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Net Generation Democracy 2.0 and Obama victory

By: V Sundaram, IAS, Retd.
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I have just finished reading a very exciting and revolutionary book titled "GROWN UP DIGITAL, How the Net Generation is changing your world", by Don Tapscott. He is Chairman of the nGenera Innovation Network and an adjunct Professor of Management at the Joseph L Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. He is an international bestselling author or coauthor of eleven books, including Wikiomics, Paradigm Shift, and The Digital Economy. No one knows the digital generation and its impact on society better than Don Tapscott. As a demographer, marketer and social observer and social scientist, Tapscott has succeeded in bringing all the vital dimensions and aspects of net generation to life and equipping us all with relevant practical advice on how to cope with a world that has gone digital. In this book, he clearly shows the world-changing power of the Net Generation and the way they are re-thinking everything, from education to home-life to citizen participation in all walks of life and more particularly national politics. About 10 years ago, Don Tapscott came to understand that the kids growing up online were radically different, and that speaking digital as a first language was the most important and relevant competitive skill of our age.

In my view this book is very relevant not only to parents and educators or business leaders but also to all politicians who are trying to win a popular vote in any general election. Don Tapscott has clearly demonstrated that Barack Obama who has just assumed charge as President of the United States was able to win a spectacular victory in the Presidential Elections mainly because he clearly understood the importance and the significance of using the digital system of Net Generation to influence the common people and more importantly the youth of America. Obama clearly understood right from the beginning of the electoral process beginning from 2007 that his success rested not in his ability to exercise control and authority to "empower" the common people of America but on his sensitive genuine understanding of the need and importance of creating an environment through Net Generation where the young people of America can and will choose to motivate themselves. Obama went about this business of interacting with his youthful voters on a minute to minute, hour to hour daily basis and won the hearts and minds of all the youth in the age group of 21 to 35 years. Finally on the day of voting the common people of America-particularly the youth-cast their franchise overwhelmingly in favour of Obama. The grand victory of Obama has to be viewed as a grand victory of Net Generation. Obama is the first politician in America who has clearly understood how the revolutionary phenomenon of Net Generation is transforming the way people work, learn, play, create, innovate and communicate in America. It is this bottom line understanding which made Obama use the Net Generation to influence his voters through a carefully selected colorful penumbra of digital communication as a powerful weapon to outwit and outlast his political opponents in the final race for Presidential Elections.

By insisting upon CHANGE, Change for the better and more pulsating America, Obama succeeded magnificently in carrying the overwhelming majority of youth on his shoulders. He spoke proudly of America"s limitless resources and pointed out indignantly to the millions of unemployed how of them working together can create a new environment of CHANGE. He communicated his powerful messages for Change every minute every day through the Net Generation. This was the quintessence of his message. "Our government, formal and informal, political and economic, owes to everyone an Avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work. The country needs, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all never fail to try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by it silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive, and will prosper. We need enthusiasm, imagination, and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely. We need to correct, by drastic means, if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer. WE NEED THE COURAGE, IMAGINATION, ENTHUSIASM AND THE VISION OF THE YOUNG."

This electric message of obama, electronically communicated through the NET, transformed the minds and hearts of youth in America and they became the most powerful crusaders for the electoral victory of Obama. Seeing the way in which Obama has successfully used the technology of Net Generation to reach his young voters-Net Generation Democracy 2.0-I am reminded of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) did in 1932 to talk to every voter in America. He instituted the Fireside Chat, a series of intimate talks via radio with a nation of listeners. 50 million people at a time tuned in and hung on every word of Roosevelt, held by the hypnotic vibrancy of the voice and the fabulous charm of the man. It was the astute politician, the actor conscious of his ability to manipulate his audience, as well as the protective "Big Brother", who began his public confidences with the sonorous salutation: "My Friends ....". The common people thought that Roosevelt"s assured manner was justified; they became not only his friends but his devotees. While accepting his Presidential nomination for the second time in 1936, Roosevelt quoted the words of an English Judge: "Necessitous men are not free men". Then training his guns at the "Economic Royalists", he went on: "Better the occasional fault of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference". Roosevelt converted the Radio into a powerful medium of mass political communication. Coming in the line of Roosevelt, Obama very cleverly, enthusiastically and robustly used the technology of Net Generation to communicate all his powerful political messages and succeeded in proving that he could convert all his listeners into his voters, friends and devotees.

To quote the words of Don Tapscott: "Chances are you know a person aged 11 to 31. You may be a parent, aunt, teacher or manager (or politician-these words within brackets mine). You have seen these young people multitasking five activities at once. You see the way they interact with the various media-say, watching movies or two-inch screens. They use their mobile phones differently. You talk on the phone and check your e-mail; to them e-mail is old school. They use the phone to text incessantly, surf the WEB, find directions, take pictures and make Videos, and collaborate. They seem to be on Facebook every chance they get, including at work. Instant messaging or SKYPE is always running in the background. And what"s with those Video Games? How can someone play World of Warcraft for five hours straight? Sure, you"re as cyber-sophisticated as the next person-you shop online, use Wikipedia, and do the BlackBerry prayer throughout the day. But young people have a natural affinity for technology that seems uncanny. They instinctively turn first to the NET to communicate, understand, learn, find and do many things..."

The NET GENERATION is a distinct generation. It is made up of the children of the post-World War II generation. The bottom line is this: If you understand the Net Generation, you will understand what is going on in the ever-changing, confusing, chaotic and pulsating present. You will understand clearly the pointers to the more explosive future. You will also understand that our institutions and society need to change today.

The most important chapter in Part III of Don Tappscott"s book is titled: THE NET GENERATION AND DEMOCRACY. Here Tappscott clearly describes the exciting drama of Obama and the vote-catching system of Social Networks and Citizen Engagement created by him which enabled him to speak to millions of votors every day during the Presidential Elections in America. As Tappscott puts it brilliantly "The Net Generation does not put much trust in politicians and political institutions-not because they are uninterested, but rather because political systems have failed to engage them in a manner that fits their digital and ethical upbringing. As a result, their interest in political life has been tepid, at best. In 2006, when asked if they would like to support a candidate beyond just voting, only 35% said they would volunteer for the campaign. Only 11% said they would donate $10 or more, while fewer than half said they would attend the rally or event.... What nearly 6 out of 10 would do is join an online group". Obama was the first politician in the world who understood the innovative letter and the surging revolutionary spirit of this response of the new digital generation.

As I observed in these columns yesterday, the Net Generation has come of age in 2008. In every part of the world, this generation is flooding into the work place, market place, and every niche of society. India today is no exception to this general rule.
As Don Tappscott in his exciting book "Grown Up Digital, how the Net Generation is changing your world", puts it succinctly:

"They are bringing their demographic muscle, media smarts, purchasing power, new models of collaborating and parenting, entrepreneurship and political power into the world".

The young people of this Net Generation, the Net Geners, have grown up quite used to the high speed and interactive world of the Internet. The speed of delivery on the Internet is far faster, as high speed Broadband Internet access is now common. What is more, they can tap into a world of instant knowledge from far more places-from their BlackBerry, for example, or their mobile phone, which can surf the internet, capture GPS coordinates, take photos and swap text messages. Almost every kid in the West has an iPod and a personal profile on social networking sites such as Facebook, which enables Net Geners to monitor their friends" every twitch-all the time. Obama right from day one of his campaign understood the hidden power potential of this Net Generation and used it as his most strategic tool of communication to reach his voters every moment everyday till he was declared as Winner-President elect-in November 2008.

Many academics, journalists and scholars present skeptical, negative and even cynical views of the Net Generation. Don Tapscott does not share the unfounded pessimism of Professor Bauerlein; "The 21st century teen, connected and multitasked, autonomous yet peer-mindful makes no great leap forward in human intelligence, global thinking, or netizenship. Young users have learned a thousand new things, no doubt. They upload and download, surf and chat, post and design, but they haven"t learned to analyse a complex text, store facts in their heads, comprehend a foreign policy decision, take lessons from history, or spell correctly. Never having recognised their responsibility to the past, they have opened a fissure in our civic foundation, and it shows in their halting passage into adulthood and citizenship".

Don Tapscott summarily rejects the negative views of writers like Professor Bauerlein, Edward Hallowell and Robert Bly etc. about the Net Generation. He rejects the view that Net Geners present a portrait of vigorous, indiscriminate ignorance; they are showing symptoms that look like attention deficit disorder and that they are a shallow and distracted generation that can"t focus on anything. They don"t read and are poor communicators. According to Don Tapscott, all these criticisms are not well-founded. The apparent hostility toward the youth culture and its media is caused in a situation where people belonging to an earlier generation become defensive when threatened by something new and which they don"t understand. As he puts it "Historic innovations and shifts in thinking are often received with coolness, even mockery. Vested interests fight change. Just as the proponents of Newtonian physics argued against Einstein"s General Theory of Relativity, so the leaders of traditional media are typically skeptical, at best, towards the new. Both film and print media showed considerable unease with television".

In short, a new generation has emerged with new values, new urges, new hopes and new aspirations. It understands the new media of Net Generation better than the older people belonging to an earlier generation do. A more thoughtful and balanced response is called for from the older generation, rather than the cynical and popular sport of elders attacking and ridiculing youth. This is an extraordinary period in human history. For the first time, the next generation coming of age can teach us how to make our world prepared and ready for the future. The digital tools of childhood and youth today are more powerful than what exists in much of corporate life in any part of the world.

When Obama started his initial exercise connected with his campaign in the winter of 2007, he started with this self-chosen (kept within himself) mission statement: "I believe in the vivid, vital, vigorous and vibrant power of youth. If we listen to them and engage them, their culture of interaction, collaboration and enablement will drive economic and social development and prepare a depression and fear ridden America for a more secure, fair and prosperous future. In the NET I have a new and powerful communications medium which I must use very effectively in the campaign race for the Presidential Elections. I must learn from the youth of America. I must understand the new culture of high performance work, the buoyant spirit animating and pervading the 2st century school and college, the boisterously innovative and dynamic business corporation, the give and take of a more open family, a participatory democracy where citizens are engaged-in short to put my finger on the pulse beats and heart beats of the new, Networked Society".

In 2007, Obama chose to hire Chris Hughes as Director of Online Organising for the Obama campaign. At Harvard, Hughes had teamed up Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of the Facebook, and had helped to develop lots of features-like the "Poke", a digital version of the "tap on the shoulder" for the social networking site. Hughes knew how social networks like Facebook had transformed life on college campuses, and now he wanted to deploy that known power of sharing for Obama in his campaign. Voluntarily he came forward to take a big pay cut and went to Chicago to start his work as Director of Online Organising for Obama.

All online efforts organised by Hughes revolved around my.barackobama.com-or My Bo, as it is known inside the campaign-completely transformed and revolutionised the way politics is played on the internet, and on the ground. The digital tools that were arrayed and put by Hughes on Obama"s social networking site help to create an informed, enlightened and committed community with over one million people. This path-breaking arrangement was a total departure from established practices and traditions. Traditional campaign organisers try to control the message from campaign headquarters. In his networking system for Obama, Hughes gave the individuals in the community the digital tools to organise themselves, share information, and organise rallies and fund-raisers for Obama. Suddenly every young voter came to know that he could share for a cause-the cause of propelling Barack Obama who became the Net Geners" most favorite candidate for the Presidency. The results were indeed explosively exhilarating and astounding by June 2008. Hillary Clinton"s powerful campaign had been beaten soundly by a new model-the Net Generations" version of digital, friend to friend networking.

I can do no better than to quote the clinching words of Don Tapscott: "The Obama story which unfolded during the writing of this book, is a spectacular illustration of the power of the Net Geners, equipped with their digital tools, to disrupt convention, topple authority, and potentially change the world. As of this writing, no one knows how the remarkable Obama story will end, but one thing"s for sure: POLITICS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME. And it"s just the beginning. The Net Generation is turning into a political juggernaut that will dominate twenty-first century politics in America".

The overarching goals of the Obama campaign were about getting supporters to reach out to other supporters by giving them the right information. Hughes made this point very clear when he said: "We make sure all of the tools we build are geared toward electoral success. For example, we let supporters make their own fund-raising page, import their address book, and share the reasons they think it is important to donate with their network. We also let them track their progress on a thermometer".

The Obama effort is the first real life trans-media political campaign in the 21st century electoral politics. In this new approach, the role of engaging two-way technologies-including mobile devices, laptops, and social networking sites-became as important as traditional media. In the system devised by Hillary Clinton there was no provision for immediately replying to the messages received online while Obama had taken care to devise an arrangement under which he could effectively follow up on all the messages received by him. By doing so Obama was using the Net as a tool for connecting with people on an individual level. This enabled Obama to gain a lot of friends on the Net-more than one million. As against this, Clinton could get only 330,000 friends and John McCain trailed with just 140,000 friends.

In a talk Obama described in detail how he gave thousands of volunteers the power to organise and work for his cause. As Obama put it: "The volunteers got together. They really built the campaign. We weren"t even there in Idaho and suddenly we got a call from somebody-I"m here in Idaho and I"m organising. Can the Senator stop by for sometime? We didn"t have big plans for Idaho, but people made the structure".

The impact was terrific and overwhelming. It is not therefore surprising that in the 2008 Democratic Primaries, Obama was favored by the Net Gen by an over two-to-one margin.

The rise of the internet has provided the young voters with a huge reservoir of new memory archives of political backflips. No politician can afford to mislead the public through his carefully planned lies and falsehoods. The internet has laid the foundation for more transparency and accountability in political communications. If there are flagrant contradictions in a candidate"s campaign presentation, it would get immediately noticed by the Net Geners. Net Generation"s propensity and ability to critically scrutinise and attack those who lack fundamental integrity has become immense and phenomenal.

Obama succeeded because of his extraordinary gift of expression. He was not only able to conceive large ideas with a marvellous ability to express them, but also to articulate his thoughts in such a manner that profoundly inspired the young people of America. His words" power flowed from the fact that, without sounding insincere or affected, he could speak in both a heroic style and a plain, everyday style. Together these penetrated deeply into the minds and hearts of the people, completely transforming them.

V Sundaram, IAS, Retd.

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