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First Monday Reviews

Don Tapscott
Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation
N. Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1998
cloth, 338 p., ISBN 0-070-63361-4, $US22.95
McGraw-Hill: http://www.bookstore.mcgraw-hill.com/

The author heads a "research think tank funded by many of the world's leading technology, manufacturing, retail, financial and government organizations" called Alliance for Converging Technologies. Firms such as this engage in forecasting and trend assessment to help their clients plan for the future and make sense of the present. The clients may like being challenged, but at the same time they are paying the bills and they don't want to be offended. Sometimes draft reports are tweaked by the authors in order to smooth the feathers of a company that did not agree with the methodology, the premises or perhaps the conclusions. One usually does not find studies that run against the grain of the major sponsors.

Growing Up Digital clearly fits the agenda of many major companies who see the booming market for all sorts of products and services (not just high tech) that will be consumed by the k-16 kids. While Tapscott is concerned with what he calls "the digital divide" and does spend a whole chapter looking at the negative effects of the growing gulf between those who have access to this technology and those who do not, he believes that the traits ascribed to the kids already online will be extended to those who aren't. He implied that there is a universality in outlook, in behavior, but other than saying his team worked with a large number of young subjects, he does not show that their views will necessarily be extended to the ones who are not online or to those who use it much less frequently.

I was impressed by the way he let the kids do much of the talking as he made his case. The book really is a collaboration between the young people who logged into the www.growingupdigital.com Web site and FreeZone described as "cyber home to some 30,000 N-Geners" (his shorthand for the target group). It is important to remember that he includes everyone in that age group, not just those with experience online. It is primarily about the youth population of the U. S. and Canada, not of Western Europe, Mexico, and certainly not the unconnected masses being worried over by groups such as 2B1 or the World Bank's WorldLink project. If I were Canadian, I'd be interested in how the youth there differ from those in the U. S. More than many people the Canadians don't want to be seen as a homogeneous extension of Yankee culture, even if many do share the English language and consumer tastes, but the book is not aimed at the Canadian market.

Tapscott is aware of and does criticize some of the writings of technology critics such as Robert Bly, Theodore Roszak and Neil Postman. He quotes Howard Rheingold extensively, yet he may not realize that Rheingold is currently wrestling with his own changed views about some of alleged benefits of this technology. Tapscott does acknowledge that all the results are not in when it comes to determining the effects of computer-mediated learning and socializing, but he certainly does not believe that we should wait any longer before acting.

In the chapter on N-Gen learning, he presents the truisms about learning and what he calls the false conclusions. It is a good way for him to acknowledge the arguments against the rapid deployment of this technology because he then devotes more space to counter arguments of his own, and all of them advocate immediate action. He does not have the disdain for teachers that someone like Lewis Perlman does, but he is clearly shocked by the survey of educators that shows they feel the Internet is rather useless in the school environment.

Tapscott posits, "Computers and the Net are simply preconditions for moving to a new paradigm in learning." They are not simple at all; kids need to understand the underlying assumptions behind technology. And that's where the author falls short. He's not about to look at the underlying issues of planned obsolescence in consumer and educational computing devices, nor about the design decisions that are made by the R&D and marketing divisions of the same companies that reinforce what the values of the research and corporate culture but are not necessarily what the whole world may need. Tapscott believes that schools should have the latest gear, even as he acknowledges that you can do some meaningful activities with a 386 and telnet, but he seems unaware of the budgeting issues that arise when companies convince educators that they have to churn the workstations in their labs and classrooms at a furious rate or be "left behind." Just as a school gets ISDN or a good frame relay connection for the PowerMac or Pentium-based labs, a new application that uses streaming video, a faster processor, and more RAM comes out, gets rave reviews, and the tech coordinator and principal feel like their current setup is inadequate. Educators, who were a huge part of the buyers for Apple Computer, my former employer, would have loved to have a few years of stability to justify investing in a top of the line model, get teachers trained to use the apps, and really integrate that into the existing curriculum. Many processes in society do not work at the speed of a computer marketing department.

The Digital Divide chapter is well done and thoughtful. I don't think anyone in the world disbelieves that income and technology access trends are splitting the population even more than was previously the case. Bob Johansen of Institute for the Future, said that the business leaders meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in 1996, put the narrowing of the gap as a high priority. Of course, they saw the capitalist consumer system as being the main solution, while leftist and conservationist critics see the voracious consumer society as the main culprit.

Tapscott devotes a whole chapter to the N-Gen as consumers. The Alliance for Converging Technologies sponsors will be very interested in this chapter. How do I understand this group in order to sell to them? He observes that the line between content and advertising is becoming more blurred, not just on the Web but in children's television programming. He also is aware of the privacy issues raised by massing data on youthful consumers and web site visitors. He reports on some sites that adhere to guidelines to keep kids informed when they are looking at ads and when they are not.

This is one chapter where we don't hear much from the kids. However, he does end it with his 14 year old daughter, Niki, rhapsodizing about the computer/agent of her dreams. It would be the size of a sheet of paper. It would also be a television, use no wires to connect up to any other computer, and it would include a credit card button that would pay for a product to be delivered in "half an hour or so." Presumably Dad would pay for this immediate gratification. Sure it's a fantasy computer, but Tapscott spends a lot of time sensibly talking about families interacting and understanding each other with the help of this media. He says, "The starting point for an open family is for the parent(s) to understand the potential of the new media and to accept kids' culture." If he looks at his owns daughters ideals, how many were inspired by chats with Dad and Mom over dinner (or e-mail) and how much did she get from the messages of society and the advertising messages in teen magazines, 90210, youth movies, and of course the Net? He most likely thinks his daughter is pretty sharp to envision a computer that Nicholas Negroponte would be proud of, but a lot of parents, even if they cannot articulate it at this point, are not sure what they have let into their house when they give their kids Internet access.

Tapscott believes the Web will "eat" television. It will overlay television, just as radio and the movies were not 'eaten' by television. I think the effects of television still dwarf those of the Internet with regards to influence on youth, but the Net is one more vaguely understood technology that parents have to cope with. Some parents are in reactive mode for religious reasons, and some because they disagree with the dominant consumer culture, but most are rather baffled and have no idea what their kid is doing, whether she's at school or online in the bedroom.

In one part of the book he says, "No one is in control of how fast the Net will expand; it is completely a creature of market forces". Then, in the chapter on the digital divide, he criticizes such statements as Social Darwinism, and says the solution is not in the market. What does he really believe? The chart that he shows on computer usage at home (U. S. Census statistics) is very telling, and I'm glad he used it in his talk at the "Connecting All Americans" conference in Washington, D. C. in February 1998 (home.inreach.com/cisler/conne ct.html).

It shows rapid and continuous growth of the high income families using computers, moderate growth for middle income family, and almost no growth for the poor. These results may be tempered by the increase in public access sites at community centers and libraries, but the convenience of using a computer for homework at home versus a lab or library does give the wealthier kids an edge in school. The technology access gap mirrors the movement in wages and salaries for different classes of Americans.

In the March 1, 1998, Parade magazine, Gateway 2000 pitched this ad to anxious parents: "Introducing Gateway Perfect Scholar PCs". It's a multimedia computer loaded with the Learning 2000 Lifetime Library. "It's an accredited educational program that features interactive videos and instruction on 47 CDs that takes your child through the world of math, algebra, reading and history. Now your kids can have a competitive edge when they are in the classroom. And what parents wouldn't want that for their children?" Certainly not good and caring parents.

Tapscott believes that time spent in front of a computer is very different from that spent in front of a normal television. At the conference "Connecting All Americans" he said that N-Gen kids were watching less television (AOL found that kids watched two hours less a week), but if they spend more than 20 minutes a day online that gives them even more screen time than before. I found the author's optimism unconvincing when it comes to pre-schoolers: "the first three years of life are the most important in terms of the development of intelligence, and the digital media is currently used very little by this age group. As the technology matures, we can expect that even very young children may begin to benefit.". While Tapscott feel that on screen experience varies greatly, I think we should look at the time a young child get unmediated contact with the world, as opposed to any kind of screen time, be it media-rich, interactive online screen experience or plain old TV.

For all my criticisms, this book is as good as it gets. He lets the kids talks; he draws on other research; he tries to answer the critics. It caused me to think about issues and to see my own worries and hopes for my own sons who swim in this medium far better than I, who first used a computer at age 41. This book is recommend, and the author is recommended as a provocative speaker. Tapscott spoke at the Connecting All Americans Conference where he covered some of the material in this book. - Steve Cisler

Chuck Green
The Desktop Publisher's Idea Book
Second edition.
N. Y.: Random House, 1997.
paper, 338 p., ISBN 0-679-78006-8, $US25.00
Idea Book: http://www.ideabook.com/
Random House: http://www.randomhouse.com/

Ideas for many Web sites are based on experiments in traditional media, working with desktop publishing programs to develop unique combinations of graphics and fonts. Green's book provides plenty of ideas to those confined to Internet media, even if it seems that only the last of 19 chapters tackles the Web specifically. The other 18 chapters examine everything printable from binders to books to brochures and letterhead to forms and telegrams to signs, labels and tee-shirts. Treating 104 different efforts, each project contains detailed instructions with plenty of illustrations explaining fonts and graphics needed for each design. Each project contains elements that could inspire exciting and bandwidth-respectful layouts in other non-paper media; the simplicity of Green's designs would certainly be an improvement over much of the overblown and pretentious layouts found on the Web. Desktop Publisher's Idea Book should find its way into the hands of designers of all stripes and media persuasions as an ultimate source for good ideas in communication. - ejv

Joseph N. Hall and Randal L. Schwartz
Effective Perl Programming: Writing Better Programs with Perl
Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1998.
paper, 273 p., ISBN 0-201-41975-0, $US32.95
Addison-Wesley: http://www.awl.com/

Trying to be less verbose in Perl? Tired of bugs using the "duct tape of the Internet" (see p. 138 of this book)? Wondering how you can fetch a Web page in Perl (it takes only two lines of code; see p. 229)? Effective Perl Programming is the ideal book for a Perl programmer to gain some confidence in handling many of the idiosyncrasies of Perl; it also helps in understanding some of the surprising and not-so-obvious features of Perl. In ten chapters divided into 60 items, and with two additional appendices, this book starts at the basics (well, an explanation of namespace) and moves on to describing the advantages of regular expressions to debugging (yes, Perl is used in "weird environments" according to the authors) to fascinating (and useful) Perl one-liners. Not for beginners, this book will provide amazingly simple solutions to those sorts of mind-numbing problems, like writing a program to uudecode a file. It will also tell you to "never take anything for granted" in Perl, to never "overlook the obvious". A utilitarian book points out the obvious in front of you; if you work with Perl, you need this book. It will save you hours, even days, in your work with this digital duct tape. - ejv

Dave Sperling
The Internet Guide for English Language Teachers
Upper Saddle River, N. J..: Prentice Hall Regents, 1997.
paper, 150 p., ISBN 0-138-41073-9, $US19.95
Prentice Hall Regents: http://www.phregents.com/

Organized as a tool to help teachers utilize the Internet in the classroom, The Internet Guide is essentially a map for an educator to networked resources. In seven chapters with three appendices, this book attempts to explain everything about the Internet as quickly as possible with lots of URLs that might be useful to English instructors. Most of the information about Internet fundamentals, communicating on the Internet, and HTML are treated more completely elsewhere. The heart of the book is chapter five, "Dave's Guide to the Best of the Web". This section is one long compendium of URLs on everything from business English to grammar to student Internet projects. I was disappointed that this book did not take the next step in explaining how to use all of these resources in the classroom, such as providing some basic examples of lesson plans or projects. This book seems like a printed version of the author's bookmark file from his Web browser. If you're a teacher looking for help in using the Internet in the classroom, this book will only give you a start, with its many pointers to online resources. You'll need more substance in the form of real case studies to understand how to take online information and convert it into practical classroom applications. - ejv

Fay Sudweeks, Margaret McLaughlin, and Sheizaf Rafaeli (Editors)
Network & Netplay: Virtual Groups on the Internet
Menlo Park, Calif.: American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), 1998.
Copublished and distributed by MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
paper, 313 p., ISBN 0-262-69206-6, $US35.00
AAAI Press: http://www.aaai.org/
MIT Press: http://www.mitpress.edu/

Fourteen essays examine in this book the complicated world of online communication, treating virtual conduct (and misconduct) in a series of thoughtful and provoking articles. Not yet another explanation of smileys or emoticons, this book attempts to explain why online participants do the things they do. As you might expect, the answers are as complicated as digital behavior. How would you define rape in virtual reality? Richard MacKinnon's article discusses an incident that occurred in a MUD known as LambdaMOO. Are those that frequently use news sources on the Internet abandoning traditional media? Steve Jones essay examines the habits of participants on soc.culture.yugoslavia to derive an answer. How is Relcom used in Russia? Alexander Voiskounsky analyzes the difficulties in trying to understand users of Relcom today. Network & Netplay does not pretend to answer all of your questions about online behavior; it provides a starting point for a new dialogue on digital sociology beyond the geewhiz attitude of most books on Internet communities. It is a serious examination of some of the advantages and disadvantages of electronic communication, an excellent place to begin to think about the real nature of our digital lives. - ejv

Milton T. Wolf, Pat Ensor and Mary Augusta Thomas (Editors)
Information Imagineering: Meeting at the Interface
Chicago: ALA Editions, 1998.
paper, 255 p., ISBN 0-838-90729-6, $US36.00
ALA Editions: http://www.ala.org/marketplace.html

What is information imagineering? Based on the essays in this book, one definition might be 'the realistic interpretation of imaginary uses of information and computers, as expressed in fiction or in private fantasies'. Dedicated to the late Paul Evans Peters, this book is one interpretation of Paul's verb form "imagineer". In six parts, essays in this book by librarians, humanists, and scientists tackle difficult questions on the future forms of information and the roles of institutions like libraries as conduits for information and librarians as information intermediaries. I had hoped for a few surprises here since I always thought that "imagineer" included serendipity and magic as part of its "process". Unfortunately, there's little here that hasn't been already said in one way or another on the Net - in discussion lists, listservs and electronic journals. I was surprised, for example, that none of the essays examined "imagineering" from the perspective of traditional media (publishers of newspapers, books, magazines and journals); it is a major oversight in this book not to include any review of some of the exciting projects by traditional media trying to take advantage of networks. I doubt that publishers will cease to exist in the information-imagineered future. Government policy - on an international scale - is given little attention in this book as well as standards, and we certainly could use a little more imagination in both areas. Given these editorial lacunae, I would advise those with any imagination and familiarity with the issues to look elsewhere for new ideas on the information future. Better ideas can indeed be found in fiction and on the Net. - ejv


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