John Palfrey

Digital Natives

Air Date: June 21, 2014

John Palfrey discusses the uses, misuses and distractions of the new technological age.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your new host on The Open Mind.

For more than a half-century, my grandfather explored the universe of ideas from this chair, and I was fortunate to benefit from his tutelage.

In taking his seat as he hoped I would, I’ll carry on Open Mind’s mission as he conceived it: “To elicit meaningful insights into the challenges Americans face in contemporary areas of national concern…a quiet and thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas.”

Paying attention to issues such as immigration, climate change, and the nature of our digital society, Open Mind’s commitment to non-adversarial conversation in the public interest continues here today…as I welcome my first guest.

There is no more perceptive analyst of technology and “Digital Natives,” those who came of age during the Internet revolution, than John Palfrey: Chairman of the Digital Public Library of America and Head of School at Phillips Academy, Andover, where he leads a seminar on “Hacking: A Course in Experiments.”

The former Henry Ess Professor and Vice Dean at Harvard Law School, Palfrey was Executive Director from 2002 to 2008 of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, where he co-authored the critically acclaimed book Born Digital.

I know John Palfrey to be a most inspiring champion of open access, digital literacy, and youth empowerment – both in his stewardship of the Digital Public Library and as a mentor to many Harvard and Andover students.  While eternally optimistic that the digital world is a glass half-full – not half-empty – Palfrey is sensitive to the human values, ethical, and legal considerations of a pre-Google world that sometimes appear in conflict with the tactics of WikiLeaks or Edward Snowden.

In a February lecture in Akron, Ohio, Palfrey compellingly explored the uses and misuses of technology, the digital divide between naïve and sophisticated Web-users, and the Digital Public Library’s role in bringing knowledge to more communities – topics we’ll explore in a moment.

But first I want to ask John Palfrey how he sees this generation of Digital Natives to be evolving, if there remains a tension between “open access” and “privacy”, and if, perhaps, a second generation of Digital Natives has already arisen without these clashing interests.

PALFREY:  Alexander, thank you so much for having me on the show, it is a huge privilege to be on The Open Mind and certainly an even bigger privilege to be here with you on this first show … so thank you for inviting me on.

HEFFNER:  Thank you, John.

PALFREY:  So it’s a wonderful opening prompt and one that I’m spending a lot of time thinking about, especially with students at Andover, which is a eleven hundred person residential school in Massachusetts and it’s been great to be in the classroom with these young people as they’re exploring these issues.

And I think that there certainly is still some generational difference for kids who have grown up in a all digital world.  They didn’t know the world before the digital.

But I don’t think actually necessarily that there’s yet a second generation of, of these kids.  I think we’re all in this together. I think this is all of us exploring the kinds of challenges between the open and the proprietary, which is one of the divides you mention.

Particularly between those who are naïve in terms of the digital world and those who are much more sophisticated, which tends to map the socio-economic means and so forth, which is, I think, a big challenge for our society.

But ultimately, really, are we going to grab what’s wonderful about the digital opportunities or are we going to get dragged down by some of the things that are much less wonderful.

And I feel like the kids that we’re educating today are right at the front lines of that.

HEFFNER:  Well, that’s interesting … you say … because I wonder if today’s young people at Andover have become more literate in terms of the quality of information they’re getting and being cognizant of those sources that they’re getting information from.

PALFREY:  Well, we talk about this, really, every day and in, in every class, for certain.  And I believe that we have very, very talented kids across our country and around the world who are thinking about this.  But, as you can imagine, if you are just coming to the world of research for the first time and you encounter, for instance, a Wikipedia page on something that you might care about … you probably don’t ask all of the right questions about whether or not it’s true, or whether or not … you know … maybe somebody was just … a few minutes before … editing that page to make it have some falsehoods on it.

So I see it happen in real time … with, with students in high school.  I think one of the reasons I’m so excited about being in secondary education right now is to be able to help kids to be discerning in this particular way.

There are many more sources of information than there ever have been in human history.  And, of course, you can know if you’re watching The Open Mind, you have a thoughtful moderator and hopefully a well-chosen guest … but you might be on a blog where it’s not necessarily as thoughtfully presented or you might be on Twitter, you might be on Facebook or Instagram and you might be getting a very slanted view of something.  Or a Wikipedia page that’s been edited by a partisan.

