This Spring term, I’m putting out on the bookshelf outside the Head of School’s office copies of the following books for the Andover faculty. The idea is that the books can go and stay home, come back to the bookshelf, or end up as a gift to someone else. The Spring, 2016 list includes:
Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café.This book is not of the sort that I often include on this list — which tends to be focused on matters of education, child development, and digital media — but I read it over Spring break and hugely enjoyed it. Ms. Bakewell takes the reader on a jaunt through the lives of leading existentialists, beginning early in the 20th century and extending through the end of the life of Simone de Beauvoir, one of the main characters. There’s a fair amount of resonance with current cultural and political debates in the themes she takes up. Anyone who read the existentialists as a young person and was intrigued will enjoy coming back to them via this book. The story is a blend of the lives of the philosophers and the way in which the author (Bakewell) experienced their works. It’s a lot of fun.
Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Such a powerful, sad story. A précis can be found in this New York Times review. Those of us who work in academic settings that seek to bring together talented young people from everywhere (“youth from every quarter,” in our charter), the issues that this narrative raises are essential to consider. Actually, anyone who lives in America should read this book and consider the hard issues that this account of Mr. Peace’s life and death pose for us as a society.
Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure. Ms. Lahey takes aim at how many of us parent and educate today — and tells us that we need to let our students fail more often. This book is in line with many of the faculty meeting conversations we have at Andover, as we consider how we can support all our students in both their successes and their inevitable adolescent failures. As young people perceive they need to be “perfect” to get into their “dream schools” for college, the job of enabling them to fail safely and recover well is increasingly important. Though not entirely new as a message, readers will enjoy Lahey’s perspective as a middle-school teacher, someone on the front lines of this ongoing debate about how best to raise a generation.
Chang-Rae Lee, Native Speaker. I seek to include at least one work of fiction on each Head of School bookshelf list. This novel is a few decades old (1995); it still resonates in terms of the cultural issues it raises, and it holds up well as an enduring work of fiction worthy of study in its own right. Our English teachers at Andover often teach it. The characters are beautifully wrought. And the use of language (itself a theme in the book) is lovely.
Liz Murray, Breaking Night.This book is not new, either (2006) — and many will have seen the made-for-TV special about Ms. Murray’s life. The story is both challenging and uplifting. For those of us in boarding schools that have students from every socio-economic bracket, some of the lessons in this book are hugely important. There are many powerful messages in this first-person account of an extraordinary life, written by a young person early in her career. (Murray’s book is paired with the book about Robert Peace, above, in terms of the challenges faced by those who bridge cultural gaps in coming to elite educational institutions.) With a h/t to my colleague Heidi Jamieson at Andover for passing along a copy of the book last term.
Leonard Sax, The Collapse of Parenting. Dr. Sax is a practicing physician and author who writes based on his long experience seeing patients and advising families. His latest book, The Collapse of Parenting, quickly hit the best-seller list when it came out a few months ago. I admired his previous book about Girls on the Edge (including on a previous HOS bookshelf list). Some parents and educators will love his no-nonsense approach; others will consider it too confining. The book is easy to read and prompts important discussion. (I’ve paired it on this list with the Lahey book, above.)
As usual, I’m also putting out additional copies of books by recent speakers on campus. Two of these: danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (on a previous HOS bookshelf list) and Moustafa Bayoumi, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror, both well worth the read.
Links to a few recent lists: here (mostly on tech and sexuality), here (innovation), here (teaching, talent, and testing), here (fiction), and here (a mix, as this Spring’s is, too).
A few times per year, I have been sharing a “Head of School’s bookshelf” with community members at Phillips Academy. It comes this time in two parts: 1) six books that are among those I’ve read in the past few months and which I commend as “community reads” because of one or more connections to the work that we have underway at PA; and 2) a special list of readings about sexual education. I express my particular thanks to the members of the PA Sex Ed Working Group, who compiled the Part II listing below at my request. I hope you might go to your local independent bookstore or library to pick up a copy of ones that are of interest!
