Slowly but surely, tech savants are compiling edifying field notes from their encounters with the real world— though the results are still very much a work in progress. That, at any rate, is the conclusion provoked by Kentaro Toyama’s Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, a thoughtful but erratic critique of tech-centric social-change initiatives.
Toyama is a computer scientist who moved to Bangalore, India, in 2004 as part of a Microsoft research group and created a series of nifty tech interventions aimed at stubborn social ills, from video instruction in farming techniques to ever-fancier computer applications for the classroom. In short order, he found that no amount of cool gadgetry could, by itself, ameliorate the damage wrought by poverty in India:
Technology never made up for a lack of good teachers … [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.
The chief problem with the tech-first approach, Toyama observes, is that it relies on “packaged interventions” — quick fixes that might perform well in middle-class societies with basic income, housing and education supports, but can seem like cruel and perverse afterthoughts in the developing world.
Nicholas Negroponte’s ballyhooed “One Laptop Per Child” initiative, for instance, has been largely a bust because the MIT prophet didn’t think it necessary to provide training on how to incorporate the computers into education; children are natural learners, he argued. Small wonder, then, that schools in Peru reported that the massive influx of laptops from Negroponte’s program yielded no measurable gains in learning.
The misapplication of tech largesse represents more than just misguided policy; it has racked up glaring losses in opportunity costs. One study by University of Manchester scholar Richard Heeks found that global spending on one-off tech initiatives in the developing world consumed “hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars per year,” and IT infrastructure tens of billions more. By contrast, global foreign aid for education totaled just $12 billion in 2012.
For all of his astute critiques, Toyama still shares a key blind spot with the technocratic interventionists: a seeming allergy to approaching development policy as a political issue. Poor communities are poor, after all, because they’ve been bypassed by the prestigious schools, credit networks and venture capital firms that have produced the tech elite’s sense of entitlement. In lieu of directly confronting the growth of global disparities in wealth and opportunity that the tech elite has accelerated, Toyama devotes the second half of Geek Heresy to what he dubs the gospel of “intrinsic growth,” in which the unfortunate class dynamics of digital privilege become a mere aberration on the path to a more highly evolved social order. “If the creative class represents mass self-actualization,” Toyama’s pitch goes,
then it’s tantalizing to imagine mass self-transcendence leading to a compassionate class. Imagine a country whose own needs are thoroughly met and whose dominant aspirations are world peace and prosperity. Such a country would … be a nation of self-sufficient, altruistic people seeking to encourage intrinsic growth in themselves and others, and not in the self-serving or proselytizing way of a neocolonial White Man’s Burden.
Toyama proceeds to offer the United States as the likely model for such a compassionate utopia, citing the growth of nonprofit philanthropy and reported rates of volunteerism among millennials as telltale signs.
While such trends are welcome, it’s hard to see how they could outweigh the excesses of a money-besotted political establishment that bears an increasing resemblance to an outright oligarchy. Toyama’s only invocations of politics are rhetorical and hollow: “What is political will,” he asks, “other than mass intrinsic growth?” No, actually. To have any meaning for disfranchised populations like the ones Toyama aims to serve, political will has to be much more than that: It’s a direct challenge to unearned social privilege. But it’s also not something that you’ll find much of in the otherwise insightful pages of Geek Heresy.