of Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds, many students don’t have this luxury. He acknowledged that the persistence of such online identity traces could have chilling ramifications on a child’s opportunities later in life. Likening the persistence of online traces to a tattoo, Palfrey worried that today’s youth might not have as much leeway to “make mistakes,” as embarrassing photos or comments could follow them to job interviews and other high stakes contexts. Palfrey next discussed how youth use the Internet to foster community. Palfrey’s work contests the assumption that the Internet is responsible for the breakdown of communities and that its mediation of human interaction comes at the expense of “real life,” face-to-face contact. While he acknowledged that this might be true in a few cases, Palfrey asserted that youth “can create richer and stronger communities with technology.”

Zuckerman discussed how early generations of new media theorists often discussed the way that the Internet would make everything different. There was a lot of cyber-utopian hope that everyone would engage in liberating gender play and that ad hoc, transnational communities would sprout up out of thin air. But from his experience, Zuckerman said “many things are staying the same.” Palfrey agreed that old patterns indeed do significantly affect the shape of youth online communities. But he also believed in the possibilities for fostering new communities, given significant effort and institutional support to help facilitate these connections.

Zuckerman then switched to discuss one of the popular media’s favorite myths regarding youth and the Internet: “stranger danger”. According to Zuckerman, “stranger danger” is the idea that youth will wander into online forums and become the victims of sexual predators. To Zuckerman, one of Palfrey’s great contributions in his work was to shift the discussion from how adults mistreat children in online spaces (which happens in strikingly low numbers) to how children verbally and emotionally mistreat each other (cyberbullying). Palfrey observed that while bullying persists offline as well as online, cyberbullying is unique in specific ways.

To illustrate, Palfrey recounted an experiment at Phillips Academy inspired by the popular blog, PostSecret. Started as part of a class, the experiment was a website that allowed students to anonymously upload postcards which divulged secrets about their lives. Palfrey noted that the postcards submitted ran the gamut from artistic to weird to sad and beautiful. Some were about loneliness; others reflected typical teenage affairs like breakups and crushes. But other cards were also incredibly dark, revealing incidents of self-harm and bullying among the student population.

As the situation escalated, Palfrey realized that he had at least two decisions, each relating to a broader philosophy of Internet ethics. He could take the cyber-libertarian view, do nothing, and “let the kids keep posting.” Or he could take the authoritarian view and shut the entire site down, ensuring that no problematic and hurtful material would end up on the web. Ultimately Palfrey decided that a middle route, in which he discussed the ramifications of the offensive cards with the students, was the most diplomatic option. In this context, the solution seemed to work and for Palfrey it underlined the careful balance between youth autonomy and adult intervention required when youth interact online.

Zuckerman and Palfrey concluded with a discussion of how Internet technologies were affecting patterns of civic engagement among the young. For Zuckerman, a good portion of this discussion had to do with the topic of agency. While many Americans have trouble comprehending how their individual actions can impact large-scale problems, Zuckerman contended that people in their teens and 20s have been tremendously successful in using the Internet to foster civic engagement. Whether Kony 2012, the Harry Potter Alliance, or crowdfunding initiatives like Kiva, Donors Choose, and Kickstarter, Zuckerman says that these projects all run on the spirit of “I want to see my impact on the world.” Palfrey agreed, saying that especially with regard to topics like gay rights, prison reform, and the environment, young people have used the Internet to educate themselves and others in order to make a difference.

Q + A

Sands Fish from MIT Libraries asked, “What do you think of unplugging as a form of control with kids?”

Zuckerman said that he was still trying to negotiate what relationship he wanted his son to have with technology. While he is not fond of the prohibitive, “don’t touch the tech” model, he does believe in the power of modeling good behavior. With his wife, Zuckerman tries to unplug often and go outside with their son multiple times a day. By doing so, they hope to help facilitate a balanced and healthy relationship with technology.

Palfrey agreed that arbitrary constraints were undesirable, since this approach doesn’t allow kids to develop moral reasoning skills on their own. Palfrey also emphasized the importance of unplugging: whenever his kids have friends over to their home, Palfrey says they have at least 90 minutes of free time away from computers and mobile phones.

A representative from WGBH stated that they’ve produced a lot of digital content for younger kids, but were wondering about changing classroom structures. With all this talk about flipped classrooms and hybrid models, what do you think will happen?

Palfrey admitted that at the K-12 level, the most interesting experiments in online education are happening in public schools and less rarefied environments. In many cases, he noted, the wealthiest schools are less likely to innovate because they’ve been set in their ways for so many years. While expressing enthusiasm for projects like Khan Academy and edX, Palfrey believes that the answer is to bring together the best of the in-person Socratic model and innovations in online education. He also thinks that in addition to doing more flipped classes, there needs to be more emphasis on project-based work and creative learning.

Zuckerman said that educators should look out for new hybrid practices which “emerge naturally.” He brought up the example of a class he taught in which many students used their laptops to fact check his statements during a lecture, effectively “treating my words as hyperlinks.” Zuckerman concluded that this fact-checking was a new model of pedagogy in which the Internet helped to facilitate new kinds of knowledge exchange in the brick-and-mortar classroom. New paradigms will emerge, he said, when people are even more heavily wired.

Sasha Costanza-Chock, Assistant Professor of Civic Media, asked how we can incorporate the insights of youth activists into mainstream digital pedagogy. While many working in the technology and education sectors believe that youth activists are marginal cases, Sasha believes that the young could learn a great deal from the innovative uses of technology by social movement actors.

Palfrey agreed that students potentially have much to learn from youth activists’ engagement with technology. While he conceded that there were structural barriers that made it difficult for this education to go totally mainstream, “small groups of people are often the ones who change the course of history.” Palfrey also pointed out the problem that youth activists often aren’t seen as “normal” kids by parents and everyday educators. When trying to consider how to integrate technology into initiatives for youth civic engagement, parents often see youth activists on panels and say “those kids aren’t my kids,” perhaps prematurely dismissing their contributions.