Part I: Adolescence, Education, Technology, and the Brain
danah boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale, 2014)
Note: This book has been years in the making, by a close friend and collaborator of mine — and the work has paid off handsomely. danah’s perhaps the single most astute scholarly observer of the teenage social and cultural scene that I know. danah has especially thoughtful things to say about identity, privacy, safety, and social practices of teens. I’m a fan of this book for many reasons, not the least of which is that she takes up (and expands upon) many of the same themes and hard problems that my co-author and I examined in the book I wrote in 2008 (Born Digital, with Urs Gasser). Though her ethnographic methods are different than ours, the conclusions she reaches are consistent in most cases, and updated for the technology and practices of today. I learned an enormous amount from it and imagine others will, too; that’s especially true if you are interested in the social lives of the students in our midst. But you don’t have to have worked on these issues as a researcher to appreciate this book in many, many ways.
Dave Eggers, The Circle (Knopf, 2013)
Note: This book came to me initially as a gift, for which I’m grateful, from Tom Hodgson when it first came out (which is not meant as an appeal for gifts from the faculty, but to acknowledge its provenance and also to say that I take suggestions!). I always enjoy Dave Eggers’ writing. This fictional account describes a dystopia, in which the current trajectory toward extensive use of social media continues to an extreme that no one should welcome. The problem that the book presents is that this dystopia just might come to pass if we are not careful about the choices we make in how we develop, deploy, and regulate technology use.
Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and Imagination in a Digital World (Yale, 2013)
Note: I’ve observed, admired, and worked with both of these co-authors on a range of matters, through their work at Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education. In this book, they develop ideas that danah boyd also takes up in It’s Complicated, as well as many of those I’ve worked on in previous settings, too (identity, privacy, play, and how biology works into the mix). They add some nice insights about intimacy (chapter 5), as well as thoughts on how the app structure of today’s technology is playing out.
C.J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (University of California, 2011)
Note: C.J. is a leading scholar of youth practices, with a deep knowledge of development in the context of sexuality as well as media usage. This book, which came out several years ago, remains one of the most thoughtful current books about masculinity and the cultures in which our students are coming to grips with and developing their sexual identity. She’s an ethnographer, who writes based on eighteen months of fieldwork in a racially diverse, working class high school environment. C.J. is a great writer and researcher; her book sheds much new light on the intersectionality between gender, sexuality, race, and media. I also thought there were interesting echoes in particular of our PA colleague Tony Rotundo’s “American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era” (Basic Books, 1993).
Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (Atria, 2011)
Note: This book has been recommended to me by many people — including PA trustee Chien Lee and medical director Amy Patel — and I was thrilled to read it. This title is a great way to get up to speed on the “well-being and balance” issue that is likely to be a component of our strategic plan. This book builds on the life’s work on Seligman, whose work on happiness he has updated here based on lots of new science and serious rethinking.
Daniel J. Siegel, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain (Tarcher, 2014)
Note: As the parent of a twelve-year-old, I started out reading this book because I saw that he defined the “teenage brain” as stretching from ages 12 to 24. I am taken by the value that neuroscience has to offer us as teachers in a residential school. Siegel’s insights about brain development, risk-taking, sexuality, and other central ideas are well-described and ultimately compelling.
Part II: The Sex Ed List
The Sex Education Working Group compiled the following list, including additional resources to guide in further exploration of teenage sex and sexuality.
Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders (Broadway Books, 2003)
Note: To help students understand the experience of wrestling with gender as well as the importance of talking to and listening to the people you love. Boylan has served as an English professor at Colby College for the past twenty-five years.
Heather Corinna, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College (Da Capo Press, 2007)
Note: This may be a bit more “technical” and less theoretical but it is likely to resonate with students.
Robie Harris, It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health (Candlewick Press, 2009)
Note: This book avoids needless density and jargon, and is straight to the point with a light narrative touch, and vivid, but not gratuitous illustrations of the wide range of human bodies, their sexual capacities, and how to use those capacities safely, wisely, and with fulfillment.
Link to PDF of excerpts from the book:
Nikol Hasler, Sex: A Book for Teens: An Uncensored Guide to Your Body, Sex and Safety (Zest Books, 2010)
Note: Like It’s Perfectly Normal (above), this text may be a bit more “technical” and less theoretical, but is likely to resonate with students.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Random House, 2009)
Note: To help students not only understand gender dynamics but also the sexual health and reproductive challenges (violence, sex trade, use of rape for war and intimidation, lack of access to birth control, dating stigma, pregnancy mortality and morbidity) of adolescents and young women in developing countries. Perhaps exposing our students to the sexual health dynamics and challenges of their global peers not only increases their awareness and empathy but also empowers students’ self efficacy and personal responsibility around sex and sexual health.