So it’s a much greater challenge and I wouldn’t say necessarily that we’re out of the woods in terms of kids knowing how to do it.

HEFFNER:  And do you think that young people view encyclopedias … like Britannica and others that are now out of print, but still exist electronically … with more credibility than they do Wikipedia?

PALFREY:  I’ve never heard … I can’t talk about Encyclopedia Britannica, I have to say, so I think the ones that we grew up with that had the 30 volumes … whatever … on the shelf and whether or not they’ve been digitized, I think they are more-or-less out of sight and out of mind for, for kids, at least that I encounter and so I think it is sort of Wikipedia or bust … in that way.

And in some ways I think that’s why Wikipedia is such a wonderful teaching tool, which is to look at some of the entries that are lousy and some of the entries that are good and all the history you can look and the different debates you can see actually among editors.  So in a way I think that particular battle is, is already over.

HEFFNER:  So you think that Wikipedia, to an extent, has replaced Encyclopedia Britannica … do young people believe in the checks?  Because Wikipedia … one thing that maybe important to note is … it’s, it’s not foolproof, but a lot of editing and workmanship, if you will, goes into creating Wikipedia and Wikipedia Pages.

PALFREY:  I’m struck by the extent to which kids don’t know the first thing about how Wikipedia comes to pass … honestly.

And I ask very often in, in research settings or in lectures, “How many of you have ever edited a Wikipedia page?”.  And every once in a while a few hands will go up and then I’ll asked them, “So what did you actually edit?”  And almost invariably a kid will have edited something that’s a typo or they’ve edited, you know, a comma for a semi-colon or whatever because they’re sort of OCD kids.

But most of the time they don’t actually have a sense of how’s its come together, so that’s actually why I think it’s such a good teaching tool.  Is to say, “Let’s look at some of the political pages … for instance the Bush versus Gore debate, as it was a famous one in Wikipedia and otherwise … where if you’re, if you’re talking about a partisan candidate very often these things aren’t very credible or very stable.

But if you look at something historical … I look after the Alexander Hamilton page, just as an example.  And so, I’m one of the editors who reads it periodically and I actually think things change very quickly … back to something accurate.

And I will put that Alexander Hamilton essay that’s up on Wikipedia against any other statement because it actually has much more richness.  So an example in Hamilton is, he had a dispute …there’s a dispute as to which his birthday was.

And in the Wikipedia entry, you can see that dispute.  It presents both dates, but it also then has a link to a discussion about which date it possibly was.  No static … encyclopedia actually one … they just pick on of the dates from one of the historians.

So actually there’s much more that we can do, but I think it’s important that kids recognize … is it an Alexander Hamilton quality page or is it a partisan political page that’s not so good.

HEFFNER:  And you might be able to determine that by looking at the sources at the bottom.

PALFREY:  Exactly.

HEFFNER:  Look at whether they’re affiliated with universities or educational organizations.  Is that what your librarians do on an active basis?

PALFREY:  They certainly do.  And actually I’m a big fan of librarians working closely with Wiki-maniacs to try to bring those two communities together.

Certainly if you, if you look at what the standard kid practices, if they’re looking up something new … say they’re looking for, you know, the Spanish American War … something they don’t know very much about.

They will literally go on to their device … their … often a handheld device or a tablet or whatever … might be an iPad like you have there … type in Spanish dash American War, hit enter and they look at the sources that are there and Wikipedia almost always comes up first or second and they hit that and they go to it and that’s kind of where you then get the naïve versus sophisticated kids.

The naive kids think, “Oh, this must all be true”.  And the sophisticated kids … sometimes they’re too cynical … they think “Oh, my gosh, my classmate is, you know, actually going to monkey with it to mess me up”.  But they all scroll down to the bottom to those sources.  And that, that is, I think in some ways the gold of the Wikipedia pages.  Where does it then send you next?  And as you suggest, if those are really thoughtful ones that go to a think tank or go to research centers at Universities … that’s actually a way, I think you can really reach kids well.  So I’ve encouraged librarians to focus projects on those sources at the bottom, because you know that that’s the practice of these kids.

