Wireless Systems Design

Are We Becoming Technically Literate?

First appeared in Wireless Systems Design magazine, Jul'01

We live in an age of wonderment. Through the relentless energies of our scientists and engineers, we have unlocked
a precious few of nature’s deepest secrets. Ever the great inventor, man has used these secrets to create things of
almost unimaginable power. These advances in technology have allowed us to do a multitude of things. They have, for
example, allowed us to escape the bonds of gravity and witness our first earthrise from the desolate horizon of the
moon. With the prick of a shot, our children are spared the ravages of life-altering diseases. The inhuman power of the
atom now obeys our commands. Long extinct species, like the woolly mammoth, may once again roam the land through
the marvels of genetic engineering. From the sands of the earth, we have created silicon-based machines that process
millions of bits of information in the blink of an eye. We can even speak our utterances into the air and be answered
by our brethren from across the world, without wires or effort.

Despite all of these scientific wonders, society as a whole remains suspicious of technology. Our literature abounds
with ominous tales of technological foreboding. George Lucas’s Star Wars is a prime example. Why the foreboding? Could
it be that we sense the indifference of technology to our human condition? Or, that we recognize
how quickly technology has mastered the unwary or ill-prepared, i.e., most of society?

The other day, for example, I purchased a new cell phone and service plan from one of those "wireless" stores that
seem to be popping up in every mini-mall. A young salesman with spiky bleached haired and a bored expression
helped me select a plan and phone. During the sale, he made several minor mistakes in my order, probably
because he was constantly answering calls on his cell phone. It was like watching Pavlov’s dog respond to
the ringing of a bell. These interruptions were an amusing exercise in mindless chatter; "Hi. Activating \[an
account\]. How ’bout you? Nothing? Uh-uh. Yeah. Not much . . ." The conversation went downhill from there.

Should we abandon technology? The question itself suggests that we have the power or desire to do so. We have
neither. But what if society was educated in such a way that they, as both individual members and as a whole, could
make responsible decisions about technology. What if society could truly appreciate the dangers of technology and weigh
them against the benefits? What if society could become technically literate? Oddly enough, this idea of
social technical competence is primarily an issue in the US, not in other technologically advanced countries. So states
a recent report form the International Technology Education Society (ITES) entitled: "Standards for
Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology Literacy" \[iteawww.org\].

Technical literacy should be a core field of study in all levels of education, but especially kindergarten through
grade twelve, i.e., high school. The study by the ITES suggests twenty technological literacy standards as
guidelines on what students should be able to do in order to be technically literate. The five core areas
include the nature of technology, technology and society, design, abilities for a technological world, and the design
world. The hope is that these standards will provide a roadmap for teachers and schools that want to
graduate students competent enough to meet the demands of today’s world.

I believe these standards should be extended to colleges and universities as well. Their benefits would be two-fold;
one for the non-technical members of society, the other for its technically experienced counterparts. The
former need to understand the basics of technology in order to understand how it affects their lives. The creators
of technology, on the other hand, need to broaden their view of the consequences of their work to include
society as a whole. They need to view their activities from the society-inward, instead of merely from the
technology-outward.

Still, the signs for technical balance in our society seem promising. Like a new age rendering of a Michelangelo
masterpiece, the wireless engineering community seems to be extending its gaze upward, trying to touch the downward
arching finger of society. Designers are looking upward, extending their view from the component to the whole system.
This is demonstrated by the move toward a platform-based approach to system-on-a-chip (SoC) design, where
the requirements of the whole are considered early on in the product life cycle. Hardware and software
modeling seems to be moving toward higher level of abstraction with the acceptance of SystemC as a common modeling
language. Strategic alliances are being formed among competing tool vendors to provide life-cycle coverage for new
products.

Meaningful dialogue between the developers of technology and the rest of society is only possible if both speak a
common language. Sure, technical literacy is only one part of the communication equation: all of us must be politically
and socially competent, as well. Technology, though, may be the biggest hurtle, considering the
aversion many people feel toward science, engineering, and mathematics. But the pervasiveness of technology in our
society makes it imperative that the majority of its members possess a basic understanding of the dangers and benefits
of this most powerful servant. Only then will meaningful dialog be possible. If that doesn’t happen, will
we not be in jeopardy of having our technological blessing turn into a curse? Please share your thoughts with
me at: [email protected]

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