Don Tapscott -- Main Street Tomorrow

Cyber-guru and best-selling author Don Tapscott answers questions about the looming impact of the Net generation and how it will transform the way society works, plays and communicates.

by / August 31, 1997
GT: In your book "The Digital Economy," you outlined seven broad trends in the reengineering of government -- such things as integrated public safety networks and integrated digital access to government information. Since you wrote of these a couple of years ago, it is now clear that many governments are indeed moving in the directions you described. Today, do you see new challenges and opportunities for government? Are there new trends that have not yet been widely recognized?

Tapscott: I think the challenges facing government fall into two categories. One has to do with how we can use the digital media to transform the business of government. As you've mentioned, I've discussed a number of themes: administrative renewal; integrated digital benefits transfer; the idea of having integrated digital access to governent information; government-fostered information initiatives, which can be very powerful; the whole idea of changing the way we do tax filing, reporting and payment and moving that to a digital platform; the notion of integrated national law enforcement and public safety networks; and a number of government communication initiatives.

I outlined all these in The Digital Economy. And, as you mentioned, there has been progress on all of those -- surprising in some areas, really, because it is an understatement to say changing government is a challenge. But we have the irresistible force to reduce government spending meeting up with the immovable object of public expectations regarding what government should be and should do -- which is that government should be better and government service should be better, not worse. So tinkering with the problem is not going to fix it. We need to make these fundamental changes.

A second set of challenges which I just touched upon in the book has to do with something much broader, and that is changing the nature of governance itself. We have a new communications medium which is emerging, of which the Internet is just the tip of the iceberg. And when you have a new communications medium, old laws and institutions and structures, as well as old modes of governance, tend to become inappropriate or break down. Prior to the printing press, knowledge was confined and held by a few. But with the rise of the printed word, knowledge became more broadly distributed and the old feudal infrastructure broke down. People knew about things. So it made sense, for example, to separate church and state. And we saw many far-reaching changes in the society, one of them being the rise of new models of governance -- parliamentary democracy being the key one.

So I don't think that we have yet fully thought through what it means to have governance in an age of networked intelligence, where you and I can communicate directly with each other across a mile-wide highway at the speed of light. This is a much broader challenge, and it is one in which I personally have become involved. At the Alliance of Converging Technologies we are just now launching a new, multimillion dollar research project on this issue and the future of democracy. This will be funded by private companies and also governments. We tend to have blinders on when we look at issues of governance, and it is hard to think outside of the paradigm.

GT: There is growing concern in America about the decline and decay of civil society and the fact that the majority of people don't really participate -- even to the extent of bothering to vote once every four years. The Internet has been heralded by some as a way to involve citizens again in the political process and the business of government. Do you view this as over-optimistic? What should governments be doing to involve citizens more using the new media?

Tapscott: I don't view it as over-optimistic. I view it as a truism. But we have not yet developed the new models of governance which can exploit the new communications media. So far the discussion has been primitive. Ross Perot, to his credit, raised the idea of the electronic town hall in the election. But I'm not sure what he was talking about. The way it was reported in the media sounded more like an electronic mob to me. You get to vote every night on the evening news. Governance and democracy is much more than the majority rule on a nightly basis. One of the things it is about is protecting the rights of minorities.

Now we could use the technology to dramatically enhance the democratic process using semi-direct forms of democracy. We can use the technology to help citizens to brainstorm together, to understand various scenarios, to understand the implications of certain government decisions. So we want to cut back on education, let's say. Well, we could be building sophisticated models where millions of citizens could participate and gain an understanding of the implications of doing that. The Net and the digital media could help in the creation of communities, essentially in breaking down many of the walls that divide us as a society, and perhaps enable us to better understand each other in these vast geographical spaces that we have found ourselves in. But again, we really have not thought this through and there certainly is no consensus on it.

I note a recent syndicated column where the author is very upset that the FTC has agreed to accept direct submissions from people on the Internet. She viewed this as undermining our democratically elected representatives. Such concerns are symptomatic of the fact that we do not yet get as a society ... how this technology can help us.

GT: In terms of new forms of participatory democracy, which is largely what many people are talking about in using the Net to increase involvement -- and Perot's suggested nightly forums were an example of this -- do you see inherent dangers in this? And if so, how can these be averted? Where are the pitfalls?

