Thursday, November 07, 2013

The App-identities of Today's Youth

The River Raisin, in our backyard
I usually arrive early to my MCCC philosophy classes. As students come they sit down and bow before their smart phones, apping away. This is our world today. We're immersed in a surging sea of technological change that would cause Alvin Toffler to confess that he underestimated the coming "future shock." 

How shall we understand this? I recommend Howard Gardner (Harvard) and Kate Davis's The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. Gardner and Davis examine the three aspects of the lives of young people that are most affected by digital technology:

  • their sense of identity
  • their capacity for intimate relations
  • their imaginative powers
What about identity? The apps on a person's smartphone are a kind of fingerprint. "It’s the combination of interests, habits, and social connections that identify that person." (The App Generation, p. 60) Gardner and Dixon ask: "how are youth’s identities shaped and expressed in the age of the app? Are they truly different or just superficially so?" (Ib.) They respond:

"We found that, as suggested by the app icon itself, the identities of young people are increasingly packaged. That is, they are developed and put forth so that they convey a certain desirable— indeed, determinedly upbeat— image of the person in question. This packaging has the consequence of minimizing a focus on an inner life, on personal conflicts and struggles, on quiet reflection and personal planning; and as the young person approaches maturity, this packaging discourages the taking of risks of any sort. On the more positive side, there is also a broadening of acceptable identities (it’s OK to be a geek; it’s OK to be gay). Overall, life in an app-suffused society yields not only many small features of a person’s identity but also a push toward an overall packaged sense of self— as it were, an omnibus app." (Ib., 61)

This suggests that the capacity for today's youth to engage in the classical biblical spiritual disciplines (solitude, silence, focusing on "Christ in me, the hope of glory") is diminishing. Spiritually, this is disconcerting. As a culture we are now a mile wide and an inch deep. (I see students interested as they are introduced to "deepness" in my philosophy classes, which is encouraging. That capacity, for many I think, has not been deleted from their cognitive hard drive.)

We must first understand before we can evaluate. We must evaluate before we heal, if needed (depth is good, shallowness is bad).