This month's read was the latest book from Harvard professor and educational psychologist Howard Gardner. Along with fellow researcher (and former student) Katie Davis, he wrote The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. Lest you believe this will be a post lamenting the ubiquitous nature of technology in our society, let me put your mind at ease: that's not what I'm here for. Gardner and Davis provide compelling evidence on either side of that particular argument. What I want to talk about is an interesting distinction they make in the use of apps: are you, in your day-to-day life, app-dependent or app-enabled? Davis and Gardner disambiguate this pair of terms early in the book, then go on to explain how each element they explore (identity, intimacy, and imagination) can be affected by one mentality or another. According to Davis and Gardner:
[...] apps that allow or encourage us to pursue new possibilities are app-enabling. In contrast, when we allow apps to restrict or determine our procedures, choices and goals, we become app-dependent. [emphasis added]
To draw the analogy of building a house: do you see apps as the foundation upon which you build, or the walls that define where the house is and how you can navigate within it? Before you decide which characterization applies to your way of life, consider this pair of quotes from two different places in the book:
Apps are great if they take care of ordinary stuff and thereby free us to explore new paths, form deeper relationships, ponder the bigger mysteries of life, forge a unique and meaningful identity. But if apps merely turn us into more skilled couch potatoes who do not think for ourselves, or pose new questions, or develop significant relationships, or fashion an appropriate, rounded, and continually evolving sense of self, then the apps simply line the road to serfdom, psychologically speaking. ("Introduction") Many students come to college with their lives all mapped out- a super-app. "I'll major in government, join the Institute of Politics, intern in DC in the summer, work for Teach for America, then run for state senator in my home district when I'm twenty-eight." Paths to the likes of Goldman-Sachs or McKinsey, architectural design or neurosurgery, follow similar trajectories. Put in Eriksonian terms, the students' identities are prematurely foreclosed because they don't allow space to explore alternatives. Not only is this mentality unrealistic (you might flunk organic chemistry, you might flub your interview at Google), but, importantly, it makes those kids who do not have their identities all mapped out-- who lack the super-app-- feel that they are losing out. ("Personal Identity in the Age of the App")
The desire to move from high school to college to the working world, sprinkling "developmentally appropriate" milestones such as marriage, financial independence, and parenthood along the way (achievements like this in an actual app could be represented by "badges") is, in some instances, part of an app-dependent mentality. But I want to clarify that statement. Am I say that any of these milestones should not be reached for? NOT AT ALL. But feeling pressure to graduate college at 21, be a department head or manager at 26, married at 30, or president by the Constitutionally-mandated minimum age of 35 is not altogether different from expecting to arrive at a hotel in 33 minutes just because your GPS told you so. In both instances, your expectations for what could be are supplanted by what you expect, demand, or require of yourself. In both instances, there's little space to be lost. And make no mistake- it's okay to be a little lost. When was the last time you truly allowed yourself to get lost? Lost on a series of roads, lost in a really good piece of music, lost in thought? There's time. I promise. And by giving up the idea of app-dependence, life-path dependence...you stand a better chance of succumbing to that lost feeling.
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. Without time and space to ponder alternative ways of being in the world--without breaking away from an app-determined life-- young persons risk prematurely foreclosing their identities, making it less likely that they will achieve a fully realized and personally fulfilling sense of self. ("Acts [and Apps] of Imagination")
But a word of warning: there is equal danger in what I call app-independence, or the equivalent of operating with simply a pair of coordinates. Finding your own way with little to no help or aim (what, in the wilderness, is known as orienteering) is extremely difficult, and dangerous if not undertaken thoughtfully. Look no further than Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild (the book, not the movie...just trust me) for an example of what happens when aimlessness is pursued as a direct alternative to an app-dependent existence. So if app-dependence is proverbial autopilot, and app-independence resembles staggering in the wilderness, what does app-enablement look like? Well, think of app-enablement as another object that rhymes with app- a map. Unlike a GPS or even point by point instructions given by GoogleMaps or MapQuest, maps show you the lay of the land and provide context for your surroundings. They can show you the most direct way to get somewhere, but also provide the context needed to safely veer off course, free to journey off course while mitigating fear of losing your way altogether. With a map, you can go your own way (marry later in life, take an unconventional career path, retire early) with an eye on the "grand scheme" of things. When apps enable that process, one is open to the idea of finding a job online without feeling tethered to sites like Monster or Indeed; one can trust that there are ways besides OKCupid or Tinder to meet that special someone. To loosen, but not abandon, your grip on not just technological apps, but any promise of a predetermined path to success, will help reduce anxiety and discover joy as your next steps unfold. To return to Davis and Gardner's words:
The birth of writing did not destroy human memory, though it probably brought to the fore different forms of memory for different purposes. The birth of printing did not destroy beautifully wrought graphic works, nor did it undermine all hierarchically organized religions. And the birth of apps need not destroy the human capacities to generate new issues and new solutions, and to approach them with the aid of technology when helpful, and otherwise to rely on one's wit.
Can you see areas in which you're app-dependent? What steps can you take toward being app-enabled?