Copyright John Gerstner. All Rights Reserved.

Don Tapscott: Digital Dad (The Civilization of Cyberspace #6)

Technology is like the air.

“For the first time in human history, children are an authority on the big revolution that is changing every institution in society.”

Sixth in a series of interviews on ‘The Civilization of Cyberspace’ by John Gerstner, ABC, first published in the December 1999 issue of  Communication World Magazine.

A few weeks ago, I bought my three-year-old grandson, Mason, an educational CD-ROM. I sat him on my lap in front of the computer and proceeded to show him how to launch the program. He was ecstatic, because this was the first time I actually let him do more than just peck at keys, and it’s been obvious for quite a while that Mason loves computers.

“First, go to Start, then Run, then Browse, then D Drive,” I told him clicking the mouse slowly on each word, as if he could read. “Click the abcd.exe,” I showed him. “Then hit OK.”

After this demo, I turned the mouse over to him, his first solo on a computer Without a shred of hesitation, he quickly went through all the steps I had showed him. He shook with laughter when the CD started bleating out the theme song I would soon regret ever buying: “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. “Wow, I thought. My grandson is one of Don Tapscott’s “Digital Kids.”

According to Tapscott, cyber-author and researcher, there are now more than 88 million of them (one to 21 year-olds) in the U.S. and Canada alone. These are the first kids to grow up so surrounded by digital technology that they see it as nothing special. This so-called Net Generation is e-mailing, chatting, gaming, learning, shopping, working and inventing their own virtual world… at a passion and pace that is baffling to most webophyte adults.

In researching this phenomenon for his latest book, “Growing Up Digital,” Tapscott found that two-thirds of the “Net Generation” use a personal computer either at home or in school. According to Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), the percentage of teens who say it is “in” to be online climbed from 50 percent in 1994 to 88 percent in 1997, on a par with dating and going to the mall. “E-mail me” is this generation’s parting shot. To be sure, this is the group on the have-side of the “digital divide.”

More than half of the 1.2 billion children in the world (aged six to 11) have never placed a phone call yet. Still, says Tapscott, the N-Gen is well worth paying attention to, if for no other reason than that they are destined to be the dominant voice of the 21st century. “Our kids are a formidable force for social transformation,” he says.

“Digital Kids” are just one of the cyber-topics Tapscott is speaking and writing about non-stop these days. As chair of the Alliance for Converging Technologies, a think rank in his hometown of Toronto, he has serious investigations under way on how the Net is changing business, the economy and society. Why?

“There has never been any technology or innovation in human history that comes close in the Net’s speed of adoption, significance and impact,” he says. The velocity of change is stunning, Tapscott adds. “Products are becoming digital. Markets are becoming electronic. Industries are in upheaval. Organizations have to fundamentally rethink everything about themselves and their future. When information becomes digital and networked, walls fall and no business is safe.”

Tapscott speaks about such upheaval with the clarity and calm of… well… a wise parent. “Not to worry, you native webophobic adults,” Father Tapscott seems to be saying. “Trust and learn from your children.”

One thing I’ve already learned from Mason, who is now absolutely proficient in finding his favorite web site, nickjr.com, is that you don’t have to get stressed when a page takes forever to load. He just jumps off his stool and runs around the room doing his whirling dervish song-dance that only three-year-olds can do. When he sees his new page is loaded, he jumps back on the stool and grabs the mouse. There’s still one thing I’m trying to teach Mason, though: how not to throw a major tantrum when his mother says it’s time to shut off the computer and go home.

GERSTNER: What single trait of youth gives them the greatest advantage in dealing with computers? Is it partly that they don’t even see the computer, just the words on the screen?

TAPSCOTT:  I think that you have nailed it. For these kids, technology is like the air. My two children are teenagers. They’re incredulous that I can make a living writing, consulting and speaking about technology. To them it’s like the refrigerator and about as glamorous. It’s the applications and the people online and the functionality and the information that they care about, not the technology. So this is leading to a unique period in human history where for the first time, children are an authority on something that is really important. I was an authority on model trains when I was a kid. Today, children are an authority on the big revolution that is changing every institution in society. This is about to — like a tidal wave — sweep across all of our institutions. It is already affecting schools profoundly. The kids know more than their educators about the biggest innovation in learning ever.

GERSTNER: Generation gaps are nothing new. Does youths’ advantage in technology aptitude complicate that tradition? What’s different now?

