UNESCO Seminar on the Web2.0 and e-Learning. John Palfrey: Born Digital

John Palfrey, Executive Director Berkman Center of Internet and Society, presents his seminar Born Digital at UOC headquarters, organized by the University’s UNESCO Chair in e-Learning.

John introduces his speech as a trip through some reflections that arise from the fact that some people (i.e. born in the middle eighties and on) have always lived with the Internet and digital technologies. Those people live/interact on digital landscapes that do have some specific characteristics.

John Palfrey
John Palfrey

Digital landscape

Digital identities, in two senses. One is be present on the Internet. Second, to be able to shape one’s identity at one’s will, as the Internet allow one to.

Multi-tasking: lots of windows open and things being done at the same time

Digital media: all your stuff is created in digital form (you might never ever print it) and it can be mixed, edited, changed… mashed up, and it will stand this way, digitally. And, indeed, is not only digital media, but digital platforms. And even if they are at a very early stage, there is already now a new layer above traditional http that is working as a new means of digital communication. This layer is shaped by devices like Second Life, Flickr, RSS or the Wikipedia.

From consumers to creators: Of course, this mashing up involves changes in cultures, intellectual property problems… new challenges arcane for digital immigrants, not to say analogue citizens.

New technologies/features: Google Docs, AJAX, tagging, hackability, wikis, social networks, RSS. RSS surely made Web 2.0 go from just a cool idea to a big change in the state of things.

Lightweight collaboration: multiple users on distributed workgroups where people collaborate as long and as intensively as they want to. In Yochai Benkler’s words, is a democratising innovation.

An international perspective: New contexts and new meanings. People like (and also expect) commenting others’ reflections. Tagging and geotaggin provide, again, new contexts for content. And those contexts are most of them relying on a new concept of trust, which enables strong networks… and business models.

Addressing perceived threats

Security and safety: cyberbulling

Privacy: everything on the Internet is public… anyone lost a job offer because of sensible photos on the net? unintended audience, replicability, persistence, searchability, unintentional contributions.

  • Tier 1: our own profile. You got control over what you post, and you can configure your own privacy settings.
  • Tier 2: your friend’s profile. Friends upload a photo of yours and you untag it, removing any liaison to you.
  • Tier 3: Blogs, Flickr, social networks. Friends upload a photo and you have to ask for them to remove it.
  • Tier 4: facial recognition systems. Friends upload a photo of you and tehc tags it for them with face recognition (Riya). How to undo this?

Intellectual property: people creating new things from old things is increasing (as it is increasingly easy) and the perspective is that intellectual property rights issues (i.e. lawsuits) are going to be a big issue in the nearest future (present!).

Information expectations:

  • credibility: “hidden influences”, grazing, misinformation… are common on wikis and blogs
  • information overload

Positive outlook

So, what’s the agenda from now on?

media literacy skills, expression/identity, empowering creators, information sharing, maintaining connections

Opportunities: creativity, media literacy, social production, semiotic democracy

Blogs and Wikis: knowledge creating, equity/democratic, participatory, empowering individuals, autonomy, cross-cultural and community building

Opportunities: Information creation, semiotic democracy, participatory, empowering individuals, access to information

John Palfrey
John Palfrey

To end, John briefly presents digitalnative.org:

An academic research team — joining people from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School and the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland — is hosting and working on the core of this wiki, which illustrates the beginning stages of a larger research project on Digital Natives.

“Digital Natives” are those people for whom the internet and related technologies are givens, whereas “Digital Immigrants” migrated to these technologies later in life (Prensky, 2001). Digital Immigrants know how life existed in the pre-networked society, whereas Digital Natives take networked communication as the foundation of their lives.

The focus of this research is on exploring the impacts of this generational demarcation. By learning as much as we can about Digital Natives, their way of life, and their way of thinking, we can address the issues their digital practices raise, and shape our legal, educational, and social institutions in a way that supports and protects natives, while harnessing the exciting possibilities their digital fluency presents.