Tapscott: Well, there are many. One, as I mentioned already, majority rule on a nightly basis is a frightening concept, because we need democratic processes that enable more thorough study of issues, processes that are based on a certain degree of dispassion and whereby as a society we are not all moving like a fruit fly from one direction to another based on the mood or the whim of the day. And also I think the technology enables us to be manipulated in some ways by unscrupulous demagogues. On the other hand, used appropriately, I think this can be the most powerful force for democracy since the printing press and possibly the most powerful force ever.

What we have today -- and in my new book Growing Up Digital, I describe this as broadcast democracy -- we allegedly elect our leaders, although the majority of people don't vote in elections, they are so alienated from the political process. We elect these leaders and they then broadcast to us for four years, then we get to elect them again.

GT: And we elected them based on how well we have liked their messages.

Tapscott: Maybe and maybe not. That's the best-case scenario, if we can remember what they did. And they communicate their messages in 30-second television clips. I believe that this is really contributing to a dumbing of America. Conversely, we can move to what I describe as interactive democracy, whereby not just at the time of election, but throughout every term and every year and every month, perhaps even every week, and even every day, citizens can interact on issues with themselves, with elected leaders, with government organizations, committees, task forces and so on. And where we can start to move toward a model of democracy where people have some real influence and involvement in the decisions that affect their lives -- which is very different than we have today.

The same argument can be extrapolated to every institution in society. And that is part of creating a truly democratic world. We have what I call in Growing Up Digital broadcast learning. The model is: I'm a teacher, I have knowledge; you are a student, you don't. I'm going to transmit that knowledge to any of you in the classroom who are tuned in. Your goal is to take it into short-term, active learning memory and practice some repetition so you can recall it back to me when I test you. Well, excuse me, but we now have a communications medium that can enable a radically different model, what I call interactive learning, parallel to interactive democracy. This, of course, involves the student much more in the learning process and shifts it to one of discovery rather than instruction, of constructing knowledge structures rather than having them transmitted to you.

GT: In "The Digital Economy", you discuss the issue of the digital divide, and in "Growing Up Digitally", you also write that if left to the market forces, the digital economy would foster a two-tiered society, creating a major gulf between information haves and have-nots, those who can communicate to the world and those who can't. And you raise the question at the same time of the possibility of an emerging revolt of the elites, who could use the new infrastructure to cocoon themselves. What should government be doing to help reduce the possibility of this occurring, to reduce the widening of the gulf between the information haves and have-nots and the rise of information elites?

Tapscott: Well first of all, whose problem is this? To me it is not just government's problem. It is business' problem. And it is every social institution's problem. And it is our problem as individuals. So the solution to this problem is not simply government. We need new kinds of partnerships and initiatives. Again, in Growing Up Digital, I make a number of modest proposals regarding how this problem can be solved. Let me give you one of these. Every company in America should buy computers for its employees to take home. This is not a ridiculous idea. It is a totally practical idea. The cost of a computer capitalized over three years would get lost in the rounding figure of most employees' incomes and real cost. Furthermore, when the technology is taken home, the kids will learn it, not only solving the digital divide problem, but solving the training problem of adults because kids will be teaching their parents, which is something I call the "generation lap." In the old economy with the boomers, it was the generation gap. In this new environment, kids are lapping their parents on the technology track. For the first time ever, kids are an authority about something really important to society. So that is an example of a proposal which can fix this problem.

But in terms of what government can do -- I frankly find it bizarre, all the misconception, coolness and even outright hostility toward what are largely bipartisan government initiatives to get the schools wired and get technology into the underclass. What's the problem here? You hear all these ridiculous arguments against this. They are based on truisms for which false conclusions are drawn. Truism: The solution is not simply getting technology into the schools. We need to fundamentally change the whole learning paradigm.

Well, of course that's true. Yes, the technology is in insufficient condition, but it is still a necessary condition. So why oppose or be skeptical or hostile toward government initiatives to move technology into the school? So I'm on a personal campaign here to try and turn the situation around. And there are a whole number of very exciting and positive initiatives that are under way to improve the situation. One is 2B1, a program initiated largely through people like Nicholas Negroponte at MIT, which has the modest goal of getting every child in the world access to the digital media. This is an example of a very positive initiative that can help us move the ball forward.

GT: In "Growing Up Digital", you suggest that the Net generation has arrived -- the first generation to grow up surrounded by digital media. You argue that there is no more important issue for policymakers, business leaders and social activists than to understand what this generation intends to do with its digital expertise. And you say that as the Net generation extends into society, every institution will have to change. What will the rise of the Net generation mean to government? How will government have to adapt as this new culture becomes the culture of work as you describe it?