TAPSCOTT: In the sixties, when there was a generation gap, the big differences between kids and parents were over values and ideology. Today, we have more of a generation lap, where kids are lapping their parents on the info track. And that does cause some fear and unease. As John Seely Brown at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center says, “The eleven-year old at the breakfast table is an authority.” Kids coming into the work force now know more about the most powerful tool for business competitiveness than managers who have been there for many years. We also fear what we don’t understand, and fear gets in the way of doing the right thing, so we mistrust kids. We try to slap blocking software on them in the home rather than discussing values and negotiating agreements about proper and improper Internet use. In the schools, we deny kids access to the computers and the Internet because we don’t understand how it may change the model of learning. And in the work place, ditto. Why nor be like Procter and Gamble which has implem ented a reverse mentoring program? They used to have older employees mentor new employees in the P&G way. Now they have new young employees mentor older P&G employees in the Net-Gen way.

GERSTNER: The criticism I hear about computer-assisted learning is that children are going to lose the discipline and pleasure of taking a book off the shelf and quietly reading and reflecting on it. What’s your answer to that?

TAPSCOTT: The main victim of time spent online is not reading books, it is television. TV took away 24 hours of the week for the baby boomers. Television viewing in American homes where children are online is cratering. Furthermore, there is no evidence kids are reading novels less. As for textbooks and finding information, well absolutely, they naturally turn to their computer as opposed to turning to an encyclopedia or to a newspaper to find out when a show is playing and so on. Reflecting on a textbook will become a thing of the past, absolutely. But it’s just the medium that is changing, not the amount of reflection.

GERSTNER: Alan Kay of Apple Computer said television should have been the last mass communication medium to be naively designed and put into the world without a surgeon general’s warning. Do you think someone should have spent more time thinking about all the bad things people would do with the Internet before it was unleashed?

TAPSCOTT: I think that was a tongue-in-cheek comment on his part. Though there is a dark side to this technology, it also offers a profound and far-reaching opportunity to improve the way that wealth is created and dramatically enhance social development. The only way that we’ll really understand both the promise and the peril is to experience it and to learn from it. It’s very difficult in the abstract to predict the future. I’m of the school that believes the future is not something to be predicted, it’s something to be achieved. We just need to use this technology and as we go along to develop the social norms and agreements — and in some cases even legislation — that will help ensure that this smaller world our kids inherit is a better one.

GERSTNER: You entered the world of cyberspace a lot before many of us. How might you describe cyberspace to someone who has never experienced it, or for that matter hasn’t even seen a telephone, which is about half the world’s population, I guess? What does cyberspace feel like to you?

TAPSCOTT: Those are two different questions. I wouldn’t describe it to someone who had never experienced a telephone. I work hard to create the conditions whereby they could have a telephone and also have Internet access. There’s no reason why this technology cannot be accessible to everyone. The cost is dropping. We as business leaders have the responsibility to ensure that people get sufficient access. Now what does cyberspace mean to me? That’s a very different thing. I would say that this is not just about the networking of technology. It’s about the networking of human intellect, in hope of breakthroughs in areas such as wealth creation and social development. I wonder if it’s possible that we can create some kind of consciousness where we’re “inter-networking” human intellect and know-how. I wonder if we could create organizations and societies that can actually learn. Perhaps the big obstacle to creating learning organizations is that we’ve had organizations that lack any kind of consciousness. Perhaps organizations that are not conscious, like people who are not conscious, cannot learn. So this is one of the big tantalizing opportunities for me.

GERSTNER: When you say organizations have been operating without a consciousness, what evidence do you have?

TAPSCOTT: There’s been no theory of conscious organizations. All organizations are unconscious, but as we Internet-work people’s minds perhaps we can achieve something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In doing so maybe we can create organizations that can learn. When I give speeches, I try to be entertaining and funny and I tell stories because I find that people learn more when they are conscious. Perhaps the difficulty we have in creating learning organizations indicates that we’ve been missing the precondition, which is organizational consciousness.

GERSTNER: Is the Internet, then, the first real tool to allow organizations to achieve a measure of consciousness?

TAPSCOTT: You know what it’s like when you have a small team and you all work together on a project and you start to complete each other’s sentences. You’re starting to achieve some kind of collective consciousness, in a sense. Well, now we have a skin of networks that surrounds the planet. This collective consciousness now can be achieved across geographic boundaries and with people who have never met. That’s just one interesting opportunity in cyberspace.

GERSTNER: How would you label yourself?

TAPSCOTT: Fundamentally I’m a researcher. Everything that I do is based on research and my goal is to understand through investigation. I suppose I’m also interested in changing things, as I’m quite unsatisfied with our current business models and many of our social models as well.

GERSTNER: Is there a priority in your mind between those two — social and business?

