Grown Up Digital: Don Tapscott’s Latest On ‘Generation Net’

grown-up-digital1June 15, 2009 “A revolution doesn’t happen in society when you adopt new tools, a revolution in society happens when you adopt new behaviors.”

That digital premise opens up the debate for the 21st century tug-o-war of perception between what Wikinomics author Don Tapscott of Grown Up Digital calls the ‘smartest generation’ and what his nemesis, Mark Bauerlein of Emery College calls “The Dumbest Generation” in his recent book by the same name.

On the first day of Ypulse insights, youth advice slinger Josh Shipp was the opening keynote, and Don Tapscott closed the packed day (‘Tweet’ coverage here) as the spotlight keynote directly following the Totally Wired Teacher’s Award. Why? Marketing, of course…

A slick way to keep folks sticking around in the late afternoon battling the fatigue factor of information overload, or slinking off with pals to partake in San Francisco’s inimitable selection of delectable food finds.

Don Tapscott jolted everyone awake like a double espresso slinging all the perceived negative notions of media and marketing’s impact on kids. He grabbed the mike and started a machine gun burst of in-your-face cynicism targeting technology’s influence in those who have GrownUp Digital, along the lines of:

”Hey, moron, this ‘Generation Me’ has created a bunch of dumb, over-coddled, violent, content-stealing bullies who don’t give a damn, don’t vote, are narcissistic…the future is hopeless…” etc. Was I in the right room?

don-tapscottThe mudslinging made me want to check my agenda to see if maybe I didn’t mix up the speakers…

He seemed like he could’ve walked out of a “Mad Men” episode, (classic stereotyped ad agency ‘suit’) so I Googled a clip of his NPR Talk of the Nation interview “Praising A Grown Up Digital Generation,” matched his headshot and said to myself:

“Yep, right guy, not in the wrong room” and settled in, realizing this was just Mr. New Paradigm’s quintessential style…

I’d also heard Mark Bauerlein on’s TV and knew these gents were having an intelligent, worthy debate in the public arena pertaining to the double-edge sword of today’s influencers impacting peers, parenting, and pop culture as a whole, so the entire concept intrigued…

net-genDon Tapscott quickly segued into his own reasoning of why people should quit pigeon-holing kids into demographic monikers like “Millennials” and “Gen Y” and think more about the ways the behaviors have changed in the USE of media, focusing on the fact that this is the first “Net Generation” who has truly ‘Grown Up Digital.’ (here’s the full 69 pp pdf of his  presentation)

On that note, I have to fully agree, as I keep reiterating to everyone from researchers and academics to marketers touting ‘statistics’on ‘this generation’ and ‘that generation’ as if it all cuts off tidily in one neat little ribbon and bow package good. Sheesh. How simplistic.

If we used ‘generations’ to define patterns with sweeping overviews, I dare say guys like Don Tapscott (or media moms like me, for that matter) would be high on the fogey factor ‘blink’ of a perception…people would assume we’re both ‘out of touch’ with kids altogether.

Far from the paintbrush of our youth canvas I’d say…

windshield Tapscott used the analogy of “clearing the windshield” to see through the lens of a very SMART group of kids, citing his 4.5 million dollar research study interviewing 11,000 people in ten different countries ensuring this net generation is indeed worldchanging, for the better.

Tapscott has said, “The story that emerges from the research is an inspiring one, and it should bring us all great hope. As the first global generation ever, the Net Geners are smarter, quicker, and more tolerant of diversity than their predecessors.

They care strongly about justice and the problems faced by their society and are typically engaged in some kind of civic activity at school, at work, or in their communities. Recently in the United States, hundreds of thousands of them have been inspired by Barack Obama’s run for the presidency and have gotten involved in politics for the first time.

This generation is engaging politically and sees democracy and government as key tools for improving the world.

With their reflexes tuned to speed and freedom, these empowered young people are beginning to transform every institution of modern life.

From the workplace to the marketplace, from politics to education to the basic unit of any society, the family, they are replacing a culture of control with a culture of enablement.

Eight characteristics, or norms, describe the typical Net Gener and differentiate them from their boomer parents:

They prize freedom and freedom of choice. They want to customize things, make them their own. They’re natural collaborators, who enjoy a conversation, not a lecture. They’ll scrutinize you and your organization. They insist on integrity. They want to have fun, even at work and at school. Speed is normal. Innovation is part of life.

Judging by the transfixed ‘you had me at hello’ audience of Ypulse marketers and youth, I figured I might be the usual maverick lone wolf questioning everything from his premise to his numbers, because I find considerable merit in Bauerlein’s opposing arguments too.

edgeTapscott suggested the bifurcation of new media and digital access as part of the reason why schools are in a crisis of relevance. He recently backed this up on one of my favorite sites called in this article titled The Impending Demise of the University which raised my “lifelong learning” eyebrows in a huge way, because it echoed an ongoing theme among the sharpshooters at this spring’s Teens in Tech conference I wrote about, too.

