Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part Three)

My readers are apt to be especially interested in your discussion of creativity in the era of apps. You draw some interesting conclusions by looking at student artworks and how they have evolved over the past few decades. One of the counterintuitive trends you identify is a shift from fantastical subject matter towards more faithful reconstruction of everyday realities. This is surprising to me in part because of the stereotype, which is grounded in some reality, that this is a generation which grew up reading Harry Potter, but some research suggests that schools have tended to have a strong towards realist or at least naturalistic reading, especially in a world where we moved away from the study of literature and towards a focus on deciphering short fragments in preparation for reading comprehension exams. What factors might contribute to this emphasis on realistic rather than fantastical forms of expression?

Perhaps the most innovative research in the book entailed the development of detailed coding categories that can be administered, blindly, to works of art and literature produced by young people between 1990 and 2011. The scrupulous application of these codes led to the conclusion that visual art by young people today seems more imaginative than art produced by young people in the early 1990s, while literary productions by today’s cohort are less imaginative, in our sample of creative works.

This is a single study and we’d be foolish to draw excessive conclusions one way or the other. We very much hope that other scholars and educators, both in the US and abroad, will make use of these or similar tools and see whether they come up with essentially the same findings.

With this disclaimer, we initially shared your surprise about the creative writing findings. It’s not what you’d necessarily expect from youth who grew up immersed in the extremely imaginative world of Harry Potter! But these youth are also growing up in a world of standardized testing, with its pressure to master the perfect five-paragraph essay;and in schools that, with the introduction of Common Core standards, increasingly emphasize nonfiction reading. These trends must certainly have an effect on their use of language.

Others have pointed out to us that young people may be more imaginative in the writing that they do online, for friends and in interest-driven communities, than in writing produced for school or for publication. That’s an interesting idea worth pursuing and one that Mimi Ito and colleagues in the Connected Learning Research Network are shedding light on. Of course, we are talking about general trends—no one would claim that there are no young people producing imaginative works. Indeed, perhaps in other areas—ranging from the visual arts to the creation of new businesses—they are more imaginative than peers in earlier eras. And it may even be the case that we come to think differently of creativity in a digitally-suffused era.

Many of us have argued that contemporary remix practices can encourage certain kinds of critical and creative responses to the culture around them, but you seem to be siding a bit more with Jaron Lanier that such forms of creativity are limited or constrained in so far as they build upon pre-existing cultural materials. Can you explain your position here?

Early in their careers, artists are always producing in relation to the works around them and the works that are most valued—either emulating them or consciously rejecting them….or both! We see mash ups, remixing, and sampling with digital media as an extension of an age-old practice of artists. And, like you, we recognize exciting new opportunities for youth to create, share, and receive feedback on their creative productions. Indeed, we observed these opportunities firsthand in our study of young fan fiction authors on LiveJournal. At the same time, perhaps it is easier in an app world than it was before just to keep remixing, with the constraints already present in the current technologies; and if so, perhaps, fewer individuals will go out entirely on a limb.

To illustrate the effects of technological constraints on the artistic process, we draw on the work of computer scientist and cultural critic Jaron Lanier. Lanier uses the expression “lock-in” to describe the limited range of actions and experiences open to users when they interact with computer software. As a result of a programmer’s (often arbitrary) design decisions, certain actions are possible—indeed, encouraged—while others don’t even present themselves as options.

Lanier’s primary example of lock-in involves MIDI, a music software program developed in the 1980s to allow musicians to represent musical notes digitally. Because its designer took the keyboard as his model, MIDI’s representation of musical notes doesn’t encompass the textures found in other instruments, such as the cello, flute, or human voice. Lanier argues that something important is lost when one makes explicit and finite an entity that is inherently unfathomable (or, to invoke another lexical contrast, when one seeks to render as digital what is properly seen as analogue). Moreover, since MIDI was an early and popular entrant into the music software industry, subsequent software had to follow its representation of musical notes in order to be compatible with it. As a result, the lock-in was reified. MIDI is a good example of how early design decisions can circumscribe subsequent creative acts.

Drawing on a well-known distinction within the study of creativity, we have suggested that there may be a new trend at work. In the past, scholars made a distinction between little c creativity (the way that most of us show some originality in how we plan a meal or a holiday) and BIG C creativity (the radical innovations that we value in an Einstein, a Virginia Woolf, a Steve Jobs). Perhaps going forward, there will be more “middle C creativity”—individuals working together online to push the envelope in certain directions, but perhaps less dramatically.

Steve Jobs is an interesting case-in-point here. On the one hand, he had as much to do with creating the “APP world” as anyone. And yet, Steve Jobs was the least likely person in the world to be constrained by the apps that anyone else had created.

You make clear by the end of the book (and now in the new preface) that you are not opposed to all apps. Can you share some of your criteria for judging what constitutes a good or bad app? What are some examples of apps which you think have indeed fostered greater creativity, more exploration of identity, and more prospects for intimacy with others?

We’re often asked for examples of apps that are enabling and apps that promote dependence. Our response is that any app can be used in a more enabling or more dependent way depending on what one does with it. Consider the drawing app, Doodle Buddy. In one setting of this app, users select a drawing implement and proceed directly to fill their canvas in a free-form way, much as they would an actual canvas. Another setting in the same app presents the user with an array of pre-fabricated images and backgrounds, which users select and arrange on their canvas in a paint-by-numbers way. In the first setting, users are encouraged to engage the app in an open-ended way, with few constraints imposed on them. In the second setting, users’ actions are highly constrained by the limited range of choices given to them.

In our review of various apps, we’ve found that many educational apps lean toward the app-dependent end of the spectrum—drill and kill apps for memorizing times tables, spelling, and state capitals that reward students with virtual smiley faces, candy, or pets that have little or no meaningful connection to the learning task at hand. So, when we judge an app—whether it’s an app used for educational purposes, self-expression, communication, or creative production—we judge it based on the degree to which it encourages users to engage with it in an open-ended way, as non-constrained as possible. Some promising examples of apps that promote open-ended exploration include Minecraft, Scratch, and Digicubes.


Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on “youth and participatory politics”‘, he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV’s digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.