Geek Heresy: Bursting the Hi-Tech Hype Bubble

Kentaro Toyama's new book takes the steam out of the hype around tech

Posted Aug 24, 2015

From Geek Heresy
Source: From Geek Heresy

August 24, 2015

Kentaro Toyama’s Geek Heresy:  Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology is provocative and essential reading for anyone interested in the possibilities and pitfalls of our technological age.  Toyama negates the modern myth that technology will “make everything better” and solve all our problems, and reveals an inconvenient (and what should be obvious) truth:  people matter.  Investing in people and relationships through shared time and commitment is profound and transformational, outstripping the beguiling promises of our prevalent and delusional cyber-solutionism.  Even if you’re not interested in technology and society per se, Geek Heresy provides a deep dive into what works in international development, particularly in India, fascinating and inspiring to me as an Indian American.  In the end, heart, mind and will – not tech, apps and social media – are the surest routes to personal and societal change.

Toyama
Source: Toyama

Toyama has street cred in tech and development.  A graduate of Harvard and Yale (in Physics and Computer Science), he was an Assistant Managing Director for Microsoft Research India, where he started the Technology for Emerging Markets research group, “which conducts interdisciplinary research to understand how the world's poorer communities interact with electronic technology and to invent new ways for technology to support their socio-economic development.”  He is now the W.K. Kellogg Chair Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information. I was impressed with the range of his expertise as well as his commitments to education and development both at home (tutoring students after work hours at Microsoft) and abroad.  I was especially moved by his accounts of time spent in India and Africa.  Toyama is a man of wisdom, ideals and far reaching hopes.  His book is not simply a polemic; it is a call for action and a plea for cultural change and maturation.

Geek Heresy is divided into two parts that can roughly be described as diagnosis and treatment.  In Part 1, he sheds light on the shortcomings of technology, both in implementation and philosophy.  In Part 2, he instead heralds what I would call inner and interpersonal technologies, providing a kind of motivational sermon for the higher self.

Toyama highlights four camps of technological theorists:  the utopians and skeptics (whose names are self-descriptive), contextualists (outcomes are contingent on context) and social determinists (people and society are the deciding factor, not technology).  Toyama synthesizes and expands the latter two camps into a law of amplification:  “technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces”.  This directly supports his conclusions in Part Two, in which he focuses on describing and developing those essential human forces themselves.

In India, he “oversaw at least ten different technology-for-education projects…But while the designs varied, in the end it didn’t matter – technology never made up for a lack of good teachers or good principals.  Indifferent administrators didn’t suddenly care more because their schools gained clever gadgets; undertrained teachers didn’t improve just because they could use digital content; and school budgets didn’t expand no matter how many ‘cost-saving’ machines the schools purchased.  If anything, these problems were exacerbated by the technology, which brought its own burdens.”  “Technology – even when it’s equally distributed – isn’t a bridge, but a jack.  It widens existing disparities.”

He describes how computers boosted those who already had a leg up, such as upper caste boys who monopolized computer time.  Computers were not exactly equalizing forces.  Literacy levels and cultural factors, such as devalued girls’ education, affected possible benefits.  Moreover, as you might expect, while some people made educational use of provided technology, the vast majority of children and adults used it for entertainment purposes.  In another example, school computers gathered dust in a closet because of maintenance problems and failures due to frequent power outages.

The tech in education problems weren’t limited to the developing world.  (See Toyama’s article in The Atlantic for details.)  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan draws Toyama’s fire for being an apparent cheerleader of the cyberevangelists.  However, tech in U.S. schools is shown to have decidedly mixed results, with many negative examples.  Teachers, administrators, parents and actual time spent with students is the key.  Back in my day, I did gain ground in math using technology in my early grades; but it was my teacher’s close attunement, enthusiasm, expectations and direction that really made the difference.  Tech can probably boost the motivated self-starter, but what about the rest?  Instead of amplifying disparities, how do we create a rising tide in education and thus society? 

Toyama takes aim at social media as a force for change as well, declaring “social media is neither necessary or sufficient for revolution.”  Social media amplifies existing forces in society.  People like Wael Ghonim (a key figure in the Egyptian revolution of 2011) might have proclaimed “if you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet”, but the truth is much more complicated.  While Facebook and Twitter undeniably played an important role in the Arab Spring, they were simply a megaphone for relationships and ideas that had been building for some time in civil society.  In some countries, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, “civil society was crippled, so no amount of Facebook organizing made a difference.”  In Iran, there were relatively few Twitter users, but Twitter did allow the outside world to eavesdrop and comment on events.  Activists will use whatever communication tools are available (until an oppressive regime uses the tools against them, that is), but this communication has to feed an already developed conscience in a society that has enough civil society bandwidth (read relationships) for change.

