The argument for technological literacy is rooted in a single, fundamental belief. In a world permeated by technology, an individual can function more effectively if he or she is familiar with and has a basic understanding of technology. A higher level of technological literacy in the United States would have a number of benefits, for individuals and for the society as a whole.
Improving Decision Making
Technological literacy prepares individuals to make well-informed choices in their role as consumers. The world is full of products and services that promise to make people’s lives easier, more enjoyable, more efficient, or healthier, and more and more of these products appear every year. A technologically literate person cannot know how each new technology works, its advantages and disadvantages, how to operate it, and so on, but he or she can learn enough about a product to put it to good use or to choose not to use it.
Americans are not only consumers; they are also workers, members of families and communities, and citizens of a large, complex democracy. In all of these spheres, they face personal decisions that involve the development or use of technology. Is a local referendum on issuing bonds for the construction of a new power plant a wise use of taxpayer dollars? Does a plan to locate a new waste incinerator within several miles of one’s home pose serious health risks, as opponents of the initiative may claim? How should one react to efforts by local government to place surveillance cameras in high-crime areas of the city? Technologically literate peoplePage 26Suggested Citation:“2 Benefits of Technological Literacy.” National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2002. Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10250.×SaveCancel
will be much better able to address these and many other technology-related questions.
Decision making is not only personal. Leaders in a variety of sectors, including business, government, and the media, make decisions daily that affect what others—sometimes thousands or even millions of people—think and do. These individuals in particular will benefit from a considerable understanding of the nature of technology, and an awareness that all technologies involve trade-offs and may result in unintended consequences. With a higher level of technological literacy in the nation, people in positions of power will be more likely to manage technological developments in a way that maximizes the benefits to humankind and minimizes the negative impacts. Of course, there is no hard-and-fast line between purely personal concerns and business interests, the needs of states, and the needs of the nation. In most cases the personal interests of everyday Americans do influence decisions by policy makers and company CEOs.
Some concrete examples can illustrate the importance of technological literacy to decision making at all levels. The next three sections present descriptions of current issues that require decision making of some sort. The first is the use of car air bags and relates mostly to the concerns of individual citizens. The second addresses genetically modified foods, an issue relevant to individuals, who must decide which foods to buy at the grocery store; policy makers, who must take into account regulatory, trade, and other considerations; and the biotechnology industry and farmers, the two groups most responsible for creating and selling such products. The third example is the California energy crisis, which has put pressure on individuals, businesses, and political leaders to develop short-term and long-term solutions.
|There is no hard-and-fast line between purely personal concerns and business interests, the needs of states, and the needs of the nation.|
All three examples have a central technological component, which may be part of the problem, part of a solution, or both. The technological component cannot be separated from political, legal, social, and other concerns. A box at the end of each example shows how the three dimensions of technological literacy—knowledge, capabilities, and ways of thinking and acting—might come into play in each case.
On or Off? Deciding About Your Car Air Bag
By now, almost everyone knows that car air bags can cause injury or even death, as well as offer protection. Most car owners are aware ofPage 27Suggested Citation:“2 Benefits of Technological Literacy.” National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2002. Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10250.×SaveCancel
recommendations by safety experts that young children be placed in the back seat and that a distance of at least 10 inches be maintained between the driver and the steering wheel to minimize the chances of air bag-induced injury. Some people feel that air bags are not worth the risk and would like to shut them off, or at least have the option to do so. An on-off switch can be installed, but it requires permission from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and costs several hundred dollars.
The decision to disable your air bag has potentially serious consequences. To make the best choice, the decision maker should know something about how air bags work, how well they protect, and in what situations.
