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Who understands technology?

It's been a while since my last Friday questions, but in the wake of Ofcom telling us that 6 year olds understand technology better than 43 year olds (I may be summarizing) I thought it was time to try for another. Go forth, use the comments, squabble most mightily, and broaden the perspective. I have my own opinions here, but I want to hear yours.

Another revelation was that people use technology on average for 8.14 hours a day -- more than they sleep. For extra credit, do you? That'll have to go to the comments as I am out of time

Poll #1978108 Who understands the technology?

What age range of technology users understand it the best?

0-5 year olds for they are digital natives
6-10 year olds - I get my kids to do all my sysadmin!
11-19 year olds as they have the obsessive energy to understand it all
20-29 year olds as they have got a job doing that now
30-39 year olds because they have been working on it for 10 years now
40-49 year olds as they have been working in the field for 20 years now
50-59 year olds as they invented what everyone else is working on
60-69 year olds because they really know it all by now
70-79 year olds because they have the leisure and resources to devote to it
80-89 year olds
90+ year olds because they know enough to live that long
Another age range I shall specify below

What kind of technology users understand it the best?

Children - because they grew up with it
Adults - because they have to use it to make practical things happen
Non-specialist expert adults - they know how to make stuff work
Specialist adults - it's their field of expertise
Artificial intelligences - or they will when they come along
Ghosts, because they understand Quantum
I will clarify this answer below

I need to say something else about this, which is:

ETA, for anyone wondering why the poll seems a bit ill-conceived and very truncated, it was interrupted by the discovery that we'd had someone else's food waste bin returned to us this morning, complete with wriggly sprinklings and an attendant fly cloud.

The main question I'm trying to get answered is at what age tecnhological learning capability and technological knowledge peak. I'm also suffering a bit of a grumpy old lady effect from having discovered that the report was describing 16-24 year olds as "technology early adopters", as if no-one born before 1989 had ever used technology at all. I will also face at least a full year of people quoting this back to me as an excuse for being unable to use computers/phones/tablets and/or unable to support young people to use computers/phones/tablets more safely, so I need to sort out my thinking around this now.


( 31 worms — Feed the birds )
8th Aug, 2014 08:37 (UTC)
I am sure the journalists write this kind of rubbish through the year so they can all go on holiday at the same time and still produce a newspaper/web site.
Does technology now mean small electronic devices? When did cars, televisions or for that matter buildings stop being artifacts of technology?
8th Aug, 2014 09:14 (UTC)
Here's a link to the full report this is based on -- turns out it is based on a measure of personal confidence -- you can see a sample of questions at


and see the full report here

8th Aug, 2014 09:26 (UTC)
So I scored 126, beating the 6 year olds. There seemed to a basic flaw in assuming that if you understood something, you would also want to use it. I think that's a classic mistake made by low-level drug dealers.
8th Aug, 2014 14:03 (UTC)
peaks at age 14-15
I was also somewhat struck by how it might postentially be measuring either the confidence with which someone might say "Yeah I've heard of that, yeah I can do that" or (aletrnatively) their willingness to admit that they hadn't heard of something.
8th Aug, 2014 10:02 (UTC)
My score: 122.

From now on I shall refer to myself as a "digital naturalised person".

8th Aug, 2014 14:04 (UTC)
8th Aug, 2014 09:21 (UTC)
What do we mean by understanding? I've just written the firmware for a video over ethernet camera, but it took me ten minutes last night to disable the oven timer so I could cook a pizza. Does it count as understanding if you only know how to program operating systems but have no idea how to put a consumer device through safety approvals?
8th Aug, 2014 09:48 (UTC)
Re: Understanding
For this survey it appears that knowing how to program amartphone app using 3G protocols is a lower lever of "tech-savvy" than receiving a text on a 4G smart phone.
8th Aug, 2014 14:05 (UTC)
Re: Understanding
I've get to get my hands on the full question list (I may need to) but I agree that it seems skewed towards consumer awareness.
8th Aug, 2014 09:22 (UTC)
Grumpy Old Man Comments:

People young enough to have grown up with "pervasive devices" mostly have a broad but shallow understanding of how they work, and are on average better with smartphones / tablets / phablets than people who are 40+. However, those who are Very Interested or professionals typically find this stuff easier than anyone else, regardless of age.

If by "using technology" they mean "can receive email on my phone, might check Twitter or browse the web occasionally" then I'm probably e-enabled* the majority of the time I'm awake. But outside work I'm mostly not "using technology" so much as "available via technology". Unless, of course, you count playing games or watching TiVo as "using technology"...

