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The Power of Wisdom to Enact Social Change

Will technology really solve our problems? A conversation with Kentaro Toyama

There are many people today who believe that the rise of technology and the logical problem solving mindset can erase many of the world’s problems. But after many years of creating technologies to help improve poverty, health, and education with Microsoft Research India, Kentaro Toyama started to reach a different conclusion. That social change really comes from the heart, mind, and will of individuals. Our technologies may only be as good as the wisdom of the people who use them.

I had the opportunity to talk with Kentaro, now a professor at the University of Michigan, about his new book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing social change from the cult of technology.

Will Technology Really Solve Our Problems?

JON: You note that the core thesis of your book is “that we should see social situations less as problems to be solved and more as people and institutions to be nurtured.” Could you expand on that thesis? What is the role of technology in all of this?

KENTARO: I’m a computer scientist by training, and in technical fields, we pride ourselves on being good problem solvers. Our worldview is that there are problems out there, and our goal is to find ingenious solutions to them. This is, of course, a great way to think to about scientific questions such as “Why does an apple fall to the ground?” or technological questions such as “How can we build a bridge that will support the weight of a hundred automobiles?” It’s because we’ve been such terrific problem solvers that modern civilization has vaccines, anesthesia, the combustion engine, commercial flight, the Internet.

But problem solving as a mindset can be a dangerous way to approach challenges that are deeply social in nature. People necessarily have to play a role in any improvements to a situation they are a part of. You can’t have genuine social progress without some change in people. Let’s say for example, that you believe that a school is having a problem delivering good education. Well, good education requires strong teachers, involved parents, and capable administrators. And, shrewd policy makers willing to pay for all of that. If in some school district, people with those qualities are missing, it’s not a problem that can be solved by an infusion of, say, fancy gadgets and clever software. (This is why, when wise parents are worried about their children falling behind in school, they don’t go out and buy them the latest iPad. They pay for individual tutoring.) One way or another, it’s the quality of people that has to grow.

Of course, you could look at human deficiencies and say that they, too, are problems to be solved, but people feel; people react; people have volition. As soon as you cast them as “a problem,” you’re writing off the very people who could themselves be the solution. With respect to causing social change, what we need more of is an approach of nurturing people to achieve their own goals. This isn’t to say that technologies and technocratic solutions don’t have their place; just that, the hard part of social change is real change in people.

Kentaro Toyama
Source: Kentaro Toyama

The Law of Amplification

You write about the Law of Amplification. What is this law? And how can we better amplify the heart, mind, and will of people?

The Law of Amplification is the very simple idea that for the most part, what technologies do is to amplify underlying human forces. Cars and road infrastructure, for example, amplify our ability to get where we want and in a very individualized way. The Internet amplifies the communication and information processing capacities of the people who use it.

Amplification is different from addition or subtraction. It’s not that either cars or computers necessarily improve whatever situation they’re put into, or that they necessarily cause harm. They amplify the human intention and capacity that’s already there. Thus, we don’t want intoxicated people driving cars and we don’t want credit card thieves using computers.

Amplification seems like an obvious idea, but society routinely neglects some of its counterintuitive consequences. For example, technological amplification means that it is misguided to try to address the problems of inequality with technology. Rich, powerful, well-educated people have advantages over poor, marginalized, under-educated people that even a “fair” distribution of technology would only amplify. To close social divides, we need social solutions.

The Importance of Wisdom

What is your take on wisdom and why is it important? And what is Gross National Wisdom (GNW)?

After a decade of trying to devise technological fixes that didn’t quite work, I thought about what human factors must be in place for technology to have positive impact. And, I kept coming back to good intention, discernment, and self-control – what I call “heart, mind, and will.” Of course, these are the same things that make anything within human control go well, and I believe these three traits together are what we normally call wisdom. Every human virtue is some combination of these three basic building blocks: Courage is the intention and self-control to do something positive despite risk or sacrifice, but with the discernment not to edge into foolhardiness. Temperance is self-control applied with discernment and good intention. Prudence is discernment acted on with self-control. And so on. We often look to technology to solve complex social problems, but if there isn’t some underlying level of heart, mind, and will – some degree of wisdom – no amount of technology will save the day. Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that working on these three human traits is the essential thing.

“Gross National Wisdom” is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s the idea that the idea of wisdom can be generalized to the societal level. The mechanisms by which groups and nations make choices and act on them is of course very different from how an individual behaves, but groups nevertheless have intention, groups discern courses of action, and groups follow through with various degrees of self-control. Gross National Wisdom is the degree to which a country as a whole acts with good intention, discernment, and self-control.

© 2015 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter or Facebook. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

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