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The App Generation
How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World
By Howard Gardner and Katie Davis
Yale University Press
HC, 256 pgs.
ISBN: 0-3001-9621-0

The rise of the machines

By Steven Martinovich
web posted October 28, 2013

The App GenerationThose born in the early 1970s as a cohort were likely the last in the Western world to know a world without ubiquitous computing – particularly those who actively participated in the computer revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is likely the millennials, however, who are the first true generation to grow up fully immersed in a digital world, exploiting and adapting to technology in ways that will keep social scientists busy explaining for decades to come. Unlike Generation X, which identified itself the builders of the early basic World Wide Web – at least before the dot com crash, the millennials exist in a complex landscape that they are simultaneously building and learning how to traverse.

It is into this world that Howard Gardner and Katie Davis dip their toes with The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World – because in truth one book isn't enough to explore this fertile field. Gardner and Davis argue that technologies like social media, texting and online socializing have changed the way that the generation they have unfortunately dubbed the App Generation perceive the world. Further, this new way of experiencing the world is creating a chasm between the millennials and older generations as parents struggle to understand the language and experiences which are foreign to them.

According to Gardner and Davis, the fact of online life is having an impact on three key areas of adolescent life: identity, intimacy and imagination. For those who use the digital world as an enabling tool – an adjunct to a fulfilling "real world" life – Gardner and Davis argue technology is a boon that extends the reach of teens in emotional, intellectual and creative ways. Teens that become dependent on these tools are generally only capable of doing what an app allows them to do -- a veneer of freedom which hides the ugly truth of digital dependency.

Given the world we live in its tempting to either be a cheerleader for technology or ascribe every evil to it. If The App Generation teaches us anything it's that – to steal a line from an early influencer of the cyberworld, Blade Runner – technology can either be a benefit or a hazard. Teens that use technology as a starting point, or even create their own solutions, are that ideal that the early "digerati" dreamed of when they discussed the concept of netizens, those who participated in their personal and public lives as full people. Unfortunately the majority of any population looks at tools and only sees what they're told they can do – and then go on to use even less of their capability and promise.

Of course, The App Generation can fairly be accused of wanting to have its cake and eat it too. Although Garner and Davis work hard to stress the positive findings of their research, it's hard to ignore that they seem to provide more negative examples of the effects of the digital world on millennials. It is nearly a chapter by chapter conclusion that digital technology seems to be leading people to forming shallower relationships with the people in their lives, quite possibly the most worrisome finding to come out of their research, one that isn't counterbalanced by the fact that young people are creating interesting mashups of scenes from the television program Glee and pop music or that they have hundreds of "friends" on social media web sites.

Given how early we are in the age of the digital human it's difficult to draw any long-term conclusions. The App Generation is an early entrant in this field of study and as such probably doesn't accurately paint a full picture of what the millennials will be when they enter their later adult years. That said, it is compelling and informative portrait of a generation and how they are both adapting to and the world – to the limits of current technology, at any rate – to their own desires. Hopefully Gardner and Davis continue on with their work so we can see how this generation moves forward into a future that increasingly only they will be able to completely understand. ESR

Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.

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