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.
A "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.