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Tuesday 16 June 2009

The Minds that Shape our Future: A Review of "Grown up Digital"

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Grown up Digital” is Don Tapscott’s follow-up to “Growing up Digital”, a book that described the emerging “Net Generation” and their unique influences. This generation is defined by Tapscott as those who were born from 1977 to 1997. As he explains, they have often gone by different monikers including “Generation Y”, because they immediately follow “Generation X”, and the “Millennials”. Tapscott uses the “Net” to distinguish them, as this is the main tool he sees them using in their work and leisure. “Grown up Digital” is a study and reflection on how this generation is now changing our world and how the older members of society are succeeding or failing depending on how well they understand these new kids on the block.

Criticizing your era’s youth is nothing new. It’s not difficult either. We can find literature going back centuries, let alone decades, where the older generation discusses the shortcomings of their successors. In this sense Tapscott’s book is refreshing in the enthusiastic optimism he feels, as a member of the “Baby Boomer Generation”, watching the way the Net Generation are shaping business and society. He argues that the unique communicative services provided by the internet have helped develop the world’s first aligned global generation and helped promote more collaboration and less prejudice. The birth of “Web 2.0” has made this generation become more creative and interactive. They are less passive than previous generations whose main influence came from sources like the television. Web 2.0 has promoted such services as Wikipedia, Myspace and Facebook that encourage users to create their own content. Tapscott explains that a generation “bathed in bits” are used to customizing everything and their actual thinking process is geared towards contribution rather than just receiving information.

The book is fairly lengthy yet an accessible, which cries out for a massive paradigm shift in the way we run businesses and education. The author spends a lot of time rebutting the popular arguments about the Net Generation. The alienation argument is countered with the mass philanthropy and global community promoted by the ‘net. Although more liberal views regarding intellectual property are clearly a behaviour that puts this generation at odds with previous ones, Tapscott argues that this does not diminish the Net Generation’s creativity and is partly explained by their desire to be interactive. His most convincing argument is put forward regarding the apparent lack of physical activity displayed by this generation, a generation often condemned for being obese and lazy. Tapscott points out that the Net Generation don’t watch nearly as much television as the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers. In fact, television is used more as a type of muzak for this generation, played in the background whilst they got on with other activities. This brings us onto the argument regarding multitasking. Tapscott should be credited with the objective way he handled this topic. Although the studies mentioned do not prove that the Net Generation are any better at multitasking, it also shows that they aren’t any worse and their apparent lower attention spans demonstrate the sheer volume of activity they actually cram into a day.

Although, on the whole, Tapscott’s mission is to bang the drum and promote a better understanding of the Net Generation he does also mention some of their shortcomings that are not easily countered. His main word of warning is the way net users freely divulge private information on the web, information that has affected people’s careers. I read “Grown up Digital” at the same time I was reading Damian Thompson’s “Counterknowledge”. It was interesting to note what Tapscott viewed as a scrutinizing and critical generation inspired by the constantly peer-reviewed internet, Thompson saw their susceptibility to misinformation, conspiracy theories, pseudohistory and pseudoscience. They are both correct, of course, but the scrutinizing Tapscott sees as a trait of the emerging generation can often manifests itself in pseudoscepticism. This is demonstrated by the egregious conspiracy theory films created for the net such as “Zeitgeist: The Movie” and “Loose Change”.

Having not read “Growing up Digital” and being completely new to Don Tapscott’s work I viewed his latest work as a standalone piece. It is recommended reading for anyone involved at least in teaching, where it provides some superb new initiatives and insights.

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