The App Generation | Notes & Review

Posted on November 17, 2013


Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. Yale University Press, 2013. (244 pages)


ONE Introduction

…three topics emerged as dominant and also permeate this book: our sense of personal identity, our intimate relationships to other persons, and how we exercise our creative and imaginative powers. (3)

It’s our argument that young people growing up in our time are not only immersed in apps: they’ve come to think of the world as an ensemble of apps, to see their lives as a string of ordered apps, or perhaps, in many cases, a single, extended, cradle-to-grave app. (7)

…in the next chapters, we provide two disciplinary contexts within which to locate the young people of today. The first context is technological. … The second context is deliberately interdisciplinary. We ask, “What do we mean when we speak of a generation?” (13)

In recent centuries, generations have been increasingly defined by sociological considerations. (13) … We propose that, going forward, generations may be defined by their dominant technologies, with the length of the generation dependent on the longevity of a particular technological innovation. (14)

TWO Talk about Technology

…technology re-creates human psychology. (20)

Most of what we accomplish online is a result of procedures that have been created by others, with their options delimited in various ways for various purposes. And so we encounter the paradox of action and restriction. (24)

When we think of a child or an adult employing an app, we shift our perspective from technology to psychology — from the machine or the medium to the human users. (25)

We are the species par excellence of new experiences, new actions, and new reactions. (26)

…habits are “the enormous flywheel of civilization.” (26)

BEHAVIORISM. If a behavior is rewarded, it is repeated; if it is not rewarded, it is sooner or later extinguished.

COGNITIVISM or CONSTRUCTIVISM. On this view, skills and knowledge are constructed on the basis of the individual’s own active explorations of the environment. Rewards supplied by others are fine, but the most important activities are ones that are intrinsically rewarding — based on one’s own discovered pleasures as one explores the world. (28)

Behaviorists favor the most tightly structured learning environments — generously termed “well-structured curricula and tests,” less kindly termed “drill and kill.” In sharp contrast, constructivists call for rich and inviting problems and puzzles, which will engage curiosity and catalyze extensive exploration — with, at most, the “guide on the side,” rather than the “sage on the stage.” On the constructivist view, the best way to educate is to provide inviting materials and get out of the way. (29)

Both behaviorists and constructivists recognize the importance of habits. … For constructivists, habits are a mixed blessing — needed to move on, yet possible barriers to continuing growth. (29)

In our own terms, we may think of habits as potentially making us dependent on certain conditions or as enabling us, freeing us to do new and potentially important things. (29)

The advent of the digital world introduces a bevy of potential new habits. (29)

As we argue in what follows, the emergence of an “app” culture allows individuals readily to enact superficial aspects of identity, intimacy, and imagination. Whether we can go on to fulfill our full potential in these spheres, to take advantage of apps (“enabling”) without being programmed by them (“dependent”), remains a formidable challenge. (34)

THREE Unpacking the Generations: From Biology to Culture to Technology

In the classical era and in biblical times, the definition of a generation seems to have been straightforward: a generation spanned the period from one’s birth to the time that one had offspring, at which point the offspring’s own generational clock began to tick until it had children. (36)

Those, then, are biological or genealogical generations. Once historians, sociologists, and literary critics came on the scene, a new incarnation of generations appeared. Generations came to be associated not merely with those who gave birth to you, or those with whom you shared a dwelling, but also with the kinds of experiences that you shared with peers. We argue here that, in our own time, the digital technologies usher in a new sense of the concept generation — one that has implications both for the length of a generation and how its consciousness may be affected. Specifically, the emergence of digital technology in general — and of apps in particular — has produced a unique generation: wrought by technology, fundamentally different in consciousness from its predecessors, and, just possibly, ushering in a series of ever shorter, technologically defined generations. (38)

A consequence of the emergence of mass media was the proliferation of generational characterizations both in the United States and abroad. The fifties saw the Silent Generation and the Beat Generation, the sixties saw the rise of hippies, flower children, young radicals, and the stark epithet “The Sixties Generation” … and so on, leading to the perhaps deliberately non-revealing appellations Generations X, Y, and Z of recent decades. (40)

