Mandate for Technological Literacy
I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.
letter to William C. Jarvis, September 28, 1820
Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822
The United States is experiencing a whirlwind of technological change. Most Americans feel the change instinctively each time they encounter a new consumer gadget, read about the possibility of human cloning, or observe children as young as six or seven socializing with their school friends via online instant messaging. There have been periods, such as the late 1800s, when new inventions appeared in society at a comparable rate. But the pace of change today, with its social, economic, and other impacts, is as significant and far reaching as at any other time in history.
This report argues that “technological literacy”—an understanding of the nature and history of technology, a basic hands-on capability
related to technology, and an ability to think critically about technological development—is essential for people living in a modern nation like the United States.
The argument for technological literacy is fundamentally about providing citizens with the tools to participate fully and confidently in the world around them. This aim is not unique to technological literacy; many other literacy campaigns—in reading, mathematics, science, and history, to name just a few—have similar goals. The unique aspect of this campaign is that it will prepare people—from policy makers to ordinary citizens—to make thoughtful decisions on issues that affect, or are affected by, technology. There are few things we do, or can do, today that are not influenced by technology.
This report and a companion website (<www.nae.edu/techlit>) are the products of a two-year study by the Committee on Technological Literacy, a group of diverse experts operating under the auspices of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the Center for Education of the National Research Council (NRC). The committee’s charge was to develop a vision for technological literacy in the United States and recommend how that vision might be achieved. The charge reflects the interests and goals of the project’s sponsors, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Battelle Memorial Institute, as well as the priorities of the National Academies.
Americans must become better stewards of technological change.
The intended audience for the report includes schools of education, schools of engineering, K-12 teachers and teacher organizations, developers of curricula and instructional materials, federal and state policy makers, industry and nonindustry supporters of educational reform, and science and technology centers and museums. These groups are well positioned to influence the development of technological literacy.
As far into the future as our imaginations can take us, we will face challenges that depend on the development and application of technology. Better health, more abundant food, more humane living and working conditions, cleaner air and water, more effective education, and scores of other improvements in the human condition are within our grasp. But none of these improvements is guaranteed, and many problems will arise that we cannot predict. To take full advantage of the benefits and to recognize, address, or even avoid the pitfalls of technology, Americans must become better stewards of technological change. Present circumstances suggest that we are ill prepared to meet that goal. This report
represents a mandate—an urgent call—for technological literacy in the United States.
What Is Technology?
In the broadest sense, technology is the process by which humans modify nature to meet their needs and wants. Most people, however, think of technology in terms of its artifacts: computers and software, aircraft, pesticides, water-treatment plants, birth-control pills, and microwave ovens, to name a few. But technology is more than these tangible products. The knowledge and processes used to create and to operate the artifacts—engineering know-how, manufacturing expertise, various technical skills, and so on—are equally important. An especially important area of knowledge is the engineering design process, of starting with a set of criteria and constraints and working toward a solution—a device, say, or a process—that meets those conditions. Engineers generate designs and then test, refine, or discard them until they find an acceptable solution. Technology also includes all of the infrastructure necessary for the design, manufacture, operation, and repair of technological artifacts, from corporate headquarters and engineering schools to manufacturing plants and maintenance facilities.
Technology comprises the entire system of people and organizations, knowledge, processes, and devices that go into creating and operating technological artifacts, as well as the artifacts themselves.
Source: Adapted from Mitchem, 1994.
Technology is a product of engineering and science, the study of the natural world. Science has two parts: (1) a body of knowledge that has been accumulated over time and (2) a process—scientific inquiry— that generates knowledge about the natural world. Engineering, too, consists of a body of knowledge—in this case knowledge of the design and creation of human-made products—and a process for solving problems.
Science and technology are tightly coupled. A scientific understanding of the natural world is the basis for much of technological development today. The design of computer chips, for instance, depends on a detailed understanding of the electrical properties of silicon and other
materials. The design of a drug to fight a specific disease is made possible by knowledge of how proteins and other biological molecules are structured and interact.
