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.