HEFFNER: And would you say that’s an advancement within the last decade that those sources are imperative in how we analyze Wikipedia.

I know in Born Digital you talk about some of the misgivings towards information quality, but it seems like we’re more advanced in our perceptions about Wikipedia and similar sites.

PALFREY:  I think that many people who have now had the experience of going through research absolutely have that.  And I completely agree that the, the richness of those sources and the richness of how some of these different pages actually fit together and the sophistication of, of the adult users and, and you know the advanced kid users is there.

What I’m interested in, of course, is the kid who’s never done research of any sort.  Whether it’s a kid who, you know, is coming into high school having not gone to a great school before that and has just never been taught it.  Or even somebody who’s been taught some poor methods … how are they approaching.  And so those kids are no more sophisticated just because they happen to have grown up in a digital age … they still need to be taught this.

But they’re being taught, as you suggest, something that we … was quite different … than what we were taught 30 years ago.

HEFFNER:  So you’re not hearing those common refrains of “Who cares, or so what” that you talk about .. as much today … in Born Digital?

PALFREY:  Not so much.  I mean I think in, in that book which was, you know, published five or six years ago we were presenting some things that actually seemed a little controversial at the time.

Now I think most of what we talk about in there is just really old hat.  It’s fascinating …

HEFFNER:  Right.

PALFREY:  … we knew this as we were doing the project and we, you know, announced at the beginning, we know it was going to be obsolete as soon as it was printed.

HEFFNER:  Let’s turn to that bridge between children at Andover … young people at Andover … and those in under-served or less privileged communities.

You’re also Chair of the Digital Public Library of America, in addition to your role at Andover.  Can you talk a bit about how the library’s attempting to connect with less privileged communities and is there a way that we’re able to track how the Digital Public Library is increasing literacy or knowledge that it’s bringing to certain communities.

PALFREY:   Absolutely.  I think it’s a great, great premise.  Which is, “How do we think about the future of libraries and how that affects democracy?”.

That’s, that’s sort of my big picture question.  And actually I think about that across education or I think about that across journalism … how do we think about service to the public in this broad way of increasing democracy in the way that I think The Open Mind has for now generations.

And I think this is a crucial role for libraries.  And even if libraries don’t have a whole lot of books on the shelves any more … they remain, I think, bedrock institutions and they’re particularly important institutions in lesser served communities.  They are particularly important in places where people don’t necessarily have the discretionary income to buy the brand-new hardback, or to buy the brand new e-book.

And I think when you have new citizens … in the United States … you’ve got immigrants, you’ve got kids who are needing a place to do their homework after school that’s safe and sound and so froth.  And you’ve got the elderly who, you know, often don’t have other places to go … around ideas … I think libraries absolutely play an essential role there.

And I believe that in the digital age we also need an infrastructure to make sure they get access to the same digital works that you and I can buy just out of discretionary income on our e-book reader.

So one of the things I fear is that we actually, in the digital age, will exacerbate that link between the rich and the poor and the DPLA and others are efforts to try to level that playing field.

HEFFNER:  And with digitized resources is there a way to access how young people are ultimately forging more knowledge and forging ahead with their educational experience?  Can you link digitized resources to actual progress?

PALFREY:  Sure, there’s absolutely a way to do that.  And as you noted, I’m a relentless optimist in this way and I absolutely see the possibility for the creation of new knowledge to be wonderful.

People are obsessed right now with big data, as you know.  And I think the idea of taking large data sets about learning is actually one way in which that’s, that’s a possibility.

But I’m actually a little bit more interested in the micro, rather than the macro in that sense.  Which is “How can we look at the practices of individual kids and individual teachers and individual librarians that actually improve the learning that’s face to face and that in … happens in the classroom or actually happens in the physical space like a library?”

