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Growing UpDigital: The Rise of the Net Generation
By Don Tapscott

The following is excerpted, with permission, from the book growing up digital by Don Tapscott. Copyright 1998 by The McGraw- Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. If you're interested in reading more, go to SeniorNet's new bookstore on our website (http://www.seniornet.org) where you can order the book from BarnesandNoble.com. And share your views on the issues broached in this article by participating in the Computer & Technology Issues RoundTable discussions on the SeniorNet web site.

The Digital Divide: Have-nots, Know-nots and Do-nots

This is a time of promise and peril. What kind of world do we want our children to inherit? The most widely featured prediction surrounding the digital revolution is that it will splinter society into a race of information haves and have-nots, knowers and know-nots, doers and do-nots - a digital divide. This revolution holds the promise of improving the lives of citizens but also the threat of further dividing us. As philanthropist Mario Marina says: "The technology of interactive communications will change the status quo with or without your involvement. The question is how and to what extent will we use it - to help people empower themselves and give those at every social and economic level a voice and an option, or to trigger a division among us that may never be healed." The issue is not just access to the new media, but rather whether differences in availability of services, technology fluency, The Digital Divide: Have-nots, Know-nots and Do-nots This is a time of promise and peril. What kind of world do we want our children to inherit? The most widely featured prediction surrounding the digital revolution is that it will splinter society into a race of information haves and have-nots, knowers and know-nots, doers and do-nots - a digital divide. This revolution holds the promise of improving the lives of citizens but also the threat of further dividing us. As philanthropist Mario Marina says: "The technology of interactive communications will change the status quo with or without your involvement. The question is how and to what extent will we use it - to help people empower themselves and give those at every social and economic level a voice and an option, or to trigger a division among us that may never be healed." The issue is not just access to the new media, but rather whether differences in availability of services, technology fluency, motivation, and opportunities to learn may lead to a two-tiered world of knowers and know-nots, doers and do-nots.

The Stateists

It is the responsibility of adults to tackle this problem for the new generation. However, there is a dialogue of the deaf on this issue with two extreme perspectives. In one corner are the stateists, who argue that the Net, like the highways, is an essential service and a key infrastructure for any economy. As such it is best planned, controlled, and (in some countries) even owned by government. In The Digital Economy, I argued against this view, explaining that, "because public coffers are empty and leading-edge innovation is desirable, the private sector needs to take the front-line role in financing, building, and operating the information highway." The highway analogy is a limited one. It is not feasible to plan the digital infrastructure like a highway for many reasons, including the fact that no one knows for sure what technologies are best. Through an open, competitive market these issues will get sorted out. An open market also enables and promotes the kind of innovation that the five-year master plan cannot. The development of the digital media will be molecular. It will grow in chaotic and unpredictable ways. If its direction (technological, services, information) is left alone, it will behave like an ecosystem or organism, constantly changing, evolving, and mutating as the myriad forces within it and upon it change. An open competitive market is essential for the new media to evolve rapidly and to fulfill their potential. Countries which are bound by old monopolistic structures are falling behind in technological innovation, penetration, and use. The stateist view has weak support in North America. However, there are numerous suggestions for increased government control to end the "anarchy" of the Internet. The most popular theme is censorship and control of the Net through laws and other techniques. Such efforts are undesirable, unnecessary, and unfeasible - as explained in the previous chapter on parenting.

Market Determinists

In the other corner are the market determinists. The need for an open market has caused many to conclude that market forces should be the sole determinant of technology growth and use. In fact, it has become fashionable to ridicule government, corporate, or community efforts for universality. The Net, it is said, is an organic ecosystem (true), unlike a highway (true), and therefore cannot be planned (true) and should not be controlled by any force (true). From this, the market determinists conclude that there is no role for social policy and that efforts to achieve universal access are basically silly and even dangerous. Typical of this view is an article in the Libertarian publication Reason Magazine ". . . the call for universal service is a red herring. It masks a fundamental mistrust of a process that will deeply reshape society and yet is almost entirely beyond government control. A process that is chaotic and self-organizing, utterly without a central plan. In other words, a market." The author ridicules vice president Al Gore's objective of universal access. "Imagine that in 1895, some 13 years before the Model T, Al Gore's great-grandfather had correctly identified the potential importance of the 'horseless carriage' to future employment and led the government push to ensure that we did not become a nation of 'motorized transportation haves and have-nots.'"1 The author continues: "television, today's prime source of information and entertainment, can be found in upwards of 99 percent of American homes, higher even than the 93 percent of homes with a phone. Without a hint of government subsidy - let alone a domestic producer - TV reaches more homes than telephones, despite six decades of sweeping universal telephone service policy courtesy of the Communications Act of 1934." "The best thing government can do is get out of the way," said Michael Bloomberg at the aforementioned panel discussion in Davos, Switzerland. He argued that governments are basically an obstacle to progress.

