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Minds for the Future: Why Digital Immersion Matters

If we hope to head towards a bright future in the digital age, then,
it begins with preparing Digital Natives and other young kids to help lead the way

To be sure, the term “Digital Native” is misleading, because no two Digital Natives are created equal. Each of them has varying degrees of access to digital technologies, literacy skills, and participation within their peer culture. What’s more alarming is the “divide” opening up between those that have access to the network and those without. But that in itself isn’t the whole problem, because having access alone isn’t the solution. While access speaks of the stark contrast amongst the haves and have-nots, digital literacy reveals the difference in those who have the skills to navigate this new landscape and those that don’t.

Like many other crucial skills, digital literacy needs to be taught and learned through constant practice. Naturally, this doesn’t explain why some Digital Natives will get more out of their sessions than others do. But what about those who get much more practice? Its estimated by Professor Urs Gasser that for kids who turn fifteen in 2016 or so, “they are likely to spend somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 hours per year on digital technologies.” Going onto say that, “Five years later, at age twenty, they will have accumulated at least 10,000 hours as active users of the Internet, if the current statistics still apply.”

“For these Digital Natives it will only have taken them five years.”

This amount of time, in turn, is equivalent to what Malcolm Gladwell argued to be the magic number for true expertise in Outliers. Whether you take into consideration world-class violinists, concert pianists, chess grandmasters, star athletes, Bill Gates, the Beatles, and what have you, 10,000 hours appears again and again. “It seems,” neurologist Daniel Levitin writes, “that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.” Ten years, Gladwell says, is roughly how long it takes to put in 10,000 hours of hard practice. For these Digital Natives it will only have taken them five years.

Will every single one of these Digital Natives grow up to be top-notch experts? Of course not. “But in fact,” Gladwell writes, “they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways that others cannot.” For those who are given the chance to put in those hours and have the presence of mind to seize it, undoubtedly they will become masters of digital technologies. But mastering the “use” of digital technologies isn’t enough, because they must understand the “role” it plays in their lives too.

2. Creative Destruction

From the perspective of media scholar Henry Jenkins, “Educators must work together to ensure that every American young person has access to the skills and experiences needed to become a full participant, can articulate their understanding of how media shapes perceptions, and has been socialized into the emerging ethical standards that should shape their practices as media makers and participants in online communities.” So, as we can see, the digital dilemma is two-fold. On one hand, we must make smart choices and offer services that are more in step with the emerging social norms of Digital Natives.

On the other, we need to prepare Digital Natives and other young people to become active participants in these participatory cultures. Both are required if we hope to head toward a bright future in the digital age. These sorts of Digital Natives have the potential to remake the culture of business in which many industries will all be operating in the future. Instead of accepting the marketplace in which most commerce takes place today as “a pre-existing condition of the universe,” they may recognize the need to adjust the operating system to the needs of our society, where previous generations did the opposite.

“their creative destruction will begin to look more constructive than it does today.”

By means of creative destruction, a term coined by the late economist Joseph Schumpeter, who, “described capitalism as a process of incessantly destroying the old structure and creating a new one,” those born digital will transform businesses and cause disruption in the short term. “This disruption stems in part from their use of technology and their shifting relationship with information,” Law Professors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser explain. “Over time, though, their creative destruction will begin to look more constructive than it does today.” In due time, they will revitalize the industries that they challenge.

Such is the case with file-sharing. While it may destroy the value of record companies now, its entry into the market sparked the development of a whole new social ecology of music culture. One which, despite its many current faults, could be the force that brings sustained long-term economic growth to those who prevail. “This process is not new; this kind of creative destruction has repeated itself throughout history in the wake of disruptive technologies,” they continue. “What’s different here is that Digital Natives can cause this creative destruction on their own, without pausing to worry about the implications.”

As young entrepreneurs, if they have a big idea, they can implement it. Without the need to ask for permission, they can innovate and do so on their own terms. “And the revolution in information technologies is enabling them to carry out this destruction to occur at a shockingly rapid pace, in markets that span the globe,” they conclude. “Innovation,” William Patry further argues, “the root cause of creative destruction—is thus the way capitalism survives on its own inherent tendency toward monopolization and stagnation, even as innovation is regarded as an existential threat to those who benefit from the status quo.”

3. 10,000 Hours

What then will the Digital Natives who happen to be at the highest end of the participation gap make of this combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage that has been bestowed upon them? We don’t know. Will the story of those who succeed in the 21st century be about those, “who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society?” Only time will tell us. Still, there’s more to it then providing access to the technology, teaching digital literacy, and encouraging active participation.

