Growing up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generationby Don Tapscott
The first generation to grow up digital has arrived, and they are transforming the way we work, play, and communicate. In Growing Up Digital, bestselling author Don Tapscott profiles this net generation and how its use of digital technology reshaping the way society and individuals interact. Unlike the Baby Boomers who grew up with the passive medium of television, children today, in ever-growing numbers, are embracing interactive media such as the Internet, CD-ROM, and video games. Growing Up Digital highlights how young people-empowered by digital media-learn, work, play, communicate, and shop differently than their boomer parents. It examines what this means for the whole spectrum of society, including our education system, the government, and economy. Taken together, Growing Up Digital offers an overview of the Net Generation's fearless overhaul of our culture; and it gives the members of this generation--and everyone affected by their use of new media--a chance to anticipate and act on what lies ahead.
A few months after buying their new computer, the parents of four-year-old Ryan are astonished to find that he has used Reader Rabbit, an educational program that they bought with the machine, to teach himself how to read. Soon afterwards he is busily conducting science experiments with household materials, inspired by another educational program. And all this before he's spent a single day in school.
Two teens in New Jersey find bomb-making instructions on the Internet, shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing. In their attempts to make a pipe bomb it explodes, injuring both of them. In 1995, Time Magazine publishes a cover story claiming (incorrectly, it turned out) that over 80 percent of images available on the Internet are pornographic. Stories of pedophiles luring kids through Internet chat and e-mail circulate widely. There are calls for censorship and sales of parental control software skyrocket.
Which of these scenarios depict the real story of the relationship between kids and the new digital technologies? Do they all? Are computers and the Internet dangerous time-wasters, robbing kids of `real world' experience, or are they valuable tools that will revolutionize our schools and actually increase the intelligence and knowledge of our kids?
The problem is that most people just don't know. Our children are exploring places where many of us have never been and don't understand, and we're afraid they're getting away from us. Can we trust them to make the right choices, to become the people we want them to be?
According to Don Tapscott, we can. In Growing Up Digital, he argues persuasively that today's kids, or as he calls them, the Net Generation, are fundamentally different from and in many ways ahead of the generations before them. Digital technology has shaped them, just as television shaped their parents, the baby boomers. And it has done a better job than television, replacing a passive broadcast medium with an interactive, involving one. In short, he says, "the kids are all right."
A Toronto-based business and technology writer and `cyber-guru', Tapscott's previous bestsellers Paradigm Shift and The Digital Economy focussed on re-inventing business for the new information economy. Although Growing Up Digital looks at children instead of large corporations, it reiterates his belief that we are in the midst of a revolutionary change in our social and economic systems. Young people will be the ones who inherit and shape these systems, and Tapscott argues that everyone, from parents and educators to business leaders, needs to understand this new generation.
There is a danger in technology writing; authors often get so carried away with the excitement they feel towards new technology and its possibilities that their books become little more than a compendium of gadgets and futuristic scenarios. Growing Up Digital is not immune from this tendency -- sometimes Tapscott writes breathlessly about such possibilities as intelligent search agents, virtual-reality shopping and computer-mediated education. Thankfully, however, these moments are tempered by a wealth of real-world case studies, anecdotes and interviews, and a very real sense of respect for his subjects as individuals.
Some of the best moments in Growing Up Digital come from these individuals. The book is liberally sprinkled with the opinions and recollections of the three hundred or so young people interviewed by Tapscott. People like 14 year-old Neasa Coll, who writes, "The Internet definitely gives kids a break from the cruelties of reality.People on the Internet judge you by your thoughts and opinions.The Internet shows a person's personality, and not the shell that we see in real life." Or Matt Kessler, also 14, who says "On the Net, I am one of the most outgoing people I know. Probably why I spend so much time there.I have a strong sense for writing, and also read every day. I'm thinking all the time "
They're an articulate bunch, these kids. And they reinforce his startling claim that exposure to digital media, especially the Internet, is creating a generation who actually think differently. He asserts that the culture of interaction that is emerging on the Internet enables kids to try out different versions of themselves, to get past the stereotypes that we invariably attach to people because of their age, race or gender. He calls them a generation of critical thinkers, a gregarious group who are also independent, tolerant, curious and self-reliant. He even posits that interactive technology has been responsible for a rise in IQ scores.
This brings us to another important point the book raises. For perhaps the first time, young people are authorities in an important cultural, technological and economic arena that their parents often do not understand. Their knowledge is valuable, and it changes the dynamics of adult-child relationships. This shift in power has been felt by any parent who finds themselves dependent on their twelve year old to help them reprogram the VCR or troubleshoot a software problem on the family PC.
Of course the enthusiasm and expertise kids have about these powerful tools causes worry: many parents feel threatened or uneasy about their loss of control. This unease is at the root of some of the current media panic about the Internet. But Tapscott also describes families (including his own) where this situation has been used to bridge the generation gap. Parents and children can interact as equals, and in the act of educating and explaining things to parents, children gain self-respect and confidence.
The book covers a great deal of ground, and for the most part it succeeds. Tapscott correctly compares the media panic about the Internet to earlier panics about television, movies and rock music. He does a good job in deflecting one of the strongest criticisms of computers and the Internet, that kids who spend too much time with them are robbed of experience in the `real world.' He lets the kids answer, and their answer is "nonsense." In fact, most of them feel the opposite is true: they are more social, and have a wider range of interests than their peers who are not on-line.
Tapscott also explores how the Net Generation's unique qualities will affect the world of work in the future, and details ways in which families can deal with fears about porn, pedophiles and pipe bombs without having to resort to heavy-handed methods such as censorship or computer bans. He also resists the tendency of many in the technology industry to see free markets as some sort of perfect egalitarian force, admitting that there is a potentially dangerous `digital divide' forming between rich and poor. His suggested solutions ask both governments and private industry to make stronger commitments to ensuring the people are not left behind in the rush to the digital future.
The most contentious and potentially controversial area of the book covers computers and education. There is a vigorous debate going on at the moment about this topic. Cultural and technology critics such as Neil Postman and Clifford Stoll have lashed out at computers, blaming them for stifling creativity and analysis, and accusing schools of being dazzled by their promise and blind to their shortcomings. Even Steven Jobs himself, co-founder of Apple Computers, perhaps the most school-oriented computer company, recently admitted that he didn't believe technology could solve the problems of education.
Tapscott responds to the studies and arguments of these critics with studies and arguments of his own. He accepts that simply throwing computers at schools is no solution to educational woes, but argues that the nature of computers and the Internet necessitate new methods of education, especially "project-centered" learning. In contradiction to the anti-computer crowd, he criticizes schools for not being open enough to technology. They are mired in the past, he says, and if they don't change, if they don't re-engineer themselves, they will find themselves out-competed by corporate education programs and private learning organizations.
Although I agree with much in the book, I must admit that this corporate, economic view of the education system leaves me a little cold. I'm almost afraid to ask if anyone still cares about the values of a classical, liberal arts education. But still, we are in an age when computers are becoming ubiquitous, and keeping them out of classrooms entirely just means that only the well-off students will be confident and knowledgeable about technology. I'm just afraid that Tapscott's sensible prints about the importance of changing curricula to best use technology will be ignored in the rush for quick fixes and the lure of the flickering screens that excite and attract students so.
In the end, there's a great deal to think about. For those ignorant of the world of computers and the Internet, much in here will be eye-opening. And even for those who are already immersed in the wired world, the book provides an important and engaging look at the first generation that will grow up digital.
- McGraw-Hill Companies, The
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