I would also like to make a ritual old person protest against the use of "technology" to mean "computational devices, preferably portable and online" rather than, you know, the application of science, or the collective tools of humanity, or something.

Going off on my own private rant now... can we also Do Something about the use of "startup" to mean "a small web development company", "geek" for "website programmer", "creative" for "does visual design or writes text for websites", "digital" to indicate "made of information, not physical stuff" and also "totally different to the same thing when it's not digital" (e.g. digital games are totally different to tabletop games, digital books are nothing like printed books, etc etc) and, most of all, "fintech".

In a spirit of compromise, however, I am willing to settle for "fintech" meaning "bio-engineering which gives people fins (see also: furtech, scaletech, etc)" rather than, Oh God, this...

* Hey, I made up an e-word!

8th Aug, 2014 09:42 (UTC)
I am with you all the way. I had to look up fintech but still I am with you all the way except that providing fins
using rubber moulding technology should also be fintech.
8th Aug, 2014 14:10 (UTC)
for standing up for cyborg rights
8th Aug, 2014 14:07 (UTC)
I'm afraid that that might be another department's responsibility.
(Deleted comment)
8th Aug, 2014 14:09 (UTC)
Yes, on balance I should hve used check boxes and asked people to pick their top three age ranges
8th Aug, 2014 10:48 (UTC)
I'm 43 with a score higher than all age groups at 117. Presumably when I hit 44 my level of competance will drop to the range of a 6 year old.

I can't really fill out this form, most, if not all of my friends and work colleagues would be high, if not above average. How this measures proportionally against the general population I do not know. I've had my fair share of people expecting me to be able to fix their broken computers or unconnecting internet when they hear I'm a computer animator.

As to hours using technology, animating or writing a thesis can easily involve being glued to a blasted screen for more than 8 hours, you might as well say people have been found to spend more than 8 hours a day working. Le shock!

Edited at 2014-08-08 10:50 (UTC)
8th Aug, 2014 12:56 (UTC)
I scored 118 so pretty much the same situation as you on the test thing. They were stupid questions. No option to say eg I have heard about smart watches / smart glasses but would run a mile to avoid using them because they sound shit & expensive too.
8th Aug, 2014 14:12 (UTC)
Yes, the assumption that you couldn't because you didn't was just bonkers.
8th Aug, 2014 19:13 (UTC)
One (precisely one) of my colleagues has a smart watch, and everyone finds it a little bit funny how proud he is of it. In a group of mostly male, mostly twenty-something people who build robots for a living, this is.
8th Aug, 2014 22:07 (UTC)
you'd think they'd be the audience
One man and his watch
8th Aug, 2014 14:35 (UTC)
sceentime high
Adding up my online hours I've just realised that my default state is connected if awake, and actively using for 8hrs (work) and 3.5hrs+ (home).

It's getting a bit like asking if you use legs to get around with though.
8th Aug, 2014 12:51 (UTC)
You don't need to understand the internal combustion engine to get on a bus.
I see using technology being something distinct from understanding it. I suspect that a good chunk (around 40-50%) proportion of the young people who are confident in using technology don't know much about how it actually works. The same being true of users of the technology being discussed here of any age.

I consider myself primarily a user with a reasonably good laypersons grasp of what's going on under the hood. I am confident enough to physically replace bits of a computer under instruction.

But 'understanding' and 'using' are not the same thing. I've read Jon Agar's In Constant Touch - a short history of the mobile phone and Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble - both of which gave me new 'understandings' of technology that clearly aren't what's being asked here (Do you know about this, do you use it, would you recommend it).

I get the sense that mobile phones/ internet have changed teenagerhood. Social media arrived after I'd done the most tempestuous bits of forming my identity. Young people are forming their identities in part through their use of mobile/internet technology - and in a very much more public way. Working with young adults I can see that there are some clear impacts of this... but I'm not sure anyone is either a) considering this an 'understanding' of technology worth pursuing or b) knows what to do about it.
8th Aug, 2014 14:24 (UTC)
digital literacy or digital citizenship
Covers some of that identity forming stuff, but the reports on that side of thing tends to come from sources other than Ofcom, who are far more the authority on, well, literally what people use for their connectivity. That said, that exact nature pof online identity, hmmm

I'd be really interested to hear a bit more about that, actually -- how do you think it's changing the young people you support? What are the clear impacts? What about beneficial, as well as non beneficial impacts?

Edited at 2014-08-08 14:24 (UTC)
8th Aug, 2014 20:28 (UTC)
Re: digital literacy or digital citizenship
I'm really not entirely sure - I was writing quickly so I don't think there as clear as I thought. I think I partly commented because I find it really hard to imagine what it would be like to be a teenager with the level of connectivity we have now.

