Growing Up Digital is a positive, if slightly hyperbolic, account of the youth of what Tapscott terms the Net Generation. Tapscott defines the Net Generation as a generation who were between the ages of 2 and 22 in 1999 and “the first to grow up surrounded by digital media”. By my calculations that would make them between 15 and 35 now in 2012, which means he is essentially talking about my generation, except it’s not really representative at all. I would hazard a guess that while most of the statements he makes here may well apply to me, I am the very definition of an early adopter and growing up in the 80s and 90s I never even used a computer until I was eleven years old, so I doubt they apply to even 10% of the people I grew up with. Part of this discrepancy is likely that whereas Tapscott is talking about young people in the USA, I grew up in Ireland where most people couldn’t get access to the Internet, even if they did want it, up until five or ten years ago. Looking at the figures for 1998 (the year the book was written) only 18.6% of Irish households had a PC (cso.ie, 1998) – that’s not even an Internet connection, just a PC. Even in the UK only 34% of households had a PC (statistics.gov.uk, 2008).
Tapscott admits that he is talking about a small group of early adopters, even by US standards on the pretext that they will inform us on the widespread future adoption by the rest of their generation. Taking that at face value, from this research we can probably deduce more about people who fall into a demographic 5-10 years younger than what is described in the book. With that said, the book offers some interesting insights into a generation that has had a completely different experience of the knowledge continuum compared to previous generations.
In researching the book Tapscott collaborated with over 300 young people. This research was carried out online over one year on especially dedicated forums. Tapscott also interviews with parents, business leaders, cyber gurus and policy makers and draws on demographic work and market research conducted by the Alliance for Converging Technologies think tank.
According to Tapscott, the main thing that separates the Net Generation from previous generations is that they are more comfortable with technology and more digitally literate than their parents’ generation (the Baby Boomers). They are at the crux of social transformation because of the way that they communicate, play, shop, learn, work and create communities online. The kids are out in front, leading the pack and the adults are struggling to catch up and implement educational and social strategies that take digital media into consideration. They are in the midst of a paradigm shift in which the knowledge hierarchy is being flipped on its head. For the first time children are the authorities on something and have valuable skills to teach their parents.
Stories about six-year-olds programming new VCRs after their parents’ unsuccessful efforts are now cliché. A newer version is the 14-year-old girl whose parents recently asked her to install Net Nanny software on the family computer to keep Internet pornography out of the house. Of course, her parents are oblivious to the fact that if she sets up the system, she then controls it. ( p36)
Traits that apply to the NGen personality include curiosity, assertiveness, self-reliance and acceptance of diversity. Tapscott portrays them as active-minded individuals who want to engage in dialogue through their digital media. They want to be users, rather than viewers. To them the television is out-dated, in that it does not allow for interaction.
While N-Geners understand the basic operation of spatial distances, as did previous generations, they appear to lack appreciation of global distances. They may be the first generation with a truly global perspective. The world to them is (to use a term of Nicholas Negroponte) “the size of the head of a pin”. (p101)
This generation is more aware of a global context, they think in hypertext – to them everything is linked somehow and the computer augments their thinking, freeing their mind from linear thought. Although he does not go as far as to say it is value-free, Tapscott believes that the Internet has greater neutrality than traditional media. Kids can control their own world on the Net leading to a greater capacity for questioning, challenging and diversity of opinion. Unlike the TV, the Net provides children with the capacity to develop and learn while also having fun. Tapscott believes that when kids control their media they develop faster, so the Net Generation has accelerated development.
Conventional wisdom took a beating in the spring of 1996 when Harvard students effectively challenged their administration’s million-dollar contract wit PepsiCo which would have given the soft drink manufacturer exclusive beverage rights on campus. The challenge came about as a direct result of a 1993 notice placed on the Internet by university students in Canada. The notice examined PepsiCo’s holdings in Burma [Myanmar….] calls for a boycott of Pepsi products were renewed on university and college campuses all over the continent. In January 1997, PepsiCo announced its full disengagement from Burma. (p283)
Ideologically, the NGen value independence, individualism, privacy, tolerance, equality, social justice, and freedom of expression and the oppose censorship, and discrimination. They trust their future only to themselves, trusting their own judgement and abilities but worrying about the wider world and economy and how it will affect their future. They mistrust government and elites and value a good education although their primary focus is not making money. They value being connected to others and have a strong sense of collective social and civic responsibility and strong opinions on social issues. The Internet has become the vehicle for questioning and protest of this generation, much as the Baby Boomer generation protested on the streets in the 60s.
We can already see this in nascent social movements around the world, from the media guerrillas organizing to expose unethical corporations that are pushing smoking or anorexia or exploiting child labor, to the surging students in Serbia working to topple a bankrupt and authoritarian regime. The Net is their vehicle for revolution – their tract, megaphone, teach-in, bookstore, fundraising event, demonstration, makeshift stage, and war room all in one. (p300)