We’ve all heard the statistic: Most Americans consider themselves above-average drivers. Just because you think it — is, of course, not reality. In a similar vein, most of us believe ourselves to be tech-savvy when what we really are is merely tech-dependent. We are tech-dependent with our health, our work, our lifestyles and yes, even with our driving. But ask yourself the question: are you actually tech-savvy or just dependent?
I get the misconception. It makes sense given the overwhelming use of tech, especially among younger generations. A Pew Research study revealed that in every advanced country surveyed but one, more than 90% of people ages 18 to 34 owned a smartphone.
These “digital natives” practically came out of the womb knowing how to navigate smart devices. They’ve never known a world without limitless knowledge at their fingertips. Honestly, they’ve probably never even opened a paper map and wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did. (Does this make me sound old?)
My point is this: Knowing how to use smart devices doesn’t mean you’re savvy, and there’s a vast — but subtle — difference between being savvy and being dependent.
Our generation and society are increasingly the latter. All you have to do to see the difference is take away somebody’s Wi-Fi; what you’ll witness is some level of freakout mired in frustration. The result will not be an overabundance of the technological maturity that would show you they’re capable of finding a workaround.
Deep, Dark Dependence
A recent Common Sense Media survey found that half of the teenagers and more than one-quarter of parents feel addicted to tech. And research by Nielsen says the average American adult spends more than 11 hours each day interacting with some form of digital media.
As if that weren’t enough? A large majority of shoppers use mobile devices while they’re inside physical stores. Even family dinners and our time in the bathroom aren’t safe from smartphone addiction. The research examples are endless, and they all say the same thing: Tech is part of nearly every waking moment of our lives.
How often have you been waiting at the doctor’s office or in line at the grocery store and instinctively pulled out your phone to scroll through your social feeds? I’m willing to bet your answer is the same as mine: all the time.
Without tech, we wouldn’t know our schedules or how to get from Point A to Point B.
We’re dependent on tech for our health, relying on apps to track our workouts, diets, and step counts. We’ve even forgotten how to connect with another human without a device: A decade ago, the idea of online dating might have been taboo, but nowadays we’re clueless. Do we even know how to prequalify potential mates without the power of algorithms?
Dependence means that we require constant connectivity and the ability to jump seamlessly from device to device. Stating this as a fact doesn’t make me curmudgeonly. Check out this Washington Post article that says horns are growing on young people’s skulls. Everybody’s constantly looking down and stretching the tendons on the backs of their heads, which is causing calcification — thus, horns. Sure, the article is somewhat sensationalized, but let that sink in for a minute:
We spend so much time looking at our phones that we might be physically changing our body shapes.
Our psychological hardwiring is working against us. Even though we may be stressed out by our tech addiction, our devices also give us a little hit of chemical happiness each time we pull them out. Our brain craves that hit. It’s how addiction works, after all, and that’s why it’s so hard to fight the urge to connect.
At some level, it’s not entirely our fault that we’ve become chained to our devices. Creators of our smartphones, smartwatches, and the apps and software we run on them have figured out how to use those same psychological triggers to help nurture this dependency. And the motivation is not altruistic — dependence equals eyeballs, and attention equals commerce.
The Download on Tech Savviness
Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you by describing all the ways we’re addicted to tech let’s talk about what it really means to be tech-savvy in 2019. It actually doesn’t have a lot to do with technology; instead, it’s more about our relationship to tech and how to harness it as a tool.
First, being tech-savvy means you can solve technological problems.
Being able to pick up a new piece of software and start to use it right away with minimal explanation doesn’t make you a savant. What about UX, or user-friendly design? Software developers are paid big dollars to design things that are easy to pick up and start using, and they’re getting better at it all the time — especially when you add AI to the equation.
In other words, it’s not you; it’s the design. Most people don’t know how to program their own routers or troubleshoot simple issues. If you can, congratulations, you might be tech-savvy.
Second, being tech-savvy means understanding how algorithms impact the information we see.
When we become dependent on technology for information, we simultaneously have an all-access pass to things that are true and not true. Whether you realize it or not, we all rely on the Google algorithm to present useful information based on our intent. And now that fewer than 50% of searches actually result in a click, we can be lazier than ever before.
For example, if you search “how to hook up my cable,” you’ll get a prepopulated list of answers based on an algorithm that a minimal number of people influence. Few people understand the algorithms at work behind the information we access. Tech-savvy individuals know how and why they’re being presented with a particular help page, product, or piece of news.
Third, being tech-savvy means using tech to solve real-world problems.
Nonprofit organization Change the Equation filed reports that more than half of Millennials don’t have the tech skills necessary to increase productivity at work. Real tech-savvy people use technology to solve real problems — or, at least, they’re not opposed to finding a tech solution to any given problem. They also regularly incorporate technology into existing habits and methods.
I’m talking about little things like using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to organize your fantasy football league or big things like using technology to help alleviate the effects of climate change. Tech-savvy people are excited about these challenges and willing to go back to the drawing board with the first, fifth, or hundredth solution doesn’t work.
If you want to join the ranks of the tech-savvy, cultivate a love for tech that doesn’t cross over into dependency. Use your skills to get familiar with the ins and outs of the devices and programs you use on the regular, and figure out how to make it work for you, not against you.