So that’s actually where I think less has work has been done and where there’s actually real room for understanding how is the mind working a little bit differently in the digital age?  How is learning improving?  How is actually new knowledge creation improving?  And for some, it’s obvious.  Right, for an auto-didactic kid who goes on and uses Kahn Academy and all these wonderful open sites … you can see absolutely a kid in a less-well served community, less good school … taking advantage of what’s on the Internet or on the DPLA or other places, to kind of create their own learning environment.  That’s an easy case to make.

The next question though is “Can really great school librarians or others help curate these materials and support kids when they don’t necessarily have that natural advantage of intrinsic motivation”.

HEFFNER:  What are the best practices in this day and age?  For those teachers and librarians?

PALFREY:  Well, to my mind, the best practice has to do with hybrids or blended learning.  There’s another term called “connected learning” … pick your one … they have, they have slightly different meanings.

I happen to like “connected learning” because it talks about brining together the various different ways in which kids learn … things that are in the classroom, things that are outside their classroom, things that are online, things that are not online and actually really seeing a very broad way in which kids are learning in lots of different environments.  And going with a very, sort of, student centered, intrinsically motivated kind of approach where we put kids in the position of driving their learning, to some extent.  And seeing teachers step back a little bit and being a little bit more like coaches than being like sages on the stage.

HEFFNER:  So how would you say your Andover experience has influenced your vision for the Digital Public Library.  It seems to me that that’s a … might have given you a key insight into the future of the Digital Public Library.

PALFREY:  Well, there are a few ways.  So, one is to think about an institution and as it happens to be 236 years old this year … and be true for lots of great cultural institutions in the country … is we have a lot of assets that we can digitize and share with the world.

So, Andover happens to have the Addison Gallery of American Art and we can digitize 15,000 amazing works and share those more broadly.  Used to be able to share them for people who could actually come to this one little part of Massachusetts.  Right now we can actually share those much more broadly.  We have great things in our archive.  We have, you know, original works and so forth that we can digitize and share.

We’ve got an archeology museum we digitize and share those things.  So every institution … if we could put them into a common system, a common national system, with common on, on ramps across the country … I think we could have a store of information that is just extraordinary.

The Digital Library of Alexandria … that people have dreamed about for many years … people like our colleague Robert Darton … who both of us have worked with … who have been dreaming about this for a long time.  I think we can bring that to pass.

So one is an institutional view.  And the other one is the view from the learners’ perspective.  What is it like to be a kid growing up today in our school systems and I think wonderful schools that have great ratios between teachers and students are able to craft these amazing bespoke learning environments for kids and bring out the best in them.

But I actually think that there’s the possibility to make that possible for more kids even in, in school districts where the ratios are much harsher.  When you have … may have one to 30 or 1 to 40 in some of these classroom.  If we figure out this blended, hybrid or connected learning environment.

HEFFNER:  What’s the key?  What’s the key to that hybrid learning environment?

PALFREY:  To my mind it’s actually going to be figuring out what’s the best teaching method for the particular outcome you’re trying to accomplish.

So I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits all thing in teaching.  And I think its discipline specific so you might think about mathematics differently than science is taught in the lab or differently about English or differently about history.  So somebody that’s kind of breaking it down and being thoughtful, it’s not always the case that somebody at the chalkboard, kind of writing out a bunch of equations and having kids working them down, works very well.  We know that for sure now.

Now, of course, you have to convey knowledge to some extent, that’s part of it.  But really focusing on that assimilation … what do you do with it and how do you think critically and how does that affect your ability to do problem solving the next time?  That’s to me, the key.

So, I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to be the best thing in mathematics or what’s going to be the best thing in lab science whatever.  But what we need to do is, I think, create the culture in which people are experimenting with that and then doing really good assessment and thinking about … did … and by assessment I mean are we … is that learning actually working?  Did that kid actually get good at the next time solving that problem and, you know, having teachers who are just super excited to try out these approaches get serious about assessment and get serious about scaling up things where we know they’re working for kids.

HEFFNER: One of the areas where young people are going to have to take up arms is in this realm of cyber-mischief.  And you talk at great length about … Wikileaks and tactics for young people to combat some of these malfeasance as they pervade the web.

In the book, Born Digital … I think this is wholly applicable now.  You imagine, nightmarishly, the scenario of a digital Pearl Harbor.  Can you tell our viewers …what does that mean?  What would that mean?

