small version of New England Soundscape Productions logo

In November of 2002 I was asked by members of the Exhibits Department at The Museum of Science in Boston to tech a two day symposium on Technology Literacy. I have always enjoyed working these sort of events because I inevitably come away with some bits of knowledge or insight that I had not previously possessed. Such was the case with this event but this time it fueled a nagging pet interest of mine - technophobia. Why do some people shy away from electronic or mechanical processes? I've seen it first hand more times than I can remember.

So, I collected some of my notes and books, and after reading the literature that Larry Bell (Vice President of Exhibits at The Museum of Science) gave me (thank you, Larry) I wrote what you see here now. I hope that these thoughts will contribute something to our quest for technological literacy. I feel we all should know more about technology and its process. It's not as hard as you might think and, without a doubt, it's the path toward a better future for all humankind. Besides, if I was able to get a feel for it, anyone can!




Some Thoughts on Technology, Technophobia
and Technological Literacy

by Joseph W. Rivers

Everyday, we use devices that have been invented by humans. The intent of these devices is to make our lives easier and more efficient. We've come to know this marriage of science and engineering as technology. In recent years, there has grown a new type of responsibility associated with the advancement of our technological know-how. As technology has become more complicated, so has the economical and ethical decisions of its use. Because of their lack of technological knowledge, this complexity is leaving some people out of the decision making process and in many cases creating a state of anxiety. This technophobia is more than the inability to program the home VCR but the root of the problem may be the same in either case. A recent document advocating a standard for technological literacy for students K-12 may provide a cure. Let's briefly discuss what technology is, how it has changed, and how society may benefit by becoming technologically literate.

In the beginning, technology was quite simple. A stone was used as a hammer - a stick as a spear - an animal hide as clothing. These tools, as simple as they may sound, were the beginnings of technology. Was it common sense that initiated the invention of these things or was common sense established by the everyday use and knowledge of these things? Regardless, the concepts were very basic and as time progressed so did technology. People built shelters, plows and communities. They invented writing, language and other forms of communication. The necessities of everyday life drove people to create the tools and systems to stay alive. Thousands of years have passed and technology has grown with us.

Knowing how to use something is not the same as knowing how it works.
- Marvin Minsky, Society of Minds

Until lately, most technology was fairly easy for average people to understand. A working knowledge of mechanics, a little bit of science and some common sense was enough so that most people could comprehend how a device worked and in many cases, the average - yet motivated, person often improved on these devices. This was how things were for a very long time but in the last twenty-five years or so, technology and the way we deal with it has been changing at an almost alarming rate. Not even during the industrial age of the nineteenth century did people feel that the technology of the day was beyond their understanding. They may have felt that to be dwarfed by huge machines and lavished with new products found in the Sears Roebuck catalog was nothing short of amazing but they understood how this all came about. Then, in the latter part of the twentieth century, inventors began to exploit recent discoveries and little known nuances of engineering and science. Materials and processes became more delicate and complicated. Slowly, what was once science fiction became reality. In most cases, no one could argue that these advancements weren't almost miraculous and served a need for the population. Things such as vaccines, satellite communications, light-weight material designs, laser surgery and alternative safe energy systems are all products of this new age of technology. We use these things everyday but if you were to ask someone to explain in detail how these devices worked many people would be unable to give a satisfactory answer. You'd think that because one advancement leads to another that there's an understandable progression from one invention to the next. Why donŐt we know the details or even the basic concepts anymore? Have we lost our common sense? You'd also think that a modern population would master the art of a modern technology such as the ancient populations did with their technology. Why can't we?

Let's go back to the 1930's for a moment. It's my opinion that after the invention of the vacuum tube and the wireless radio people began to take on a "fuzzy" comprehension of technology. A few amateur enthusiasts, along with professional scientists and engineers must have delighted themselves in this new inventive world and they must have felt quite proud to be the first in this new elite class of technologists. These people invented and built the first mysterious "black box", the radio. A couple of knobs and a dimly lit dial was all that anyone saw of the newest invention. Much like today's internet, it entered the home as a curiosity and slowly became the center of attention. The radio provided a family with an electronic window to the outside world. News, weather, drama - all came from a box that people proudly displayed like furniture. Those boxes were so useful and easy to work that people no longer wondered how it worked, only that it did! Technology progressed and in what seemed no time at all, came the transistor and solid state electronics and the gap between the average person and the technologist grew. This growth in technology was not limited only to the field of electronics but spread to inventions in every conceivable aspect of human life.

