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Copyright

Title: Growing Up Digital
Author: Don Tapscott
Publisher: McGraw-Hill
Copyright: 1998
ISBN: 0-07-063361-4
Pages: 338
Price: $22.95
Rating: 88%
Has any generation not seen the certain fall of civilization in its children? Take these quotes, gathered by Neil Howe and Bill Strauss in 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?, for instance:

  • “Students had great difficulty expressing even one substantive thought.” -- National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1988
  • “Kids today are really, really dumb....Why learn about sines and cosines if the cash register is going to make the change for you?” -- Roger Simon, in the Los Angeles Times (You need sines and cosines to make change?)

Part of older generations’ unease with the 2-22 year-olds, who will number 88 million Americans in the year 2000, is that the parents and grandparents of the world are the ones being taught how to use new technologies. In Finland, for instance, 5000 kids were chosen to instruct their teachers in how to use computers and the Internet.

Don Tapscott, the father of two “net generation” children, co-author of Who Knows? (reviewed in the Privacy and Individual Rights section of this site), and author of The Digital Economy, based his findings on one year of online forums for kids hosted by York University, the FreeZone network, and Tapscott’s New Paradigm Learning Corporation. The result is a work that discards the common preconceptions about “kids these days” and offers a measured profile of how youngsters function in the digital environment -- the only environment they’ve ever known.

Tapscott breaks his findings down into lists of characteristics describing various aspects of the net generation’s make-up. Some of these lists include looks at the generation gap (or “lap”, as Tapscott argues the n- gen’ers have lapped their elders in the technology race), aspects of n-gen culture (like “fierce independence”, “free expression”, and “sensitivity to corporate interest”), and how n-gen’ers will (and, in fact, are) as consumers. I’m usually suspicious of lists of characteristics, but these lists are much more than simple bullet points. The author takes the time to flesh out the various points, often illustrating his observations with quotes from the discussions his and other efforts have fostered.

Growing Up Digital offers a systematic and revealing look inside the computer-savvy generation of kids, though Tapscott does take a chapter to address the significant segment of the population that doesn’t have Internet access, even through school. He argues in favor of community access through mall kiosks and libraries so the advantages of being wired will spread throughout the population.

I am somewhat troubled by Tapscott’s ignoring the potential downside to computerization. While he does take on critiques by Theodore Roszak and Neil Postman, his method to improve education entails kids becoming much more in control of their own education and casts the “teacher” in the role of facilitator rather than lecturer. Call me a cynic, but I am skeptical about this solution on a number of counts. First, (re)training teachers under this new pedagogical model would be difficult to accomplish in the near future, especially in light of Tapscott’s argument that universities are threatened by new technology and the power inversions it causes. Second, where will this educational software come from, and how will it be distributed throughout North America? Third, where will the money for all these new computers come from? Industry? Maybe, but they’ll want something in return. Fourth, will kids make the right choices and be responsible enough to do the work needed to make the new system work? I’ve seen graduate student groups fall apart during simple projects and have grave concerns about middle- schoolers maintaining cohesive units for significant lengths of time. Finally, how will these new projects be graded? On a curve? Against a set standard of correctness flexible enough to encompass the myriad projects that would come from such a system? One other concern is, ironically enough, Tapscott’s role as the father of two highly accomplished n-gen’ers. Don’t get me wrong, I want to believe that increased student autonomy would jump-start North American education, but it’s an awfully big step.

What I do believe sincerely is that Growing Up Digital is a fine book that takes a compassionate and fair look at how today’s kids perceive and interact with the world. Like it or not, the Net Generation is going to be around for a long time and we’d better understand how its constituents operate. Growing Up Digital is an important tool in furthering that understanding.

Curtis D. Frye (cfrye@teleport.com)  is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews.  He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.