I’d read it before he’d mentioned it, so it please me greatly that he shared this snapshot of a problem in search of a solution, summing with my favorite line in his entire presentation:

“Right now, notes of the teacher go to the notes of the student without going through the brains of either. This is a problem!”

Amen to that one.

I’ve literally experienced this in every “at risk” school where I’ve been told with resignation that I can ‘try’ but ‘probably won’t be able to’ make some of our core content ‘stick.’

Gee, I dunno, folks, we’re still looking at 82% retention rates on some pretty tough mind, body, media corollaries by turning nutrition and health sciences into a ‘reality show’ format with a hands-on game.

You have to speak in a language that will be heard. Nothing new about that premise…Target your audience properly. Marketing 101.

future-of-workTapscott backed up the “smartest generation” feel good factor noting that “College admission standards are at an all-time high, and among college grads, the top third of this ‘net generation’ is spectacular, the middle third is doing great, and the bottom third is dropping out.”

This once again begs the ‘relevance’ question in an entrepreneur economy with Time Magazine’s The Future of Work coverstory reinforcing that “there’s no longer a ladder to climb, you may never get to retire, but there’s a world of opportunity if you figure out a new path.”

I perked up my ears at many of his jewels of differentiation between Growing Up Digital vs. Grown Up Digital, and aside from the shameless book plug (hey, he’s a marketer) he makes a compelling point about why the shift matters as this generation weaned on the internet moves into every institution and society at large…bringing a behavioral shift in approach, a fresh definition of ‘what matters,’ and an altered state of how we go about achieving things in an increasingly collaborative culture.

To me, Tapscott’s wisdom as a spokesperson for community building and knowledge sharing is his core strength and appeal, where he matter-of-factly discusses the rise of commerce and creativity based on “co-innovation” rather than fiefdoms of sealed off knowledge.

I love this.

wikinomicsHe cites examples like Wikipedia versus the encyclopedia giving mindshare to collaborative communities over a set hierarchy of who holds the credibility, in absolutist terms…

…BUT, you have to look at the whole enchilada of ‘wikinomics’…

Wikipedia and open resources can make for smarter conversations among a very elite group of participants, and ‘the filters’ and media literacy required to navigate and discern when to call ‘bull crunchies’ on the powers that be en masse is an ongoing challenge…Plus there’s the notion of digital kids being incredibly global yet also strangely narrow in embracing certain knowledge pools.

That leaves educators, academics and even parents seeming to ‘divvy up’ into ‘camps’ creating a polarity of perception among adults who judge for themselves which spectrum of ‘smartest vs. dumbest’ evidence they’re witnessing in their own homes, schools, and workplaces of exposure.

Talk about a skewed sampling!

dumbest-generationI guess what I’m saying is, I like both of these guys for very different reasons...

Every point has a counterpoint unless it goes unexamined.

I don’t see why we’d turn youth into media fodder to mock OR empower in pedestal mode…because to me, sweeping generalities don’t work in either Tapscott OR Bauerlein’s book-tour gigs…Bauerlein uses media tidbits of trivia and 17-year old surveys that hold a camera up to Net Gen youth like a Jay Leno “Jaywalking” episode of a laugh at the losers quizfest.

Tapscott lauds youth like the second coming as if they’ll single-handedly be able to reverse global warming, Obamify our nations’ educational issues with social media know how, and oh, by the way, find that life balance boomers have been banging their heads against the walls searching for to no avail…

Both are polarized absolutes…there’s irony there.

Even when Tapscott said: “Kids are lapping parents in tech knowledge; they are the system administrators of the home.”

I thought, ‘hmn…well, I suppose it depends on the home, and how you define that ‘tech knowledge’…

Are you talking about the unfettered boldness of tweens and teens ability to ‘figure out’ a device sans reading or even listening to instructions? (yes, that happens constantly, but so does the “Mom! Can you fix this!?” shout out from overly eager keyboard pounders who crash systems through impatience)

Or are you talking about empirical knowledge in ‘the way things work’ where kids can envision the unbridled potential of an idea or concept and build upon it to customize their own uses in open source style?

Or is Tapscott referring to ancillary learning, like the sophistication of filtering ‘bogus’ claims, discerning socioemotional status among peers, understanding virtual worlds, cross-cultural components, youth empowerment of giving voice to views in user generated content to ‘have a say’ etc. etc.

Again, in fairness to both sides of this debate, I think I could cite instances of each one of those knowledge nuggets that reflect both a positive AND negative stance…

brontosaurusFor instance, every time I look at wise youth voices like 18-year old Student of Life, Max Marmer who is part of our NextNow Collaboratory and a “Force for the Future” worth watching (his friend feed on Facebook alone points me to incredibly noteworthy discourse!) and 16 year old Daniel Brusilovsky’s savvy dual-identity like Clark Kent, presenting a low key, ‘hey I’m just an incoming high school senior’ local San Mateo personality while leveraging his digerati connections to place himself smack dab in the entrepreneur economy, I feel I should roar like a digital dinosaur these kids are so far ‘ahead of the game’…

On the other hand, Bauerlein’s points, like “Teenagers are too distracted by computers and social networking, which are crowding out materials like history and civics…”

The implication that our totally wired culture is turning out “hyper-networked kids who can track each other’s every move with ease but are largely ignorant of history, economics, and other meaning prerequisites for meaningful civic participation” play themselves out daily in my circles, particularly among kids who deem such content to be ‘irrelevant’…

Both are correct in differing instances, so the devil is in the details.

I’m more interested in asking, “How can we fix this and mashup the polarities into middle ground that makes ‘core curriculum’ more pertinent for the net generation?”

Moreover, who is determining what’s “core” anymore?

There are entire publishing empires built upon the whole “benchmark” approach to selling insecurities for profit…

core-knowledgeThere’s the Core Knowledge series by E.D. Hirsch, (at left) or The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy or the series by Kenneth Davis “Don’t Know Much About ___” (insert whatever subject matter you snoozed through school)

And yes, I DO own them all, for my analysis, inquiry, and “Are you smarter than a 5th grader” mental floss.

Many parents feel compelled to ‘patch up’ a terribly broken educational system of self-esteem driven, touchy-feely fabrications and students as guinea pigs for ‘whole language learning’ and sight reading and all that stuff…But with the information at your fingertips via the internet now, I’m more interested in teaching kids to critically THINK and reason, not just passively process information.

doing-schoolLast thing we need is a ‘net gen’ of kids just ‘Doing School’ to quote Denise Pope Clark’s book, with ‘stressed out students’ going through the motions in robo-student mode who are otherwise disengaged.

And I’ve seen firsthand what happens when schools squeeze out the love of learning with policy ‘musts’ and NCLB teaching/testing pedagogy…it’s not pretty.

BOTH Tapscott and Bauerlein make salient observations and data points which are clear indicators that this is NOT an either/or proposition in ways kids are growing up digital…it all needs looked at. Pondered even.

From the controversies surrounding multi-tasking and knowledge retention (or what Tapscott deems to be ‘switching ability’ more like a router and filter process) to the altered state of the ‘Net Gen brain’ with exposure to massive input and nanosecond decision-making of what’s worth making it through the filters between the ears…these are mindshifting times.

How glorious to be a part of it all, right emerging youth leaders, change agents and TakingITGlobal networkers?

I suppose creating ‘smartest/dumbest’ drama helps stir the pot of pop culture coverage to feed the media monster juicy soundbites or help brick and mortar bookstores line-up the point-counterpoint ‘easy to grok’ window displays in Matalin/Carver style, but there are bigger ‘content vs. context’ questions here.

As Tapscott himself says in his Talk of the Nation interview doing a flash forward differentiation between his two books:

mobilesend“Now you can tap into a world of knowledge from far more places — from your BlackBerry, for example, or your mobile phone, which can surf the Internet, capture GPS coordinates, take photos, and swap text messages.

Just about every kid has an iPod and a personal profile on social networking sites such as Facebook, which lets Net Geners monitor their friends’ every twitch — all the time. The Net Generation has come of age…”

…“In 2008, the eldest of the net generation turned 31. The youngest turned 11. Around the world the generation is flooding into the workplace, marketplace, and every niche of society. They are bringing their demographic muscle, media smarts, purchasing power, new models of collaborating and parenting, entrepreneurship, and political power into the world.”

He got my attention on the snakebelly bulge of the 13-31 year old demographic being even BIGGER than the boomers, too…which begs the question, how can we best address a love of learning USING messaging that’s relevant instead of quoting ‘dead white men’ and dates that don’t matter because they’re a Google click away?

We all know kids absorb information in multi-faceted ways and engagement is key, but if kids ‘switch off’ to play by their own rules on a ‘need to know’ basis let’s think of how that ultimately translates into ‘real life’ culture.

This is what continues to tap me on the shoulder with our culture’s Renaissance approach to child-rearing where there’s plenty of ‘needless nothingness’ in the homework I see sent home, and I find myself ‘reconveying’ information in a different way so that there’s some semblance of ‘why should I even care about this’ to make it relevant in the digital age.

