Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation

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Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation es un libro de Don Tapscott, Chair of the Alliance for Converging Technologies

The contents of this paper and other NetGeneration issues can be discussed on the interactive forums at

For the past three decades the demographic majority of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand has been the baby boom. Anyone born between 1946 and 1964 is considered a baby boomer. As they grew older, the baby boomers gained more and more influence over media, business, and government policy. But as they grew older, they did not grow up as quickly as previous generations. There was little reason for boomers who were not from working class or poor backgrounds to grow up. Being young was to be part of something big. In 1955 kids were everywhere. Almost 57 percent of families contained children under the age of 18 and, unlike now, there was a greater likelihood of there being more than one child under each roof. As adults the majority of baby boom women put off having children until their 30s and 40s. Society has seen other periods of delayed parenting during periods of economic depression, war, and famine, but that wasn't the case with boomers.

There was another force at work when many boomers-specifically middle-and upper-class young people-delayed parenthood. They were prolonging youth. The experience of this generation's youth was one that saw, for the first time, a youth movement, a youth culture and concerns of youth become the dominant cultural, political, and economic force in their societies. The demographic minorities born in the decades following the baby boom could not challenge the influence of baby boom culture. Theirs was a dominance that went unchallenged, until now. The baby boom has an echo and it's even louder than the original. The Net Generation has arrived. These 88 million children in the US and Canada who are already combining demographic muscle with digital mastery to become a force for social transformation. This is a demographic wave of youth that is also hitting the shores of selected countries along the pacific rim and in Northern Europe. These children are at the heart of the new digital media culture. They are a new generation who, in profound and fundamental ways learn, work, play, communicate, shop, and create communities very differently than their parents. This wave of youth coincides with the digital revolution which is transforming all facets of our society. Together these two factors are producing a generation which is not just a demographic bulge but a wave of social transformation. Aged 0-20, N-Geners are embracing interactive media such as the Internet, CD-ROM and video games. The New Generation is exceptionally curious, self-reliant, contrarian, smart, focused, able to adapt, high in self-esteem, and has a global orientation. Not only are they, demographically speaking, the greatest challenge to the cultural supremacy of the baby boomers, but technologically speaking, there has been a change in the way children gather, accept and retain information.

Their Media Usage

This change stems from a fundamental preference for interactive media rather than broadcast media. Nothing reflects this preference more than the decline in television viewing hours. Television audiences are becoming smaller and more discriminating. Today's young television audiences are more than just uppity - one might go so far to say that N-Geners are refusing to be reduced to spectator status. It is not television specifically that is coming under attack, but rather, the nature of broadcast culture itself. Broadcast technology, like television, is hierarchal. It depends upon a top-down distribution system. Someone somewhere decides what will be broadcast and our role in this is limited to what we choose, or do not choose to watch. There is no different feedback from the viewer to the broadcaster. Nor is there any direct interaction between viewers unless they are sitting on a couch in the same living room. In TV culture, viewers have no real power, except to channel surf. Where N-Geners do find power is on the Internet because it depends upon a distributed, or shared, delivery system rather than a hierarchal one. This distributed, or shared, power is at the heart of the culture of interaction.

From Broadcast Learning to Interactive Learning

The culture of interaction, if harnessed by schools can be a tremendous force in promoting learning. Computers are an integral part of the culture of integration. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, computers in the schools today are used primarily for teaching basic computer skills, for traditional drill and kill instruction, testing, and for record keeping.1 The N-Gen experience to date with the digital media points to a new paradigm in learning. The new media enables-and the N-Gen needs for learning demand-a shift from broadcast learning to what I call Interactive Learning.

The Technology of Interactive Learning

In the mid 1970s I was doing graduate work in educational psychology at the University of Alberta and found myself in one of the first classes to take an on-line course. We learned "multivariant" analysis (advanced statistical procedures) using a CAI (Computer Aided Instruction) package called Plato. This course was set up by a visionary in computer-mediated education named Dr. Steve Hunka. We sat down in front of a computer terminal which was connected to a computer-controlled slide display, all connected to a mini computer. (This was before PCs.) The course was fabulous. It took me step-by-step through the material but unlike traditional courses, I could stop and review something I didn't understand or fast forward through material I felt I grasped. I could test myself at various points and the system kept a record for me of how I was doing. Eventually, when I was ready, the system gave me a formal test. The final exam was also conducted on the computer. (And yes, I did actually get an A. In fact, I became so interested in this new technology that Professor Hunka became my thesis supervisor.) However, because of the cost of such systems, the effort required to create the "courseware" the considerable expertise required to implement them and the huge cultural change in the teaching model, these CAI systems didn't really take off. Today the situation has changed dramatically. There are a wide range of tools and the Net itself, which creates a new paradigm in the delivery of learning.