The Lonely Crowd, a sociological study by David Riesman and his colleagues published in 1950, captured this period memorably. On their account, earlier periods in American history were dominated by two forms of national character. The tradition-directed individual looked to the examples of those who came in preceding generations for patterns of what to believe and how to behave. … Using the parental generation as a point of departure, the inner-directed individual attempted to develop an internal compass that came to govern his or her behavior and belief systems. (41)

The newly emerging other-directed individual took cues neither — in tradition-directed form — from those who came before nor — in inner-directed fashion — form a self-constructed value system. (41)

Generativity has a literal meaning: the generative individual forms a family and raises the next generation of offspring as well as guiding others for whom one has responsibility. (44)

…we can anticipate that future generations may return to self-characterizations in terms of more traditional political, social, and cultural events. But it could also be that young people have shifted sharply — and maybe permanently — from political events as defining; they think of themselves increasingly as part and parcel of the latest, most trendy, most powerful technological devices. (51)

Indeed, we may be straddling one of those fault lines in history when the definition of a generation needs to be recalibrated. If, in fact, our era is defined in terms of technology, then a generation may be quite brief; indeed, we should think of a generation as that era in which certain technologies rise to the fore and, in particular, when young people — usually the “early adopters” — come to employ particular technologies in a full, natural, seamless, “native” way. (51)

If our analysis is on the mark, we now have a new perspective on the generational issue: invoking the spirit of Marshall McLuhan, we can think of generations in terms of the dominant media and the habits of mind, behavior, presentation of self, and relation to others that they foster — as well as those that they minimize or even expunge. (54)

FOUR Personal identity in the Age of the App

The apps arrayed on a person’s smartphone or tablet represent a fingerprint of sorts — only instead of a unique pattern of ridges, it’s the combination of interests, habits, and social connections that identify that person. (60)

Overall, life life in an app-suffused society yields not only many small features of a person’s identity but also a push toward an overall packaged sense of self — as it were, an omnibus app. (61)

…online identity is less complete than their offline identity. (64)

“developing a meaningful philosophy of life” is “very important” or “essential”
1967 86% of college freshmen
2012 46% of college freshmen

The pragmatic, careerist focus of today’s college students occurs within the context of a broader societal trend toward individualism and away from a more community-minded, institutional orientation. (68)

  Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI)
Early 1980s 19% of college students scored above 21 (considered a high score)
mid- to late 2000s 30% of college students scored above 21

…the current rise in volunteerism among today’s youth may be a product of the packaged self: it’s a box to check off as one follows the super-app of life. (70)

One could argue that the icon serves less to signify the purpose of an app and more to represent a particular brand and the lifestyle, values, and general cachet associated with it. In other words, part of an app’s appeal lies in its external representation rather than its internal functionality. | Packaging oneself for others involves an element of performance. (72)

Daydreaming, wandering, and wondering have positive facets. Introspection may be particularly important for young people who are actively figuring out who and what they want to be. (74)

I’m not saying that [kids] were less narcissistic [before the Internet], there are just more ways to be validated now with that. (76)

The authors of this study caution that while youth’s online behavior may appear narcissistic to an outsider’s eye, it’s important to keep in mind that their primary motivation for going online may well be not to promote themselves but rather to maintain and nurture their social ties. (76)

In the psychoanalytic tradition, one speaks about narcissism not to indicate people who love themselves, but a personality so fragile that it needs constant support. – Sherry Turkle, Alone Together

New media technologies can open up new opportunities for self-expression. But yoking one’s identity too closely to certain characteristics of these technologies — and lacking the time, opportunity, or inclination to explore life and lives offline — may result in an impoverished sense of self. (91)

FIVE Apps and Intimate Relationships

Ultimately, we find that the quality of our relationships in this app era depends on whether we use our apps to bypass the discomforts of relating to others or as sometimes risky entry points to the forging of sustained, meaningful interactions. (93)

78% of all adolescents in the United States own a cell phone. (2013, Pew) (94)

