This week I want to share some insights I gleaned from Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’ new book The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. Full disclosure: Howard is our colleague at HGSE and Project Zero and Katie was based at Project Zero until she took up a faculty position at the University of Washington last year.
The book is structured around a comparison of the experiences of Howard (recently turned 70), Katie (in her 30s) and Katie’s younger sister Molly, who at the time the book was written was still in high school. Katie and Howard contend that Molly and her similarly affluent peers are fundamentally distinct from previous generations because of the technological environment in which they have been raised. Molly’s generation cannot remember a time when social media wasn’t the currency of the day or when there weren’t a plethora of apps designed to facilitate their everyday lives.
According to Howard and Katie, apps can make us dependent, thereby limiting our imagination and the range of options for expressing ourselves or getting things done. In an example reminiscent of Paul Salopek’s comments about the disadvantages of constantly knowing one’s precise geographic location, their book starts with the observation that Molly has never had the experience of getting lost. Howard and Katie do not argue that GPS apps are inherently bad – but they do believe that apps can be problematic if they constrain how we experience the world. They even suggest that today’s young people may essentially view life as one giant app – that is, as something that can be mapped out in advance and systematically completed.
Howard and Katie also discuss how the ubiquity of Facebook in young people’s lives has been something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, young people have never been connected to so many human beings; on the other, many of them feel constantly pressured to prove to themselves and others that they have terrific lives and lots of friends. The onslaught of fun-filled pictures can make for an alienating and depressing experience: Molly, like some other young people, has taken to limiting her time on Facebook as a means of self-protection. Meanwhile, psychologists are concerned about the long-term effects of young people spending so much energy “playing” to an audience of peers. What is lost when young people have no time for private contemplation or simply to be “themselves”?
Howard and Katie’s timely and thought-provoking book is not all doom and gloom, however. They cite examples where apps can be enabling – that is, where they can be used to deepen or further our understanding or to facilitate creativity. They also argue that, “The quality of our relationships in this app era depends on whether we use our apps to bypass the discomfort of relating to others or as sometimes risky entry points to the forging of sustained, meaningful interactions.”
Where does Out of Eden Learn fit into this picture? While we cannot guarantee the quality of interactions on our website, we hope to give young people a chance to connect with individuals they would not otherwise encounter within the “gated communities” of today’s online world. We also aspire to create a space where students can explore and reflect on their own identities and lives without feeling that they are permanently “on show”. Further, we hope to promote the kinds of understandings of different global perspectives and key contemporary issues that Howard and Katie report to be lacking among Molly’s generation. In a nutshell, we hope that Out of Eden Learn will be “app enabling” rather than app constraining for our participants, supporting them to develop the kinds of understandings that might otherwise prove elusive as they interact away on Twitter, Snapfish, Instagram, Facebook, and the like.
Finally, some evidence from our pilot study indicates that at least some young people are aware that they belong to something akin to an App Generation. When students were asked to draw a diagram to show how the past helps explain who they are and the lives they are living, “Caillou” from Vancouver produced and shared the following:
I chose to focus on the development of technology in our past. I drew seven symbols that connote one of the greatest changes in human development. From the first computer to social media, technology has vastly changed the way we live. It allows us to communicate with others across the world and to search up knowledge within seconds. As technology continues to grow more advanced, there are several advantages and disadvantages. Ideas are easily shared and accessible and life becomes much more convenient. Although we are able to instantly connect with someone several thousand kilometers away, we also become more recluse and less willing to interact with people face to face. In addition, there is a growing obsession with consumerism and accumulating the newest technology.
Katie and Howard will be talking about The App Generation at HGSE in a free Askwith Forum event this coming Monday, October 21 at 7.30pm ET. The event will be live-streamed and available for viewing via the HGSE homepage at http://www.gse.harvard.edu/.