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Book Review: The App Generation

The fundamental question of education technology was posed by one of its seminal figures, Seymour Papert: will children program computers or be programed by them? In a new book, The App Generation, Katie Davis and Howard Gardner revisit that question for the smartphone age. (Disclosure: I consider both authors good colleagues that I've worked with in various ways over the years.)

An app, explain Gardner and Davis, is a shortcut.

An app is a structured solution to a discrete problem, like capturing an image, storing a file, sending a message, or locating a good restaurant. Unlike many other kinds of tools that solve problems, the most popular apps are also tightly woven with a brand. An app is intimately tied to the icon that opens the app--the Twitter bird or the Safari compass. So the app is both a shortcut to a solution, and a shortcut to a kind of identity.

Apps are also, according to Gardner and Davis, the defining technology of a generation that sees the world as a series of problems to be solved, especially the problem of how to maintain a crafted public image.

Davis and Gardner have been conducting a series of innovative studies of young people over the last decade-- ranging from interviews with youth, to focus groups of long-time educators, to analyses of student fiction and artwork published over the last few decades--and The App Generation is a synthesis of these findings.

Short-cuts, especially in learning, can be good things or serious problems. Sometimes we use short-cuts to avoid trivial tasks that might have prevented us from doing better things with our time. We can spend more time in the Louvre looking at art because an app directed us there without getting lost. Sometimes short cuts constrain our behaviors so that we only do things that are easy. We never wander aimlessly in the streets of Paris, because we only navigate to features that we can find on our map apps.

Davis and Gardner define these two stances towards the use of apps as app-enabling and app-dependent. These are not inherent features of particular apps (please, no lists of app-enabling and app-dependent technologies), but approaches towards using them. They are cognates, but not exactly the same, as Papert's dilemma of children programming computers or being programmed by them.

Apps are enabling when they allow people to express themselves in new ways or to focus our efforts on the most important problems. I'm reminded of Greg Kulowiec's great iPad Summit keynote where he described the years he spent learning how to DJ, especially how to sync beats, and all the artisanry that once went into that task, which can now be learned by anyone with the right app in a few minutes. In some senses, it's fabulous that the basics of that art form are now much more accessible to people than ever. 

Apps generate dependency when the limited options of developers constrain our creativity, expression, activity or imagination. The limited set of filters in Instagram force us to create a particular and repetitive set of images. A culture that makes it easy to mash-up and recycle old content may stifle the development of original ideas and imagination. If there is no app for that, we don't do it. Ultimately, the proliferation of apps also make us uncomfortable with time, with boredom, and perhaps with ourselves. 

Gardner and Davis are most sobering when they write about an "app-mentality," the notion that life is a series of problems to be solved, and if a desire cannot be easily fulfilled then one should create an app, a short-cut, to fulfill it. If a desire cannot be fulfilled with an app, then perhaps it's not an important desire. For Gardner especially, there is a clear linkage between the increasing insistence from students over the years that professors are obligated to simply tell students what they need to do to get an A, and this app-mentality. 

The App Generation is not a pean to a new technology or a Cassandra's warning, but rather a tale of how technology leads to shifts in culture and how emerging cultures shape and are shaped by human psychology. Gardner and Davis have good news and bad to share about the app generation. On the whole, students are more tolerant of difference. They are also more risk averse. They find compelling evidence of an increase in visual creativity and imagination from a detailed study of twenty years of student artwork. They find compelling evidence of a decrease of literary creativity in a corpus of student writing. Students are more connected to their parents, and less capable of developing independence. They struggle with ambiguity. They are highly skilled at shaping their public image, and trapped by the constant demands of shaping their public image. They are good at staying in touch, and struggle with expressing themselves sincerely. They are good at using short-cuts, and sometimes they cut right past the most important parts of life. 

These are not just idle or anecdotal assertions, but findings emerging from a great deal of original research and synthesis of existing works. Lots of people make claims about how kids are different; few have gone to the lengths of Davis and Gardner to justify their assertion. 

The book provides a careful, well-researched view on trends in youth culture and psychology as our world is transformed by technology--offering a balanced and careful perspective.  Gardner and Davis have offered a challenging and thought-provoking book: particularly rewarding for educators who are interested in thinking about how young people are changing, and how we might preserve the best practices of our profession while adapting the tools that define a generation.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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