C.J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (University of California Press, 2007, 2012)
Note: (A repeat on both lists, described here by the sex-ed team): This is a bold ethnographic study of the performance of masculinity at a public high school. The author’s observations are vivid. She does a good job explaining how “fag” is a word that polices masculinity — it is a gendered and racialized term that now has a larger meaning than simply “gay.” It’s a good book, and it does concern sexuality, but it’s not precisely about sexuality either.
Debbie Roffman, Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go To” Person About Sex (Da Capo Press, 2012)
Note: It is geared towards the parent audience, and perhaps the House Counselor audience. The author works with the independent school population, is a long-time sex educator, and has some real-world scenarios in the book that might assist in house counseling. It is unlikely to be engaging for a student.
Dan Savage and Terry Miller, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living (Penguin, 2011)
Note: In terms of LGBT, the It Gets Better Project which began on YouTube in response to the youth suicides in 2010, sends messages to teens to help them believe that their lives will improve. This is a recently published book with the same title.
Ritch C. Savin-Williams, The New Gay Teenager (First Harvard University Press, 2006)
Note: Williams discusses how LGBT teens find the labels of previous generations static and stifling. They may not categorize themselves as their LGBT forebears did, and they may be less interested in labels, period. It’s an interesting read, but it’s also somewhat on the academic side and stats-driven (study of studies).
Out of the Blue: A CAMD Student Project (Phillips Academy, 2014)
Note: Among many other topics, this is a great resource for sexual identity/orientation.
In addition, the Sex Education Working Group compiled the following list of websites as helpful resources:
Note: The It’s Your Sex Life Guide is part of an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning public information campaign partnership between the Kaiser Family Foundation and MTV to support young people in making responsible decisions about their sexual health. The site focuses on preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and reducing unintended pregnancy.
Note: The Respect Yourself Campaign is a UK based partnership between Warwickshire County Council and Coventry University designed to engage with young people around issues of relationships and sex, especially the areas in which young people are lacking from contemporary school-based RSE (relationships and sex education). RespectYourself.org is place where young people can safely explore their emerging sexuality, without judgment and a place where they can ask questions and receive open and honest answers.
Note: Sexetc.org is a comprehensive sex ed resource by teens, for teens. This peer-to-peer communication site is monitored and run though Answer, the national sexuality education organization based at Rutgers University. The website provides information about relationships, sex, LGBTQ, biology, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, birth control, and abuse and violence.
Note: The American Psychological Association (APA) hosts a trustworthy website that addresses many topics in psychology. This site reviews articles as resources to guide or instruct work with students, parents, and faculty members. This website often includes recent and up to date sources of intervention as well as pertinent data.
Note: The above link hosted by The University of Texas at Austin represents a comprehensive set of resources addressing sexual assault, rejection, relationships, dating violence, sexual consent, and healthy sexuality.
Note: This website includes current statistics to stay on top of trends and includes data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. This gives access to all of the data available nationally, and you can sort it by a number of variables (geography, specific “risk” question, year, grade, race/ethnicity, etc).
One of the ideas that Urs Gasser and I had from the start of the Born Digital book project was to find a way to co-produce the ideas behind the book. The concept was to celebrate, in a graphic way, the creativity and ability of young people. We worked closely with dozens of student interns on literature reviews, background research, focus groups and interviews, drafting and editing of parts of the book, and so forth. We’ve been blessed by an extraordinary team of young collaborators.
One specific example of the co-production: a group of students have completed another version of our book, made exclusively by them with no editorial oversight from us, in the form of a series of videos. Each of these videos are based on a chapter of the traditional form of Born Digital. The upshot is that one can now “play” the book by watching a short video of each chapter. The videos are short, roughly 3 to 5 minutes long, and they’re all freely available online.
The purpose of this project is in part to push the boundaries of what a “book” is in the digital age. I love the traditional codex and all that’s followed on from the original idea. But I think also that there’s room for new designs for long-form arguments that make a series of complex, interrelated points and which require sustained attention to understand. I’m convinced that the traditional book will survive, but I think it’s also important that we experiment with new formats as well.
I know that Urs and I are hugely grateful to the many students — and fellows and collaborators throughout our research network, like danah boyd — who have contributed their smarts and their innovative ideas to our shared understanding of Youth and Media in a digital era.