“Equally as important as this task before us lies within us the ability…”

Cultivation of what Harvard Psychologist Howard Gardner calls the Five Minds for the Future is a must. These “minds” are what he describes as the disciplined, synthesizing, creating, respectful, and ethical. To which he says, “We should be concerned with how to nurture these minds in the younger generation, those who are being educated currently to become the leaders of tomorrow.” Equally as important as this task before us lies within us the ability to not let tomorrow turn into another day. Much time has already been wasted in trying to ensure that future looks exactly like the present, when in fact it is not.

“We acknowledge the factors of globalization—at least when they are called to our attention—but have not figured out how to prepare youngsters so that they can survive and thrive in a world different from one ever known or even imagined before,” Gardner writes. Why is that? Nassim Taleb contends in The Black Swan, “Our human race is affected by a chronic underestimation of the possibility of the future straying from the course initially envisioned.” People often disregard, he explains, that “to understand the future to the point of being able to predict it, you need to incorporate elements from this future itself.”

Moving forward, it’s critical that we not only focus on providing those with extraordinary talent, with extraordinary opportunities, but that we realize it’s within the best interest of all industries, all people, to help prepare those who are less fortunate. “The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents,” Gladwell enlightens. “It comes from our time: from the particular opportunities that our place in history presents us with.” Think about it. In 2021, at the age of twenty, these Digital Natives will have put in 10,000 hours on the Internet, not Facebook or Twitter, the Internet.


  • 1.2 John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Born Digital
  • 1.3 Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain On Music
  • 1.4 Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
  • 2.1 Henry Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture
  • 2.2 Douglas Rushkoff, Economics Is Not a Natural Science
  • 2.3 Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics
  • 2.5 William Patry, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars
  • 3.1 Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Additional Reading:

First posted on:

Born Digital Goes to College

This week, we got some pretty exciting news: turns out Kevin Guidry, a PhD student and teacher at Indiana University, is using Born Digital as a major text in his undergraduate class on Online Identity!

This is exciting for a couple of reasons. First, it’s always a rush to hear that people are actually reading a book you helped to coax along. (I presume it’s even more of a rush when you actually wrote the whole thing! Here’s looking at you, John and Urs.) Books, awkward physical objects that they are, do tend to take on a life of their own. Seeing Born Digital come to life in such an admirable, unpredictable environment is a delight and an honor.

Second, Kevin has already entered the new millenium of teaching and learning for which Born Digital so ardently advocates. Kevin linked us to the blog posts he’s writing on his teaching process in the half-semester course on “Online Identity,” and I spent solid minutes transfixed by his descriptions of the classroom, obstacles, student responses, and opportunities. Rather than provide dry lectures, Kevin structures his classes as a series of small-group conversations, all contributing to a whole. Though using the book’s principles to teach the book’s principles may seem recursive, I think it is a fiercely intelligent approach—and, soon, it may be a necessary one. Kevin’s iterative thought process rewards close reading.

Third, the Digital Natives team learned about Kevin’s class via an email he sent to John Palfrey. Out of the blue! Despite all of its shortcomings, the Internet has this one thing I will never stop loving: its ability to connect people and endeavors suddenly and without warning. Because Kevin took the time to write to John, the entire team behind the project now gets to see how Born Digital plays in the real world, observing its trajectory vicariously through Kevin’s classroom reports.

If you ever find yourself teaching Born Digital in a class, or reading it, or thinking further about the issues it addresses, we will always love to hear from you. In the comments, or by email: anytime. Serendipity, it turns out, almost always comes from out of the blue.

Thank you for the note, Kevin, and we look forward to more dispatches from the classroom of tomorrow!

Upcoming: PBS Teachers LIVE!: Teaching and Learning with Digital Natives Webinar with John Palfrey

This just in: DN’s own John Palfrey will be giving a “webinar” in the PBS Teachers LIVE! series on February 26 at 8 p.m.! Details from PBS Teachers and Classroom 2.0 below.

PBS Teachers and Classroom 2.0 is delighted to have John Palfrey, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, as our guest for “Teaching and Learning with Digital Natives”, the next webinar in the PBS Teachers LIVE! series to be held Feb. 26 at 8 p.m.

In this upcoming webinar, participants will learn about “digital natives”, whom Palfrey describes as a “select” population born after 1980 that processes and sees the world very differently than generations prior. The characteristics of these students demand a new paradigm for engaging learners. The discussion will also focus on how educators can become familiar with the technologies of digital natives and use these technologies to compliment their pedagogy.

How Do I Register?
Simply sign up at to become a PBS Teacher and you will receive a webinar invite the week of the event.

Digital First

When I first started investigating the Internet, I spent what felt like hours every day on Lifehacker and BoingBoing. I downloaded every new program; I signed up for every new service. I didn’t always know what to do with them, but I was so eager to experience novelty. Free novelty! The programs felt like toys.

