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Don Tapscott

Cultural analyst with a decidedly commercial orientation, Don Tapscott has written with enthusiasm and insight about the impact of digital networking on the North American economy in The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence. In The Net Generation: The Rise of the Net Generation (1998), he forecasts the coming influence of the demographic of wired kids born since 1978. 2002 saw the publication of Digital Capital: Harnessing the Power of Business Webs, co-authored with David Ticoll and Alex Lowy. Tapscott's website provides a full review of his affiliations and accomplishments.

Playing Digital Poker, review of Don Tapscott’s The Net Generation: The Rise of the Net Generation (1998) by Marsh Soules.

The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence

Canadian economic theorist and systems analyst Don Tapscott suggests that business process reengineering (BPR) is a management strategy inappropriate to the task of creating businesses able to compete in a global economy and an environment of networked intelligence: "It is true that the old business processes, management practices, organizational structures, and ways of working have become inappropriate. Clearly, many large companies needed to reengineer to reduce cost base" (3).

Many large corporations have been reengineering with a vengeance: AT&T, 40,000 layoffs; IBM, 60,000; GM, 74,000; Digital Equipment, 20,000; Sears, 50,000; Boeing, 28,000. "Chain Saw" Albert Dunlap cut 11,000 jobs at Scott Paper in 1994: "We’re painted as villains; but we’re not. We’re more like doctors. We know its painful to operate, but its the only way to keep the patient from dying. But while we had to cut some jobs, we were able to give 65 percent of the workforce a more secure future than they might have otherwise had" (Newsweek, Feb. 15/95: 48).

Tapscott believes this process reengineering "does not a strategy for the new economy make." Instead, "corporations need to get beyond reengineering to the transformation of the corporation enabled by information technology (IT). The goal should not just be cost control but the dramatic and profound transformation of customer service, responsiveness, and innovation" (4). He claims that reengineering is a "necessary but insufficient condition for competitiveness."

Tapscott lists a variety of terms used by management theorists to describe this new vision of the digital economy: the "networked organization" (Drucker); the "learning organization" (Senge); the "virtual corporation" (Davidow and Malone); the "relational organization" (Keene) (12). What do all these terms refer to? According to Tapscott, "The new enterprise is a network of distributed teams that act as clients and servers for each other." Furthermore, "Organizational consciousness is a prerequisite for organizational learning."

The key technology in the Age of Networked Intelligence is, according to Tapscott, the I-way: "Just as the highway system and electrical power grid were the infrastructure for the industrialist economy, so our information networks will be highways for the new economy" (15). Unlike Howard Rheingold, Tapscott holds out considerable hope that the rapid commercial expansion of the Internet will encourage rather than compromise the creation of new forms of electronic democracy:

The crowning achievement of networking human intelligence could be the creation of a true democracy. Technology itself is shifting from mainframe, host, centralized computers to networked computing, where each computer has autonomy and functions as a peer of the others. Similarly, rather than an all-powerful centralized government, arrogating decisions to itself, governments can be based on the networked intelligence of people. Government as centralized mainframe can be replaced by government as network. (16-17)

Tapscott’s argument, however, begs the question that such a transformation of both enterprise and government requires that those formerly in positions of power will willingly foster the decentralization of that power.

Despite his general optimism, Tapscott does not neglect what he calls the "dark side of the age of networked intelligence." There are significant perils, including:

The Twelve Themes of the New Economy

At the heart of Tapscott’s analysis are twelve themes which differentiate the new economy from the old:

  1. Knowledge. The new economy is a knowledge economy: from smart clothes to smart roads.
  2. Digitization. The new economy is a digital economy.
  3. Virtualization. As information shifts from analog to digital, physical things can become virtual: from virtual ballot boxes to the virtual job!
  4. Molecularization: The old organizations are becoming fragmented, replaced by dynamic clusters of individuals.
  5. Internetworking: Clusters network for the creation of wealth.
  6. Disintermediation: Mediary functions between consumers and producers are being eliminated through digital networks.
  7. Convergence: Computing, communications, and content industries are converging to become the dominant economic sector.
  8. Innovation: "Obsolete your own products."
  9. Prosumption: Consumers become involved in the actual production process.
  10. Immediacy: In an economy based on bits, immediacy becomes a key driver and variable in economic activity and business success.
  11. Globalization: We are involved in a global conversation: more than 100 million telephone calls are completed every hour, using 300 million access lines the world over, and the number of calls will triple by 2000.
  12. Discordance: Unprecedented social issues are arising, potentially causing massive trauma and conflict. (44-68)

On the relation between the new economy and education, Tapscott writes:

...learning will more and more be provided by the private sector. This will come about not out of social responsibility but, rather, because working and learning are becoming the same activity for a majority of the workforce and because knowledge is becoming an important part of products. Moreover, the traditional educational institutions are failing to meet the needs of the economy, and there are huge and growing opportunities for learning products and services. (67)

The Net Generation: Playing Digital Poker

The Net Generation If the digital future is a poker game between generations, then cultural analyst Don Tapscott is betting on the youth, those born since 1978. This "Net Generation" has been surrounded by digital media since birth--they’re "kids so bathed in bits that they think it’s all part of the natural landscape." And they rival the Baby Boom generation in sheer size, each comprising about 30% of the total population.