All air bag systems operate in basically the same way. Onboard sensing devices measure crash impact. Once activated, the crash sensors signal solid-propellant inflators to begin the chemical reaction that generates nitrogen gas that fills the air bag. The gas inflates a folded nylon bag, which acts as a protective cushion between the occupant and the inside of the car. As the person collides with the air bag, vents in the bag allow the gas to escape, absorbing energy and reducing the severity of impact. Ideally, occupants collide with the bag just as it becomes fully inflated. But if the bag strikes the occupant while it is still inflating, it can cause serious injury or death because the bags travel at speeds of more than 100 mph.
Studies show that air bags are about 13 percent effective in saving the lives of drivers not wearing a lap-shoulder seat belt (NHTSA, 1996). That is, if 100 fatally injured drivers in cars without air bags had been driving cars with air bags, 13 of them would have survived. By comparison, seat belts are approximately 42 percent effective in preventing driver fatalities, compared to situations in which no seat belts are worn. The combined effectiveness, for drivers, of seat belts and air bags is 47 percent. This means that, overall, air bags reduce the risk of death for drivers wearing seat belts by 9 percent ([58 – 53]/58).
|Overall, air bags reduce the risk of death for drivers wearing seat belts by 9 percent.|
As it turns out, the government vastly overestimated the effectiveness of air bags, claiming in the late 1970s they would save 12,000 lives annually (Federal Register, 1977). The actual record is not nearly as impressive. From 1986 through April 2001, fewer than 7,000 lives had been saved by air bags. An estimated 246 people (including 61 unconfirmed air bag-related fatalities), mostly drivers and children, had beenPage 28Suggested Citation:“2 Benefits of Technological Literacy.” National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2002. Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10250.×SaveCancel
killed by air bags during the same period (GAO, 2001a). By comparison, about 11,000 lives are saved every year by seat belts.
The benefits of air bags depend on many factors. One of the most important factors is the weight and, especially, the height of the occupants. Because those two parameters are closely linked to gender, the effectiveness of air bags differs greatly for men and women. For example, nearly three-quarters of the drivers killed by air bags were women. In one study, air bags used in conjunction with seat belts reduced total harm (a mix of fatalities and injuries) among male drivers by 11 percent but increased the harm to female drivers wearing seat belts by 9 percent (Dalmotas et al., 1996). For people of small stature (shorter than 5 feet, 3 inches tall), air bags increased total harm. The data also show that age makes a difference. Drivers between the ages of 15 and 50 wearing seat belts were better protected with air bags. However, no clear evidence showed added protection for belted drivers over the age of 50.
A number of factors besides air bags affect the safety of vehicle occupants. Consider the 9 percent figure, which represents the additional lifesaving potential of air bags for belted drivers. A belted driver could reduce his or her risk of dying in a crash by the same amount by driving a car 200 pounds heavier (Evans, 1991). The same nine-percent reduction in driver fatalities could be achieved across the nation by lowering average driving speeds on U.S. roads by 2 mph.
Recently, the technological landscape for air bags has begun to change. New NHTSA regulations require that automakers design and install more advanced air bag systems for model 2004 vehicles. The new devices are meant to meet the safety needs of drivers and passengers of different sizes, weights, and seating positions. The rules have stimulated millions of dollars of research on occupant classification sensors, seat belt usage sensors, multistage inflators that can fill air bags at varying rates, and less aggressive air bag designs (GAO, 2001a).
|A number of factors besides air bags affect the safety of vehicle occupants.|
Return now to the original decision—whether or not to install an on-off switch. The decision will depend on many factors related not only to the personal characteristics of the people who will use the vehicle— drivers and passengers—but also to the type and age of the vehicle itself. To make an intelligent choice, the individual will have to draw on all three dimensions of technological literacy (Box 2-1).Page 29Suggested Citation:“2 Benefits of Technological Literacy.” National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2002. Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10250.×SaveCancel
Comment: This article speaks on the importance of literacy when it comes to making decisions regarding safety. Being that the interpretation could be a matter of well-being. It states that technologically literate people are more likely to be able to address issues related to being a part of their families, communities, and citizens of a democracy. The technological component cannot be separated from political, legal, social, and other concerns.