Monday, November 4, 2013

‘The App Generation,’ by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis

Recently, I found myself on the subway next to a young girl watching cartoons on an iDevice. She stroked its screen softly — lovingly, even — while her face relaxed in happiness. I was charmed. And terrified. We don’t yet know what, if any, the implications will be for a generation coming of age in a digital era, and the question fills even the most tech-savvy among us with a mixture of wonder and trepidation. But that is exactly what two youth-­minded researchers, Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, set out to answer in an ambitious and admirable project. Their efforts, spanning several years, have culminated in the meticulously researched and thoughtful book “The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and Imagination in a Digital World,” which explores how young people view themselves and their relationships when smart devices are nearly ubiquitous, social rites happen via text message and the currency of popularity is traded in likes and comments on social-sharing apps.

Many of their discoveries ring true, and not just for teenagers. I nodded ruefully when they described social-media users as having a “packaged sense of self” that is “glammed up and rose-­colored,” and difficulties with offline intimacy, where “typed exchanges may even feel more intimate than face-to-face conversations.” But while Gardner and Davis valiantly try to avoid the clichés and stereo­types typical of discussions about culture and technology, their work still feels trapped in a kind of nostalgia, pining for a lost world. The nuanced appeal of life in the strange interstitial space of social media — where conversations and interactions gain momentum and complexity when batted around online, then are carried offline later that evening on a couch with friends — can’t compete, the researchers imply, with that simple time before people relied on sophisticated devices and services to communicate and connect.

This bias is most evident when the book contrasts Gardner’s own childhood in the 1950s with those of kids today; given such radically different realities, it is difficult, if not impossible, to have a meaningful discussion about value systems and self-worth. But one anecdote in particular stands out.

In the book’s introduction, Gardner — a professor at Harvard’s graduate school of education who remains best known for his theory of multiple intelligences — recalls being approached after one lecture by a “bright and somewhat aggressive student brandishing his smartphone.” How is school still relevant, the young man wondered, when we have devices and search engines at the ready with knowledge and information? If the challenge seemed cocky, beneath it lay a very pertinent question about the ways in which traditional education may need to evolve to keep up with a changing world. But instead of engaging in a potentially fascinating discussion about the philosophy of knowledge and what we truly need to learn to succeed, Gardner shut the kid down by telling him phones contain answers to all the questions “except the important ones.”

This makes the rest of the book difficult to digest without drumming up that vision of Gardner as an impatient Old who neither understands nor particularly wants to understand the Young. For example, Gardner and Davis ask whether modern social networks are larger yet shallower than those of their parents and grandparents, but not whether these inflated online networks may also result in a greater valuing of close friendships and face-to-face interactions offline. They lament that creativity and playtime have moved out of the backyard and into the world of digital apps, but fail to ask whether this shift might lead someone to a better-paying job. In one key section, they examine youth obsession with self-presentation and multitasking, without exploring the possibility that those skills might prove tremendously useful and crucial elements to the workplaces of the future, which might value those qualities as hallmarks of a successful employee.

It is true the pervasiveness of technology is shaping us, whether or not we like it — but perhaps it is also true that comparing the future with an outdated past is not going to beget any reliable answers anytime soon.

Jenna Wortham is a technology reporter for The Times.

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