Grown Up Digital
How the Net Generation is Changing Your World
Don Tapscott
McGraw-Hill, $27.95, £15.99

It is the privilege, or possibly the curse, of each new generation to be different from the last. But rarely has a generational divide been as noticeable as that between those in their early 20s and the post second world war baby boomers.

This, at any rate, is the proposition put forward by Don Tapscott, a management professor at the University of Toronto, and author a decade ago of Growing Up Digital: the Rise of the Net Generation. In his latest book, Grown Up Digital, he argues that senior corporate managers must strive to understand what he calls the “net generation” – born between 1977 and 1997, more often described as generation Y.

Too often, he says, the generation that grew up with the internet is derided by employers as ill-informed, web addicted, unfocused, poorly read and narcissistic. But in a long-running $4m research project involving thousands of interviews with 16-to-19-year-olds in 12 countries, and comparative interview programmes with earlier generations, Tapscott and his team reached a different view.

The net generation, he notes, was raised on a much more varied media diet than its parents who, in the US at least, watched an average of 22 hours of television a week in their youth. The “Net Geners”, he says, have access to so much competing media that they are more likely to spend their home time on computers, simultaneously interacting in several screens, while talking on the phone, listening to music, doing homework and reading.

This all-in-one generation cannot be defined as passive learners. “They are the active initiators, collaborators, organisers, readers, writers, authenticators, and even strategists…They do not just observe, they participate. They inquire, discuss, argue, play, shop, critique, investigate, ridicule, fantasise, seek and inform.”

Technology is shaping their minds in a different way, he writes. Unlike their predecessors who absorb information sequentially, the Net Gener “plays” with information – clicking, cutting, pasting and linking to interesting material. “They develop hypertext minds,” in the words of William Winn, learning centre director at the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory.

Such behaviours, writes Tapscott, mean this new generation is well equipped for handling information.

He quotes research by father and son brain scientists, Stanley and Matthew Kutcher, who argue that the scanning practices of young people are developing their potential for analytical thinking.

Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies programme at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is also cited. He believes so-called “digital immersion” may be encouraging a new form of intelligence that is strengthened through collaboration with other people and machines.

In a direct challenge to the conventional school syllabus, Tapscott argues that while it is still important that children have certain basic knowledge, the details, such as the date of the Battle of Hastings, are less important when they can be accessed instantly on the web. This is controversial thinking with far-reaching consequences for the way young people are taught and employed. But the book aims to tackle internet prejudices head on.

His conclusion is that “the kids are all right”. The best managers and educators will understand that there is much they can learn from this cohort, as well as the other way round. His seven guidelines for managers include a recommendation to “rethink authority”, giving feedback where it is needed but remaining open to learning from young employees.

Other guidelines include encouraging employees to blog and avoiding bans on access to social networking sites. Instead, managers should work on ways to harness these technologies to promote better collaboration.

The book is a thoughtful antithesis to entrenched and sometimes alarmist managerial opposition to internet-influenced behaviours. Read it next to the computer, scanning, flicking and annotating it as a valuable addition to the internet knowledge that is revolutionising our world.

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