The Death of Command and Control?

Leaders of Large Organizations in Business, Politics, and Even the Military Are in for Some Big Surprises

February 19, 2004

In this cogent description of the behavior of “Digital Natives”--people who have grown up in the digital age--author Marc Prensky gives us some clues about the social behavior of the current and next generation of customers, citizens, and employees. He posits that the nature of leadership will need to change dramatically in our organizations, businesses, and government institutions.


The following article was originally published in a Special Edition of Mark Anderson's Strategic News Service on January 21, 2004(1). It was penned by Marc Prensky, the author of Digital Game-Based Learning(2). We offer Marc's perspective to our readers because we feel that it's timely and provocative. This article is reprinted with permission from Marc Prensky and Mark Anderson, who jointly hold the copyright. Feel free to redistribute this article to others.

"Command and control may have reached a cul-de-sac." - Christopher Locke, Introduction to The Cluetrain Manifesto

My [Marc Prensky's] argument:

  • The unprecedented changes in technology we have seen in the last 30 years have led to new patterns of thinking, especially in young people-the biggest users of that technology. The extent and magnitude of these changes is largely underappreciated.
  • This has led to changes in the behavior of young people, many of which have been noticed individually, but which have been rarely, if ever, grasped in their totality.
  • These changes are creating, and will continue to create, important changes in society.

Although these changes will be many, the biggest and most revolutionary will be, it seems to me, in our concepts of leadership and in the way that our largest groups-business, government and military-are organized and controlled.

WHAT'S GOING ON? (Ruminations by Marc Prensky)

While traditional leadership has been top-down and hierarchical, I think we will soon see much more bottom-up control of many things, even such traditional top-level prerogatives as setting strategy. Future leaders will be much more directly influenced by those whom they lead, in a true democratization of all organizations.

Whether this is good or bad I do not know; I suspect it is some of each. But it is happening, and it is almost certainly irreversible, so we'd better be prepared. Examples:

* In the late '90s, Microsoft was rolling along with billg at the helm, setting company strategy, just as a good CEO should. (Harvard Business School teaches that the job of the CEO is, in fact, to set the strategy for the company.) Younger MS employees, more in tune with today's technology, began banging on his e-mail that there was something important out there called the Internet. The banging finally got loud enough to induce the change in strategy expressed in the now-famous "everything we do going forward..." memo. Result: Microsoft now has a different strategy. A company was transformed-from the bottom up.

* Over the past 20 years, Walkmen, Diskmen, and MP3 players have made music a ubiquitous part of young people's experience and lives. A few years ago, peer-to-peer technology written by some young programmers, such as 19-year-old Shawn Fanning of Napster, made it easy to exchange songs for free. Most kids agreed that this was a good thing. Result: recorded music became free. Yes, some people are still paying Apple 99 cents a song for the moment, but downloading of the music-sharing software is up (despite the Pew study), and paying for songs is doomed, as the programmers will get around this. An industry was transformed-from the bottom up.

* Recently, a number of young Americans came to a consensus that Howard Dean was their candidate. With support from Dean's manager, Joe Trippi, some of their number wrote and used software to connect and spread the message. As a result, Dean will possibly beat the Democratic machine, win the nomination and maybe even win the election. And his methodology has already been co-opted by other candidates. Our political system was transformed-from the bottom up.

* Soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq were not, as it turned out, issued the perfect "kit" for the job. But with a little searching, they were able to find on the Internet clothing and equipment much better suited to the environments in which they found themselves. So they began ordering their own gear directly, over the Internet, based on what they needed, eventually getting military approval. Military procurement was transformed-from the bottom up. These stories are repeating themselves over and over, and will likely soon be joined by thousands of others.

In 2002, Howard Rheingold published Smart Mobs: The New Social Revolution (Perseus). Although his choice of title may be strange, his ideas are, I believe, very much on the money. Rheingold's thesis is that the new technologies of today, technologies of communication and networked interactions, are leading to new, ad-hoc forms of social organization. He points as examples to the political changes in the Philippines, to "mobile phone tribes" in Japan, to supercomputers and grids, to cheap embedded sensors and "wireless quilts," and to the rise of online "reputation systems."

But as visionary as Rheingold is, and as far as he takes the concept and implications of mobile ad-hoc social networks, he does not, I think, go far enough. Nor do others who have written about "crystalline" organizations, nor do consultant-like teams, nor even writers like Kevin Kelly who have compared organizations to natural systems(3).

For what is truly different and remarkable about this "social revolution" is not just that people use the tools available to them to form ad-hoc groups and communicate. It is rather that they control these tools, and can adapt them and use them in new ways-their own ways-to accomplish their own ends. As Alan Kay, founder of the Viewpoints Research Institute, told a group of SNSers(4) recently at the Project Inkwell launch, the great difference in the new tools is that they are programmable. And the great difference in today's young people is that they are programmers of the technology of their age. Almost all of them program unconsciously to some extent. Remember those flashing 12:00's on VCRs that only the kids could get rid of? And notice how quickly they set up and personalize their devices? And, of course, some of them program to a phenomenal degree.

Now, for the first time in history, when large numbers of young people have a common purpose, they can harness technology, adapt it to serve their purpose, and take collective action. If they think companies are standing in their way, they will support those who write the software to get around the companies. If something is bothering them, such as spam, they will encourage and support those who write anti-spam tools.

The great father of this movement, as it happens, is not a kid at all. It is 49-year-old Tim Berners-Lee, or rather Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who transformed the Arpanet to serve the hypertexting needs of his peers. There is also Marc Andreessen, who made the Internet mass-friendly. And Jerry Yang of Yahoo, who organized it, and the guys at Google, who made it searchable. And Pierre Omidyar, who sat down and bent code into auction software. And the game designers, mostly anonymous, who began bending the rigidity of text messaging and the inherent location-based capabilities of cellphones into games and dating devices. And, most recently, 20-year-old Zack Rosen, who organized the team of young programmers who wrote the software that is behind the Howard Dean campaign.

Most readers of this newsletter(5) are familiar with these names and their stories. But while most of us, I would guess, celebrate them as brilliant innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs, I'm going to suggest that they are, in fact, something different. I suspect that they are, in another sense, merely the "scribes" (or "amanuenses") of their generation, writing down, in language that others yet can't, the collective wishes and requirements of their peers. (Joi Ito, founder of Neoteny Co. and a participant and speaker at last year's FiRe conference[6], calls them the "toolmakers.") We have a new, uniquely literate group inside this generation, the tool-creating "scribe-tribe." These scribes are in many ways analogous to the literate priests of old who wrote down the collective stories of their group, in documents such as the Bible. (Note: This perspective is not meant to demean their skill, but rather to give some context to their inventiveness.)

The other "high priest" of the tribe (along with Saint Tim) is Linus Torvolds, with his "write-it-and-give-it-away-free" "hacker" ethic. Torvolds brought the digital generation the message that (1) they could create their own collective versions of even the most complex software, and (2) there were thousands-or even millions-of potential scribes, both greater and lesser, itching to work on this software and improve it, often for free.

Linux is the great work-in-progress "cathedral" of the scribe tribe, but there are many other "churches." The same hacker ethic is found among game "modders" who spend countless hours modifying off-the-shelf games to their own liking and preferences, generally for free distribution and use. Many of the scribe-tribe write and post tools that help their non-scribe peers do their modding better and faster, with tools created and shared for the common good.

Will Wright and Electronic Arts found recently, to their delight, that more and more scribes were writing and posting free tools to enhance the experience of those playing The Sims ( Scribe-tribe-created tools, generally downloadable and free, have allowed fan-based content to become a major part of the game world, enabling the non-programming masses to shape their games to fit their own needs.

So this is a generation that can-remarkably-collectively figure out the tools it needs to get what it wants, inspire some of its number to create the tools to do what is needed for free, and then use the tools to their advantage. Other examples, in addition to those we have already seen, include important and world-changing tools such as:

  • instant messaging (created to fulfill the need for synchronous communication)
  • blogging (created to fill the need for personal expression), and
  • wiki (created to fill a need for easy collaboration)

Not surprisingly, when tools already exist or are offered by companies (such as "short message service" [SMS] texting or camera phones), young people are also quick to adapt them to their own needs, such as games and moblogging. The scribe-tribe quickly finds ways to extend new tools to fill the particular demands of the generation.

That is why I say that what we are seeing here is more than just ad-hoc groups coming together. Today, and in the future, when a consensus forms among young people that something is the right thing, it is likely to happen, whether or not the rest of society agrees with it. Period.

Why? Because the tools to make it happen are in the people's hands, and they know how to use them. And if they don't exist, or need modifications, the scribe-tribe is ready to write them. Although we have recently seen Thermadorian reactions to such developments in cases such as Napster and the IRAA, I am certain the trend will continue.


Let's go back for a minute. Who are this generation? Are they really so different? As I have written extensively elsewhere (see ), people born after roughly 1980 have had an extraordinary, never-before-seen set of formative experiences: an average of close to 10,000 hours playing videogames, over 200,000 emails and instant messages sent and received, close to 10,000 hours of talking, playing games and using data on digital cellphones, over 20,000 hours of watching TV (a high percentage being fast-speed MTV), almost 500,000 commercials seen-all before the kids leave college. And, maybe, at the very most, 5,000 hours of book reading(7).

We know from contemporary neurobiology that experiences of this intensity alter the brains of those who receive them in ways that enable them to accommodate and deal with these experiences more easily. So we now have a generation that is better at taking in information and making decisions quickly, better at multitasking and parallel processing; a generation that thinks graphically rather than textually, assumes connectivity, and is accustomed to seeing the world through a lens of games and play. (These are just some of the most salient of many important changes.)

I call this generation the "Digital Natives," in contrast to the "Digital Immigrants"-those of us who are older, and who arrived at the digital shores later in life. This distinction is important, because those of us who were not "born into" the technology-no matter how fluent we become with it-are different from the Natives. We will always retain to some degree a "digital immigrant accent," which can range from printing out our e-mails to preferring to type with our fingers rather than our thumbs. And we will never understand or use the technology in precisely the same way as the Natives do.


So what kinds of new behaviors have the Digital Natives evolved from their unique formative experiences and new skills?

Tens of windows open at once on a Digital Native's computer screen. They become bored and fidgety by the slow pace of school versus their games and lives (symptoms often misdiagnosed as ADHD). We marvel-or despair-at their ability to simultaneously do homework and watch TV, or to listen and type-a skill that results from their having practiced all their lives. We see research showing that doctors who are Digital Natives appear to have greater ability to read X-rays than older doctors(8). We notice, if we listen, that Digital Natives don't talk about "information overload" as Digital Immigrants do; rather, they crave more of it.

In fact, if we examine the totality of the ur-Digital Natives' e-life, we see that it contains new ways of ...


About Marc Prensky

Marc Prensky is the author of Digital Game-Based Learning (McGraw Hill, 2001). He is founder and CEO of Games2train, a game-based learning company, and founder of The Digital Multiplier, an organization dedicated to eliminating the digital divide in learning worldwide. He is also the creator of the sites and Marc holds an MBA from Harvard and a Masters in Teaching from Yale. More of his writings can be found at


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