Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

The "Who" and "What" of Technological Illiteracy

The "Who" and "What" of Technological Illiteracy

By Dennis D. McDonald


Definitely worth listening to is Command Line’s December 19 podcast technological illiteracy among our leaders. His theme: we need to do something about the lack of knowledge our leaders have of how technology operates and impacts our lives.

He mentions Lawrence Lessig and Ed Felten as examples of communicators who successfully bridge the gap between technology and policy. The name of the late Carl Sagan is also mentioned as a model for the type of individuals we need to help educate our public figures about technology.

While I agree on first glance with much of Command Line’s rant — I’m not one to support ignorance — I do have second thoughts related to:

  1. Who needs to be taught?
  2. What needs to be taught?

Who needs to be taught?

I am as concerned about technological illiteracy among members of the general public as I am about such illiteracy among elected officials.

In political leaders I value logic, good sense, leadership ability, honesty, strategic thinking, imagination, and humility to admit when their personal knowledge is lacking. Since there are so many things about “technology” that are invisible to even “technology literate” users, I would hope that political leaders at least use basic technology and know the right questions to ask when it comes to issues such as technology reliability, availability, affordability, and security.

Of greater concern to me is the possible lack of technological literacy among members of the general public. Here I would not want to limit the concept of “literacy” to include only digital technologies related to computers, the internet, and entertainment systems. People also need to understand the wide range of technologies that are critical to the functioning of modern societies and economies, especially technologies related to communication, transportation, and energy.   

What needs to be taught?

This question, I think, is even harder to answer than the first one. There are many kinds of “information technology,” and information technology is only one of the “technologies” that people need to understand (see above).

I’m not sure that all kinds of information technology demand the same type of public awareness and understanding. With an automobile, I don’t need to know everything that goes on under the hood. But I do need to know how to operate the machine and do basic maintenance. And I need to do so in a way that is socially responsible (don’t run over pedestrians, don’t neglect maintenance so that too much pollution is generated, don’t use leaded instead of unleaded gas, etc.)

In theory, the same principles should apply with information technology: use it in a socially responsible way, e.g., don’t pry on neighbors’ phone conversations, don’t spread viruses, don’t spread gossip and untruths, don’t steal other’s creative works and claim they are your own, etc.

It may be difficult to reach public consensus about what constitutes information technology literacy. Some kinds of information technology are highly visible; others are less so. An example is the World Wide Web. How much should people understand about how messages are routed back and forth from one computer to another? Should people understand what a “server” or a “router” is? How many people understand the concept of “bandwidth”?

While I’m not suggesting that people should think of the World Wide Web as some sort of “magic,” I do think that a basic understanding is necessary, perhaps along the same lines that we generally understand how electrical and gas utilities operate.

At minimum, members of the public — and through them their elected representatives — need to understand the economic and privacy issues associated with the creation and maintenance of such systems. That doesn’t mean the public needs to understand the differences between direct and alternating current, or synchronous or asynchronous communications,  but they do need “just enough knowledge” in order to make reasonable judgements about how such systems should be used. And the public, in turn, needs to be able to communicate these judgements to elected officials.

I have my own candidates for technology literacy, and my list is not limited to information technology:

My candidates

The following is a list of the technological issues that I believe both the public and public officials need to understand at a more profound level than is currently the case:

  1. Privacy. We need to be able to balance individual privacy with the increasingly porous sharing of information of all kinds that modern information technology is sharing.
  2. Energy. For economic, national security, and climate reasons, we need to drastically reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy sources.
  3. Genetics. Advances in our understanding of plant and animal reproduction will eventually provide the means to alter the Earth’s life forms in ways that may be difficult to predict and control.

What’s on your list?

Copyright (c) 2007 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Email ( or call me (703-402-7382) to discuss this. More on my interests and capabilities is here.


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