My own perspective is that here in the U.S., social media can be a powerful megaphone for outrage, useful in drawing immediate attention to problems, but deeper and broader change can only come through real world relationships and organizing.  Our problem online is that we amplify opinions (and snark), rather than relationships, thus polarizing our discourse.  At the extreme, social media is a way to draw in and radicalize susceptible individuals to extremes on the left and right.  Instead of a public commons, we are developing opinion silos.  This has been called “cyberbalkanization” by MIT professors Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson as early as 1996, or “selective exposure” by psychologists.  To me, perhaps even worse than the opinion silo (which may or may not be informative and relevant in self-development), is the idea that opinion matters more than relationship.  “I’d rather be right than related,” we declare, and proceed to make ourselves unrelatable with the force of our opinions.

Toyama goes on to give many examples of “shrink-wrapped quick fixes” that don’t work.  These range from technological to programmatic.  Model or test programs show benefit, but expansion proves futile.  “Modern society fetishizes technocratic devices, but it’s a human finger on the on-switch and a human hand at the controls.”  What works in principle fails in practice because of problems in scaling, getting buy-in and coherence from larger groups of people, and also failing to take into account problems encountered by individuals in the trenches.  Hierarchically imposed solutions don’t work on their own, in my experience as well.  The grassroots are the best option, but first you’ve got to tend the field.

Moreover, some profitable “quick fix solutions” rest on shaky ethical grounds.  For example, Tom’s Shoes gets consumer buy in to its social mission: buy a pair of shoes and Tom’s will donate a pair of shoes to a poor person in the developing world.  But in effect, they sell and donate cheap shoes and reap enormous profit.  (CEO Blake Mycoskie “stands to gain as much as $300 million on top of whatever he’s paid himself so far as the sole owner and CEO.”)  There are important questions to be asked about the “do good and do well” movement.  It seems we humans have a tendency to want simple, easy answers, to soothe our restive consciences.  But reality is more complicated.  The beauty is that there’s an enormous payoff for engaging more deeply.

Part Two describes that kind of engagement, and is Toyama’s inspiring and informative call to action.  “For a more enduring humanity, we need a better narrative of progress,” he writes, and then highlights three human factors that any such narrative must rest upon:  heart, mind and will.  By heart he means an intention beyond self-centeredness, in fact towards self-transcendence.  “Mind” is a commitment to education and good discernment and judgment.  “Will” is essentially the ability for self-control and long-range planning.  “Packaged interventions are relatively easy.  Nurturing individual and collective heart, mind and will is hard.  What we need is more people taking the long, hard road.” (p. 210)

Clearly, Toyama counts formal and informal education, particularly of girls and women, as the GPS and highway of development, not only because of the knowledge and wisdom it cultivates, but because of the relationships and values it fosters.  He gives incredible examples of people in India and Africa taking “the long, hard road” resulting in profound individual and collective transformations. 

The book’s core thesis is that “we should see social situations less as problems to be solved and more as people and institutions to be nurtured”.  Education is the mother of all nurturers.  Patrick Awuah, a successful Ghanaian American, decided to found Ghana’s first liberal arts college, Ashesi University.  His heart, mind and will created the conditions for people like Isaac Tuggun to improve their own lives and society itself.  Tuggun, with legs permanently disabled in a childhood accident, used his education at Ashesi to work his way up the ladder of the Ghana Federation of the Disabled.  In Tamil Nadu, India, benefactor Abraham George founded Shanti Bhavan, a school with dramatic results in shifting the trajectories of class and gender.  The childrens’ development depends on intensive interactions with the school’s “aunties” who raise them “as they would their own children”, teaching them basic social and life skills.  Then they receive “education on par with…first-rate Indian private schools,” taught by home-grown faculty and volunteers from overseas.  As the Ubuntu proverb states, “people become people through other people.”  Progress comes at great price, in both finances and hours.  At least time doesn’t flow into the pockets of the corrupt, though, Toyama notes.

He also highlights a farmer’s education program in India, where relationships and wisdom are cultivated through “self-help groups”.  Technology is part of the package – participants gather to watch videos of best practices – but it’s clear that the trust engendered by person-to-person interaction is what makes the difference in improving yields and building community.

We need more heart, mind and will at all levels of society, Toyama concludes, and I concur.  Our interconnected problems of economy, environment, health, and even happiness and spiritual well-being require time, attention and people power.  Toyama’s book inspires our intentions, aids our discernment, and encourages us towards self-control and longer-range planning, for the benefit of all.  Toyama recognizes that modern “technologies don’t trump Stone Age emotions.”  He envisions a world less inflamed by those emotions, chiefly, I would say, greed, hatred and self-centeredness.  The path lies in cultivating our inner and interpersonal technologies.

Doing so might give us a different definition of gross national wealth.

BONUS:  Watch Tavis Smiley’s interview with Toyama here and Toyama’s 2010 TEDx Tokyo talk on Youtube.  Toyama’s articles at The Atlantic are at http://www.theatlantic.com/author/kentaro-toyama/

(c) 2015, Ravi Chandra, M.D. F.A.P.A.

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