Mom & Dad, can I buy this App?

Illustration by Pete Ryan - Harvard Magazine

Illus. by Pete Ryan

Contribution by Dennis Phillips (SHB Middle Form Dean)

Recently I was traveling late at night in a rental car without a GPS. I didn’t know the city and had never visited it before so I found myself making all the wrong turns and entering into that mysterious state called lost. A few weeks later I was traveling again and needed to rendezvous with a colleague at the airport, and catch a cab together to a meeting. After landing I realized I didn’t have her cell phone number. How would we meet up and get to our meeting on time?

You might be thinking to yourself, what’s the big deal why doesn’t he just pull over and get on his smartphone and consult Google maps? Or why doesn’t he just text another colleague who is attending the meeting and ask if he has his fellow cab rider’s cell number? Knowing almost everyone now has these digital tools at their disposal we’ve become efficient at troubleshooting a solution to almost anything.

So I wonder does that mean we’ll never be lost again or that we’ll never be lonely and disconnected from our colleagues and friends? Maybe so and could it be that our students will never know what it feels like to be lost? Recently I came across an article in the Harvard Magazine titled, “Is There an App for That?” (See title above playing off the same question with a slight twist.)

The article focused on a recently published book by the Harvard professor, Howard Gardner and University of Washington, assistant professor Katie Davis titled, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in the Digital World (Yale). In the book the authors ask the question: “Are kids growing up in the digital age different than us non-digital natives?” Without a doubt they conclude –YES!

The App has become the shortcut for accomplishing specific tasks. It’s a quick and easy solution to a problem or a boring job that has to be done. Instead of spending time seeking out a solution with questions and wondering how to “work it out” the hammer and nails way, they are downloading a solution. As a certain math teacher I know says, “ask the computer?”

Don’t get me wrong I love the explosion of apps that have found there way into our lives. For the navigationally challenged among us this has added years to our lives. It allows us to do much more interesting things with our time such as order a pizza online or send a group text to family members about holiday dinner plans. The group text is especially useful when your family members number more than 10. But seriously, is the explosion of apps changing our kids for the better.

The authors seem to think not because their identities are taking a hit moving more toward a polished profile page instead of embracing who they really are becoming. It makes me think about that Who song: “Can you see the Real Me?” They also fear intimacy is not deepening but rather spreading out like jam on a piece of toast. Online relationships generate a lot of communication but little in the area of emotional investment and vulnerability. Clumped on to these shortcomings the authors also see a diminished imagination where Photoshop faces seem to be portraying reality but don’t reveal the true expressions within the lines of our faces.

I suppose I’m not so pessimistic as the authors are when it comes to kids and their digital worlds. Yes we all need to check ourselves once and awhile to make sure we’re not “app-ing out” our credit cards with another $2.99 charge. I disagree we’ll become app-dependent or app-enabled if we use a map app too often. I don’t know any kids who used an app to go trick or treating this past Halloween.

What I gained from the article was a reminder about how we use apps when we seek to become creative or smart. How will the app help me to teach better or lead better? If I’m a student how will the app help me learn a concept with greater understanding and depth? Ultimately our students might even ask themselves how can I create a new app to help and assist others?

When our kids ask us that question, “Can I buy this app?” We’ll probably ask back, “what is it for?” Are you sure you need it? I’m glad all of us can still experience the feelings of being lost. Even if we all have smartphones, they still run out of batteries. I like to think  if we’re lucky enough to run out of batteries in the middle of a long walk or during a face to face conversation we’ll probably be reminded of the value of unplugging as often as we plug in.

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