What Americans Know (or Think They Know) About Technology

The United States is a world leader in developing and using new technology, and this is widely recognized as being largely responsible for the country’s economic success. One would expect Americans to be very knowledgeable about technology and about national technological literacy. The reality is that very little is known about U.S. technological literacy. In an effort to help fill this data gap, the International Technology Education Association (ITEA), which represents the interests of technology teachers, commissioned a Gallup poll on technological literacy and released the results in January 2002. Complete results are available at www.iteawww.org.

The poll’s 17 questions can be divided into three groups: those that tested conceptual understanding of technology, those that tried to gauge practical knowledge of specific technologies, and those that assessed opinion about the importance of the study of technology. This analysis focuses on the first two sets of questions.

The results of this poll are barely a beginning to the complex task of understanding the public’s technological literacy. But the evidence that most Americans have an extremely narrow view of what comprises technology indicates that technological literacy falls far short of what the country needs. If nothing else, the ITEA/Gallup poll points to the need for more rigorous assessment of what Americans know about technology.

What’s technology?

Most revealing, and discouraging to those pushing for greater technological literacy, was the finding that a majority of U.S. citizens hold a very limited view of technology. Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed answered “computers” when asked to name the first thing that came to mind when they heard the word technology. A significantly greater proportion (78 percent versus 57 percent) of younger (age 18 to 29) than older (age 50+) Americans displayed this narrow conception. The next-most-often-cited response, “electronics,” was named by only 4 percent of those polled.

When you hear the word “technology,” what first comes to mind?

List of Mentions Total Group
18-29 Year Olds
Age 50 and Older
Computers 67 78 57
Electronics 4 4 4
Education 2 3 4
New Inventions 2 2 2
Internet 1 2 2
Science 1 2
Space 1 1
Job/work 1 2

Note: Numerous other responses were received; however, no others were mentioned by more than 1 percent.

Table 2

Isn’t it more than computers?

Even when offered the option of the broader definition of technology as “changing the natural word to meet our needs,” nearly twice as many respondents chose the narrow description of “computers and the Internet” to describe technology.

Isn’t it more than physical products?

Technology, of course, is not just electronics nor is it just physical products. It includes the processes used to create those products, notably engineering design, as well as the systems in which those products are used. How do Americans perceive design in the context of technology? Given the choice of defining design as either a “creative process for solving problems” or as “blueprints and drawings from which you construct something,” 59 percent chose the latter. Although the second definition is not wrong, the first reflects more fully the role of design in technology creation.

Table 3

Do you know how it works?

Americans express confidence in their ability to explain the workings of certain everyday technologies. Ninety percent said they could explain how a flashlight works. Seventy percent indicated they could explain the workings of a home-heating system. Far fewer were confident in their understandings of how telephone calls travel from point to point (65 percent) and how energy is converted into electrical power (53 percent). In all questions of this type, men expressed more confidence than women. Sometimes the difference was dramatic: 86 percent of men compared with 55 percent of women said they understood how heating systems operate.

The oft-repeated jokes about the reluctance of men to ask for directions are reason enough to suspect that men and women differ in how they assess their own knowledge. Besides, it’s far from clear what is meant when someone claims to “know how a flashlight works.” A few factual questions included in the poll also indicated that it would be hard to underestimate what people know about how technology functions. For example, 46 percent of respondents incorrectly believe that using a portable phone in the bathtub creates a danger of electrocution.

Let me ask you if you could explain each of the following to a friend; just answer “yes” or “no.” Could you explain?

Explanation Requested Yes Response
% Total % Men % Women
How a flashlight works 90 96 83
How to use a credit card to get money out of an ATM 89 92 86
How a telephone call gets from point A to point B 65 76 54
How a home heating system works 70 86 55
How energy is transferred into electrical power 53 72 36

Technological democracy

Encouragingly, a substantial majority of Americans, ranging from 78 to 88 percent, felt that they should have a say in decisions involving technology, such as the development of fuel-efficient cars and genetically modified foods, and the construction of roads in their community. If people want a say in these decisions about technology, they have an incentive to learn more about technology.

Tell me, how much input do you think you should have in decisions in each of the following areas — a great deal, some, not very much, or none at all?

Decisions Great +
Not Very
at All
Don’t Know/
Designation of neighborhood community centers 87 43 47 6 3 1
Where to locate roads in your community 88 44 44 8 3 1
Development of fuel-efficient cars 81 37 44 10 8 1
Development of genetically modified foods 78 41 37 10 11 1

Cite this Article

Pearson, Greg. “What Americans Know (or Think They Know) About Technology.” Issues in Science and Technology 18, no. 4 (Summer 2002).

Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Summer 2002