I feel like my students (mostly 18-21, high achievers, not entirely but mostly from middle class - ++ wealthy backgrounds) are a great deal more anxious than I remember myself and my peers being. I don't think social media/ connectedness is the only reason for this by a long shot. Nor do I think that some people weren't suffering when I was younger. But I also wouldn't discount it feeding in. Disputes get played out on social media (so and so said such and such on facebook).

When I went to university the only part of my 'network'/ identity that came with me was a good friend who happened to go to the same university. I don't know what the effect is online (I keep my own digital life private from students) now pictures and comments stay with you.

On the upside - they can access course materials and information - anywhere on multiple devices (and expect to). But what about switching off? Is it easier to get distracted when the same devices you use to study are the ones you use to connect socially?

Which makes me observe that's the point I struggle with IT/communiccations technology. It's not feeling confident buying it or the actual technicality of using it, learning it or sometimes even taking it apart and fixing it. It's the way mobile/ communicatoins/ computer/ internet technology multiplies the number of avenues from which inputs come at me. That often makes me feel like I have gnats buzzing in my brain and why, given that I spend 7+ hours a day at a computer at work, I am currently resiting buying a smart phone/tablet.

Edited at 2014-08-08 20:49 (UTC)
8th Aug, 2014 22:13 (UTC)
thanks for the thoughtful answer
The multiple channel, constant social noise and unmuteable connectivity of it all is new, but almost, I think, a thing I wanted -- that constant all-pervasive buzz of human life at all times. I grew up very isolated, at times, and what strikes me now is how now no-one needs be that alone, ever; certainly when I hit on the social web (a fairly primitive affair at the time, but still, people who would interact with you morning, noon and night) it was like water after a drought.

At the same time, the firehose of information may have overshot a bit at this point in time
8th Aug, 2014 15:38 (UTC)
The main question I'm trying to get answered is at what age tecnhological learning capability and technological knowledge peak.

I'm not sure that age is the most important variable affecting people's ability to absorb new technology.

For example, I'm someone who's been picking up new computer-based technologies since I was 13, and the whole smartphone / app / swipe interface thing is just another one. In fact, it was far simpler to learn than most because it's based on a good, consistent metaphor that's been carefully designed to be easy to use.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people at the Oxfam bookshop who've never really got to grips with GUIs, and who pretty much stopped learning new interfaces after the typewriter, the car, and the video recorder. They, I suspect, would be more likely to struggle with a phablet.*

* There's a TV program in this. Possibly involving celebrities thrown into a mud pit with a crate of iDevices.

8th Aug, 2014 17:42 (UTC)
There's a section on The Gadget Show that's not a million miles off that. Sometimes they have explosives. And there was the rather good one testing hi tech tents containing celebrities and gadgets against simulated downhill floods.
8th Aug, 2014 18:44 (UTC)
Yeah... I just don't see how any of this fits into ticky-box age brackets. People who have the right turn of mind to deal with technology are better at any age than people who don't. There's a much clearer understanding of and much more intent put into designing things for specific users these days, to make them easier to use; whether or not someone can use something says as much about who designed it as who's using it.

(And having done that survey, surely the problem is just the name? It's not asking about tech as in all of technology, it's just asking about current popularly available technology, mostly telecoms, in which case you can say that it's unsurprisingly the most well-understood among young people because they're the both the target market and the people who are making a lot of the stuff for it. It's less to do with how well you pick up technology than how well the technology's been made for you.)
8th Aug, 2014 22:24 (UTC)
There was some angry discussion with my co-trainer this morning. One of our roles involves supporting professional adults working with children and young people to encourage prosocial and safe internet use. This sort of authoritative reinforcement of the myth of children's unassailable technological expertise and the entrenched and unavoidable technological haplessness of adults is exactly the sort of thing that makes this process a whole lot harder and less helpful.

But all this is helping a lot to form/reinforce a useful approach to this entrenched attitude. I think it's pretty disingenuous to call it DQ, though -- the questions were only assessing awareness.
9th Aug, 2014 10:17 (UTC)
I feel that children growing up with this tech have an instinctive feel towards it. I have to use it for being part of my job.
9th Aug, 2014 14:07 (UTC)
Avoid the word technology when discussing policy
It is too vague. Jam is technology. Typewriters are technology. Cars are technology. I challenge of on to find a cohort of 6-year-olds who can make jam or drive cars better than a bunch of middle-aged people. There is a series of YouTube videos of kids being aghast at the incomprehensible technology of the previous generation.
( 31 worms — Feed the birds )