New Book Tackles Youths’ Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination

By Amy Wickner — October 01, 2013 7 min read
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In yesterday’s post, I introduced The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World (Yale University Press, coming Oct. 22, 2013), a new book by psychologist Howard Gardner and digital media scholar Katie Davis. The book is framed as a study of “The Three I’s” of the subtitle, three ways in which young people today interact with technology, and in which technology – “apps,” in the book’s shorthand – most distinctively affects youth behavior. Yesterday’s post discussed the broad definitions framing the book; today’s will focus on how the authors explore the interconnected concepts of self-presentation and creativity among members of the “App Generation.”

While Gardner and Davis clarify that they haven’t set out to censure the “App Generation” in the process of defining it, many of their conclusions echo fears about technology currently espoused by older generations warily observing the younger. Such implicit criticism appears in their chapter on Identity, which looks askance at “packaged selves” (i.e. the version of “self” that youth present online) and the public performance of social activism and news awareness, frequently reduced to a Facebook “like” or the simple “sharing” of an article. This chapter suggests that superficiality is a major, technology-related characteristic of the “App Generation.” A chapter on relationships – the Intimacy “sphere” – sees similar forces at work that may prevent young people from forming meaningful connections with others through empathy and shared vulnerability. Criticisms of youth in this chapter address their seeming inability to make plans and their fascination with Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s ostensibly shallow treatment of current events.

There is something deeply ahistorical about making these observations and judgments, as if Gardner and Davis were unaware that identity is public performance – reams and terabytes of scholarship have been devoted to this array of subjects – and ignorant of comedy and satire as effective means of addressing social ills and personal vulnerability in public spaces. To presume that such behaviors are both unprecedented and unique to the “App Generation” – a particular socioeconomic subset of young people in the present day – rather weakens the “app” concept.

If young people have engaged in these consciously constructed self-presentation behaviors before, how is it being done differently now, in the 21st century? Gardner and Davis answer, “Technology,” and readers must decide for themselves if their explanation will suffice.

If identity is a kind of public performance for today’s youth, then understanding young people’s creative practices is a requisite complement to studying their self-presentation. The following chapter, “Acts of Imagination Among Today’s Youth,” offers much to dig into in the way of exploring creativity and its manifestations. Gardner and Davis sum up numerous signal studies of creative expression, elaboration, and play, including their own research on creative writing and drawing among select groups of high schoolers, published for the first time in this volume. One key point the authors mention comes from a 2010 study, “The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking,” which inferred a decline among children in elaboration: “the ability to elaborate on ideas and engage in detailed and reflective thinking.” (Elaboration can be likened to a good improvisational comedian’s ability to keep a scene going by using “yes, and” statements; a decline in these abilities fits with an increasing isolation and disinclination towards collaboration that the authors perceive in the “App Generation.”)

The authors found that members of the “App Generation” appear more likely to exercise their imaginations when making images than when writing, indicating that medium matters. These studies – examining composition and subject matter of images, and plot, word choice, and other stylistic elements in student writing – further suggest to the authors that while young people may produce a great deal of creative work, “what seems creative on the surface may actually be re-creative.” While it may be difficult to distinguish between “elaboration” and the “re-creative,” the former term as used in the book implies the production of new ideas or new extensions of ideas, while the latter does not.

In the past, some have taken issue with Gardner’s approach to studying and theorizing creativity, including creativity scholar Mark A. Runco, currently of the University of Georgia. In “Creativity Is Always Personal and Only Sometimes Social,” a chapter in Howard Gardner Under Fire: The Rebel Psychologist Faces His Critics (Open Court, 2006), Runco objects to the way some of Gardner’s past writing focused on “unambiguous cases of creativity,” namely individuals like Albert Einstein, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, and others across a spectrum of art, science, and politics. The critique is specifically directed at Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity (Basic Books, 1993).

By examining these well-known individuals and building a theory of creativity outwards from what their biographies reveal, Runco says, Gardner generalized from several highly idiosyncratic cases. Runco writes that he prefers to approach creativity as a spectrum: “I am willing to assume that every person has creative potential, even if I am wrong some of the time. I am similarly willing to invest resources in studying ambiguously creative persons.”

The tension between Runco’s and Gardner’s viewpoints has interesting implications for The App Generation. In their assessments of how creative student work is, Gardner and Davis assume that there is such a thing as true creativity, and that it reveals itself very early in life, if at all. This is in keeping with Gardner’s previous work on the lives of the famously creative, as many of the individuals of interest experienced breakthroughs in their relative youth. The “App Generation” is in trouble, Gardner and Davis believe, because so few of them meet the criteria for originality and creativity as teenagers.

Runco argues that individuals cannot necessarily be assessed as creative or uncreative, particularly when young. His theory of personal creativity allows for developmental stages that often include the re-creation and reenactment that Gardner and Davis find troubling. Runco writes, “Personal creativity involves interpretation, discretion, and intentions.”

Fluid and debatable definitions come into play here, as The App Generation cites the work of several scholars who distinguish between “Big C” and “little c” creativity: “the truly ground-breaking, original works of art that can change a domain permanently,” compared to “the realm of daily problem-solving and adaptation to change.” Gardner and Davis propose that “digital media give rise to—and allow more people to engage in—a ‘middle c’ creativity that is more interesting and impressive than ‘little c’ but—due to built-in software constraints and obstacles to deep engagement—decidedly less ground-breaking than ‘Big C.’ ” “App Generation” creativity thus falls somewhere between life hacking and The Rite of Spring.

The authors’ conception of creativity and imagination emphasizes “jump-starting inspiration” and devalues “remix culture,” similar to the aforementioned “re-creative” work which they also characterize as “less about breaking new ground than about skillfully retreading old.” Interpretation thus comes across as a lesser act of imagination. As with their treatment of public performance of identity, had the authors acknowledged the historical centrality of copying and interpretation to creative work, their discussion would have been richer. For one thing, many would consider remix culture to be more akin to elaboration than to re-creation.

Individually, the book’s chapters and studies provide interesting angles on what it’s like to grow up today. While acknowledging that their research has been limited to youth within certain socioeconomic parameters, Gardner and Davis also write, “We believe that the portrait we’ve sketched here has reasonably broad applicability, particularly as a comparison to youth growing up a half-century later (and, for that matter, youth growing up in earlier generations).” In other words, they have come to believe that children and young adults today have more in common with each other (across class lines) than they do with any segment of their counterparts in previous genealogical generations.

However, the tangled portrait of the “App Generation” that Gardner and Davis present is far too complicated for the neat package into which they try to fit it. Like the generation of middle-class youth in search of a “single, extended, cradle-to-grave app,” the authors appear to want a single, convenient construction to explain the influence of digital media upon young people’s ethics, behavior, and creativity. It’s an ambitious and absorbing book, but The App Generation is no “super-app.”

Cover image courtesy of Yale University Press.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.