Works in Progress - Autumn 2013

Whither Digital Natives?


By Howard Gardner and Katie Davis

September 5, 2013


Since 2006 Howard Gardner and Katie Davis have examined the role that technology plays in the lives of young people, sometimes called “digital natives” because they have grown up immersed in the hardware and software of the day. In their book The App Generation, due out in October, they explore how life for this group differs from that of those who matured before the digital era.

Gardner is a Harvard University professor of cognition and education; Davis is an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School. We asked them to pose questions about the future of the generation they portray in their new book.

1. In the early days of the Internet, scholars noted how easy it was to try on identities online. As never before, it was possible to alter, with little effort, a user’s gender, physical appearance, and such aspects of personality as sense of humor and level of extroversion. It even became possible to become another species!

Twenty years later, the Internet looks quite different. Substantially more people are online (from the millions to the billions), and use of the technology is increasingly interwoven with offline lives. Google and Facebook facilitate this interweaving by encouraging people to maintain profiles that reflect their offline identities while increasingly promoting use of their services to log in to other sites, further locking the user into a single, unified identity online. Will this trend toward identity consolidation continue, or will we find new outlets online to express and explore multiple facets of ourselves?

2. The young people we interviewed for our book assert that, like older generations, they value privacy, intimacy, trust, and deep relationships with others. But their actions do not conform to their stated views. In the future, will young people give up any pretense of these traditional values, or will they find ways to reinvent privacy, intimacy, etc., in a digital world?

3. All apps are, ultimately, communication shortcuts. When it comes to personal relationships, they can make interacting with others quicker, easier, and less risky by eliminating face-to-face interaction and possible confrontation. Yet, an important quality of deep relationships is the vulnerability required from those involved. Confronting another person directly with one’s thoughts and emotions can be uncomfortable, but taking that emotional risk brings us closer to others. How will intimate relationships change with this reduction of  vulnerability and risk?

4. A finding from our study says an app can either make you dependent or enable you to stretch. When an app is relied on to sculpt a desirable identity or to produce an essay efficiently, it tends to induce dependency. If the app stimulates you to fashion an unanticipated meal or to create an unusual song, however, it is enabling. Over time, will apps move toward creating more dependence or more enablement? And will the movement be caused principally by the creators of apps or by the ways people elect to use (and even transcend) the apps that are available to them?

5. Since Biblical times, the word generation has been defined as the period from the birth of the child to the birth of the grandchild. More recently, various generations have been defined in terms of achievement (The Greatest Generation) or psychology and sociology (Generation X, Generation Y). Rather than citing momentous events such as war, economic crisis, or presidential assassination, young people today speak of their generation in technological terms. Moreover, youths restrict their definition of technology to devices invented in their lifetime. Might future generations be known by the software and hardware of their time?

6. As we come to have a choice of apps for every conceivable human activity, will people embrace them or eventually spurn them? If they spurn them, what will perform the role apps now play? For example, might individuals in the future go back to nature, or become Luddites, or create spaces where digital devices are excluded for short or long periods of time?

Howard Gardner and Katie Davis are the authors of The App Generation.

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