A whole generation of children has grown up connected to the Internet. Berkman Center for Internet & Society director John Palfry calls these kids “digital natives.” Palfrey argues in his book Born Digital that they see the world in a profoundly different way than the rest of us.
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BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Whether by cell phone, desktop or laptop there’s a whole generation of children that has grown up connected to the Internet. An 18-year-old today was in diapers when the World Wide Web became a facet of everyday life. John Palfrey, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, calls these kids “digital natives” and argues that they see the world very differently than the rest of us, those unfortunate digital immigrants. John joins me now. Hey, man, welcome to the show.
JOHN PALFREY: Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so I spend my entire life online and my daughters spend their entire lives online. What’s the difference?
JOHN PALFREY: Young people don't distinguish, by and large, between the online and offline lives. They see life as converged in these two environments, where many of us see the world as divided between the online and the offline. I think this turns out to be a profound difference.
BOB GARFIELD: I mean, those of us in my generation – I'm about a thousand years old – guard our privacy jealously and take care of how we parcel out information about ourselves. The digital natives seem much less scrupulous, I mean, judging from what I see on Facebook pages alone.
JOHN PALFREY: My coauthor Urs Gasser and I, and we've been writing this book Born Digital, thought about writing a myth-busting book to reinforce those things that were true and to break down those that were not. It turns out that privacy has a little bit of both. So it’s quite right that some people do certainly share too much information about themselves online. They're going to have tattoos in the digital space that they want to get rid of a few decades from now. But for many kids, particularly the most sophisticated ones, they're figuring out how do you control that information better than many of us adults are.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s been a lot of talk about how prospective employers look at a MySpace page and see photographs of a very unfortunate party event and disqualify a candidate, you know, based on something he or she did maybe years earlier. Others suggest that in not too long a time the employers are going to [LAUGHS] be digital natives themselves and be a lot more lenient about what tattoos may still show up.
JOHN PALFREY: On the one hand, it’s absolutely the case that sometimes young people are putting up pictures of themselves scantily clad at a party on a social network; that means they have a less good chance of getting certain jobs. On the other hand, I think we are absolutely going to see a world in which many more of us have much more information about us available on the Web, and so what counts as a disqualifying factor in a job interview may no longer be the same bar.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about property rights. It seems to be one of the defining differences between digital natives and digital immigrants. I think what the file-sharing services for music and even movies shows is that some people believe that if it’s available, it’s there for the taking. So what has to change, the mechanisms for protecting intellectual property or the world view of an entire generation who thinks that all content wants to be free?
JOHN PALFREY: It turns out that in our research the vast majority of young people do, in fact, get their music for free and often don't pay for it, using a peer-to-peer service like LimeWire and so forth. It is no surprise that Tower Records has liquidated its stores. I think there are three ways that the situation can get resolved. The minds could change of this generation. The business model could change. I think iTunes was a major breakthrough in this regard. It has become the number one music retailer in the United States. I think the third option is you actually change the law. You find a different way to encourage people to pay for it, for instance, through their ISP bills or through their college tuitions.
BOB GARFIELD: Another big difference between me and my kids is what constitutes entertainment. I kind of like long form, and even when I'm looking at entertainment online it tends to be the long form variety. My kids can, you know, spend hours and hours scrolling through YouTube videos. What does that mean for Hollywood and for the broadcast networks and others who have been distributing highly produced long form entertainment on the assumption that there will always be a market for it?
JOHN PALFREY: I don't think we've seen a major decline in young people spending time for a few hours looking at a movie, nor have we seen a major decline in young people spending a few hours doing gaming, for instance. So I actually don't think it’s a huge attention deficit. It’s more a format preference that they've been developing. It’s harder to download an entire movie on the Internet. That’s getting less so with the advances of broadband. So I think it’s entirely possible for Hollywood and others to adjust the format in which they're delivering the material. It may well be, as you suggest, that very large capital-intensive investments in large-format things will be harder to recoup.
BOB GARFIELD: I've heard linguists discuss whether different languages, western languages compared to, say, Mandarin or Japanese or Korean, involve actually processing the world [LAUGHS] in a fundamentally different way, because pictographs require one way to interpret language and Latin letters another. Is it possible that digital natives are actually processing reality in a fundamentally different way than we immigrants?
JOHN PALFREY: Absolutely, digital natives, those who were born after 1980, process information very differently than those who were not. And so, I think that we are seeing a very long-term trend here in terms of how young people relate to one another, to institutions and to information that is fundamentally different than what came before.
BOB GARFIELD: John, thank you so much for joining us.
JOHN PALFREY: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: John Palfrey is director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and coauthor of the book Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.