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[Review] 'Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology'

June 26, 2015

Don't be fooled by the title of Kentaro Toyama's Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology: this is not an iconoclastic anti-technology manifesto. Nor is it a paean to an idealized pre-digital age when social change was driven by "people in the street." Instead, as back-cover blurbs from both Bill Gates and William Easterly, the NYU economics professor whose book The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor excoriated the kind of "technocratic" global health interventions favored by the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Geek Heresy presents a nuanced argument for a human-centric approach to development work that leverages, rather than relies on, technology to create change.

Cover_geek_heresyA "recovering technoholic," Toyama, co-founder of Microsoft Research India and now the W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan, once believed fervently in the power of technology to solve a range of "social afflictions." Like many of his peers in the tech industry, he embraced the idea that digital technology and cleverly designed devices could improve failing schools, eliminate health disparities, and lift communities out of poverty. But his work in India and elsewhere soon disabused him of that notion, convincing him, instead, that technology's role in society, not to mention its many grave consequences, was widely misunderstood. He couldn't ignore the fact, for instance, that Microsoft Research India's pilot projects, though successful in well-funded, closely monitored demonstration schools, faltered when scaled to underfunded government schools — in part due to the lack of adequately trained teachers, engaged administrators, and tech support and infrastructure. In those situations, technology not only didn't improve things; it exacerbated existing problems and disadvantages.

This "Law of Amplification" is the crux of Toyama's argument. "[T]echnology"s primary effect," he writes, "is to amplify human forces...[and] magnify existing social forces" — another way of saying "the degree to which technology makes an impact depends on existing human capacities." While it isn't a novel idea, as the author himself admits, Toyama sees it as a useful framework for a discussion of how NGOs, development experts, and industry leaders can leverage technology more effectively to address poverty, educational disparities, and other development challenges.

In the area of education reform, for example, Toyama notes that despite the popularity of Khan Academy, MOOCs, and other online innovations, studies show that while technology has the potential to open vast new worlds to millions of young learners, it also amplifies their tendency to choose entertainment over education. What's more, absent qualified, motivated teachers trained to give each student "caring, knowledgeable, adult attention," as well as an environment that fosters good learning habits — two things struggling schools typically lack — technology alone will never help children learn better. Followers of the Cult of Technology know this, Toyama adds, pointing to "Silicon Valley executives who evangelize cutting-edge technologies at work but send their children to Waldorf schools that ban electronics." Nor is he under any illusion that efforts to bridge the digital divide will reduce inequality; the rich always will be able to afford more of the latest and best technology, he writes, and even if equal distribution of high-tech devices were possible, literacy, Internet skills, social networks, and other factors have more to do with what any individual can hope to accomplish with those tools.

Indeed, Toyama is deeply suspicious of such "packaged interventions," which he defines as "any technology, idea, policy, or other easily replicable partial solution," any one-size-fits-all approach that ignores local contexts and individual capacities. In the book, microcredit programs come in for special scrutiny, and he devotes entire chapters to debunking "geek myths" and criticizing a "technocratic orthodoxy" that fetishizes measurement.

But if his Law of Amplification isn't exactly new, neither is the idea that effective interventions require capacity building efforts focused on humans. Toyama takes that idea a step further by arguing that technology is most effective when used to support existing trends moving in the right direction and is implemented by experienced partners. And he cites Digital Green, a project his outfit supported in India, to outline the three qualities — "heart, mind, and will" — of a good partner.

By way of demonstration, Toyama, a fellow at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, shares stories about students, parents, educators, computer engineers, nonprofit practitioners, and social entrepreneurs who have succeeded as a result of what he calls "intrinsic growth" in their aspirations, knowledge, and perseverance. Girls in developing countries who are given access to a quality education, for instance, tend to earn higher wages, have fewer babies, lower rates of HIV infection, and are less likely to be abused and more likely to participate in civic life. At the same time, their children are less likely to be malnourished and more likely to go to school, while their villages are more likely to adopt more productive farming methods — all because, according to Toyama, the girls not only gain knowledge (mind) but also develop an aspirational outlook (heart) and learn to value effort and perseverance (will) over luck.

While an argument for creating "long-term change in society through growth in individual character" may strike some readers as condescending, Toyama emphasizes that those who design, implement, and fund development projects must also tend to their own "heart, mind, and will" if they hope to achieve lasting results that are truly sustainable. "What's missing in today's main paradigms of social change," he writes, is "a framework of internal human betterment" that fosters intrinsic growth in the rich and powerful as well as the poor and marginalized — and which strengthens and is reinforced by "societal intrinsic development."

The framework he has in mind is mentorship. In the case of Digital Green, he notes that Pradan, one of the partners in the project, focused on building mentor-mentee relationships based on trust — some of which was driven by Pradan's embrace of self-help groups. In the Pradan model, instead of providing food, equipment, infrastructure, and/or technology without consultation, a mentor helps the group assess and articulate its aspirations, then brings in experts to "foster knowledge, skills, social networks, and other forms of individual and communal wisdom" designed to increase community capacity and self-sufficiency. That is not to say that packaged interventions have no place in Toyama's vision; as Toyama himself puts it, "anytime there's an intention to provide a packaged intervention, there's an opportunity to mentor." But whereas a technological solution might involve teaching a man to fish with a "turbo-charged, heat-seeking, robotic fishing pole," mentors push "instructors to teach fishing, encourage entrepreneurs to manufacture fishing equipment, promote...well-regulated fish markets...cheer nations toward sustainable fishing, and on and on."

As evidenced by his contention that "we should see social situations less as problems to be solved and more as people and institutions to be nurtured," Toyama likes to re-cast existing concepts — the Law of Amplification, Maslov's hierarchy of aspirations, the importance of human capacity development — for his own purposes. But he is careful to give credit where it's due and to admit the limitations of his arguments. And if he has a tendency to take what appears to be a radical position and undermine it, as when he suggests that fostering intrinsic growth in individuals and society will give rise, on a global scale, to a "compassionate class" and a more "compassionate world" before dismissing it as "a dream worth believing in" — well, so be it.

Because, in the final analysis, Geek Heresy is aspirational. Sprinkled with anecdotes from Toyama's own experiences and told, rather than written, in an endearingly geeky voice, it combines a healthy dose of much-needed skepticism about the real value of technological interventions in development work with an inspired idealism that puts humanity first and challenges all of us to bring out the best in each other. Some might even say that's exactly the kind of heretical thinking we could use a little more of.

Kyoko Uchida is PND's features editor. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

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