Conversely, technology is the basis for a good part of scientific research. The climate models meteorologists use to study global warming require supercomputers to run the simulations. And like most of us, scientists in all fields depend on the telephone, the Internet, and jet travel.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the achievements of technology from those of science. When the Apollo 11 spacecraft put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, many people called it a victory of science. When a new type of material, such as lightweight, superstrong composites, emerges on the market, newspapers often report it as a scientific advance. Genetic engineering of crops to resist insects is also usually attributed wholly to science. And although science is integral to all of these advances, they are also examples of technology, the application of unique skills, knowledge, and techniques, which is quite different from science.
Technology is also closely associated with innovation, the transformation of ideas into new and useful products or processes. Innovation requires not only creative people and organizations, but also the availability of technology and science and engineering talent. Technology and innovation are synergistic. The development of gene-sequencing machines, for example, has made the decoding of the human genome possible, and that knowledge is fueling a revolution in diagnostic, therapeutic, and other biomedical innovations.
Technological literacy encompasses at least three distinct dimensions: knowledge, ways of thinking and acting, and capabilities.
Over the years, many individuals and organizations have attempted to describe the essential elements of technological literacy (AAAS, 1990a, 1993; Dyrenfurth, 1991; ITEA, 2000). In one popular conception, technological literacy is equated with a facility with computers (Fanning, 2001; 21st Century Workforce Commission, 2000). This conception is prevalent in the U.S. educational sector, where considerable efforts and resources have been invested in making educational technol-
ogy, much of it computer related, more available and useful (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 1996).
Although computer skills are an important aspect of being an educated, well-rounded citizen in a modern country like the United States, the conception of technological literacy used in this report is much broader and more complex. It encompasses three interdependent dimensions: (1) knowledge; (2) ways of thinking and acting;1 and (3) capabilities (Figure 1-1).
In practice, it is impossible to separate the dimensions from one another. It is hard to imagine a person with technological capability who does not also know something about the workings of technology, or a person who can think critically about a technological issue who does not also have some conceptual or factual knowledge of technology and science. So, although such a framework can be helpful in thinking and talking about technological literacy, it is important to remember the dimensions are arbitrary divisions.
The dimensions of technological literacy can be placed along a
continuum—from low to high, poorly developed to well developed, limited to extensive. Every technologically literate individual has a unique combination of knowledge, ways of thinking and acting, and capabilities. In addition, an individual’s locus along any dimension changes over time with education and life experience. Different job and life circumstances require different levels and types of literacy. For example, a state legislator involved in a debate about the merits of constructing new power plants to meet future electricity demand ought to understand at a fairly sophisticated level the technological concepts of trade-offs, constraints, and systems. He or she must also understand enough details about power generation to sort through conflicting claims by utility companies, environmental lobbyists, and other stakeholder groups. The average consumer pondering the purchase of a new high-definition television may be well served by a more basic understanding of the technology—for example, the differences between digital and analog signals—and a smaller set of critical thinking skills.
Different job and life circumstances require different levels and types of literacy.
One useful way to think about technological literacy is as a component of the more general, or “cultural,” literacy popularized by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Hirsch (1988) pointed out that literate people in every society and every culture share a body of knowledge that enables them to communicate with each other and make sense of the world around them. The kinds of things a literate person knows will vary from society to society and from era to era; so there is no absolute definition of literacy. In the early twenty-first century, however, cultural literacy must have a large technological component.
The importance of technological literacy to individuals living in a modern society is not a new idea. Almost 20 years ago, for example, advisors to the National Science Board called for increased technological literacy (CPEMST, 1983):
We must return to the basics, but the “basics” of the 21st century are not only reading, writing, and arithmetic. They include communication and higher problem-solving skills, and scientific and technological literacy—the thinking tools that allow us to understand the technological world around us.
As we begin the twenty-first century, the need for increasing technological literacy has become even greater, first because the influence of technology over people’s lives has increased dramatically and second because, as a society, we have not put a high priority on technological literacy.
A Technologically Literate Person
Although there is no archetype of a technologically literate person, we can describe some general characteristics such a person ought to possess (Box 1-1). A technologically literate person should be able to recognize technology in its many forms, and should understand that the line between science and technology is often blurred. This will quickly lead to the realization that technology permeates modern society, from little things that everyone takes for granted, such as pencil and paper, to major projects, such as dams and rocket launches.
