It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: last Wednesday, Sarah and I got to share a stage with John Palfrey, Pablo Chavez, and, best of all, Google DC‘s green bouncy-ball. Google’s DC office invited John Palfrey, Sarah, and me to participate in a book talk about Born Digital. Though the Digital Natives team has done plenty of these book talks lately, this was the first one where the Digital Natives interns got to tag along. It was amazing to see so many people at the talk, and we’d like to thank Google (and John Palfrey!) for giving us the opportunity to speak both as book interns and as Digital Natives ourselves.

The talk covered a lot of ground, but one of the most interesting questions tapped into this week’s theme: piracy. When Q&A time arrived, a line of handsomely suit-jacketed individuals rose and gently snaked behind the microphone, and eventually we got to this question, (paraphrased): “Whatever happened to the black line between right and wrong?” The question, of course, was posed in relation to peer-to-peer filesharing and media downloading in general.

So, whatever did happen to the black line between right and wrong?

Well, “right” and “wrong” feel suspiciously similar when both are accessed through desktop clients. One of the main findings of Born Digital regarding piracy was that, out of a sample group of Digital Natives, 90% engaged in “illegal downloading.” The other 10% downloaded music through iTunes. But only when their parents had given them gift cards to do so. For Digital Natives, downloading songs through Limewire or similar programs doesn’t feel “wrong,” necessarily. Downloading music through iTunes doesn’t feel “right.” Both feel, very simply, like the obvious way to get music: through a desktop client that pulls songs down from the cloud. And that feeling of obviousness is the new thick black line to be reckoned with. No record label, however beloved, is going to convince Digital Natives to retreat to CDs. Though the record labels are getting used to this fact—throwing their weight behind services like imeem and warming up to the new media marketplace of iTunes—it’s still a stark, confronting reality for many in the traditional music business.

It’s not that kids don’t have morals. It’s that they don’t understand why anyone would ever get music any other way.

These statistics in hand, where do you think the music industry and media conglomerates are headed? Where should the black line between “right” and “wrong” fall, and how should it be enforced? How, and to whom, should it be taught?

Thank you again to Google DC for an engaging conversation and an amazing opportunity. We’d love to see the conversation continue—in the comments, the blogosphere, and elsewhere!

Picture courtesy Jesse Thomas.

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