Putting Substance In Tech-Savvy

Popular perceptions concentrate on consumption, but creation and control are the keys.

I knew that someone had made a mistake when I read this headline last week, "Survey: 31 Percent of U.S. Tech-Savvy."

"Nonsense," was my reaction, although that was not precisely the word that came to mind.

The Associated Press article puts the phrase, "highly tech-savvy," in quotation marks but does not attribute a source. It does cite, at length, a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, but the word "savvy" occurs exactly zero times in that document.

Other words notably missing in action from the Pew study include "camera," "blog," and "Linux"—or even "Windows" or "Macintosh." In the course of a normal week, I answer at least a dozen questions from family and friends involving digital technologies in their lives: most of those questions include at least one of those words.

Almost none of the questions that I get involve the Pew studys proxies for "elite geek" status: the Internet, cable television, cell phones, Web browsers, e-mail, satellite dishes, premium television channels, pagers, DVD players, PDAs and digital video recorders. What do the things on the Pew list have in common? Theyre all tools for consuming commercial content, or for simple communication—not for creating content or customizing channels or platforms.

The studys definition of "cutting-edge online behavior" is, at the risk of offending, laughable: "One in six (17%) have gone online using a wireless connection (only 6% of all Internet users have done this) and 16% have placed a phone call online (compared with 8% of all users). And some of these users are starting to pay for content on the Internet; 13% have done this versus the 8% average." Be still, my beating heart. What about taking and e-mailing digital photos? Creating personal Web sites? Writing Google or Amazon scripts? Dont be ridiculous. No, no, and (of course) no.

The Pew studys "elite" are not creating content, nor are they controlling their digital experience to any meaningful degree. The study is identifying them based on how much time and money theyre spending, not how much their lives and their opportunities are being changed—and certainly not based on how much theyre understanding. Readers of the email version of this column have cautioned me not to sound pompous, but Im concerned that todays "tech-savvy" teenager is more likely to play a computer game than to write one—and that seems to me a genuine problem.

If the Pew studys methods were applied to food, a person who ate fast food every night would be identified as "food savvy"; a person who prepared gourmet meals at home every night would not. If the Pew methods were applied to transportation, a person with a Lexus and a Range Rover in the garage, each with its hood welded shut, would be "car savvy"; a person with a meticulously restored Mercedes 300 gullwing would not.

If youre a reader of these newsletters, youre probably one of the people that friends and colleagues hope will guide them in using—and not being abused by—the emerging digital technologies and services. If youve ever been tempted, though, to wear a T-shirt that says, "No, I will not fix your computer," then youd probably like to give answers that teach people to fish instead of merely giving them a couple of fish sticks.

If youre starting your holiday shopping this week, you can start developing the next generation of Real Geeks with choices like the Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System, SpaceCADs model rocket design software, or Stephen Wolfram LLCs New Kind of Science Explorer. Or you can get some students started on next years West Point Bridge Design Contest, or building original timing devices in the Destination ImagiNation tournament.

And as for your adult friends, Ive linked above to some of the OReilly "Hacks" books that encourage users to take control; a less technical approach is offered at www.annoyances.org.

Or just let them learn from their kids.

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Tell me how youre teaching people to fish in the waters of high tech.