Today, technology is almost seamlessly woven in our lives, there's no escaping it. To understand just how pervasive technology is, imagine what you would see if everything designed and created by people were to disappear. You'd find yourself standing naked in a forest.[1] Once again, comprehension is entitled to people with higher education and training and to those avid amateurs. A recent article states that "the U.S. populace includes amateur experts on computer hardware and software, photography, gardening, knitting, digital music, scuba diving, woodworking, ham radio, and more... though each of these pastimes may involve only a small percentage of the population, taken as a whole they represent substantial competence by huge numbers of Americans."[2] These folks have undoubtably helped to develop and advance technology. Companies like Apple, Microsoft and Dolby are all known to have started in someone's garage or living room. There's another hundred lesser known names that have taken the same course. Their efforts, combined with larger, well established corporations like Dupont and General Electric, pushed the advancement of technology into territories that until then, had never been explored. There's no reason to explain those technologies here but one should take note that despite the great number of technically knowledgeable people in the United States, there are many more who have expressed the feeling of being left behind when it comes to the subject of technology. This in turn becomes somewhat frustrating when those people are asked to make decisions in their lives and within their communities about technology and its uses. Some of those uses will have profound affects on society and the world as we know it.

Many people confuse educational technology with technology education, but the two are quite different. The purpose of technology education is to teach students about technology, while the purpose of educational technology is to use technology to help students learn about whatever subject they are studying.[3] A recent survey has concluded that many people associate technology with computers and the Internet [4] but there are other technological advancements of late that need to be addressed. Cloning of DNA and biotechnology in agriculture are, for example, just two of the subjects which have caused much debate in recent times. Their repercussions are being heard and felt around the world. But who in the world is qualified to speak about these cutting edge advancements? This is the concern of many people in the U.S. and abroad.

In the global economy technology plays a huge role. We need to speak the language of technology in a way that is universal. To do this, we need to familiarize ourselves with its basic concepts. This is not unlike when we speak of subjects like the arts, mathematics or science. When viewed in the global sense we can't leave the burden of technological decision making to only a small percentage of the population. Everyone must have an understanding of what is going on and what is at stake when it comes to modern technology. It should be obvious even to someone who's not an education professional, that it's time for us to add a new literacy to our educational process and culture. We need to be able to speak technologically.

In my profession, I frequently work with technology that is used by people in an informal educational environment. Much of this interaction is done in museums. In this kind of setting one goal is to make the technology as invisible as possible (unless, of course, it's the technology that you're exhibiting). This allows the visitor to absorb information without the distraction of having to acquire additional non-related skills to complete their learning experience. Sometimes this is unavoidable but most of the time simple devices like push-buttons, levers, touch screens and computer trackballs are used because of their familiarity in everyday life. Yet, for as long as I can remember working in this field, I have run into situations where there are people (sometimes even museum professionals) who when are asked to understand a concept that's of a technical nature, throw up their hands and declare that they just can't do that "technical stuff". They then leave the technical decision-making to me and my peers. These people, who are obviously intelligent, seem to hit an imaginary brick wall. Years ago this would happen most frequently when dealing with computers but today this technophobia is evident in discussions of using VCR's, digital wristwatches, cell phones and even kitchen devices. What could be the cause of all this anxiety? Have we as a society reached the edge of our technology patience? It may be that some people just don't have the prerequisites necessary to resolve the genuine problems or difficulties [5] that are encountered with technology. But technology's use is so widespread and diverse it may be that we simply have not been taught how to approach technology in general and that we just don't know what we're dealing with anymore.

To see the way a machine works, you can take the covers off and look inside.
But to understand what goes on, you need to get to know the principles that
govern its actions. - David Macaulay, The Way Things Work

In 1996 the ITEA published Technology for All Americans: A Rationale and Structure for the Study of Technology. This was the start to what may become the most important change in the way technology is taught. Until now, the subject of Technology was presented as an example of products created by science and engineering. The fact is that technology is more than products. Technology is a discipline unto itself. In the spring of 2002, the ITEA published Standards for Technological Literacy. In this wonderful piece of work, the ITEA establishes 20 standards in five categories to guide curriculum development for all K-12 students.[6] It presents a vision of what students should know and be able to do in order to be technologically literate. The standards didn't try to define a curriculum for the study of technology but rather leaves it up to the states and provinces, school districts , and teachers.[7] The compendium near the end of the book breaks related topics down into set standards, their grade groups and benchmark topics. That small document alone, which is a condensed summary of the entire book, should be read by anyone involved in technology or technical instruction. In it lies the key to our technological future.

The path to overcoming technophobia and becoming technologically literate could start as early as kindergarten. A child, or for that matter anyone, who is taught basic principles and then is given the chance to apply those principles in a real world scenario will have a better comprehension of technological concepts than someone who has not. Sometimes even the simple act of asking and trying to answer questions about technology can lead to a better understanding not only of technical, but also of social, economic, and political aspects of the issue at hand.[8] Some features of technological studies may make other academic subjects more interesting and meaningful.[9] When people understand the concept behind how a device works or how a system is integrated into a larger system, they are free to question and evaluate those things in a broader sense. Think about the concept behind an arrowhead or wedge for a moment. These very simple devices, used for thousands of years, one day led to the invention of a revolutionary device that changed the way we dressed and fastened cloth. The zipper would never have been conceived had not someone understood the principle of the inclined plane and how it could join or separate two rows of interlocking teeth.