TAPSCOTT: Increasingly, they’re becoming interconnected. Privacy is not just a social or ethical issue; it’s a business issue. Companies need to protect the privacy of customers or they will face a coming firestorm as the public wakes up to the fact that this very fundamental right can be destroyed irrevocably if we don’t change our behaviour. The digital divide is not just a social or ethical issue; it’s a business issue. It’s not just that we’re creating a structural underclass, but that we’re creating a very volatile, explosive business situation as well. Increasingly I’m of the view that ethical behavior and business success will go hand in hand as people have more complete access to information.

GERSTNER: Did you really coin the term “paradigm shift”?

TAPSCOTT: No, the idea of a paradigm as a mental model was developed decades ago by Thomas Kuhn in a book called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” As far as I know, I was the first to analyze how technology and networking are changing business paradigms.

GERSTNER: You wrote “Paradigm Shift” in 1991, way before the dot-com fury hit. Did you use those two particular words for your title as a way of trying to shake people out of their tranquility and passivity?

TAPSCOTT: Absolutely. Sometimes a phrase can capture something profound that is occurring. Throughout this decade there has been a fundamental shift taking place in the nature and the role of technology and business. As the computer changes from being a tool to automate to becoming something much broader, a communication tool, and as this new medium of human communication extends out into the economy and society, we are beginning to fundamentally change the firm as we’ve known it. To call that a paradigm shift is not to misuse the term.

GERSTNER: You say that this new age of network intelligence is giving birth to a new economy, new politics, a new society — that businesses will be transformed, governments renewed, people will be able to reinvent themselves, all with the help of the new information technology. Did anyone say similar things when the last great transformation took place, from an agricultural to a manufacturing society? What makes this technological earthquake so great?

TAPSCOTT: In the last big shift there was a new communication medium, the printing press. Before the press, knowledge was concentrated in a tiny handful. As knowledge became more broadly distributed it began to change economies, power and institutions. Feudal structures broke down. We saw the rise of new socioeconomic classes, the creation of new forms of governments such as parliamentary democracy, and so on. The size of the change was never really understood until afterward. It is through the lens of hindsight we can see its vastness and also the role of the printing press in achieving those transformations. We are smarter this time around; it has been possible at a very early stage of this thing to understand its main contours and dynamics. But we’re still in the early stages of understanding the new business models. At the Alliance for Converging Technologies, we describe the new forms of wealth creation as being “business webs.” Today’s company is one part of a digital eco-system brought together by the Internet. This Internet-worked enterprise is a completely different beast from the old industrial-age corporation, which was in turn completely different from the feudal craft shop of the penultimate agrarian economy.

GERSTNER: How seriously do you take information overload? Are you concerned about the quantity of information and what that might be doing to the quality? Does the bad drive out the good?

TAPSCOTT: Well, it’s an obvious problem for anybody who has been online. You can drown in data. But if you provide structure to data you get information. And if you provide context to information, you get knowledge. And if you provide human judgment and trans historical insights, perhaps we can get wisdom. What’s happening is that the Net is becoming not only ubiquitous and robust and high in bandwidth, but rich in functionality. There are all kinds of new agents, softbots, rating schemes and software applications and so on that are helping us manage this information.The most primitive and first of these was the search engine. That, in a sense, helps you manage information. On the other hand, when you get 7,000 hits to your request, you suffer from overload. Fortunately search engines are becoming much more sophisticated. But we’re just at the very beginning of this. All kinds of new capabilities are growing so that you will be able to create a “virtual you” that understands you and knows what you consider to be junk and good stuff. The virtual you will help you manage all these environments while you sleep, presenting you with information that in a sense you have prejudged to be helpful. It can do this because you have provided the virtual you with the critical aspect of knowledge, which is context.

GERSTNER: Are you at all concerned about the blur between the physical you and the virtual you, and that some people may become schizophrenic?

TAPSCOTT: First of all, schizophrenia is a mental disorder, which is very carefully defined. It has to do with people being out of touch with reality to the point that they develop a psychosis, and there is no evidence in anybody’s research that shows participation online can cause schizophrenia, or for that matter, any psychotic disorder. This is just a question of fearing what we don’t understand. In my book “Growing Up Digital,” I looked at the kids who have grown up using all this stuff, participating in chat groups and virtual worlds and so on. The evidence is not that it causes some kind of disorientation. Indeed, the opposite is true. It helps very young people discover themselves and learn who they really are. For example, kids have different names for themselves online, called handles. You’re “Mooselips” or “Cyberchick” or someone. And if, for example, you say something online that is borderline racist, you get criticized very sharply. You think about it-and realize that that was really off and it’s not the re al you. Now, if you do that in the schoolyard, that remark can stick with you for years. In cyberspace, you just change your handle and come back as some body else, and that somebody else is a lot closer to who “you” really are. So it turns out that during adolescence, it’s actually a very good and helpful environment where kids can go through that process of discovering themselves and who they are. It’s the opposite of what people fear.