Tapscott: The baby boom in the United States was the biggest generation ever. And it wasn't just its demographic muscle that made it significant. It was that the boomers grew up during a communications revolution which was television. And TV changed their experience of youth. It ended up taking a couple of dozen hours a week of their time. But it was also a vehicle for them to communicate their youth culture in some ways. You know, the Chicago Seven at the Democratic Party Convention, the whole world was watching -- that's an example of that. Their children, the "boom echo," it turns out is even bigger than the boom. In the United States and Canada, this is 88 million kids. The youngest are in their diapers and the oldest ones are 20.

But again, the thing which makes them a true revolutionary force is that they are also growing up in a communications revolution which is much more significant. That is the rise of the digital media. And the resulting impact on government will be huge, because these kids have grown up in a culture of interaction. We grew up in a culture of broadcast, so broadcast democracy seemed like an appropriate form of governance. They are growing up in a culture of interaction, and they are going to want to have interactive government. They are quite alienated from the existing political institutions because they view them as inappropriate and also as irrelevant. So notwithstanding campaigns to involve youth and so on in the democratic process -- these will fail. The process itself has to change. And I think it will be changed not just by well-meaning adults who get it. It will be changed as this demographic tidal wave comes of age. With it, they will bring their new views, their new fluency with digital tools and their new culture to the table. They will, as Bob Dylan put it, shake our windows and rattle our walls.

GT: In describing how the Net generation will operate, you suggest that they will "order their groceries on the Net" as an extreme example. This brings up the issue of the rise of digital commerce and a change in the way much business will be done. This could have quite a devastating effect on many communities. What should government be doing about this? Is this something you have thought about?

Tapscott: Yes. The first thing is not putting their heads in the sand. Many local governments do. They think because we don't understand the new media and because it is possibly threatening to the existing order -- the way our communities are structured, the way we govern ourselves, the way commerce is conducted -- that we can safely ignore it or even oppose it. But there are a number of problems with that perspective. One is that no community can succeed without a state-of-the-art information infrastructure. Because increasingly, wealth creation and jobs and social development will be based upon it. Capital will tend to flow to those areas and communities that have state-of-the-art networks, infrastructure, services, active and informed users, a knowledgeable workforce and so on. So every community has an interest in moving forward as quickly as possible if they want to grow their community and create wealth and jobs.

If you look at The Digital Economy and for that matter Growing Up Digital, both of these books talk about the wonderful opportunity and promise of the new media, and then they situate the dark side within that context, rather than do the opposite -- start with the dark side and then try to understand what the opportunities might be in the midst of all this. And I believe that is an appropriate approach, because overall, the technology and the new ways of working and governing ourselves and so on provide vast new opportunities. But there is no technological imperative that ensures that these opportunities will be achieved. So we have many issues we need to tackle.

The thing you mentioned is one -- what will be the impact on Main Street? Main Street is already devastated in many small communities precisely from the WalMarts and the shopping malls. Ironically, it's the WalMarts and the big supermarkets that are, in many ways, most threatened by this new media, because they provide, in the case of the supermarkets, staples which, it turns out, people love to buy on the Internet. WalMart is providing all kinds of commodities, brand names and so on, which also can be purchased on the Net. It is the little boutique on Main Street that has a better chance of still being relevant -- the butcher shop, the vegetable stand, the clothing boutique and so on, where a highly customized and physical shopping experience is often most appropriate.

But there are many other issues that local and regional government also need to tackle. It is of little comfort for the worker in Nashville who just got laid off at the foundry there that some new economy is bringing high-paying jobs. They can't go down the street and work at the Nortel plant where the average skill level of a factory worker is a community college degree. And layoff is the wrong term to describe the foundry. It is gone. It is part of the old economy. So what can a community do to create the conditions to retool its work force and the knowledge base of its population? There are new roles for the colleges and universities to build new partnerships with the private sector.

And again, this is not all government's problem. Government is a player. I believe there is an important role for government against many of those who think government should just get out of the way. I got in this debate with Michael Bloomberg at the World Economic Forum, where he said that governments were just a big obstacle and the best thing that they can do is get rid of themselves. Well, this makes for good demagogy and good sound bites at a conference, but it doesn't make for rational public policy. Government at all levels, first of all, can be a model user, and in doing so, transform the business of government for relevance in a new economy.