Not everyone works this way. Not most adults, and not even most Digital Natives. One of the questions we frequently field at the Digital Natives project is “How technosavvy are these kids, really?” Well: some of them are, some of them aren’t. Some teenagers run their own servers, make a sizeable income selling iPhone applications, and have laptops littered with downloaded trial programs. Most, though, just tend to their collection of mp3s and instant message with friends. The Internet affords everyone the opportunity to be geeky. Even with such low barriers to entry, though, few choose to go there.

Here’s the thing: most Digital Natives don’t treat cruising the Internet as an activity in itself. It’s a tool you use when you want to do something else. What sets Digital Natives apart is their willingness to go to the Internet first—when they have a question, when they want to do something cool, when they want to find someone to hang out with. For them, the Internet is a first resort, rather than a last resort. This skews their behavior tremendously, and also skews adoption curves.

I’m lucky enough to have a few incredibly smart, digitally reluctant friends. They sometimes marvel at my love for computers and the Internet, but they also know that I’m always happy to answer any computer question, or offer about 5 different online tools to solve any problem. A little over a year ago, I introduced one of my friends to Etsy, the “online marketplace for handmade goods.” We admired a few necklaces, did some online window shopping together, and then closed our laptops.

I didn’t think about the incident again until recently, when that same friend announced that she was opening a jewelry store on Etsy. In a matter of days, she had put together her store, filled it with photographs of her jewelry, perused the Etsy forums to get a feel for the community, and purchased a domain name to redirect to her shop. Furthermore, she quickly figured out how to use all sorts of other online tools to promote her business and build an online identity to support it. The turnaround was insanely fast. In all our years of knowing each other, I’ve always been the one obsessed with the Internet. But all of a sudden, my friend’s the expert in a domain I barely understand.

I love that this happened, but what I love even more is that it could happen to anyone. It’s true that my friend has the blessing/curse of living around quite a few digital enthusiasts. But if she’d wanted to build an online jewelry shop and hadn’t known a single Internet-lover, the solution to her query would still have been only a search engine away.

Digital Natives don’t all want to be online experts. But they’ve grown up in a world where the tools to self-publish, self-promote, and self-entertain are free and abundant. The Internet is their go-to resource. As more Digital Natives start businesses and creative careers, those businesses and portfolios will be digital first, physical second. It’s the world they’ve grown up in; a world they’ll continue to build.

Links: Day in the Life, + New Review of Born Digital

Two quick links!

The first: a new video from Micah Spear, found via Julia Roy and American Shelf Life. The video is a stop-motion photographic tour through “a day in the life of a born digital human.” I love the style and the music, and I’m always fascinated to peek into representations of individual digital lives. It’s worth noting, though, that you don’t have to own an iPod Touch, a BlackBerry, and a fancy desktop computer to be a Digital Native. If we restricted our scholarship to such young people, we’d run out of Digital Natives very quickly!

Stop Motion Day In the Life of a Born Digital Human from Undercurrent on Vimeo.

The second link: a very thorough and thought-provoking review of Born Digital from today’s Washington Post. Having read the book in its formative stages, in my role as a book intern, it’s always interesting to see how outside readers think it turned out. I particularly appreciated that the reviewer, Amanda Henry, noted how easy it would have been for John Palfrey and Urs Gasser to take shelter in alarmist prose. I also liked this line:

While Palfrey and Gasser can leave you longing for grandiloquent generalizations, or at least a buzzword or two (“semiotic democracy” lacks sexiness), their studious, empathic approach is both valid and reassuring, and their overarching point — let’s think about these things now, rather than trying to fix them later — well taken.

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts!


(cross-posted from John Palfrey’s blog)

Andy Oram, editor at O’Reilly, has posted something quite extraordinary on the wiki for our book and associated research project. It appears that he has read Born Digital and then posted his review on the wiki for comment before he posts it to the O’Reilly Media web site. I hope others will take up his challenge to comment on it; just the sort of conversation we’re delighted to have, in small measure, provoked. (For the record, this review-in-the-making is an effective critique of the book, which points at several of the inevitable soft-spots in our arguments.) Thanks much, Andy, both for doing the honor of reading and reacting in depth to the book, but also for doing it in this fashion.

Digital who?

With Born Digital finally arrived, the debate over the term “Digital Native” is back. We look forward to continuing this important conversation, thinking about who is – and who is not – a digital native, and what are the purposes served by this term.

johnmac recently asked a great question:

“other than the birthdate, I fit that definition [of digital native]– do I have to be naturalized? — and, if so, how do I do so?”

On becoming naturalized in the digital world? Well, no “citizen” test developed yet (although NHK does have the “Are you a Digital Native?” quiz). If you’re living digital yet not born digital, we’ll have to call you a digital settler, johnmac. John Palfrey explores this typology more here. Check it out – and tell us what you think!