PALFREY:  Sure, I still worry about a digital Pear Harbor.  And example might be somebody who decides to launch an attack on another country by bringing down the power grid, as an example.  So, now that we are having an increasingly interconnected set of societies and we’re building all of our systems into the digital infrastructure, we need to focus much more on security.

Because if we have no break-walls between these different systems, the effect of an attack I think could be really quite substantial.  And whether that’s an attack on the national security system or on the energy grid, or on the, you know, the airplane system … there are any number of ways in which a digital attack, I think, could be very, very powerful and it could affect lots of civilians.  So I worry a ton about that … I’m not the only one, of course, to, to write about the perils of cyber security, but translating that back to the kids as you started so nicely, is we are preparing too few people in this country to be effective in this realm.

So the one … the reason I teach this sort of unusual class at, at my school, on hacking is that I want to put kids into this milieu and say, one the one hand there’s kind of a cool story here about really interesting practices online and some of its very interesting and pro-social and positive and some that’s very anti-social and negative, but the main thing is there’s a skill set here about breaking down systems and building up systems and really understanding how you relate to the digital environment and whether or not you’re going to be an attacker or a defender.  We are just not preparing kids to do this.  And we know that we are hundreds of thousands of people short in terms of cyber-security in the United State alone.

Great Britain has published similar reports and I want our kids to think about this as a really interesting problem for them to solve.  I want just as many people learning to do the hacking so that they can be defenders of our system as there are people out there thinking about maybe making some money from it.

HEFFNER:  Well, you answered my question because I was going to ask you … what is the great deterrent.


HEFFNER:   But it seems to me exactly what you’re doing at Andover.  Teaching hacking.

PALFREY:  I hope that … so you know, one of the little things we did this, this year … was we took a week … and I said to the kids, “I’m going to set up a website for you to try to take it down”.  And the idea was … I then taught them a little bit about distributed denial of service attacks, which is how all around the world people will often take down a website … so you might see in the lead up to an election in a totalitarian regime, you might have … or, you know an authoritarian regime … you might have a time when the dissent websites are brought down in, in the advance of a sham election.  You wonder, “How did that website come down?”

Almost always it’s a distributed denial of service attack.  And the idea is that you take a bunch of computers … often unknowingly and you just have them request the web page a lot, basically until it crashes.  And to crash this for those 24 hours, it’s gone out of commission during the time of the elections.  Happens over and over again … so it’s not all that mysterious what’s going on.

And I said to the kids, “It’s your job.  Let’s see if you can actually take down this website.”  And I created a website and we sort of teed it up for them to take down … and they had a week to figure it out.  And sure enough, with more than 24 hours to spare, they brought down the website using one of these attack methods.  And, it was a very safe environment … whatever … but it actually got them really thinking about what is it that you’d have to do to bring it down.  And then, of course, it helps you ask the other question … which is … “If I had to defend that website”, or, after the fact … “How would I go about trying to figure out who did it?  And how would I be … go about being the law enforcement officer who’s trying to track down the miscreant?”

HEFFNER:  And were they also able to restore the website?

PALFREY:  That’s interesting.

HEFFNER: Was that part of it?

PALFREY:  They were not required to restore the website.  We, we had it set up so it would kind of bounce back up.  And it actually was my blog … so it was no problem if it, if it actually went down.

HEFFNER:  Were young people at Andover concerned with healthcare dot gov and was that an aspect of your course.  Or have you heard from some of the students in that course in response to what were the, the promises and perils of that experience and now seems to be up and millions of people have gotten insurance.  But I wonder if that factored into your course or perceptions of people at Andover?

PALFREY:  You know, one of the interesting things of teaching this course the last few years is that every time … if you declare you’re teaching about hacking … during the course of the term a bunch of things happen that come up as kind of natural news stories.  And you don’t want the entire course to be ripped from the headlines every day … that would be sort of unstable in terms of what you’re teaching kids.

But every once in a while having a few things like this … so there was a big hacking attack with Target early in the term which was helpful and then, as you mentioned healthcare dot gov came along in the middle of it.  So the … it was a natural kind of talking point.

