Feature                                                      Pages 21-22


Generational Differences:
The Value of Getting Lost in an App-suffused World


Davis feature
Patricia Katie Davis is co-author with Howard Gardner of The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and Imagination in a Digital World (Yale University Press, 2013).

The first time I remember getting lost was during the summer of 1990, when I was 11 years old. I was spending time with my extended family in Nova Scotia, as I did every summer as a child. My mother and I were staying in the old family farmhouse, which had a big backyard that led into a small forest of trees.

One afternoon, my two younger cousins and I decided to go exploring in the forest and scout a location for a fort. We worked for hours building our magnificent fort of broken branches, giant stones and wild flowers. As the sun sank below the trees and the mosquitoes buzzed around our ears, we realized it was probably time to head back for dinner.

After we had been walking for a much longer period than it had taken to reach our building site, my 5-year-old cousin Michele asked if we were lost. As the oldest, and therefore the de facto head of this band of explorers, I assured Michele I knew exactly where we were. The heaviness I felt in my stomach and the hotness I felt in my head suggested otherwise.

Hopelessly Displaced

It was the same feeling I had three years later when I took the train to New York City to meet my mother, who was in the city for a business trip. When I didn’t see my mother on the train platform, I went to search for her in the station. Somehow, I ended up on the Long Island Railroad level, while she remained on the Amtrak level. We searched and searched for each other for over an hour before it occurred to one of us (I don’t remember which one) that we might be in separate sections of Penn Station.

In both instances, after coming to the terrifying conclusion that I was hopelessly lost and had no idea how to get unlost, I reached deep inside of myself and found a well of determination I didn’t know I had. I used it to find my way home or to my mother. In the process, I gained a sense of self-reliance that has stayed with me ever since.

My sister, Molly, was born 17 years after me, in 1996. Molly cannot remember a time without computers, mobile phones or Google Maps. She also has no memories of ever getting lost.

I discovered this when Howard Gardner, my co-author, and I sat down to talk with the then 16-year-old Molly as we were putting the finishing touches on our book, The App Generation. Since 2006, we and our fellow researchers at Harvard Project Zero have been examining the role technology plays in the lives of young people, often dubbed “digital natives” because they have grown up immersed in the hardware and software of the day.

An On-Demand Nature

As researchers, we have used empirical methods to determine what might be the special, indeed defining, qualities of today’s young people. To illuminate the themes we documented in our research, we used our cross-generational conversation with Molly to provide a comparative lens as well as a literary device. Through these, we were able to observe and chronicle the changes across the generations that we identified in our research.

Howard and I were both struck by Molly’s declaration of never having gotten lost, as Howard’s childhood memories are just as vivid as mine. We realized that Molly’s experience was emblematic of the way today’s app generation moves through the world.

In the book, we introduce the concept of an app mentality that evokes the on-demand nature of apps and the way they are used to perform discrete tasks, such as locating a coffee shop, checking baseball scores, talking with a friend … or finding one’s way home. The app mentality can be considered an algorithmic way of thinking — any question or desire one has should be satisfied immediately and definitively. There is little room for ambiguity or sitting for a time with uncertainty before arriving at a decision or insight.

To help discern when the app mentality is beneficial versus when it may limit our potential, we distinguish between app-enablement and app-dependence. App-enabled individuals use technology as a starting point, an introduction to new experiences, modes of expression and social connection. They can judge when to put their devices away and strike out on their own.

By contrast, app-dependent individuals look to their technologies first and instinctively before looking inside themselves for a path forward. For these individuals, technology has become a starting point, midpoint and endpoint. Those who are app-dependent may never get lost, but they may also find it harder to discover their inner strengths.

Teens’ Ambivalence

Educators have an important role to play in nudging youth toward app-enablement versus app-dependence. One of the challenges about the “digital native” moniker is that it assumes young people are born with an innate familiarity and skill with technology. To be sure, many, perhaps most, of today’s youth seem to develop technological facility remarkably early and easily. But no one is born with an innate sense of information literacy, digital citizenship or moderation in technology use. These skills and values are developed through experience, reflection and support from others, both peers and adults.

Teachers can help their students develop an app-enabled approach to technology by modeling moderation in their own use of digital media. They also can provide students with opportunities to engage in app-enabled learning experiences. Whether technology is involved or not, app-enabled learning experiences are learner-driven, open-ended and as non-constrained as possible. If technology is involved, it should be used to support learning goals, not placed in front of them.

Supporting youth to become app-enabled also involves listening carefully to what they have to say about their experiences with technology. We spent a lot of time listening to teens during our research, and we were sometimes surprised by what we heard. In particular, we were not expecting to hear the ambivalence that most of them expressed about the role that digital media plays in their lives.

Sure, they found it difficult to imagine going through their lives — or even a day — without their networked devices. But on further reflection, the majority of them identified a number of benefits to unplugging — more time to spend in face-to-face conversations, more time for quiet reflection, fewer distractions while trying to complete tasks like homework. Comments such as these suggest that youth are receptive to engaging in reflective conversations about their digital media use.

Through such conversations, both students and teachers can help each other navigate, and sometimes get lost in, this new and constantly evolving digital world.

Katie Davis is an assistant professor in the Information School at University of Washington in Seattle, Wash. E-mail: kdavis78@uw.edu. Twitter: @katiebda 

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