A technologically literate person should be familiar with basic concepts important to technology. When engineers speak of a system, for instance, they mean components that work together to provide a desired function. Systems appear everywhere in technology, from a simple system, such as the half-dozen components in a click-and-write ballpoint pen, to complex systems with millions of components, assembled in hundreds of subsystems, such as commercial jetliners. Systems can also be scattered geographically, such as the roads, bridges, tunnels, signage, fueling stations, automobiles, and equipment that comprise, support, use, and help maintain our network of highways.
BOX 1-1 Characteristics of a Technologically Literate Citizen
Ways of Thinking and Acting
Technologically literate people should also know something about the engineering design process. The goal of technological design is to meet certain criteria within various constraints, such as time deadlines, financial limits, or the need to avoid damaging the environment. Technologically literate people recognize that there is no such thing as a perfect design. All final designs inevitably involve trade-offs. Even if a design meets its stated criteria, there is no guarantee that the resulting technology will actually achieve the desired outcome because unexpected—often undesirable—consequences sometimes occur alongside intended ones. These include obvious things, such as the annoyance we all experience from mistakenly activated car alarms, to more serious things, such as repetitivemotion syndrome from heavy use of computer keyboards.
A technologically literate person recognizes that technology influences changes in society and has done so throughout history. In fact, many historical eras are identified by their dominant technology— Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze Age, Industrial Age, Information Age. Technology-driven changes have been particularly evident in the past century. Automobiles have created a more mobile, spread-out society; aircraft and improved communications have led to a “smaller” world and, eventually, globalization; contraception has revolutionized sexual mores; and improved sanitation, agriculture, and medicine have extended life expectancy. A technologically literate person recognizes the role of technology in these changes and accepts the reality that the future will be different from the present largely because of technologies now coming into existence, from Internet-based activities to genetic engineering and cloning.
The technologically literate person also recognizes that society shapes technology as much as technology shapes society. There is nothing inevitable about the changes influenced by technology—they are the result of human decisions and not of impersonal historical forces. The key people in successful technological innovation are not only engineers and scientists, but also designers and marketing specialists. New technologies must meet the requirements of consumers, business people, bankers, judges, environmentalists, politicians, and government bureaucrats (Bucciarelli, 1996). An electric car that no one buys might just as well never have been developed. A genetically engineered crop that is banned by the government is of little more use than the weeds in the fields. In short, many factors shape technology, and human beings, acting alone or in groups, determine the direction of technological development.
There is nothing inevitable about the changes influenced by technology— they are the result of human decisions and not of impersonal historical forces.
Technologically literate people realize that the use of any technology entails risk (Copp and Zanella, 1992; Gould et al., 1988). Some risks are obvious and well documented, such as the tens of thousands of deaths each year in the United States from automobile crashes. Others are more insidious and difficult to predict, such as the growth of algae in lakes and other bodies of water caused by the runoff of fertilizer from farms.
Technologically literate people will understand that all technologies, not just the obviously risky ones, have benefits and costs that must be weighed against one another. A new refining process may produce fewer waste products but may be more expensive than the old process. A new software program may have more features but may be more prone to failure than the old one and may also require learning a new system. Preservatives extend the shelf-life and improve the safety of our food but also cause allergic reactions in a small percentage of individuals.
Technologically literate people will recognize that sometimes there are risks to not using a technology. For example, consider the use of the pesticide DDT, a chemical technology for pest control. Because of DDT’s effectiveness against mosquitoes, it is one of the most potent antimalaria weapons. In the 1970s, the use of DDT was banned in the United States and many other western nations, where there is no malaria to speak of, because of concerns about its effect on the environment. Farmers and others now use less environmentally questionable chemicals that were available at the time or that have been developed since to control insect pests.
But the withdrawal of DDT from malaria-endemic regions of the world has had serious consequences. In the East African island nation of Madagascar, for instance, the use of DDT was halted in 1986 after many years of successful control of malaria. By 1988, the incidence of the disease had increased dramatically, resulting in 100,000 deaths. When spraying with DDT was reinstituted, the incidence of malaria dropped by more than 90 percent in just 2 years (Roberts et al., 2000). The United Nations recently recognized the importance of DDT to public health in a treaty banning a number of persistent organic pollutants (UNEP, 2001).