Challenging question by Max Senges: is it possible to live with several identities at the same time? John thinks that no and, in the end, identities seem to converge on your real one, and your blog or whatever sooner or later reflects who you really are.

An interesting circle is being created: technologists create technology based on expected market users, but the users reshape this technology by using it, and again, technologists re-reshape the technology and so on. How can this be controlled, managed, etc.

César Córcoles: digital identity (on intensive live online) will become something normal, but now it is seen as (a) geekery (b) a bad thing to do (lost of time), so what should we, as academics, do? John answers that, actually, the problem is that academics are also digital immigrants, and thus they first have to learn. Open Access might be a good way to legitimate new means of distributing content and from an academic basis or point of view. (Academic) blogging is still not very popular, but how to foster it?

Ana Zúñiga: about information overload, the problem sometimes is that there is a strong lack of digital literacy, specially informational literacy, so you know where to go to in order to get high quality information.

Cristina Girona and John (and many others) engage in a debate about not using technolgy by itself, but for final purposes, such as educational purposes. But there is a need not only to think about technology in classrooms, but also to think about teaching itself.

Emma Kiselyova excellently points the fact that digital immigrants will disappear with time and digital natives will, sooner or later, rule the world. In the meanwhile, in the impasse, what should be done? How can educational institutions make the bridge, lead the rupture that digital technologies are causing.

I point, following Emma’s line, that all in all is a matter of e-awareness, of knowing what this digital paradigm means for everyone of us. On one side we’ve got digital immigrants (DIs; I here also include digital outsiders), that as mature people as they are, they have some degree of awareness of things (of what means living, how society works, what is moral and what is ethics, etc.) but have poor knowledge of “e-” things. On the other side, there’re digital natives (DNs), that fully master the “e-” part but they need education (remember: they’re still young and “inexpert”) and a place to go (i.e. the University) in order to get some awareness. But nobody is actually crossing the line to make ends meet: DIs do not approach digital landscapes and DNs, actually, pass over traditional knowledge that brings awareness (the example of intellectual property rights infringement is crystal clear).

Silvia Bravo argues that an approach is really happening, that the academy is blogging and writing on wikis. In my opinion, even if this was true (which I honestly believe it is not, at least not with a critical mass), the problem is that individuals are not the ones who transmit values, but institutions. And, at the institutional level, the state of things is definitely distressing.

See also:


If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2007) “UNESCO Seminar on the Web2.0 and e-Learning. John Palfrey: Born Digital” In ICTlogy, #44, May 2007. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from https://ictlogy.net/review/?p=546

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7 Comments to “UNESCO Seminar on the Web2.0 and e-Learning. John Palfrey: Born Digital” »

  1. My take to John’s answer to my question is slightly more pessimistic: he actually said that, today, blogging could be harmful to an academic career. Times are changing, but change is not here yet…

  2. Yep, you’re absolutely right: I was just trying to “smooth” our own path towards w2.0 ;)

    And seriously: I really believe in some cases blogging is starting to be considered, at least, as not “such a bad thing” (I’m looking for the piece of news, but cannot find it)

  3. Sure, institutions must transmit values. I really think we are a bit slow, and that we have to keep pushing for changes. BUT, institutions are people. As Emma was pointing, the people leading institutions right now are not digital natives. So it is up to digital natives and, let me add my generation, up to to analogical/digital bilinguals, the opportunity to change institutions. This means, we have to convince by doing, not only by discussing.
    And, do not forget, institutions -just as society- are made of young digital natives, but also of not-so-young not-so-digital -but equally important- people.

  4. Silvia, I fully agree, I mean it. I’m just stressing the fact that digital immigrants, specially those who rule institutions, should do a more decided effort to improve their e-Awareness (as the ultimate step in digital literacy progress) in order to become, as you call them, bilinguals :)

  5. Pingback: Nativos Digitales | UOC UNESCO Chair in e-Learning Blog

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