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A TCI Book Review

Growing Up Digital - The Rise of the Net Generation

Don Tapscott
McGraw-Hill, New York, 1998.


In this book, Don Tapscott introduces us to the concept of the ‘N-Generation’ - ‘N’ being short for ‘Net’ or ‘Internet’ which underscores the pervasive nature of this technology to this age group. The N-Generation consists of those 88 million individuals in North America who will be aged 2 to 22 in the year 1999. This group is larger even than the famous baby boom generation, which comprises a mere 29% of the population (compared to the N-Gen’s 30%). These people, Tapscott says, are surrounded by digital media - they are "bathed in bits", and for the most part are fluent with computers. Nearly two thirds of them have used computers, either at home or at school.

‘Growing Up Digital’ is an exploration into the attitudes and behaviors of this generation, particularly those related to the use of computers and the Internet.

The book came together in an interesting way. An on-going internet forum consisting of 300 persons aged 4 to 20, all of whom were internet active, was assembled, and consulted periodically (by means of e-mail, of course) over the course of a year. This was thus a kind of on-going focus group or Delphi session. This group - the Growing Up Digital Kids - contributed to the creation of, a web site companion to the book.

Thus, a warning. Many of the book’s conclusions purport to apply to all of the N-Generation. However, insofar as they are based largely upon the responses of a particularly internet-active, presumably articulate, and likely relatively well off group of individuals, they probably represent a relatively biased sample. On the other hand, these articulate, extremely computer literate children and teens of today are likely representative of tomorrow’s managers and opinion-leaders, and thus their attitudes and behaviors are of particular interest.

Basically, Tapscott is sanguine about the prospects of the N-Generation. Far from viewing them as nerds or geeks who are wasting their youth in front of a computer screen playing interactive war games, he sees them as highly motivated, socially conscious group, willing and able to change society for the better.

He postulates what he terms a ‘generation lap’ (not gap) to describe the gulf between these Web-savvy kids and their far less literate baby boomer parents. He says that there are four themes that describe this gulf:

  1. The older generations are uneasy about the new technology – which kids are embracing. Some adults tend to view computers and digital technology askance, associating it with automation, job downsizing, ‘big brother’ and the like.
  2. Older generations tend to be uneasy about the new media – which are coming into the heart of youth culture. Some older generations focus on the 0.5 percent of material on the Web (according to Tapscott, although the figure is unsubstantiated) that is violent, sexist, hate-oriented and the like as proof that the Web is a negative and corrupting influence.
  3. Old media are uneasy about new media. Here he makes the point that the traditional broadcast and print media is unable to control the new digital media, and thus tends to reflect an attitude of negativism and uncertainty.
  4. The digital revolution, unlike previous ones, is not controlled only by adults.

"A new youth culture is emerging, one which involves much more than just the pop culture of music, MTV, and the movies. This is a new culture in the broadest sense, defined as a the socially transmitted shared patterns of behavior, customs, attitudes and tacit codes, beliefs and values, arts, knowledge, and social forms. This new culture is rooted in the experience of being young and also in being part of the biggest generation ever. But most importantly, it is a culture that is stemming from the N-Gen use of interactive digital media. We should pay attention because the culture which flows from their experiences in cyberspace foreshadows the culture they will create as the leaders of tomorrow in the workplace and society." (p.55)

Tapscott outlines ten themes that he feels characterize this emerging youth culture:

  1. Fierce independence
  2. Emotional and intellectual openness
  3. Inclusion: "N-Geners are moving toward greater social inclusion with technology, not exclusion. Their art and the international populations of their virtual communities show a global orientation in their search for information, activity and communication." (p.69)
  4. Free expression and strong views
  5. Innovation
  6. Preoccupation with maturity: "Overall, N-Geners resent the fact that their ideas and activities are often suspect for the sole reason that they are children." (p.71)
  7. Investigation
  8. Immediacy
  9. Sensitivity to (or suspicion of) corporate interest
  10. Authentication and trust: "Because of the anonymity, accessibility, diversity, and ubiquity of the Net, children must continually authenticate what they see or hear on the Web." (p.75)

Various chapters of the book outline how the N-Generation thinks and behaves in various facets of life, including learning, recreation and play, shopping, employment, and family life.

For example, with respect to education, Tapscott outlines eight shifts of interactive learning (i.e. areas in which he sees changes in how the N-Generation learns compared to how most Baby Boomers learned):

  1. From linear to hypermedia learning
  2. From instruction to construction and discovery
  3. From teacher-centered to learner-centered education
  4. From absorbing material to learning how to navigate and how to learn
  5. From school to lifelong learning
  6. From one-size-fits-all to customized learning
  7. From learning as torture to learning as fun
  8. From teacher as transmitter to teacher as facilitator

Turning to shopping and consumption, he outlines five themes that characterize the N-Generation as consumers:

  1. N-Geners want options
  2. N-Geners want customization to their individual sizes, preferences and needs
  3. They want to change their minds
  4. They try before they buy
  5. Technology doesn’t dazzle – function counts

With this in mind, he offers advice for purveyors of certain goods and services, in terms of the nature of demand from this segment, as well as the ways in which they should be marketed to N-Geners:

  • Residential real estate – This won’t be a big growth area for at least a couple of decades, when N-Geners have accumulated the purchasing power to buy homes. Moreover, when they do, they will demand totally wired houses and vacation properties.
  • Commercial real estate – Tapscott doesn’t expect the N-Geners to be keen on working in big glass towers in downtown locations. This generation will naturally adapt to telecommuting and will be working out of their homes or in local commercial ‘telework’ centres.
  • Real estate redevelopment – Tapscott expects that a big growth industry will be in the conversion of existing real estate developments to suit the needs of N-Geners, including the conversion of office spaces into residential.
  • Automobiles – "The biggest generation ever is approaching driving age. They’ll want cars, initially inexpensive ones. A generation raised with digital technology will want digital cars." (p. 204)
  • Clothing – According to Tapscott, this is a generation with a strong sense of style, but that they won’t necessarily be swayed by the messages of the large brands. They will develop their own sense of what is stylish, sharing information about where to get clothing (e.g. second-hand shops) over the Web.
  • Financial services – N-Geners will want all their financial information consolidated in one place for their inspection and management. They will want to do all their dealings on the Net. "In the year 2005 there will be more than 10 million N-Geners over 20 years of age. Two-thirds of them will want to surf to the bank. If you’re not a cyberbank, you won’t exist for them." (p.204)
  • Recreation – Tapscott predicts, predictably, that there will be a growth in Net-based entertainment. He also points out that increasingly members of this generation will be reaching drinking age, and predicts a growth in alcohol consumption.
  • Education – N-Geners will find the concept of lifelong learning natural, and will expect their employers to provide fulfilling opportunities in this regard.
  • Travel – N-Geners will not be enthusiastic about commuting. For recreational travel, they will be used to making their own arrangements and will expect to be able to do this.
  • Music – N-Geners may not be into ‘collecting’ music by means of CDs, when it will be available easily on the Net, any time, any place.
  • Logistical services – N-Geners will expect more things to come to them, rather than them moving to things (like work, shopping, etc.) This implies growth in what Tapscott calls ‘logistical services’ such as FedEx, UPS and the post office.
  • Publications – While N-Geners will still read books on the beach, they will get their news digitally, and will expect individually customized electronic news and information delivery.
  • New media – N-Geners will expect that entertainment and information services will be delivered to them using the full range of capabilities provided by the latest in multimedia.
  • Consumer electronics – This generation can be expected to spend a higher proportion of its disposable income on digital consumer electronics.

Regarding the N-Generation and business, Tapscott identifies ten themes and attitudes that he says characterize the new types of businesses that N-Geners will be involved with:

  1. Independence and the molecular enterprise: "N-Geners have high independence and autonomy, growing from their experience as initiators of communication and information handling activity. We can expect that rather than being a cog in the wheel, the N-Gen worker will be comfortable working more like a molecule. As I have previously argued, in a knowledge economy the basic unit of wealth creation shifts from being the corporate hierarchy to the networked individual – like a molecule." (p.211)
  2. Intellectual openness
  3. Collaboration
  4. Internetworking intellect for organizational consciousness: Here Tapscott starts to sound like Arthur C. Clarke: "Perhaps internetworking can help organizations achieve consciousness just like the neural networks in the human brain enable a human to achieve consciousness. Will the N-Gen be the first generation to create conscious organizations, and thereby organizations which can learn?" (p.213) Hmmm…
  5. A culture of innovation
  6. Preoccupation with maturity
  7. Investigation
  8. Immediacy and the real time firm: "Another theme of the N-Gen world is immediacy, appropriate for the enterprise of the future which is real-time enterprise – continuously and immediately adjusting to changing customer demands, supplier capabilities, and business conditions." (p.214)
  9. Corporate skepticism – N-Gen as capital: Tapscott’s point here is that N-Geners have an attitude of suspicion and skepticism about big corporations that will have to be overcome in order for the corporate world to effectively recruit this new generation of knowledge workers. Insofar as companies can treat people as capital (rather than a variable cost) they will be successful in creating the corporate environment that is likely to attract such workers. "Arguing that people should be given the high status of capital isn’t dehumanizing people – it’s arguing that increasingly knowledge workers, not money or physical plant, are the key to wealth creation and prosperity." (p.215)
  10. A culture of trustworthiness and trust

Tapscott ends the book on a fairly utopian note:

"The latter half of the century was dominated by a generation. During that period, strong models of mass media, the enterprise, work, commerce, family, play, and social life were established. The new media and the new generation are beginning to shatter those old ways – and our evidence points to a better world, if we will it. This massive wave of youth has rights, growing aspirations, truly awesome capabilities, and nascent demands which are far-reaching.

These young people will bring and implement radical views regarding how business should be conducted and on the process of democratic governance. They will be a generation which can learn, as a generation, unlike any other. They will seek to protect the planet and I believe they will find racism, sexism and other vile remnants of bygone days both weird and unacceptable. They will seek to share in the wealth they create. They will want power in every domain of economic and political life. The big remaining question for older generations is whether we will share that power with gratitude or will the N-Gen be forced to take it from us? Will we have the wisdom and courage to accept the N-Geners, their culture and their media, and grant them the opportunity to fulfill their destiny?

Listen to the children." (pp. 304, 305)





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