Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Don Tapscott and learning from our kids

I’m in Providence, Rhode Island today speaking at BIF-5 – the Business Innovation Factory’s fifth annual storytelling conference. I’ll be doing my best to blog when not on stage.

Don Tapscott tells us that the children of the baby boom are the first to be bathed in bits. Their time online hasn’t taken away from doing their homework or learning the piano – it’s taken time away from television. “There is no more powerful force to change society than a generation of digital natives.” Digital Natives just elected their first president – this isn’t Don’s point of view – Obama says this is true as well.

He tells us that he watched his kids in the early 1990s and marvelled at their effortlessness with new technology. He initially thought that his kids were prodigies, and then discovered that all their friends were equally fluent. They were effortless because they’d grown up digital.

His kids weren’t very sympathetic to his attempts to explain new technology to a public audience in Canada. He was invited to spend an hour on national TV, surfing the web. His son refused to watch the show – when they talked about it later, his son said, “That’s about as interesting as watching you change channels on the TV.” His daughter pitched in, pointing out that the refrigerator is also a technology – “We could watch Dad surfing the fridge – here’s some content: it’s meatloaf!”

Some years later, Tapscott published a book called “Wikinomics”. His son read the book and liked it, and offered to build a Facebook group for his father. Within a day, the community had 130 members in 7 countries, and had a set of organizational officers. Before they sat down to Christmas dinner, the members were engaged in distributed editing, and were asking Don how he was going to contribute to “their” community. Kids have a platform no one has ever had before – it’s never been possible to organize the world in quite this way.

He closes with a story about a remarkable student he met when advising Florida State University. He told university officials that the old model of students as empty vessels, and universities as pouring in knowledge was broken for the current generation.

A student, Joe O’Shea, reacted to this presentation, saying that it resonated, and confessing, “I don’t read books.” He explained, “I think I know what’s in books, but I get my information from the web, and I’ve got really good BS detectors. If I need to read in a book, I have Google Books.” Using that site, he approaches books like a website. The dean of the film school reacted, saying, “I don’t know if that’s really exciting or the end of modern society.”

Tapscott offered O’Shea a ride home on his chartered plane and the two chatted. Turns out that O’Shea runs a 4.0 GPA, is president of the student council, set up a medical clinic in the 9th ward of New Orleans that serves 9000 people a year, and is founding a group called the Global Peace Exchange, which is building a global summit of world leaders. His family has been going through tough times – both parents died recently – and to keep his siblings together, Joe is running a guild on World of Warcraft, so he and his siblings can bond while slaying dragons. Next year, he’s going to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. “This Rhodes scholar from Northeast Florida doesn’t read books.”

We might conclude this is a problem, or we might embrace this. “If you spend 24 hours a week being a passive participant, consuming tv – as Baby Boomers did – you get a certain sort of brain.” If you spend those hours searching, researching and building connections, you get a very different brain.

Tapscott wants to refute the idea that the internet is making kids dumb. There’s no data to support this, he tells us. Instead, we’re seeing radical societal change, especially around the structure of the family. Kids and parents get along as friends, and sometimes they move back in after graduation. He wonders, “is this the first time in history that we can learn from young people and their new culture of work and learning?”

One Response to “Don Tapscott and learning from our kids”

  1. George says:

    Thanks for this report, Ethan. The shift towards ‘searching, researching and building connections’ in leisure time is exciting indeed. We are witnessing a revolution in information sharing, with young people at its heart.

    But I wonder, how can we calibrate how effectively we are using social media for durable collaborations? It is very easy to fan a Facebook page, but much harder to create a community committed to cutting its carbon emissions by 10%.

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