We very much hope that you will try out the free, online video version of Born Digital! And special thanks and all credit to the student video creators and Sandra Cortesi and other terrific Berkman staff who organized the crew.
I’m trying to finish the edits on Born Digital, the book on related themes that Urs Gasser and I are writing. The sticky chapter for me at the moment is called “Activists.” It will probably end up as the next-to-last chapter. I think it’s crucially important as a topic. A few weeks ago, our wonderful-and/but-tough editor at Basic Books said the chapter had to be rewritten from scratch, starting with a blank, new page (she doesn’t like Microsoft Word much). As I’ve gone through the rewrite, I am working in inspiration from another of the DM&L books, Civic Life Online. As I’ve felt about the others, it’s a great contribution to our understanding of a critical topic. The entire collection of essays is worthy of a read; I point out just a few things that jumped out at me, but I don’t mean to imply that other segments aren’t helpful, too.
The opening essay, by editor W. Lance Bennett, sets the frame for the book. He looks at “Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age,” and compares two paradigms: one of young people as engaged and active in civic life, the other as disengaged and passive. He argues that we need to “bridge the paradigms” or else our youth, digitally inspired or not, will continue to get disconnected from formal civic life. He argues in favor of a better approach: show young people how, through their use of new technologies and otherwise, they can have an impact on the political process (p. 21). In the process, we ought to enable young people to “explore, experiment, and expand democracy.” Sounds quite right to me.
Kathryn Montgomery traces a growing youth civic culture in the second chapter. Her emphasis is on the 2004 get out the vote (GOTV) efforts. She challenges the movement toward the insertion of corporations and their brands into the Rock the Vote process and other online communities. This strand of argument brought to mind the core themes of Montgomery’s recent book, also by MIT Press, called “Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet,” in which she builds out further on the issues of corporate branding in the online space and marketing geared toward children. To build on the growing youth civic culture, Montgomery calls for “a broader, more comprehensive, multidisciplinary effort, combining the contributions of communications researchers, political scientists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, economists and young people themselves.” This too sounds right, though I was amused to see us lawyers left out of the mix of who might be useful — especially when the “key policy battles” that she refers to earlier in the chapter include intellectual property, net neutrality, and online safety, which seem to me issues on which lawyers might have something to say. (Perhaps we are indeed more trouble than we’re worth.) Lots of mentions here, too, of the work of danah boyd and Henry Jenkins to keep bad things from happening in the Congress.
In “Not Your Father’s Internet: The Generation Gap in Online Politics,” Michael Xenos and Kirsten Foot take up the fascinating question (to me, anyway) of how young people are getting their news and information about politics. They argue, as many others do, that young people do so in ways that are generally quite different from the ways that older people do. Young people, they find, are more likely to access news and information about politics either online (and in social contexts) or through comedy programs rather than through print newspapers and evening newscasts — which seems true enough. “Clearly coproductive interactivity is foundational to the way that young people, more than any other age group, engage with the Internet,” they claim. (p. 57) They do a nice job also of linking their theories back to the actual uses of the Internet by campaigns and pointing, in the process, to the kinds of interactivity that work for campaigns to engage young people by building a sense of efficacy and trust. (p. 62) They call, in the end, for a balanced approach between “transactional and coproductive web practices.” (p. 65)
Howard Rheingold has a typically (for him) colorful and engaging piece on the bridging of media production and civic engagement. It’s great to have his voice directly in the set of essays, especially since many others throughout the MacArthur series cite or quote him, especially for his work on Smart Mobs. Rheingold, not surprisingly, has the money line of the whole book, perhaps the series: “Talking about public opinion making is a richer experience if you’ve tried to do it.” (p. 102). He then sends the reader through a tour of exercises and points us to a wiki where we can play ourselves. Many of us talk about Media Literacy. Rheingold (like Henry Jenkins and others) is doing something about it. Right on.
Much in the same spirit, I loved the opening line — as well as what follows — in Peter Levine’s essay: “Students should have opportunities to create digital media in schools.” (p. 119) I get teased for this, but I believe it’s true not just for younger students but for law students, too. Levine’s four strategies are convincing. Marina Bers, our neighbor at Tufts, expands on this point. She uses a lively set of examples (including pulling the reader briefly into virtual worlds). Just as helpful, Bers sets the challenge of developing an effective civics curricula into a helpful theoretical framework. Kate Raynes-Goldie and Luke Walker take a deep dive into one of the most promising projects in this space, TakingITGlobal. They also set TIG in context of related sites.
Stephen Coleman, a British scholar and one of the giants of this literature, concludes the book with a short essay that puts the entire work in context for governments themselves. Coleman points to six things (pp. 202 – 3) that governments can do “to promote democratic youth e-citizenship” plus four “policy principles” (p. 204). Coleman links his themes back to arguments by Rheingold, Bers, and Levine in the process, bringing things full-circle.
I put down this volume hopeful again about what we can do to engage young people in civic life. It’s clear, from the work of these scholars, that we’ll have to expand our thinking about what we mean by “civic life” if we mean to engage these young people. It’s clear, too, that experiential learning — learning that is rewarding and fulfilling and encourages them to come back to these activities — is an essential part of what we have to do next, whether that’s something that we structure in the classroom or that we just encourage and promote when young people just do it themselves.
I have been working my way through the six books over the past several weeks as I’m simultaneously working on late drafts of the book that Urs Gasser and I are writing on a similar topic, called Born Digital (forthcoming, Basic Books, 2008).
I’d highly recommend to anyone remotely interested in the topic to read these books. They are academic in style, structure and language, but remarkably accessible in my view. I’m not a social scientist, nor an expert in most of the fields that are represented by the authors (in fact, I’m not sure if there are any lawyers at all in the list of authors!), but the editors and authors have done a lovely job of making their fields relevant broadly.
For starters, the series Foreword, by the group of “series advisors,” is wonderful. I can’t imagine how six people came to agree on such a clear text, but somehow they did. There must have been a lead author who held onto the pen; it’s far too coherent to have been written by committee. (The advisors are: Mizuko Ito, Cathy Davidson, Henry Jenkins, Carol Lee, Michael Eisenberg, and Joanne Weiss. One imagines that the voice of the program officer at the MacArthur Foundation who made it all possible, Connie Yowell, is in there somewhere too.)
The Foreword is worth reading in full, but a few key lines: “Unlike the early years in the development of computers and computer-based media, digital media are now commonplace and pervasive, having been taken up by a wide range of individuals and institutions in all walks of life. Digital Media have escaped the boundaries of professional and formal practice, and the academic, governmental, and industry homes that initially fostered their development.” Those are simple statements, clear and right on. One of the reasons to pay attention to this topic right now is the pervasiveness, the commonplace-ness of the use of these new media, especially by many young people.
Also, their working hypothesis: “those immersed in new digital tools and networks are engaged in an unprecedented exploration of language, games, social interaction, problem solving, and self-directed activity that leads to diverse forms of learning. These diverse forms of learning are reflected in expressions of identity, how individuals express independence and creativity, and in their ability to learn, exercise judgment, and think systematically.” The work of the series authors, I think, bears out this hypothesis quite convincingly.
At the same time, the series advisors make plain that they are not “uncritical of youth practices” and note that they do not claim “that digital media necessarily hold the key to empowerment.” It is this spirit of healthy skepticism that one can hear through most of the essays in the series — and which is essential to the academic enterprise they’ve undertaken.
In the ID book, I found particularly helpful the first piece on “Introducing Identity” by David Buckingham, which took on the hard definitional and discipline-related questions of identity in this context. He put a huge amount of scholarship into context, with sharp critiques along the way. The essay by our colleague danah boyd (on “Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites,” a variant of which is online) is already a key document in our understanding of identity and the shifts in conceptions of public and private (“privacy in public,” and the idea of the networked public — related to but not the same as Yochai Benkler’s similar notions of networked publics). And the notion of “Identity Production as Bricolage” — introduced in “Imaging, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities” by Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell — is evocative and helpful, I thought. The many warnings about not “exociticizing” (danah often using the word “fetishizing”) the norms and habits of young people and their use of technology, as well as echoes of Henry Jenkins’ work on convergence and his and Eszter Hargittai’s study of the participation gap came through load and clear, too. (I am pretty sure I can hear dislike of the term “digital natives” in between certain lines, as well.)
There’s much more to like in the book, and much more to work into our own understanding of ID in this environment, than I can post here. There’s an equal amount of insight in the Games book too. (The class I am co-teaching with David Hornik starts in 31 minutes and I should probably prepare a bit more than I have already.)
We have the great pleasure today at the Berkman Center of hearing from Eszter Hargittai, a prof at Northwestern, on her large-scale research project on how 18 / 19-year-olds use digital technologies. She’s also worked on problems related to what she calls the “second-level digital divide” over the past decade or so. She surveyed over 1000 students at the UIC, one of the most diverse research universities.
A set of important take-aways: she’s found a correlation between gender and the likelihood of creating and sharing digital content (women were less likely to share content online that they’ve created than men). But it turns out that skill level is actually the relevant factor, not gender: if you correct for skill-level, the gender difference goes away. She is also trying to figure out what these gaps mean in terms of opportunities for life chances.
Her research hones in on the fact that what matters are skill differences, not just technology access differences, when it comes to digital inequality. We need to provide training and education for kids in addition to access to the network. These findings — good news for her — are consistent with Eszter’s extensive body of work to date. And she’s plainly right. (This is much of what Urs Gasser and I are arguing in our book, Born Digital; we have to figure out how to say it half as elegantly as Eszter does.)
Eszter has an article coming out very soon, in a volume co-edited by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison, which makes a related set of claims. Her data inform the question of who uses social-networking sites (SNS). Women, she finds, are more likely to use SNSes than men (other than in the context of Xanga, where the numbers are reversed). People of with parents with lower academic backgrounds (which apparently correlates to lower social-economic status, (SES), backgrounds) are more likely to be MySpace users, and those with parents with higher educational backgrounds are more likely to use Facebook. (These data lead to conclusions much like what danah boyd claimed recently, and which kicked up a bit of a storm. See the 297 comments on danah’s blog.)
For the past few years, Urs Gasser and I have been working on a book project together about a phenomenon that we have become obsessed with: how some young people, including our kids, use technologies in ways that are different that what we’ve seen before. The book is called Born Digital (Amazon seems not yet to know of Urs’ involvement; we’ll have to tell them). It’ll be out sometime in 2008, published by the good people at Basic Books.
Our goals, among other things, in writing this book are to address and take seriously the concerns of parents and teachers and others perplexed by what’s going on; to highlight the wonderful things that some Digital Natives are up to; to make a series of policy arguments about what we ought to do about this phenomenon; and to set this issue in a global context — as part of the bigger story of globalization.
Two things prompt this blog-post: 1) to answer a persistent question we’ve been hearing from our friends and collaborators; and 2) to engage the assistance of anyone who wants to participate.
As with many overly-ambitious research projects, you start in one place and — you hope, I suppose — end up someplace a bit different that where you expected to get. That’s surely the case for us on this project.
So, first off, the issue. It’s a definitional issue, always an important starting point in a research project. We began this project interested in a distinction that others thought up and have pursued in various way: the difference between “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants.” (There’s an interesting short history, which we track, of the etymology of these terms, a subject for another day.)
We wanted to hone in on what it means to be a Digital Native and what the practices and lives of Digital Natives tell us about our society and about our future. One of the primary struggles we’ve faced is that these two terms alone — Digital Native and Digital Immigrant — are unsatisfactory on their own. They give rise to discomfort on several levels.
One, we’ve heard a few times that the term “Digital Native” carries with it connotations that are not all good, that it’s un-PC. That concern is worth acknowledging and talking through with anyone concerned about it, but given that we think it’s a wonderful thing in most ways to be a Digital Native (or, indeed, native to many other environments, like Boston, my hometown — “I am a Boston native” and am proud of it), I think that’s not a crisis.
The deeper discomfort comes from what is a little math problem:
– Not all people born during a certain period of history (say, after the advent of BBSes) are Digital Natives. Not everyone born today lives a life that is digital in every, or indeed any, way. For starters, only about 1 billion of the 6.7 billion people in the world have regular access to the supposedly “World Wide Web.” In other cases, young people we are meeting choose to have little to do with digital life.
– Not all of the people who have the character traits of Digital Natives are young. The term “Digital Immigrant” doesn’t describe those people either — people like Urs and me, like our colleagues at the Berkman Center who are over a certain age — who live digital lives in as many ways, if not more, than many Digital Natives. Many of us have been here as the whole digital age has come about, and many of our colleagues have participated in making it happen in lots and lots of crucial ways.
We’ve been struggling hard with this problem. One of the benefits of “still writing” this book (we have a full draft, but are far from ready to go to print) and being in the throes of interviews and focus groups is that we are still working on getting it right.