Informed, Literate Participation

The digital media cannot be compared to the television, as the market determinists would have us believe. TV is basically a passive form of entertainment. The new media require the active, informed, literate participation of a user. The pattern of TV growth will not be replicated, because purchase and use of the new media are skewed toward those who are literate and motivated for active participation. It is precisely those children who are disadvantaged in education, family income, and personal empowerment who will be least able and least motivated to embrace the new media. While access is critical for universality, it is also inadequate. Have-nots lead to do-nots. It's not simply having access, but what you do with it that counts. As Joan Chiarmonte of Roper Starch says: "It's really important what demands people make on the technology. One group will have greater knowledge, motivation, and vision, creating [greater] possibilities." The term have-nots should not be used to mean lacking access only; rather, a growing underclass does not have fluency, motivation, and integration of digital tools with various aspects of their lives. Having, knowing, and doing go hand in hand.

The Generation Lap

By the time - if ever - the "free market" catches up to the nots, they will no longer be children. Denied the opportunity to assimilate the new media in their youth, they will, instead, have to adapt to it. They will be on the wrong end of the generation lap - lapped by those of their own generation. Moreover, their employment prospects in a knowledge economy, their potential income levels, their prospects for stable families, and their potential for a fulfilling life will all be greatly diminished. This is a downward spiral. Poverty causes digital impoverishment, which in turn contributes to continued povertization. "Leave everything to the market," or "It'll all come out in the wash." Such statements reflect a growing belief in Social Darwinism. The economic view that competitive markets are required for economic growth and success is extended to an ideology regarding society and governance. In this ideology there is no such thing as the public interest. It is said that governments should get out of the business of social policy and helping disadvantaged people or groups and instead be defenders of individual rights. Darwin's views on the evolution of the species were extended in an earlier period - the late nineteenth century - to a social view about nations. It was argued at the time that within the human species, nations are locked in a struggle for survival in which civilized nations were supplanting barbarous nations. Advanced Civilization, obviously, has inherited valuable traits from its ancestors. Underdeveloped cultures will soon die off. Therefore, natural order obligates powerful, civilized nations to appropriate the limited resources of the weak.2

New God . . . The Market

A century later the new god is not a superior species but the market. In my debates on haves and have-nots I have heard the statement "the poor will always be with us." I have heard people say the issue is really "information haves and have-laters." I have heard people say, "don't concern yourself with these things. It'll all be fine." Many leading technology and business thinkers, who should know better, have become champions of this cause. The view is extended to the digital economy as a whole. It is argued that governments today are a legacy of the old industrial economy and need to be eliminated. It is not always clear what should replace them. What is driving this view? Some critics have argued it is greed - the ideological rationalization for unfettered capitalism and a gold rush in cyberspace.3 Others see it as ironic that those who favor an end to government involvement in the Net are precisely those who benefited from initial government subsidization.4 A kinder view is that many well-meaning thinkers are just naive - smart on technology and business issues and lacking experience on social issues.

The Gap Grows

The wealthy in America are information-rich. The poor are information-poor. Whites are generally haves. Blacks are have-nots - two-thirds less likely to have a PC in the home. The solution to this problem is not the market. The problem has been created, in part, by the market - or more precisely by the lack thereof among the dispossessed. Just as there is no market for food in areas where people are starving - because food cannot be profitably sold - so there is no market for the digital media in the inner city, the reservation, or parts of the rural south. This situation is not improving. It is being exacerbated with every passing day as the gap grows. . . . The rate of penetration for the haves is rapid, while for the have-nots it lingers. Each day that the haves get not only better access but more services, improved technology, and, most important, improved fluency and motivation, the gap grows. As Brad Fay, who led the seminal work for Roper Starch on The Two Americas, says, "The logical implications of this is that we are moving into two distinct societies where people have very different life experiences, lifestyles, and attitudes. Part of it is economically driven - what people can and cannot afford." According to their research, 24 percent of people without high school diplomas and 37 percent of low-income people are interested in using the computer to obtain product information. This compares to 64 percent of college graduates and 69 percent of those earning more than $50,000 per year. Hardly any lower-income households have a computer (7 percent), in comparison to those making between $30,000 and $50,000 (32 percent). Of those making over $50,000, usage increases to 53 percent. Households earning more than $75,000 are 10 times more likely to be surfing the Net than those making less than $30,000 per year. Most Americans know what this will lead to: 59 percent say divisions between those who understand the new technology and those who do not will be a serious problem in 25 to 50 years.5 Poverty begets information poverty begets poverty. Racial divides beget a racial gap in media access begets racial divides. Opposition to efforts for universality, regardless of the intentions or lofty ideologies of the perpetrators, result in actions which uphold and amplify social differences.


  1. Gibson, Steve. "Universal Disservice," Reason Magazine, April 1995.
  2. "Social Darwinism: Reason or Rationalization?" http://www.smplanet.com/imperialism/activity.html
  3. Bennahum, David D. "Mr. Gingrich's Cyber-Revolution," The New York Times, 17 January 1995.
  4. Borsook, Paulina. "Cyberselfish," Mother Jones, July/August 1996.
  5. "The Two Americas: Tools for Succeeding in a Polarized Marketplace," Roper Starch, 1996.
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