December 17th, 2008
The other day I received an email from Don Tapscott, promising me a free copy of his latest book Grown Up Digital, to send to a friend or relative for Christmas, if – here’s the catch – I wrote a review of it to post on either Amazon or Indigo. I just checked and there are just two reviews posted on Indigo and one on Amazon, so I understand why he is making this offer. Still, the implicit message is that a good review is expected. So I’ll forego the offer and post an entirely uncompensated review here.
One of the key themes in Tapscott’s work is that the “Net Generation” – people born between 1977 and 1997 – have grown up with readily available information technology; not only have they greater facility with technology than previous generations, but the technology has shaped their consciousness. Tapscott cites eight norms that he claims characterize this group: freedom, customization, a critical stance to institutions (scrutinizing), a desire for corporate integrity and transparency, a desire to mix work and entertainment, collaboration, speed, and innovation. His main message to all and sundry institutions is that, if you are to succeed in your relationship with the Net Generation, you must respect its norms. All this sounds plausible, but is the Net Generation really that different from all others?
Methodologically, the book was based on online surveys of 7700 Net-Geners (aged 13 to 29), along with control groups of 800 Gen Xers (ages 30 to 41), and 800 baby boomers (ages 42 to 61). Obviously, using the control groups was essential, though the surveys should also have been conducted offline, given that smaller proportions of both Gen Xers and boomers than Net Geners are online. As he was writing for popular consumption, it wasn’t a surprise that Tapscott’s main form of evidence was anecdote. He published only a little of his data. And, he claimed (on p. 34) that the eight norms differentiate Net Geners from their parents. As an academic, I’d like to have seen a book that was stronger on data than anecdote. If Tapscott feels that this would have hurt his sales, then he could have found some other way to make the data available, perhaps as a CD packaged with the book, or online.
Chapter 9, which deals with the Net Gen and democracy, interested me most. He argued that Net Geners are looking for personal involvement in democracy that goes beyond the traditional “you vote, we rule.” Barack Obama, the candidate who most acutely realized this and then translated into his online campaign, was clearly the beneficiary of massive support from Net Geners, as Tapscott approvingly observed. The chapter advocates expanding the Net Gen model of interactivity and collaboration in the political realm.
The chapter ends with a set of recommendations based on the eight norms (p.268). Two strike me as particularly dubious.
“If you’re a politician, stop using attack ads” because “Net Geners are sick of vacuous politics … want to know what politicians stand for … [and] want to revitalize the Founding Fathers’ marketplace of ideas.” But two pages before that, Tapscott told us how Net Geners are using YouTube to skewer politicians they dislike or mistrust. Politics, for any generation, is about both advocacy and critique. Net Geners are as willing to criticize as any other generation. My reading is that they are more partial to satirical putdowns than straight-out big lie attacks, and the Obama campaign was better at playing to this sensibility than was the McCain campaign.
The second recommendation was to “forget about putting