For Tapscott’s money, the N-Gen has some important advantages: their "half-tone, complex world of information pointers, judgment, and interpersonal interaction is the antithesis of the good guys / bad guys world of adults. The growing wisdom of the new youth stands in stark contrast to the utter dumbness of much of the adult world" (297). In this view, the new generation will simply be able to out-play the guardians of the status quo, and the stakes are high.

Echo or Net?

In Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (1998), Tapscott extends many of the themes he explored earlier in The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence (1996). In Growing Up Digital, the transformative potential of networked intelligence is applied to the demographic profile popularized by David Foot in Boom, Bust, Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift (1996). Indeed, there is a strong sense that Tapscott wants to (re)brand the young Echo cohort with a more consumer-friendly tag for anyone hoping to profit from the next great source of revenue and livelihood. He wants to ask us how we will sell to, educate, discipline, entertain, nurture, or govern these kids.

Thankfully, Tapscott’s own children and his considerable investigation into the opinions of these wired young people save his book from exploitative excesses. In the end, this work is elevated above the material plane by Tapscott’s love and respect for the Growing Up Digital kids--they are "smart, fluent, social, analytical, self-reliant, curious, contrarian, articulate, media-savvy, bored with television" (124). In many respects, the stars of this story are Tapscott’s children, Niki (14) and Alex (11), both important members of their "open family." Tapscott the marketing analyst is also a nurturing parent with deep concerns for his children: "Faced with pervasive hostility and ignorance by a host of technophobes, antiyouth academics, old-media propagandists, government ideologues, corporate manipulators, and paralyzed educators, will your children have found a place of refuge, two-way communication, and trust in your open family? Are you prepared to step up to this challenge and opportunity?" (254)

You Said You Want a Revolution

The "coming generational explosion" is by no means inevitable, says Tapscott, but is intimated by serious cultural contradictions and enhanced by the "revolutionary" spirit of the N-Geners. For example, he suggests that even though the Net Generation will be best equipped to create wealth in a knowledge economy based on their fluency with digital technology, the older generation will continue to hoard wealth and power. N-Geners will want to control their own destinies, and will be ready to assume power while the Boomers are still in their prime. The promise offered by digital technology may be frustrated by actual opportunities, a contradiction which could be aggravated by discrepancies between what the older generation says and what it does.

While there will be predictable differences of opinion regarding the romanticized youth culture of the 50’s and 60’s and the youth movements that followed, the main contradictions identified by Tapscott concern employment and the distribution of wealth, styles of governance, and cultural values: "This is setting us up for a battle of the generational titans. Unless the boomers have a change of heart, the two biggest generations in history are on a collision course. Given their knowledge of and access to powerful new communications tools, their revolt will make the 60’s protests look like kid stuff" (299).

What’s in the Cards?

If we accept Tapscott’s scenario as probable, or even possible, how can we accommodate this revolution without defusing its positive transformative energies?

In his analysis, Tapscott returns again and again to the interconnected themes of distributed networking, decentered organizational models, interactivity, and life-long learning. Digital technology, the lingua franca of the Net Generation, enables an unprecedented convergence of communications devices; and networking technologies--from modems, LANs and ISDN, to satellites and cellular telephones--extend the power of both the individual and the collective to interact with higher degrees of synergy. Distributed networking, once digital technologies have been appropriately adopted, has demonstrated its ability to transform organizations, create new forms of wealth, reconfigure the workplace, and redefine entertainment. One-to-many broadcast media, such as television and classroom lecturing, seem retrograde after people have experienced meaningful interactivity. Finally, keeping pace with these transformations necessitates life-long learning.

The winners in this high-stakes poker game will not be able to bluff their way to riches or power because the networking revolution will be won with the best hand. The reason the bluff won’t work is intrinsic to networking technology. Barriers to communication, such as censorship, incompetence, or inability to perform are interpreted as damage and routed around. The revolution may not be a noisy one as people seek, and find, temporary autonomous zones, leaving former fields of play silent and empty. Why fly through customs to Las Vegas to bet the farm when you can do it from home?

Higher (Education) Stakes

Institutions of higher learning hoping to attract and hold the Net Generation have some institutional learning to do, even as the earliest of this generation are peering in the windows to see if anything of interest is going on. The first, and most daunting task is to decentralize and streamline curriculum development to make a learning institution more flexible and responsive to client needs. (These will be clients, not students, with strong expectations of service, value, and performance. They will, for example, expect to be able to customize their learning, and will balk at prescriptive formulae for acquiring an education. The principle of choice will become "user-defined.") Next, it will be important to assimilate and interpret what needs to be known, what constitutes contemporary knowledge--in short, to define the new curriculum. Equally important will be to understand interactivity, and how it can be integrated into educational practices.

Do institutions of higher learning have credibility as places of knowledge, or are they resting on their credentialing laurels? How can skill acquisition be combined with useful theoretical understanding? Can value be added to what may be widely available elsewhere? Are the new parameters of digital space, time, and distance embodied in our missions and goals?

We have our work cut out for us, if only to learn the rules of the new game. If Tapscott’s research is credible, the next generation of learners will be hungry, inquisitive, demanding, ambitious, socially-conscious, and capable. Will we be able to learn from them--and ourselves--quickly enough to form meaningful educational alliances?

It’s too early to throw in the hand but we’ll have to ante up to play the game.

July 1998

There's an excellent website supporting Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation.