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Born Digital – Book Review

Last Updated: May 17, 2021

Daniel Baker
Daniel Baker

Daniel Baker is the Senior Pastor at Sovereign Grace Church in Apex, North Carolina. Daniel has a B.A. in Music from Kenyon College and an M.A. from Ashland Theological Seminary. He has been on staff at Sovereign Grace since 2000. He and his wife Anne have five children.

When I was a kid I used to turn part of my allowance into quarters so that I could play games like Pac-Man and Stargate in an arcade. My 4-year-old daughter can now find her way to PBSkids.org to enjoy her favorite Clifford game. In the language of John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital, she is a “digital native.”

That is, she was born after 1980 and will grow up taking for granted smartphones, the Internet, WiFi, and a whole world of integrated technology that is more advanced than some of our sci-fi movies from the 80s. Even “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” looks pretty bland now that we’re living in the 21st century.

The rate of change feels speed-of-light to people like me who have a love-hate relationship with it. I resonate immediately with writers like Nicholas Carr who grabbed much attention for his article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (available online, of course. Just Google it!). My reflex is to say, “Of course it is.”

Yet, others are more embracing of our brave new world. New York Times writer Nick Bolton’s I Live in the Future and This is How it Works takes a much more open view of new technology. “If you make dog food and the dogs won’t eat it, you might have a bit of a problem” (4). The “dogs” of today aren’t eating the technologies of yesterday—books, printed newspapers, long-article magazines—so either make dog food only you will enjoy, or change what you’re making. Every new technology has potential for great good or great harm. There were similar fears about “the printing press, trains, and television…yet we’re much better off for having them” (15). Get over it and accept the new reality. This is essentially what Bolton argues.

Palfrey and Gasser offer a more nuanced look in Born Digital. They neither support those who want to bag it all and go offline, nor embrace it all and remove all obstacles online. As a parent and pastor I find much to commend about their effort.

First, its breadth is impressive. These two Harvard law professors have researched a number of contemporary issues and delivered the fruit of their labors in a very readable book. They wrestle with identity issues and how they are affected by avatars, immersion-type gaming, and tools like Facebook. They look at privacy in a world where we put so much personal information on the web, whether online banking or personal photos on our blog. They examine the creative side of digital natives as they create blogs, websites, videos, music, and more.

They handle well the darker side of digital natives. The reality of cyberbullying and pornography are carefully dealt with. Helpful also are chapters on piracy, quality-control, and the sheer information overload in a world that generates content so prolifically.

The billionaires of today get many mentions—the inventors of Napster, YouTube, and Facebook getting as much attention as any. There are also discussions of how technology is affecting our learning. Such breadth shows that they are trying to grapple with real issues and not simply rant about their pet peeves.

Second, their expressions of concern are warranted. The authors have not taken the “whatever is, is right” approach, but are voicing serious concern in their book. Their comments on cyberbullying, pornography, and increasing exposure to violence are neither alarmist about nor dismissive of these topics.

Their tack on such issues can be seen in their comments on cyberbullying:

“The Internet is not the root cause of cyberbullying. Nor is it the root of unwanted contact between minors and adults. The root causes for both of these dangers are the same as they were before the Internet came along: poor judgment, a lack of concern for the well-being of others, human depravity, mental illness, and so forth. These safety risks are perfectly real in the online context, however, just as they are in the offline context….This point about digital safety—that the problems are the same problems, only carried out in a new medium and sometimes rendered more complex—is essential to understanding how to do something about it (98).”

Mention of “human depravity” is truly refreshing in a world that sometimes seems completely oblivious to the darkness within us all.

Further, as they navigate through these many issues there is a welcome honesty. Often they can provide only questions and few answers because the data is simply inconclusive. How technology affects our learning and thinking and thus our teaching is one such discussion.

Third, their recommendations are level-headed. Because they have written from the perspective that technology is only a vehicle to express what has always been true, their suggestions for how to respond are generally solid. Here is a representative passage:

Often, the old-fashioned solutions that have solved similar problems in the past will work in the digital age, too. Those solutions are engaged parenting, a good education, and common sense (10).

For instance, at times they equate surfing the Internet with walking through different neighborhoods. We take it as a given that part of parenting is instructing our children on where to go and not go, who to talk to and not talk to. This is the “common sense” we all grew up with.

The Internet requires that same instruction. We will not serve our children well if we simply go offline completely. In their minds, “that’s trying to turn back the clock” (80). Much better is to teach our kids the skills they need to navigate safely and fruitfully on the Internet. The authors are certainly supportive of filters and online accountability, but parenting should include much more instruction as well.

Further, their recommendations are community-based. Any successful strategy for protecting our children and our societies must be a combination of personal responsibility, the positive influence of friends and family, the wise involvement of teachers and mentors, the commitment of software companies, and the strategic involvement of the state and law enforcement. There is no silver bullet promised in the book, only a desire to see the conversation continue between these concerned parties.

There is much more I could say about Born Digital. Perhaps as much as anything it provides a helpful set of discussion points in a balanced way. The issues with the Internet are legion, complex, and a profound mix of the sinister and the redemptive. A parent or pastor with a solid grasp of sin’s work in our hearts and the gospel as the ultimate solution to our problems will find Born Digital a great asset in understanding our brave new world.

  • Comments on: Born Digital – Book Review
    1. Philip

      Very helpful and well-said. Who knew Harvard let its professors say things like “human depravity” and not have it be ironic?

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