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

You mention myself, alongside danah boyd, Cathy Davidson, Clay Shirkey, and David Weinberger, as “unabashed enthusiasts of the digital world,” suggesting that for us, “a world replete with apps is a world in which endless options arise, with at least the majority tilted in positive, world-building, personality fulfilling directions.” For the record — and I can’t speak for the others — I saw the potential and value of the web in terms of a range of different communities, which had gained greater communication capacity by their ability to create and deploy their own digital spaces. For me, the mechanisms by which Apple regulates which apps can be distributed with corporate producers and commercial logics prevailing over grassroots creators and our tendency to go regularly to apps rather than search the wider array of what’s out there on the web has made the rise of apps to be as big a threat to the generativity of the web as the decline in net neutrality. In that sense, we would agree that a defining feature of apps is the constraints they impose on human creativity. This is not really a question but Thoughts?

We both appreciate this comment and are very much on the same page. We discuss the constraints associated with apps at length in our chapter on creativity. These constraints are embedded in the coding and design decisions of app developers, the decisions made by corporate entities like Apple and Google, and laws and regulations passed by governments. While it may be true that ‘creativity loves constraints,’ we bristle at the idea of an individual’s creative expression being shaped by Apple’s bottom line or a politician’s bid for reelection.

We’ve noted that Sherry Turkle initially saw the potentials for rich identity exploration in the digital world; but with the advent of social media, she also discerned the potential for premature identity consolidation and unrealistic ‘perfect’ publicly packaged identities. All students of media, including us, need to be aware both of the changing affordances of the current ascendant technologies and the other forces in society (e.g. pressures on the educational system, invasions of privacy) that also influence the ways in which individuals think and behave and how they interact with the current technological options.

We joke about a kind of “Moore’s law” that ought to be operative among commentators on the technological scene: we need to review our examples and arguments every 18 months so.

One of the more provocative passages here centers around what today’s students expect from teachers and education. In what sense might these students be looking at the university as a kind of app store? How might we see this attitude as reflecting the expectations about learning which were imposed upon them through regimes of standardized testing — a particular kind of app — as opposed to the kinds of affinity spaces that the Digital Media and Learning community has tended to embrace?

 A point we wish to underscore upfront: while we observed specific behaviors in students—such as a tendency to seek instant, definitive answers and discomfort with sitting for a while with questions that don’t suggest an immediate solution—we are by no means laying blame at their feet. For causes, we look to broader societal trends—and not just of the technological variety. The increasing emphasis on standardized testing in schools, unfettered market forces, rising income inequality—these trends predate Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and have no doubt contributed to the algorithmic thinking we observed among young people. Therefore, while we like the image of the university as a kind of ‘app store’ from a literary point of view, in this particular case, it’s clear that the notion of the student (and parents) as customers operating in a complex market is not due to apps, or even technology, alone. Accordingly, for the analyst, it is challenging to parse out what is due to a pervasive mentality in the United States (‘the business of America is business”), the increasing ubiquity of technological solutions more generally, and the specific effects of apps.

Where the ‘app metaphor’ may be more fitting is in the way that students actually think about courses—what is offered, what is expected, and how best to pass a course and navigate the curricula en route to graduation. Nearly every informant to whom we spoke brought up the ‘risk aversion’ among today’s youth; and in the book we actually quote a student who questions the need for formal educational institutions, when, as he puts it, ‘the answers to all questions’ can be found in his smart phone.

The three of us (Henry, Katie, Howard) have all been involved in the initiative of the MacArthur Foundation to encourage ‘connected learning’. Without question, the advent of powerful, networked technologies has opened up a myriad of possibilities for more individualized learning, more integrated learning, and more creative and collaborative uses of what one learns. But the educational landscape is a battlefield and many of the most heavily armed participants do not share our educational vision.


You argue that the rise of social media platforms has tended to result not simply in the “performance of self” in everyday life or the identity play which Sherry Turkle wrote about 20 years ago, but rather the “packaged self” as young people see their self-representation as a kind of self branding. You also suggest that this may be one of the more isolating aspects of today’s digital culture because young people tend to read other people’s “glammed up” self-representations as reality and assume everyone out there is happier than they are. I want to push you to say more about the “packaged self” in relation to the “performance of the self.” After all, when Goffman’s consumers encounter the smiling sales clerk, they did not necessarily assume that he was actually as happy as he seemed. Is there reason to think today’s social media makes us less skeptical about the construction and performance of social identity? Wouldn’t a constructivist argue that having been asked to make choices from an identity tool kit, we were likely to be more conscious of how identity is constructed not less? 

We would push back a bit on the idea that people don’t assume the sales clerk is as happy as he seems. While intellectually we may know this is true, it may not necessarily feel true in the moment of our interaction with him. When we spoke with youth about the way they and their friends present themselves on Facebook and other social network sites, they told us about the “glammed up” versions that they and their peers present online—the prettiest, wittiest, happiest versions of themselves. While they know intellectually that their friends aren’t quite so attractive, happy, or social, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they themselves somehow don’t measure up. We’re not saying that social media necessarily make us less skeptical about the construction and performance of social identity, just that there’s an important distinction between conscious reflection and knowledge, on the one hand, and one’s immediate, gut reaction to others’ online identities, on the other.

No doubt, in every historical era and in every culture, some people are much more aware of the roles that they are assuming, the options that they have, the ways in which others react; while other individuals (probably the majority) just do what one is supposed to do in a situation and do not think about options, including the option of “no way”.   Just like ‘free will’, the notion of an autonomous agent, with genuine options from which to choose, is not a natural way of thinking—it’s one that grows out of (or is suppressed altogether by) the kind of society in which one lives and the role models that are available and emulated.

What may distinguish our society today is both the pervasiveness of social media and their widespread use by kids when they are very young. These factors probably push against the kind of autonomous self for which you are calling. But as a society, we certainly don’t have to accept that state of affairs. As parents, educators, citizens, we can model non-reliance on devices, apps, and social media, and help young people see that they do have choices—and those extend way beyond which app to use on which occasion—the lowest common denominator of choices!


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.