The ability to use quantitative reasoning skills, especially skills related to probability, scale, and estimation, is critical to making informed judgments about technological risk. For example, based on the number of fatalities per mile traveled, a technologically literate person can make a reasonable judgment about whether it is riskier to travel from St. Louis to New York on a commercial airliner or by car.
Technologically literate people will appreciate that technologies are neither good nor evil, despite our tendency to invest them with these qualities. For example, the wide availability of handguns, as well as the desire of some to limit their availability, is an issue fraught with sociological, legal, public health, and economic considerations. Some people favor easy availability based on a need for self-defense, others favor limiting availability because of accidental deaths caused by handguns. In either case, weapons technology is not at fault.
Every technology reflects the values and culture of society. For instance, the popularity of cell phones in the United States is driven partly by the desire for the freedom to communicate at any time from virtually any location. Similar motivations, based on our historic emphasis on individuality and independence, have encouraged the use of private automobiles for transportation. The influence of values and culture on technology is often less straightforward. Technological development sometimes favors the values of certain groups more than others, for example the values of men more than those of women, which might explain why the initial designs of car air bags were not appropriate to the smaller stature of most women. (See “On or Off: Deciding About Your Car Air Bag,” p. 26.)
Every technology reflects the values and culture of society.
Once a person has a basic understanding of technology, he or she can educate himself or herself about particular technological issues. Technologically literate people will know how to extract the most important points from a newspaper story or a television interview or discussion, ask relevant questions, and make sense of the answers (Box 1-2).
A technologically literate individual should also have some hands-on capabilities with common, everyday technologies. At home and in the
BOX 1-2 Asking Questions About Technology
BOX 1-3 What Would You Do?
Imagine yourself in California in the year 2003. A proposition on the statewide ballot calls for 10 percent of the cars sold in California to be powered by fuel cells or fuel-cell/internal combustion hybrids by the year 2007. Proponents claim this would reduce automobile-generated pollution and force the rapid development of a more environmentally friendly technology, which, given this initial boost, can then take over a larger and larger market share on its own. Opponents respond that the automobile industry cannot produce safe fuel-cell-powered cars by 2007, that the cars will have to be subsidized or no one will buy them, and that, anyway, most of the vehicle-generated pollution comes from tractor-trailers, not modern cars, which already have a lot of pollution-control equipment. How do you go about deciding which way to vote?
tensive technical skills. Technological literacy is more a capacity to understand the broader technological world rather than an ability to work with specific pieces of it. Some familiarity with at least a few technologies will be useful, however, as a concrete basis for thinking about technology. Someone who is knowledgeable about the history of technology and about basic technological principles but who has no hands-on capabilities with even the most common technologies cannot be as technologically literate as someone who has those capabilities.
But specialized technical skills do not guarantee technological literacy. Workers who know every operational detail of an air conditioner or who can troubleshoot a software glitch in a personal computer may not have a sense of the risks, benefits, and trade-offs associated with technological developments generally and may be poorly prepared to make choices about other technologies that affect their lives. For example, they might not be well prepared to decide if a car powered by a gas-electric hybrid engine is a good investment, and if it would be better for the environment than a traditionally powered car (Box 1-3).
Even engineers, who have traditionally been considered experts in technology, may not have the training or experience necessary to think about the social, political, and ethical implications of their work and so may not be technologically literate. The broad perspective on technology implied by technological literacy would be as valuable to engineers and other technical specialists as to people with no direct involvement in the development or production of technology.
A full appreciation of technological literacy, as of technology itself, requires an understanding of the larger society and culture in which it exists. Like other types of literacy, technological literacy is intimately related to many aspects of our lives. The capability dimension of technological literacy, for instance, requires a hands-on, design, and problem-solving orientation, which is in keeping with the job requirements for many workers, in both technical and nontechnical fields. The knowledge dimension of technological literacy is related to other academic areas, such as science, mathematics, history, and language arts. In fact, technological literacy could be a thematic unifier for many subjects now taught separately in American schools. The thinking and action dimension of technological literacy places it squarely in the realm of democracy and civics. Some level of participation in decision making about the development and use of technology is an essential aspect of technological literacy.
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