I’m not positive that our students necessarily would have been paying all that much attention to it because, you know, they’re, they’re covered through other means in, in most cases.  But it certainly … it’s a very timely and helpful example.  And the fact that eventually the government got it right is a good, a good story.  But I do think that, you know, as I have been presenting to these kids who are seniors and thinking about going on … and thinking about the kinds of skills that would be useful in the 21st century, clearly the need to have more people who can prop up such a website … created in the first place … is, is an obvious one.

HEFFNER:  And when today’s generation inputs information like credit card data or other personal information on to Target dot gov … Target dotcom, not gov … do you think that they appreciate the context … that they’re sacrificing something in this exchange?

PALFREY:  Not yet.  I think the, the notion of sharing information and privacy is one that I think our kids are struggling with enormously.

Now, I think there’s a myth out there which is that kids don’t care about privacy.  That’s wrong.  Kids care a lot about privacy as against me as their teacher, or, you know, you as a relative or, or someone who’s a parent.  They don’t necessarily want everybody to know everything about them, and they need their space, but when it comes to sharing information with their friends and that sharing information with, with people they don’t necessarily know that well … they often make really bad choices.  And so, what’s interesting about it is we’re at a moment where I think kids are beginning to see the consequences of over-sharing, sexting is a very good and, and unfortunately a constant example of this were a kid takes a picture of himself off of something like SnapChat and shares it with somebody they’re in a relationship with, or wish to be in a relationship with … that person then will, you know, often save it in some dimension and maybe share it with others.

That’s against the law and a very scary thing.  The person who’s doing it in the first place doesn’t actually think about it being showed to that third party and so forth.  That’s one example.  But, you know, any number of other pictures or things that they might be sharing or information they’re giving to a third party, like a company … they’re not thinking about the long-range consequences yet.  So, that’s a .. that is a big education campaign I think that we have in our future.

I think as bad things happen to people, those unfortunately do give rise to more community conversations about, so I think there is some learning going on.  But learning is usually when it goes badly for somebody you know.

HEFFNER:  Well, do you think that these young people understand the consequences of the tactics at play in a Wikileaks scenario, where Wikileaks will go after a whole host of public servants or emissaries, ambassadors in search of information that might provide a culpability for a particular government official.  Are they aware that the tactics of Wikileaks involved in that break some, some part of the social trust and pact?

PALFREY:  So just like Wikipedia is a wonderful teaching object or tool.  The Wikileaks case is an amazing teaching case.  And I’ve used it both in the context of Harvard Law School and, and now at Andover.  It’s a wonderful way to teach ethics.  I think it’s a wonderful way to bring out some of the many complicated aspects of the question you just asked.  And kids really jump into it very, very well.  And, of course, the fact that they’ve now seen some movies about it and have a little bit more context for it, is very helpful.  Also the Edward Snowden revelations were happening at least this year during the course.

And you know, it’s interesting, I always ask the kids at the beginning of the case to give me a sense of the moral culpability of all the different actors.  So we go down, you know Julian Assange and we look at The Guardian as a newspaper, we look at The New York Times, we look at the State Department, look at the anonymous people and so forth.

And they give me a rating of one to ten between sort of morally responsible and morally reprehensible and then I do the same at the end of term and see how they’ve changed.  And what’s fascinating is they are all over the map.  They … you know kids who absolutely think anonymous is, you know, this great “hactivist” thing and you know, sort of sticking it to the man and other people think, you know this is ridiculous … how could you possibly think this is a good idea.  And, you know, perhaps more conservative in the sense of saying, you know, you should not be kind of being activist in this particular way and you’re breaking the social contract.  And then sometimes those kids, you know, end up switching their view.

So it’s actually one of those things that will help you see the very broad spread between, between the viewpoints.

HEFFNER:  Well, I hope you’ll return to The Open Mind to talk more about Wikileaks, John, but I want to thank you for joining us today.

PALFREY:  Alexander, thank you, it’s been a treat to be here and I’m so grateful to have a chance to be on the program.

HEFFNER:  Thanks, John.  And thanks to you in the audience.  I hope you’ll join us again next time.

Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews.