The App Generation: A Review

I have followed Howard Gardner's work ever since I started studying the science and art of adult learning, because of his intuitive insights and penchant to address issues relevant to modern life and work. These were precisely my expectations when I picked up his latest, The App Generation, co-authored with Katie Davis, and I was not disappointed.

The book is an attempt to portray 'Today's Youth' in the context of their digital habits and its implication for life, love and learning. This seeks middle ground between the enthusiasm that Marc Prensky had for 'Digital Natives' and the bleak vision of The Shallows. Putting things in perspective through personal reflections of Professor Gardner, Ms Davis (twenty years his junior) and Ms Davis' sister Molly, another generation apart, this work is an imaginative exploration of technologies shaping consciousness and habits.

One of the most entertaining parts of the book is its 'unpacking' of the concept of generations. We have had several characterisations to deal with: The usual concepts linked to familial generations, each 20 years or so apart (and rising, as people live longer and have children later in life), the socio-economic ones (the GI generation, the Baby boomers, Generation X and Y) and those linked to historical events, such as the Watergate generation. Professor Gardner correctly points out that we are increasingly viewing generations in media/ technology terms, so a generation of newspapers, followed by a generation of radio, then of television and of Internet, each dominant media affording certain form of society, certain values and certain personal habits. This is indeed the commonly held view of media historians, after Marshall McLuhan's 'Medium is the Message'. Tom Standage's entertaining Writing on the Wall, which I also recently read, chronicles the history of consciousness shaped by the media too. And, indeed, this view is shared by the Digital Enthusiasts and Digital Pessimists: Mr Prensky's Digital Native is indeed the same fidgeting person documented in Mr Carr's 'The Shallows'. 

What is special about Professor Gardner's work though is to see the 'Apps',  downloadable software applications designed to perform specific tasks, as a distinct development, significant enough to shape habits and culture differently from media and computer usage. This is indeed worth pondering about. By focusing on the App culture, the authors somewhat under-emphasize the social nature of the Internet, what some of the digital enthusiasts see as a pivotal aspect and defining possibility of the new media (for example, Clay Shirky's 'Cognitive Surplus'). However, this is not an isolated dystopian vision, but in the vain of the warnings from Tim Barnes Lee about the emergence of 'Digital Walled Gardens' or Siva Vaidhynathan's Googlization of Everything visions which warn about cognitive and social shrinking through managed filters of the Internet, rather than the promised expansion of the possibilities. 

The message of The App Generation centers around three aspects of today's youth: Identity, Intimacy and Imagination. The author's warn of each of these things being somewhat preordained, rather than achieved through exploration and engagement. If someone is uncomfortable about digital algorithm's ability to find true love, one would perhaps understand the issue. As the authors put it:

(I)dentities will be more superficial, packaged less interestingly, idiosyncratically, less meaningfully consolidated; intimacy - even it proves more robust than privacy - will be more superficial, more tenuous, less likely to evolve over time; and imagination will be enhanced chiefly for evident problems with evident routes toward their solution. Or, extending beyond our individual young subjects, it may seem that, in spheres ranging from religion to education, the plurality of apps, and the uses to which they are currently put, lean strongly in the direction of dependence, not enablement. 

This is a powerful message. The authors are not dystopian, because they do discuss the possibilities of resistance, individuals resisting the consciousness shaped by technology, though, the authors concede, it may be much easier to disconnect for a while (Arianna Huffington recently asked people to 'disconnect to reconnect') than to resist consciousness determined by technology. The message of App Generation is therefore one of stark warning, and a plea in the lineage of Anthony Burgess, we would rather be bad and imperfect in our own way than be good with scientifically programmed consciousness. This is one message that every educator should at least seriously consider.

Watch Howard Gardner talk about 'The App Generation' at the RSA



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