Secondly, governments can act as a catalyst, within communities and within nations, to bring together various players. I think much of the initial work done by the Department of Commerce around the NII was very powerful in its catalytic effect in creating an awareness in America of the notion of an information highway and the power of the new media to transform things.

Thirdly, governments can also adopt legislation which is appropriate. It can get rid of legislation which impedes open competition in the telecommunications environment. But also we need legislation in new areas, I believe, and I know this is controversial. The issue of privacy, for example, is one that cannot simply be left to the market.

GT: This leads into something I was going to ask. You have also co-authored a book about privacy, "Who Knows." What should governments be doing to deal with threats to privacy brought on by new technologies?

Tapscott: Again, first of all, government needs to be a model user on this issue. Information I give to government should be used for the purpose for which I give it, and should not be provided to other agencies without my knowledge. The same principle should be established in the private sector. There are jurisdictions that have legislation like that -- Quebec is one. And business there has not fallen apart. There have been no problems to speak of. The direct marketing people are all basically supportive of this legislation. So hospitals shouldn't be selling information about a mother's delivery to baby product companies without the permission of the mother. That's one example.

Don't get me wrong, the solution to the privacy question is not fundamentally a legislative one. We need to create an informed and active public on this issue. People need to become their own privacy watchdogs. There are many things to be done. Also there is a real role for voluntary codes, and I believe that companies which are privacy friendly will be rewarded in the marketplace. Additionally, there are powerful new privacy-enhancing technologies which can help us.

In the book, I describe a company called Mytec that has a technology to create a bioscript for a fingerprint. Now fingerprints sound pretty Orwellian. But as it turns out, using a bioscript and encryption technology, a fingerprint can be like a pin number, but you never forget and no one can steal from you. A law enforcement agency can't simply find a fingerprint on a crime scene and then search the databases of everyone in America, because the fingerprint is not stored online -- an encrypted bioscript is what's stored online.

GT: The subtitle of "The Digital Economy" is an interesting one -- "Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence." This suggests a great deal, not only that peril goes hand in hand with the new opportunities which you have mentioned already, but also the essence of what networks are all about.

Tapscott: Yes, because all this is not about networking technology. It is about networking people through network technology. It is not just an age of smart machines, but an age whereby people can combine their intellect and their know-how for breakthroughs and creativity in wealth creation and social development. I raise the idea in the book, which is more a hypothesis at this point, that as we extend networking of human minds out into the population and down in terms of depth and functionality, can we create a new kind of consciousness between people, within, say, an organization? Or even more broadly? If we could do this, then this might be the unfulfilled precondition to creating learning organizations, because organizations -- like people -- who are not conscious cannot learn. At least this is an interesting hypothesis that I continue to explore in my work.

GT: Is there anything else which government, especially state and local government, should be considering? What should we be doing to help ensure that opportunities are realized and that the dark side of all this does not lead away from what we have accomplished as a society?

Tapscott: I think the next big step as we move toward the new millennium will be to create a process whereby governments, community groups and private-sector companies and so on can jointly forge a new vision regarding governance in an age of networked intelligence. And this is what we are trying to do with the Future of Democracy Project by bringing together the key players to conduct a real, definitive research investigation into what the options are and to try to create some common views within our society on how to move forward. If there was one issue, that would be it regarding government. But I guess there are a whole other set of issues which we've talked about that have to do with government making its fair share of contribution to the reinvention of all our institutions -- the institutions of learning, of work, of health care, of governance and the family, to name a few. And there is a role for public policy in all of these areas. So rather than focusing on the more mundane, day-to-day issues of administration, we need to find a way to move out of that paradigm at all levels of government, to get government leaders and policymakers to play a fuller role in the transformation of our institutions. Maybe if we do so, the age of networked intelligence will be an age of promise fulfilled and peril unrequited.

Don Tapscott has been called "one of the world's leading cybergurus" by Vice President Al Gore and is an information technology consultant to many Fortune 100 companies. He is the best-selling author of The Digital Economy and co-author of Paradigm Shift. He is chairman of the Alliance for Converging Technologies, which includes 40 of the world's leading technology, government, manufacturing and retail organizations. His new book, Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, will be published in October by McGraw-Hill. The book investigates the looming impact of the Net generation -- the first generation to grow up digitally -- and how they will transform the way society works, plays and communicates. Editor at Large Blake Harris caught up with Tapscott in his Toronto office.

September Table of Contents

Blake Harris Editor
Platforms & Programs