Tapscott talks about Net Generation norms being:

“Freedom, Customization, Scrutiny Integrity, Collaboration, Entertainment, Speed & Innovation” along with the privacy notion that “Young people are giving away too much information online.”

plato-and-a-platypusYep, agree to all…

So how can we fuse these two findings into compelling communications that kids WANT to engage with…

…Whether it’s finding other kids that want to understand philosophy through jokes (one of my favorite teaching tools: Plato & A Platypus Walk Into a Bar”) which takes complicated ‘content’ (metaphysics, epistemology, existentialism, relativity, etc.) and turns it into humor kids can relate to, so that it ‘sticks’ come test time…

“Oh, yeah, stoicism is ____ Or utilitarianism is ____”

What if we played it out in the social media field, creating a “which philosopher are you most like” Facebook quiz?

How about badges to swap profiles, learning a bit about your friends and their views in the process?

Seems to me this could settle into a quadrant of the brain that’s fun, manageable, and ‘informal learning.

Same with social media snapshots of mathematicians, techno-geeks, or other fun ‘learn as you go’ tidbits of knowledge…kind of like using Shelfari or Library Thing or MUSIC to pre-qualify a date for commonalities! (yes, this happens)

takingitglobalAgain, it’s all about finding touchpoints and relevance…

Social media is simply a window into the world of friends, why not embrace learning with similar zeal?

Finally, Tapscott used his own family example of Christmas Day where during the course of holiday fare, his son had built a social media community despite language barriers, of 130 people in 7 countries to form an influence network…Talk about TakingItGlobal.

The world will never be the same…Roar says the digital dinosaur. Survival depends on flexibility, adaptation, and fresh thought, regardless of one’s age and stage.

Related Resources/Recommends:

totally-wired.jpgAnastasia Goodstein’s Totally Wired: hands down the easiest blend of form and function for parents trying to get a grip on what all this digital dialog and generational context is about…well researched and lots of ‘aha’ moments.

Don Tapscott recommended the new Yes We Did, An Inside Look of How Social Media Built the Obama Brand” written by Rahaf Harfoush which just launched in Canada June 4th 2009 (Tapscott wrote the forward)

Born Digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives—A project of the Digital Natives crew at Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen, they position the book within the context of a ‘native vs. immigrant’ lexicon, billing it as:

…“A smart, practical guide to a brave new world and its complex inhabitants; essential reading for parents, teachers, and the myriad of confused adults who want to understand the digital present – and shape the digital future.” (I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s ‘on my list’)

Kathryn Montgomery’s Generation Digital is excellent, taking a scholarly but accessible middle of the road analysis, summing up several digital quandaries in a well-balanced way; even when addressing the ‘dark side’ of the proliferation of consumerism and kids as commodities (what I call the invasion of the bodysnatchers for big bucks) Highly recommend.


Here’s an MIT book blurb about it:

“The media have pictured the so-called “digital generation” in contradictory ways: as bold trailblazers and innocent victims, as active creators of digital culture and passive targets of digital marketing. This, says Montgomery, reflects our ambivalent attitude toward both youth and technology…”

“…Montgomery charts a confluence of historical trends that made children and teens a particularly valuable target market during the early commercialization of the Internet and describes the consumer-group advocacy campaign that led to a law to protect children’s privacy on the Internet. Montgomery recounts—as a participant and as a media scholar—the highly publicized battles over indecency and pornography on the Internet. She shows how digital marketing taps into teenagers’ developmental needs and how three public service campaigns—about sexuality, smoking, and political involvement—borrowed their techniques from commercial digital marketers. Not all of today’s techno-savvy youth are politically disaffected; Generation Digital chronicles the ways that many have used the Internet as a political tool, mobilizing young voters in 2004 and waging battles with the music and media industries over control of cultural expression online…”

Don Tapscott’s US NOW video from Grown Up

Visual Credits: Net Generation cartoon via Penn State Was IST das? Second Life depiction of TakingITGlobal from virtual

p.s. A few ‘Net Gen’ perspectives reflecting on Don Tapscott’s article in Computer World about corporate adaptation to the Net Gen 80 million strong from the Was IST das blog:

“…These kids’ brains are actually wired differently,” Tapscott said. “Their IQs are up by all the measures we have. This is the smartest generation ever. They are highly motivated and bring with them a new kind of culture. They bring a new model of work and collaboration into the workforce that is better, results in higher performance and better innovation.”

Companies have to adjust to what Tapscott calls Talent 2.0. The net generation craves the speed of instant messaging and mobile communication and is often bogged down by traditional business procedures.

Other suggestions from Tapscott’s research for successfully engaging Net Generation workers include the following:

– Providing a healthy amount of project work, which has the intensive time frames and cyclical nature they prefer.
– Catering to employees’ taste for speed by setting up quick (perhaps five-minute) opportunities for them to present their new ideas to management.
– Encouraging management to develop informal relationships with workers, where criticism and congratulations are accepted and invited by both.



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