Maybe you’ve noticed a lot of folks fixated on their phones. Recently I saw some college kids at a bus stop, three fiddling with phones, the fourth not. “Hey Dude,” I said to myself, “where’s your phone?” As if on cue, he pulled it out and looked at it. Then I saw a kid riding a bike, with one hand holding a phone raised to his eyes!
The App Generation, by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, explores how this technology is changing us. The focus is on young, mainly middle class Americans. “Youth is going to the dogs” has been a constant refrain in every generation, literally since ancient times, and certainly many people (older ones, of course) see something deeply amiss with how pervasive smartphone technology has become.
The authors’ verdict is mixed. They focus on three “i’s” – identity, intimacy, and imagination, and how they’re affected by apps. For troglodytes, “app” is short for “application,” a computer program, that can be installed on a smartphone, such as a game, navigational aid, communication thing, etc. That “etc” is very broad and today there are apps for just about everything in life. Uber is an app for getting a car ride. Tinder is an app for getting a hook-up. (A “hook-up” is what used to be called a “date,” but minus formalities.)
Hence the concern that we’re becoming creatures of our apps. But the authors see this cutting two ways – whether apps are enabling (good) or create dependency (bad). It’s the difference between utilizing apps to enhance your experience of life, providing more and better options and ways of achieving objectives – or, on the other hand, having your life governed by the apps, so you become a virtual clone of all your fellow app slaves.
“Imagination” refers to creativity, which can certainly be aided by apps, giving users more artistic outlets and avenues for self-expression. But the other side of the coin is doing things the way the app guides you, not breaking out of that box. This can indeed be a negative for those at the most talented end of the bell-shaped curve of creativity. But for the mass in the middle, I think the enabling aspect must far outweigh the dependency aspect, allowing people to be creative who just didn’t have the opportunity before.
“Identity” concerns one’s life project of building a persona. This requires some introspection. Through the ages, technological advancement’s main thrust has been to liberate us from drudgery, giving us not only material goods, but more freedom to think about the big questions. Apps can do this too, making much of life a lot easier. (Smartphone teens hardly know the concept of being lost.) But they can also swallow up life, becoming life. The book quotes one teenager: “On Facebook, people are more concerned with making it look like they’re living rather than actually living.”
“Intimacy” concerns human relationships. A common complaint is that people get together for dinner, say, but spend the whole time with eyes glued to phones. And that we’re actually losing our facility for face-to-face interaction. Yet in the smartphone era, it certainly seems there’s a lot more human connectedness going on. I’ve wondered what all these people, always on their phones, actually have to say to each other. But of course that’s not the point. The connectedness itself is the point, as though society is becoming like a giant ant colony of shared consciousness. However, as the book’s authors ruminate, keeping in touch is not the same as really relating to another person. Many people actually seem to maintain their webs of smartphone connections in a narcissistic way – constantly tapping each other on the shoulder, as it were, as a way to verify that “I really exist, I matter.”
Here again, the technology can work as a facilitator, or actually an impediment, depending on how it’s used, and the kind of person using it. And of course, the kind of person you are can be shaped by such pervasive technology.
Many modern parents are more connected to their children than I am; smartphones certainly enable helicopter parenting. The book notes that some kids are sent to “no devices” summer camps with two phones, one to turn in and the other to hide, to keep in touch. And a lot of parents try too hard to shield their children from any difficulties, disappointments, or unhappiness, making them less prepared for life’s vicissitudes. The authors worry that youngsters are becoming too risk averse, less open to experience and serendipity – preferring to remain within an app cocoon, going through life as though on a predetermined railroad track with no deviations tolerated.
But query whether all these sociological phenomena are down to just one technology. Human society has been changing ever more rapidly as all forms of technology have flourished, altering beyond recognition the conditions of our existence.
It can be hard to balance all the considerations and judge whether life is becoming better or worse, or just different. But every technological advancement through the ages has been met with critics deploring it. Writing was condemned by Socrates in fear that people’s memory capability would atrophy from disuse; similarly some pundit recently fretted GPS will ruin our directional sense. Indeed, many people today see the whole human enterprise as deplorable, and if we destroy ourselves, we’ll deserve it. I disagree. That human enterprise has always been about overcoming an impersonal, cruel nature, to make our lives better, and we’ve succeeded spectacularly.
In the end, people themselves must judge, for themselves, whether something enhances their lives. (I hate all politics premised on someone else knowing better.) And the veritable tsunami force with which not just youngsters, but people of all ages, everywhere, have embraced smartphone/app technology, suggests you have to be pretty brave to tell them all it’s bad.
I say this from the objective standpoint of a non-convert. I don’t even own a smartphone. This blog post was written with a quill pen, on parchment, and uploaded by carrier pigeon.