Scholars in the mobile communication field have dubbed such in-the-moment planning “microcoordination” and observe that it can slide into “hypercoordination” when teens start to feel left out of their social circles if separated from their mobile devices for any period of time. (95)

In many ways, today’s social interactions bear markings of the app. Apps exist to maximize convenience, speed, and efficiency. (97)

General Social Survey (GSS)

Number of discussion partners reported by Americans
1985 2.94
2004 2.08
Number people reporting that they talk to no one about matters they consider important to them
1985 10%
2004 25%
Agree that “most people can be trusted”
1972 46%
2008 33%

If you don’t trust that people are playing by the rules, you’re less likely to opne yourself up to them and become close. (99)

So, one possibility is that social media platforms like Facebook make us feel lonely because they create the impression that our “friends” are hanging out with a greater number of more exciting people and having more fun than we are. (102)

Though apps allow us to perform a multitude of operations, they may not be well suited to support the kind of deep connection that sustains and nourishes relationships. (102)

An important quality of deep relationship is the vulnerability required from those involved. (103)

…communicating through a screen instead of face to face largely removes the need to take emotional risks in our relationships. (104)

Distance goes hand in hand with disruption. (105)

Among the relationships at risk of disruption by today’s media technologies, the family may be particularly vulnerable. (107)

Digital media are thus associated with a stimulation effect, whereby the added opportunities to communicate with one’s friends translate into increased feelings of closeness to them. (108)

[Re: Facetime/Skype] …to create the illusion of eye contact one must actively avoid it. (109)

…while it’s great to be able to connect with others across distances, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to achieve the level of deep, warm connection that face-to-face contact provides. (109)

Ultimately, whether digital media lead youth to feel connected or isolated from others will depend on their orientation toward these media: Is theirs an app-enabling or an app-dependent stance? Do they use apps to augment or replace their offline relationships? (110)


It may be that our cell phone use diminishes our inclination to seek social connection beyond our close circle of intimates. (117)

Apps are, ultimately, shortcuts. (118)

It may feel more comfortable to remove the risk from social interactions, but if we don’t put ourselves out there, we can’t truly connect with others (isolation). And, if we don’t truly connect with others, we can’t put ourselves in their shoes (empathy). (119)

SIX Acts (and Apps) of Imagination among Today’s Youth

Under what circumstances do apps enable imaginative expression? Under what circumstances do they foster a dependent or narrow-minded approach to creation? (121)

Affect in Play Scale (APS) measures the dimensions of pretend play, including imagination (how many fantasy elements and novel ideas does the child produce?), comfort (How comfortable is the child engaging in play, and how much enjoyment does he or she experience?), organization (What is the quality and complexity of the play plot?), frequency and variety of affect (How often does the child express positive and negative emotions?). (129)

Considered together, these changes in genre, plot, story arc, setting, and time period suggest that, while teens’ visual art has become less conventional over time, creative writing emanating from this age group has become more so. (135)

Only 24 percent of the early stories include informal, pedestrian language, whereas fully 80 percent of the later stories do so. In short, the early stories may be more “out there” in terms of their incorporation of magical and absurdist themes, but the language they use to depict these fantasy worlds is somewhat less flavorful. (136)

…youth of today display less willingness to take risks in their creative productions. (140)

MIDI is a good example of how early design decisions can circumscribe subsequent creative acts. (143)

It would be myopic to look at digital media’s impact on young people’s time and attention without also considering important changes to other aspects of their lives. (147)

In the spirit of Marshall McLuhan, we’ve described how imagination with respect to one medium (graphic expression) is more likely to be enhanced than imagination with respect to another medium (literary expression). When it comes to the matter of creativity, the medium matters. We’ve noted as well that imagination is likely to be facilitated by the greater ease of communication with others, far as well as near, and by the often powerful vocational and cultural signals in the surrounding community. (154)

