Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology

After a decade designing technologies meant to address education, health, and global poverty, award-winning computer scientist Kentaro Toyama came to a difficult conclusion: Even in an age of amazing technology, social progress depends on human changes that gadgets can’t deliver. Last week, he came to MIT to share the insights he’s distilled in his new book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.

Toyama opened his talk by highlighting the fact that, in spite of immense technological advancement over the last four decades, the US has not seen dramatic changes in the level of domestic poverty and income inequality. Nevertheless, the prevailing narrative coming from Silicon Valley is that technology is the key to overcoming tough social problems. For example, Mark Zuckerberg has lobbied hard for a social justice agenda that is centered on getting every person in the world connected to the Internet. The belief underlying this idea is that if everyone were connected to the worldwide web, they would be able to access resources and opportunities that are necessary for improving their lives in fundamental ways.

Toyama points out that this techno-centric narrative of social change is embraced by more than just the tech elite – prominent politicians like Hillary Clinton have also lobbied hard for legislation like the Internet Freedom Preservation Act. The rationale behind such legislation is that the Internet enables citizens to keep their governments accountable by giving them the tools necessary to speak out against oppressive regimes. He went on to name a long list of other pundits and politicians who have been outspoken about the potential for technology to serve as a “game changer” in the fight for social justice, democracy and equal opportunity. By and large, he argues, this narrative has remained uncontroversial and uncontested by the general public.

Yet, after spending several years leading a poverty research lab for Microsoft based in India, Toyama has come to a very different conclusion about the role that technology can play in bringing about sustainable social change. During his time in India, Toyama led a team of technologists and researchers to develop a wide range of technology-based poverty solutions. Toyama points out that India already has a thriving tech hub. Yet, the country is still very poor, with approximately 8 million people living off less than $2 per day. Working in such an environment helped Toyama develop a more nuanced view on the relationship between technology and development. His hope was that, by sharing a few specific examples from his time in India, others will also begin to question the assumption that technology by itself can be a transformative force in promoting social change.

Example 1: Mobile phones for farmers

One of the first projects Toyama’s team worked on was setting up a network of computers to provide useful information for sugar cane farmers, such as weather forecasts and other educational resources. Several years after the projects’ launch, Toyama’s team discovered that the computers were primarily being used for a very limited subset of queries, such as market prices for the farmers’ crops. The team decided to replace the expensive brick and mortar infrastructure of the computer hub with a mobile phone-based program, which would enable farmers to access the information they wanted from the comfort of their own homes. While the idea sounded great in theory, Toyama’s team never managed to get the pilot off the ground in the surrounding villages, due to a wide range of non-technical factors, such as local village politics. While the project was relatively straightforward to implement from a technical perspective, ultimately, these social and political complexities rendered the project unviable.

Example 2: Employment kiosk for women
Another project Toyama’s team worked on was developing a high-tech kiosk for women to use for looking up job opportunities in their area. His team worked hard to develop a friendly and intuitive user-interface to help the women effectively use the technology. Yet, the user interface couldn’t address the much bigger problem of getting potential employers to sign up to use the job posting service. This was due in part to the fact that most of the target users for the kiosk did not actually have the skills necessary to be competitive for the jobs being posted. No matter how fancy the user interface was, no kiosk was going to be able to bridge the skills gap that prevented most of these women from securing gainful employment.

Over the five years that Toyama spent in India, he worked on more than fifty projects that aimed to apply digital technology to development goals. These projects almost always worked in a research context, but as soon as his team tried to take their solution to scale, they ran into serious difficulties “in the wild.” This was due to what Toyama calls the “amplifying effect” of technology: by itself, technology can only amplify pre-existing conditions and human characteristics, rather than fundamentally disrupt them.

In order to help the audience develop an intuitive sense of technology’s amplifying effects, Toyama gave three more hypothetical thought exercises:

1) Imagine you are the CEO of a company. Although you have a strong product, your sales team is consistently unable to meet their sales goals. Would your response be to buy every employee on the team a new iPad, or to set up an expensive data center to monitor their stats? Probably not. Similarly, we can’t assume that if we put more advanced technologies into classrooms, we’ll be able to automatically turn around academic performance in failing schools. That’s because the underlying human forces and social factors aren’t going to necessarily change with the arrival of a fancy new technology.

2) Imagine you and a person living in poverty are both trying to raise money online. Who do you think is more likely to be able to raise more money – you or the poor person? You are likely to raise more, for a variety of reasons, 1) you know more people with resources and money to give 2) you are likely to have prior experience in using such tools and devices to achieve your goals. Therefore, the outcomes will likely differ according to the set of experiences and networks that one brings to the table when they start using a new technology; whatever advantages you have will simply get amplified by the new technology.

3) Imagine you want to start a protest in one of the following countries – the US, Russia, China or North Korea. Would you be able to use the internet in the same way in all of these countries to achieve your goal? The answer is no. Many people assume that the Internet is simply the Internet, uniform across all contexts, no matter where you go. However, the reality is that in each country the “internet” is really different. In North Korea, the government has constructed an internal Internet that uses same protocols as the worldwide web, but is disconnected from the rest of the world. In China, the government closely monitors all activities to make sure that offensive posts are taken down within 24 hours of being posted. In Russia, the government employs a small group of Internet trolls to spread government propaganda. Thus, it would be wrong to assume that any country with “the Internet” will be able to use it for pro-democracy ends. It really depends on socio-political context that that Internet infrastructure is situated.

In the end, Toyama argues that there is no amount of cool gadgets that we can pile on to solve these issues by themselves. Technology alone cannot fix broken institutions or cultivate a political will for change.

In conclusion, Toyama left the audience with five main points that he hoped we would take away from his talk:

1) Sometimes we need to say ‘no’ to technology: We need a better sense of when tech is counterproductive. For example, Toyama bans the use of screens in his class, unless his students are doing a specific activity that requires screen access, because screens are distracting.
2) When you have a promising piece of technology that you want to deploy, look for an existing social trend or organization that is already working towards your end-goal. For example, if you want to decrease the incidence of malaria in the developing world, work with an organization that’s already taking on that challenge and see how you can partner to leverage technology in a way that enhances their work.
3) More and more of our time is being spent on platforms that are owned by large companies. These platforms are not governed democratically, nor are they accountable to the public. We must find better ways to ensure that corporate technology is contributing to the general welfare of society.
4) Invest in people, not technology. People don’t benefit from using technology as much as they do when they are making technology. Education is the key.
5) It doesn’t matter how much technology you have, you have to put in hours and hours of effort and practice in order to achieve mastery. In order to support others in achieving mastery, we must provide a lot of hard work that isn’t sexy. It takes leadership. It takes patience.

In a world where we already have so many technologies, it’s key to invest in human forces to make sure the amplifying effects of tech work in our favor. If we focus on these things, Toyama argues, then our technologies will magically align to support our social development interests.