People Before Tech – Social Change & Digital Empowerment

Book review: Geek Heresy, Rescuing social change from the cult of technology by Kentaro Toyama

In 2004 computer engineer Kentaro Toyama started up Microsoft Research’s ICT for development program in Bangalore, India. The idea was to use computers and internet connectivity in order to improve education and reduce poverty. The results fell short of expectations, despite pilots showing initial results. Sometimes new technology even worsened social and psychological problems. The experience shook up Toyama’s worldview.

The ‘heresy’ of the book’s title is Toyama’s turnabout from his Silicon Valley outlook that technology alone drives social change. Social change is less about problem solving, and more about nurturing people.

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency”. Bill Gates, Toyama’s former boss at Microsoft, summed up this important relationship as “The Law of Amplification” in his book The Road Ahead from 1995.

Geek Heresy provides the reader with many examples that Gates’ words went unheeded. Schools in India received new computers, but they did not make up for the lack of educated teachers and committed headmasters. Rather, they added new burdens of maintenance and upgrades. The Egyptian revolution was called a Facebook revolution, but in order for it to happen people already had the ability to read and write, use basic IT and the political will.

Access to computers does not mean that users have the capacity or motivation to use them. In order to do so they also need skills. Purchasing IT, as everything else, has an alternate cost. In some cases it could be better to invest scarce resources in other options. If motivation is lacking, Toyama notes that computers will probably get used for entertainment rather than empowerment, as entertainment is easy to access.

Silicon Valley is a pilot project of sorts. It is a place brimming with highly motivated and talented people with access to the best IT infrastructure available. It seldom looks like that when projects are being implemented. The designers are praised but the implementers are often forgotten, while the capability of the users is overestimated.

It is not a question of more or less technology, rather about what technology should amplify or suppress in order to promote people’s aspirations.

Toyama sees these “packaged interventions”, one-size-fits-all solutions that ignore local contexts and individual capacities, as sloganeering and quick fixes. You cannot package the intention or the desire of the implementation, and neither can it be mass-produced. For the same reasons, he takes issue with micro credits and social business. Democratic elections are also promoted as a quick fix, but a stable democracy is so much more than voting ballots.

From his studies in the history of technology, Toyama finds that both utopians and skeptics share the belief that technology embodies certain moral values. Contextualists see technology being applied on a case by case basis, while social determinists see the importance of human values in implementation. Selling soap is no good if no one knows why to wash their hands, and what good might come out of it.

The book’s idea is similar to computer scientist Don Norman’s use of affordances in the fields of HCI and interaction design. Possible actions are dependent on the actor’s goals, plans, values, beliefs, and past experiences.

Growth in individual character is the basis of progress, but covering the application of technology is a difficult task on its own. When reaching out into discussing the amplification of human society, Toyama loses focus from his argument of amplifying people.

As he points out in the interesting chapter about mentorship, you have to foster a person’s ability to assess and make choices in order to find and achieve goals of their own. People are going to experiment in order to grow, and they will arrive at many different values. Social change faces different conditions, and thus different solutions.

Geek Heresy is laudable for it’s constructive outlook. It is not a question of more or less technology, rather about what technology should amplify or suppress in order to promote people’s aspirations. The book also shows things more connected countries could learn from. Development is a two-way street where all can benefit.