Will teaching technological literacy stop techophobia? Yes, to some degree I think it will. People who feel empowered, in this case with knowledge, are less likely to feel inhibited by fear. Though there may still be a small percentage of the population sensitive to it, much like any other phobia, I suspect what may become evident is something we could begin to label as techno-fatigue. We may find that this new state of phobia in reality is a sort of repetitive task burn-out. People, even now, are tired of dealing with those minute details and long menus on devices such as cell phones and digital wristwatches. When we are thirsty and ask for a glass of water does it matter what color the cup is? To be fair, there are some systems that allow themselves to be customized to a user's personal needs. But there's still many that throw all the bells-and-whistles at the consumer with the hope of appearing to solve and be all for one low price. Although a device can be made to do many things, is it really any better? The confusion that it may cause and the time spent may actually be doing society and technology a disservice. Given the choice, a technically savvy person might settle for an old fashion, mechanical timepiece and leave the latest digital wonder on the shelf. In the long run, it may prove to be more efficient to use a device that's made to do one thing really well.

Probably the most important benefit of creating a population that is technologically literate will make itself obvious when we begin to address techno-social issues. Decision making on the part of a technically literate person will undoubtably be done with more confidence and foresight. No one can predict how a vote will necessarily go on any of these issues because, like all other decisions related to people, everyone has there own views and bring their own life experiences to the table. There's just less chance of people being misled or leaving things to chance when they're versed in technology. Of course, some of the questions surrounding these issues have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with our understanding of science. Remember that technology is the combined efforts of science and engineering. In some cases we may have to postpone our activities until science catches up and gives us a clue to the outcome. But even here, to know the limits of technology is part of being technologically literate.

When the tools of a civilization are beyond the comprehension of that civilization those tools are no longer useful or beneficial. In the past, both the civilization and the tools stopped progressing until the other caught up. Leonardo Da Vinci may have invented a form of helicopter but no one in Florence could book a helicopter ride to tour the city until late in the twentieth century. In today's society, though, there should be concern that this natural brake may not function anymore. As the number of people who control the most advanced technology continues to grow smaller, there lies a danger in maintaining the balance of power and safeguards for the rest of society. As members of a technologically advanced society we need to be aware and vigilant. The threat of nuclear or chemical accidents, terrorism, long term health issues, transportation and communication systems, the health of the environment and all creatures on Earth - all of these issues and more are changing everyday and we need to make decisions about them now, as well as in the future. If we continue to let technological literacy fall to the wayside we will be faced with a greater dependency on fewer members of the population to maintain and control the systems that we have become critically dependent on. Basically, itŐs no different than it was in prehistorical times, we're using technology to provide the populace with the necessities of everyday life. If we canŐt make informed decisions about technology as a society we'll find ourselves in a position were people will take folklore for fact and the (high-tech) literate person as divinity. Becoming technologically literate should be one of the highest priorities in the United States. As Americans we have the added burden of having the entire world looking over our shoulders and critiquing our every move. Can you really blame them, though, we wear our technology like a uniform. Where this all goes is very much up to us. I think we should move now by integrating technology literacy in our schools, media and informal education facilities. A good start would be to follow the guidelines set out in Standards For Technological Literacy. The day will come when our current technology will be old fashioned and outdated, that's the nature of technology. Technically speaking, we need to plan for the future.


[1] ASTC Dimensions Sept/Oct 2002. Technology and Its Makers: A New Perspective for Science Museums by Cary Sneider, Larry Bell, and David Ellis

[2] ASTC Dimensions, Sept/Oct 2002, Technology Literacy: What Informal Education Has to Offer, by Alan Friedman.

[3] Technically Speaking, Why All Americans Need To Know More About Technology. Greg Pearson & A. Thomas Young, editors. p59.

[4] International Technology Education Association, March 2002 ITEA/Gallop Poll Reveals What Americans Think About Technology by Lowell C. Rose and William E. Dugger, Jr., DTE

[5] Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind

[6] Technically Speaking, Why All Americans Need To Know More About Technology. Greg Pearson & A. Thomas Young, editors. p80.

[7] Standards for Technological Literacy, ITEA, Preface p.vii

[8] Technically Speaking, Why All Americans Need To Know More About Technology. Greg Pearson & A. Thomas Young, editors. p37.

[9] Technically Speaking, Why All Americans Need To Know More About Technology. Greg Pearson & A. Thomas Young, editors. p79.



©2002 Joseph W. Rivers
All rights reserved. Not to be used
without written permission by the author.


Back To Ideas And Opinions Page

Send correspondence to studio@newenglandsoundscape.com.

December 22, 2002