SEVEN Conclusion: Beyond the App Generation

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. – Alfred North Whitehead

The technologies are varied — and this is good — but the strongest influence, particularly among the young, is the pervasiveness of the “app” — the activation of a procedure that allows one to achieve a goal as expeditiously as possible and enjoyable as well. At present, life is certainly more than the sum of apps at our disposal. But the influence of apps is more pervasive and, we believe, potentially more pernicious. And that is because the breadth and the accessibility of apps inculcates an app consciousness, an app worldview: the idea that there are defined ways to achieve whatever we want to achieve, if we are fortunate enough to have the right ensemble of apps, and, at a more macroscopic level, access to the “super-app” for living a certain life, presented to the rest of the world in a certain way. (160)

Characterizations such as “risk-averse,” “dependent,” “superficial,” and “narcissistic” have been asserted, even bandied about. We have to stress, accordingly, that even if these descriptors have merit, in no sense are we blaming members of the App Generation. (166)

If there is a finger to be pointed, it should be aimed at earlier generations and not at the adolescents and young adults of our time. (167)

RELIGION. In one sense, religion (especially as we have known it in the West) can easily be thought of in “app” terms. …it is also possible to think of the religious life, well lived, or appropriately lived, as a kind of super-app. (169)

Yet, perhaps paradoxically, it seems that, in some ways, the app world is antipathetic to religion, or at any rate to traditional organized religion. (169)

ETHICS. …there is not a radical difference in orientation toward ethical issues. (171)

…many young people lament the absence of effective mentors who could model how best to handle an ethical dilemma. (171)

The “four Cs” of critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, and community. (179)

Our survey suggests that the majority — one might even say, the vast majority — of educational apps encourage pursuit of the goals and means of traditional education by digital means. They constitute convenient, neat, sometimes even seductive pathways to accomplish what were already goals in an earlier era: mastering concepts, learning arithmetical operations, identifying geographical locations or historical figures or key biological or chemical or physical processes. (179-180)

As we see it, the new media offer two dramatically fresh opportunities. One is the chance to initiate and fashion one’s own products. (180) The second opportunity entails the capacity to make use of diverse forms of understanding, knowing, expressing, and critiquing… (181)

As [Alfred North] Whitehead saw it, genuine learning begins when one is excited, moved, inspired, or stimulated by an early encounter with a question, phenomenon, or mystery — this is the time of romance. But one remains stuck at this point, or becomes bored or alienated or anxious, unless one can begin to acquire tools that allow one to gain a firmer understanding of the initially seductive phenomenon. (186)

Our point is different. put directly, we are not unduly worried about avenues to precision: many exist. What we are here urging is that apps can and should facilitate the initial romance; present multiple ways of attaining precision; and, in the end, provide ample opportunities to make novel as well as expected use of what has been learned. This stance should occur both with respect to constrained educational goals — say, the understanding of multiplication — and with respect to the broadest educational goals — say, the appreciation of how scientific knowledge is created and used and misused. Indeed — and here is where we draw the line sharply between behaviorists and constructivists — precision should always be the means toward making knowledge one’s own and using it ultimately to raise new questions and build additional knowledge. (187)

As individuals, as groups, as cultures, people can decide at certain times, or under certain circumstances, to disengage from the digital world, to explore paths on their own, to form identities, achieve degrees and forms of intimacy, and forge creative directions that had never been anticipated before. (192)

“The question is no longer, ‘Are computers like us?’ but rather, ‘Are we like computers?'” (193)

With essayist Christine Rosen, we worry about the “ultimate efficiency — having one’s needs and desires foreseen and the vicissitudes of future possible experiences controlled.” With poet Allen Tate, we spurn a world in which “we no longer ask ‘is it right,’ we ask ‘does it work?'” (197)

— VIA —

There is a seemingly appropriate approach to this book, utilizing “apps” as the genre and perspective through which we evaluate the current milieu. I opine, however, that the “app lens” is insufficient to encapsulate everything that is going on. I do not spurn their efforts, or the contribution they make to the conversation. In fact, there’s much to learn and take away from their offering that is informative and helpful. It simply must be buttressed with additional perspectives from a wider swath of potential frameworks that are out there.