Share story


Are apps hurting us?

It wouldn’t seem to make much sense. Apps are designed to help; that’s the whole point. The best of these portable programs solve daily problems and promise routes to solutions so direct that they sometimes seem extensions of our minds. What’s the fastest way to my house? What’s happening around me right now? What do I do with this free moment?

Use apps long enough and “Is there an app for that?” is less curiosity than expectation. Couldn’t all of life be a series of apps — every question mapped, every path to an answer charted? You start to wonder how we’d get along without apps, and why we’d ever want to.

That, according to University of Washington professor Katie Davis and renowned Harvard social psychologist Howard Gardner, is where the trouble starts.

I began their new book, “The App Generation,” ready to pounce on yet another in a long line of attempts by the old to explain and most likely lament the unfamiliar habits of the young.

But, though they set out to write about teens, and their data collection and analysis begins and ends with the habits and attitudes of young people, the problem they define resonates too much to ascribe to just one generation. It’s less a critique of what technology does than of how it makes us think, and it begins with their framework for telling good app use from bad: If our use of an app encourages us to explore new possibilities, we are app-enabled. If it determines and restricts our procedures, choices or even goals, we are app-dependent.

How can apps hurt us? When believing they have the answers stops us from asking the questions.

On Thursday I drove to the University Village shopping center, looking for the Starbucks. My internal compass was broken out of the box, so I tossed a coin in my head each turn until I found the right corner and parked.

“I wonder how many years it’s going to take for me to actually know where I’m going in University Village,” I tweeted.

“iPhone? GPS?” a Seattle follower tweeted back.

And there it was, I realized — the presumption that an app is the final answer. I sent him my response. “Those don’t mean ‘I’ know how to find my way around.”

The idea that apps meant to empower us can end up doing the opposite is a complex one that’s tough to grasp on the fly. “There’s no app for the App Generation,” Gardner joked in an email.

The idea is also subject to drift. Davis and Gardner believe that the app, more than Google, Facebook or any one platform or technology, best captures what’s special about a new life lived digitally. But the term “app” was hardly used to describe these packaged programs until after the release of the iPhone in 2007 and Apple’s App Store in 2008. Will the app take a stronger hold on our habits, or could it fade as quickly as it rose?

Whatever the fate of the app in App Generation, Davis and Gardner believe they’ve hit on something deep and enduring, and I think they’re right.

“It’s about the kind of person you want to be,” Davis told me, “And by extension, what sort of society you want to live in.”

Speed, convenience and efficiency — the values of the app world — are becoming the values of the whole world. Why wonder about something when I can look it up? Why think on a solution when I can order it to-go? Why talk to a friend when I can text her, far away, about how I won’t be able to make it tonight? Why invent when I can modify? Why be sad when I can be distracted? Why be, really, at all, when I can just do?

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them,” the authors quote English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in the book.

Efficiency, solutions, everything at the touch of a button … it’s a dream. But is it life?

Coming down from the clouds of academia, let’s be clear. Radio didn’t destroy us. Neither did the movies. Or the telephone. Or the Internet. Apps won’t kill us, either. But in living with them we might change a little, or maybe a lot. The key question is: Will we notice?

With “The App Generation,” Davis and Gardner join a conversation that challenges our sense of technology as something external to us — mere tools or information — and recognizes that its relationship to us is its most critical feature.

The stories are different, but the conclusions are almost always the same: We need to be more mindful of how we use all these devices if we are to build a society that benefits from them most.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.