- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2002

I was talking to a friend the other day who works in a technological position with the government. Call him Bob. He raised an interesting question: How much do people know about technology?
I have never seen a survey.
Our society obviously depends on technology for its existence. It pervades our lives in the cars we drive, clock radios, digital watches, medicine. It is part of almost everything we do. But so, said Bob, is politics a part of our lives. The papers talk constantly of this campaign, that campaign, this issue and the other issue. People argue, have positions that they can support, cite data in their favor.
His assertion was that most people of reasonable intelligence have a reasonable degree of knowledge about politics. They know how elections work, who the major officeholders are, what the important questions are. But they do not (he says) have anything resembling a corresponding knowledge of technology.
"People live in two different mental worlds. It's not a question of brains. I see a lot of really smart people who don't have any idea how anything around them works. I suppose it's a lack of interest. Anyone who can get through college can understand a refrigerator. But it is as if there were a wall separating anything technical from everything else."
I asked him what he meant by "understand." After all, almost anything the bouncing of a tennis ball, for example if examined in detail becomes heavily mathematical.
"I mean just the basics. Most of it's stuff I picked up in high school just because I liked it."
He proposed a survey with questions like: What is a camshaft? How does a cathode-ray tube work? What are the three parts of a transistor? How does a refrigerator work? An electric motor? A carburetor?
He suspects that such a survey would reveal, among equally intelligent people, a sharp divide. People would either know most of the answers, or almost none.
Certainly some of the brightest people I know would score zero.
A woman I know aces standardized tests, has a fantastic knowledge of literature and history, but can barely turn her printer on. It isn't ability. She could learn anything in nothing flat. But, she says, computers are horribly dull. Reading about them, she says, is like memorizing a phone book.
Bob cannot understand why anyone would think computers are dull. He reads literature; why don't they read about logic circuits? If only to understand the world they live in?
Someone once commented to me that computer geeks have a love of "controllable complexity." It's a short step to "understandable complexity." It's a real pleasure in knowing how the parts fit together.
Over the years I have dealt with a lot of men in the sciences. To them, the first question on seeing a new gadget is, "Hmmm, how's it work?" It is more than a professional question. As nearly as I can tell, chemists know how everything in their field works but also how many other things work.
Is there a sex difference? With no real data, it's hard to know.
Today most serious computer geeks are male. They will spend endless hours fiddling with an operating system just because it's an interesting challenge. Women seem to want a computer to do whatever they got it for, and don't care how it does it. But this is just an impression.
Bob, being scientifically involved, may be prejudiced. His comment: "I don't get it. The world is going through more scientific development faster than it ever has before. Everyone thinks it's a big deal. But half the people don't have the slightest idea how any of it works, and don't care. Explain it."
I can't. But we do seem to be divided into two groups. Again, maybe I'm wrong. I'd love to see a survey.



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