GERSTNER: Your writings about the Internet and the new digital economy are often laced with the words “if we do this right.” From your vantage point, what are we doing right, and what are we doing wrong, and whom should we praise and blame?

TAPSCOTT: Well, it depends on which culture you are referring to. In America, the big thing we are doing right is that we are using the technology. We are not afraid of it. In other cultures, senior managers don’t use computers and the Internet because that’s for secretaries to do. Somehow in America we have found the curiosity to experience the new communication medium directly, and this personal use is the precondition for any kind of comprehension. You can’t understand how the Net will change the business models, unless you use it yourself with your own fingers. We also have a lot of openness and curiosity regarding new business models and that’s going to be very important as the traditional firm is bypassed and replaced. As for what we are doing wrong, I think we are moving too slowly in figuring out how to manage the dark-side issues. We try to deal with porn and sleaze by undesirable, infeasible and unnecessary instruments like censorship. We are not moving fast enough to bridge the digital divide. On the question of privacy, we have resisted government legislation to deal with this issue. Yet the private sector, with a few exceptions has not fully stepped up to its responsibilities to ensure that information is protected and used for the purposes for which it was collected. We have barely begun to think about how the Net will change the nature of the democratic process and the future of democracy, the relationship between citizens and their state; and, I would add, the nature of the state itself. My group, The Alliance for Converging Technologies, has launched a multi-million-dollar initiative on this issue called Governance in the Digital Economy. There are many difficult issues, but there is no technological imperative. There’s nothing inherent in the technology that assures that we will see the good side or the dark side. It’s not technology that designs institutions and values and rules and governments and societies; it’s people.

GERSTNER: Do you think than that is a force for or against democracy, as we know it?

TAPSCOTT: I think the Net has awesome neutrality. It can be the most powerful force for democracy ever. But unscrupulous people can also abuse it. If, for example, we implemented something like the so-called electronic Town Hall, where people could vote every night after the evening news, I’d call that the electronic mob. So, again, we as human beings need to shape this powerful new medium for the common good. Past technological revolutions — the broadcast media, printing press and so on — were all centralized, one-to-many media, and therefore carried the values of their powerful owners. This new medium is the antithesis of that. It’s distributed, highly malleable, one-to-one and many-to-many. Ultimately it will be what we want it to be.

GERSTNER: What do you see beyond the Internet? What’s the next big thing after that? Or is there anything? Well, for silicon- and network-based technologies, today’s Internet is equivalent to the first movable type of the Gutenberg bible. We’re in the early days of a vast new multimedia communication infrastructure. We can only just

TAPSCOTT: imagine in our wildest dreams where that will take us. Beyond that, clearly there’s a whole biotechnology revolution that is yet unstarted. This holds promise in many other areas, not just in changing the way that we compute things, but in eradicating many blights and diseases. That surely will have a huge effect on the quality of life.

GERSTNER: Do you see any connection between the year 2000 and talk about transformation of society, etc.? Do you find there is any connection here, or is this just a coincidence?

TAPSCOTT: I think it’s a coincidence. The year 2000 problem is a real one that needs to be confronted and is being solved in most developed countries. But I’m not someone who sees some great mystical meaning in Y2K. I am a scientist by training and by general predilection.

GERSTNER: What’s the best future you can imagine?

TAPSCOTT: That we achieve an awakening on this planet. That this new communication medium help us better understand each other and learn from each other. That we change our models of how wealth is created. That we harness the powerful energy of networked human intellect to solve the enormous and dangerous social problems that have vexed us for many years. There is no reason economically why there should be hunger, why people should be dying of cholera, or why all children should not be vaccinated and educated and should not get to participate fully in the global economy and the emerging global society. It’s really up to us humans to exploit this potential.

GERSTNER: If you were a betting man, and I guess we all are in this regard, are you betting on the positive outcome, here, or…?

TAPSCOTT: To me the future is not something to be predicted, it’s something to be achieved. I’m working hard to do my little bit in achieving that kind of future. If tens of millions of others join, we can create a very different kind of social order on this planet.


John Gerstner – CEO, Communitelligence

  • Client
    IABC Communication World Magazine
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  • Date
    May 11, 1999