Now that kids have won the cyber race

December 30, 1997|By Susan Reimer

COMPUTER GAMES are quickly replacing bikes and baby dolls under the Christmas tree, and grown-ups are resolving to finally hook up to the Internet in the New Year. The personal computer has supplanted the VCR and the microwave oven as the big-ticket electronic toy no family can do without.

And it scares us, I think.

Far more than the toy guns we feared to give because they might make our sons violent, or the Barbie dolls that might make are daughters anorexic, parents fear the fundamental changes computers, and the gateway they provide to the Internet, might cause in our children.

We worry that computers might be to our children what television was for us: a Pandora's box of mediocrity and malignancy that, 40 years later, is beyond our comprehension or our control -- 500 channels and "NYPD Blue."

Worse yet, our children know more about this new technology than we do, and we will never catch up to them.

Our children are "Growing Up Digital," according to a book by that title by Don Tapscott, and they will be very different adults because of it. Government and business must learn to understand this generation and how differently it will work, play, consume, communicate and compete, he says.

"The old command-and-control systems won't work with these kids. They are going to want the same interactive, collaborative, verbal families, schools and workplaces that they find online," Tapscott says. Government, business -- and parents -- have to find a new way of thinking about these kids and the world they will inherit.

"This is radical stuff," says Tapscott, a Canadian social scientist who is also a corporate consultant on information systems. This is his third book predicting how technology will change how we behave.

Our children may indeed be a new breed because of technology, as Tapscott suggests in his new book. Or they may simply be plain spoiled and lazy because we have lavished thousands of dollars in equipment on them during their plugged-in childhood. Time will tell.

But Tapscott is suggesting that we start thinking about the impact of computer technology on the next generation the way we never did about television.

"Computers are the heart of the new youth culture," says Tapscott, and that culture will wield a very big club when it grows up. There are something like 80 million babies of Boomers between the ages of 2 and 20, and they are, or will be, remarkably facile with the central, culture-changing innovation of our time.

Computers are here to stay, and kids love them. Kids aren't afraid of technology, and they don't read the manuals that come with it. They explore fearlessly and hack through any problems that impede them.

And a computer is not a fancy typewriter to these kids. It is a communication tool, the ultimate phone. It is a vehicle, a way to get places, the ultimate ride.

Kids can go anywhere, talk to anyone, learn anything with a computer. And they can change who they are as easily as they can change their screen name. If we try to ignore this, we are on the wrong side of history.

Unlike the printing press and the television, Tapscott says, which carried the values of their powerful owners, this technology is too vast and fast-moving to carry the imprint of a particular value system -- or of any value system at all.

"This is one of the juiciest issues and one of the most important," he says. "This is a many-to-many communication medium. A thousand times a telephone. The values will come out of the experiences of the people communicating with each other and interacting with various sources of data and knowledge."

We control-freak grown-ups respond to this moral weightlessness with demands for more and better blocking software. How ridiculous we must look to our children, trying to corral them in an Internet playpen when they know we can't play a game of Solitaire with a mouse.

"It just means that we have to get with it," says Tapscott, who has a couple of teen-age Web surfers under his own roof. "This isn't about who can program a hot link faster. We will never beat them at that. This is about how we think about the world as a family. We need to be talking to our kids more. We need to be closer to them."

Our goal, Tapscott says, should not be to infuse the Internet with a value system, but to infuse our children with one.

` Pub Date: 12/30/97

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