Howard Gardner, best known for his books on “multiple intelligences,” and Katie Davis, one of his former students, have written a book about the impact of mobile apps on identity, intimacy and imagination.
Recruiting Katie’s younger sister Molly as an example of the “younger generation” who grew up with mobile phones and the Internet from day one, the two researchers embark on a journey to discover the real impact of digital technology on the human experience. The authors move among these three different generations in presenting their work on the psychological effects of computer software, especially mobile apps.
The App Generation is based on research, both the authors’ studies of the use of digital media by youth in New England and Bermuda, and research carried out by others. The purpose of the research was to gather information about how young people think of digital media, how they make use of them, and what they see as the advantages and limitations of the many devices at their fingertips.
In addition, the authors conducted seven focus groups with adults who work with young people, and 40 extended interviews with high school teachers who had worked with young people for at least two decades.
They also compared artistic productions of young people – both writing and graphic work – obtained from depositories of student work that have been accumulated continuously throughout the past two decades.
The researchers’ analysis includes a mix of technologies, types of information, varieties of media, and aspects of human psychology. They use the theories of several well-known scholars to reflect on the impact of technology including Canadian communications guru Marshall McLuhan.
But, the present proliferation of apps is a relatively new phenomenon, where few theories have been developed. After all, the first personal computers were only developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (My first personal computer was a Commodore Pet, in 1978).
The digital technologies presented throughout the book are seen as both positive and negative. On the one hand, apps can extend human abilities, gives one a sense of achievement, expose the user to a much wider world, and support imagining, creating, producing, remixing, and experiencing a wide range of interesting output.
On the other hand, you can become a slave to someone else’s avatar, engage in superficial ties, avoid face-to-face confrontations and interactions, and become lazy and not develop new skills because computer technologies take over. Much of the book is devoted to the details of these possibilities as represented by the three generations discussed by the authors.
In the end, Gardner and Davis look beyond the issues of identity, intimacy, and imagination to discuss the impact of digital technologies on religion and ethics, on education, and on the prospects of creating a better world. Apps are here to stay, and no one is going to give up their mobile device – we’ve become too attached to them for that.
If you want a good overview of how this new technology has impacted human experience, this book is a good place to start.