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Originally published Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 4:39 PM

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Guest: Are apps becoming a human crutch?

Hyper-knowledgeable, hyper-personalized apps breed app-dependence, according to guest columnists Katie Davis and Howard Gardner.


Special to The Times

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A NEW suite of killer apps has arrived. These apps, which use predictive search technology, promise to answer questions before you ask them — or even before you know what those questions are.

Apps like Google Now and reQall anticipate what information you will need before you even have to ask based on your traffic conditions, weather and your location. For instance, they alert you when to leave to make your restaurant reservation on time and the best route to take. Think of these apps as a kind of omniscient GPS, tailored just for you.

Once we’ve gotten over any initial wonderment, we should ask: Are such hyper-knowledgeable, hyper-personalized apps good or bad?

At their best, apps can free us up to focus on what we think is important, relieving us of tedious or unproductive detours. They can act as springboards to rewarding new experiences.

For example, they could notify friends of our destination and suggest nearby sites of interest, paving the way for an unanticipated afternoon of companionship or new cultural perspectives. In our recent book, “The App Generation,” we term this kind of use “app-enabling.”

But there is a dark side to life when we come to rely on an app, or apps in general, doing only what the programs recommend. We call this “app-dependence.”

As an example, consider that many young people today have never had the experience of getting lost. Indeed, should their access to apps be cut off for any reason, they may be at a loss to find their way anywhere.

They have not experienced the pleasure of wandering while lost and discovering by serendipity interesting new places. Nor have they found the empowerment that occurs when one finds the way back home.

Such dependence can affect a whole raft of life decisions — where to go, with whom, when to stop or recompute. Indeed, anyone who has become wholly dependent on apps looks to them immediately when making a decision, instead of first reflecting on prior experiences, personal values, aspirations and alternative courses of action.

The enigma wrapped in powerful apps is well captured by a remark made by 20th century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and often quoted by the digerati: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

Powerful apps seem to do just that. Yet Whitehead’s remark leaves unexamined the questions of who decides which operations are important, and what the possible costs are of failing to think of such operations.

Looking forward — and we don’t have to look very far — what would it mean to have apps that can genuinely anticipate what we would ask or look for?

We could go through life as automatons, following scripts that we have unconsciously authored in earlier moments — and that the programmer of a particular app has codified with an algorithm — like the planner Frazier in B.F. Skinner’s “Walden Two.”

If you like such a “Brave New World”- or “1984”-style script, fine. We’re almost there.

We could rely on the designers of apps, assuming that they have made wise decisions about which operations should be automated and which should be left to our discretion, thus allowing us, in Whitehead’s term, to advance civilization further.

But what if you want to be app-enabled rather than app-dependent because you want to remain the agent of your own life?

If so, it is important to spend time and go places where your apps are not by your side, where you are not sleeping next to your smartphone.

Make certain sectors of your life off-limits to apps; they are fine to use for scheduling, perhaps, but not to manage your emotional or spiritual life.

Better yet, gain sufficient skills so that you can modify apps as you wish. Perhaps even program a counter-app that talks back to the likes of Google Now.

And then if you are even more ambitious, go for app-transcendence — the capacity to cast your apps aside, follow your own intuitions, create a world that others could not even envision.

Come to think of it, isn’t that a description that would fit Steve Jobs?

Katie Davis, assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School, and Howard Gardner, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, co-authored the book “The App Generation.”




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