We started out asking whether there is a straight “generational gap” between those Born Digital and those who were not. The point of our research, in the first instance, is to take up these terms Digital Native and Digital Immigrant, and work them over. What I think we’ve found is that age is relevant, but not dispositive. What I think we are describing in our book is a set of traits — having to do with how people interact with information, with one another, and with institutions — that are more likely to be found in those Born Digital, but not certainly so. Many people Born Digital have some but not all of these traits. Many people who were not Born Digital — you (who read this blogpost) and me and Urs and perhaps most Berkmaniacs, to be sure — have these traits and more, more even than most Digital Natives. That’s essential to the puzzle of the book. There is a generational gap, but it’s not purely a generational gap. It’s more complicated.
So, here is a typology which we think emerges from what we’ve learned:
1) those who are Born Digital and also Live Digital = the *Digital Natives* we focus on in this book (to complicate things further: there is a spectrum of what it means to live digitally, with a series of factors to help define where a Digital Native falls on it);
2) those who are Born Digital (i.e., at a moment in history, today) and are *not* Living Digital (and are hence not Digital Natives);
3) those who are not Born Digital but Live Digital = us (for whom we do not have a satisfactory term; perhaps we need one — our colleague David Weinberger suggests “Digital Settlers”);
4) those who are not Born Digital, don’t Live Digital in any substantial way, but are finding their way in a digital world = Digital Immigrants; and,
5) those who weren’t Born Digital and don’t have anything to do with the digital world, whether by choice, reasons of access or cash, and so forth.
There may be more categories, but these are the essential ones. Our book focuses on the first — those Born Digital and who Live Digital lives. Though it’s not the focus of this particular book, the third category is also deeply relevant to the narrative.
It may well be that there will prove to be a generational divide between those Born Digital and those not Born Digital. What we are focused on here, though, is the particular population — rather than the generation — of those who were both Born Digital and Live Digital, and what their lifestyles and habits and mores mean for the present and the future.
“While I groan whenever the buzzword ‘digital native’ is jockeyed about, I also know that there is salience to this term. It is not a term that demarcates a generation, but a state of experience. The term is referencing those who understand that the world is networked, that cultures exist beyond geographical coordinates, and that mediating technologies allow cultures to flourish in new ways. Digital natives are not invested in ‘life on the screen’ or ‘going virtual’ but on using technology as an artifact that allows them to negotiate culture. In other words, a ‘digital native’ understands that there is no such thing as ‘going online’ but rather, what is important is the way in which people move between geographically-organized interactions and network-organized interactions. To them, it’s all about the networks, even if those networks have coherent geographical boundaries.”
What we seek to describe in this book is an emerging global culture of people relating to information, one another, and institutions in ways that, taken together, has great promise for the future of democracies. Digital Natives — people born digital — give us reason for hope that this global culture could emerge. Some of their behaviors also give reason to worry, at the same time, about things like privacy, safety, information overload, and IP worries. We need to take these problems seriously and get in front of them, without ruining the environment that makes all the wonderful things possible.
In this book, we argue in favor of greater connectivity. That connectivity might be between parents or teachers or lawmakers who don’t live any part of their lives online and our kids who do. That connectivity might be between those in industry who are threatened by what these kids and others (us) are up to online and the culture that we represent. That connectivity might be between technology companies and their users, whose identities they seek otherwise to control. That connectivity might be between those of us in the rich world and those in less rich parts of the world, as GV makes possible. And so forth.
That leads to the request for help, or at least invitation to participate. Our goal is to carry out much of this research and writing in a public way. To that end, we’ve got a wiki at DigitalNative.org where anyone can come and contribute. Much of what we’re reading and learning shows up on this wiki. We’d love to plug our work into the work of others, and learn from what others are learning.
We are lucky to have an amazing team of people at the Berkman Center and the Research Center on Information Law at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland working with us on this research, too, including the focus groups and interviews we’re conducting. Our work is coming along much better than it otherwise would with the able guidance and critiques of this team at our backs. We are lucky, too, to be able to read the work of many social scientists, cultural anthropologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, teachers, and others — people like Mimi Ito and our colleagues at the Berkman Center, danah boyd, Corinna di Gennaro, Shenja van der Graaf, and Miriam Simun — who understand aspects (or the whole) of the phenomenon we take up here far better than we do. We’d love to have your help, too, in working through these problems online.