Geek Heresy, by Kentaro Toyama: book review

July 10, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Gawain Kripke, Oxfam America’s Director of Policy gawain-kripke

I love my smart phone. It’s awesome and it makes me more awesome. I honestly think that my life is much better with it than without. It makes me a better worker – able to review documents, communicate with colleagues, keep projects moving smoothly even when I’m out of the office.   It makes me a better citizen – I”m able to read news and events, can report emergencies and contribute to public safety and knowledge by feeding in through networks.  I think I’m a better parent – or at least it makes parenting easier.  All the logistics of picking up kids and changing schedules are greatly assisted by having my mobile phone.  It’s not cool to say so, but I think my mobile phone is a fundamentally empowering technology that helps make me a better person and helps me live a better life.

Geek HeresySo, why shouldn’t mobile phones do the same for other people, including poor ones?  In researching this idea, I came across Kentaro Toyama.  I called him up, and in a long conversation, he batted down my fumbling ideas effortlessly and gracefully.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Toyama has emerged as a leading skeptic of technology-led concepts of development.  He’s now published Geek Heresy, a book that is worth reading, both for proponents and skeptics of technology in development.

Toyama comes to the subject with a background as a technologist, having studied computer science and worked for Microsoft for many years.  In 2004 he helped to create Microsoft Research in India, a Bangalore-based computer science laboratory, where he was involved in and observed dozens of initiatives to bring computer technologies to the mass markets – and very poor consumers – of India.

Through that experience and as an influential figure in the ICT4D community, Toyama has unique insight and authority to offer on the subject of technology and development.  And his judgement: it’s largely hype.  His book tackles example after example of hyped initiatives that didn’t deliver on goals, fell short, went bust.  He examines prominent examples like One Laptop Per Child and “Hole in the Wall” to show that they didn’t deliver on their advertised goals.

But very quickly, Toyama jumps the curb on technology and broadens his argument to attack any reductionist, “packaged” intervention.  And he shoots at a lot of targets, from micro-credit to social enterprise, from RCTs to computers in the classroom.  His argument is that these ideas miss a fundamental reality, which is that any technology or intervention “require(s) a substrate of positive intent and high capacity among individuals and institutions – the exact substrate that in in stunted supply where social challenges persist.”

Observing many pilots and initiatives, Toyama recognizes a pattern that the success or failure of an intervention seems to depend more on the competence and connectivity of the implementing organization than on the technology or specific intervention.  Competent organizations, committed and reasonably successful in delivering existing programs – say on improving classroom teaching – can integrate new computers and software successfully.  But without that human and institutional capacity, the computers end up gathering dust in a storage closet pretty quickly.  Toyama coins a “law of amplification” in which technology or other interventions can enhance existing aspirations and competence, but fall short otherwise.

Toyama spends the latter half of his book exploring the “substrate” and seeking to understand what makes some beware-geeks-bearing-giftspeople and organizations succeed in their social change missions when others fail.  In this, he draws on both professional experience as well as personal, including volunteer work he has done.  Toyama is quite evidently an inquisitive, empathetic, and friendly person.  He has a lot of examples, usually people he knows personally, drawn from high and low; taxi drivers as well as Microsoft millionaires.  He weaves these examples together and distils three qualities that are critical; positive aspiration, discernment and judgment, and discipline or will.   He explores each of these to show how they are necessary to the positive development of individuals and, he argues, to organizations and even countries.

This is his recipe for development – building these “intrinsic” qualities.  Each can be developed and is necessary.  And his primary recommendation is to more fully develop and validate a paradigm of mentorship, another idea he explores and tries to define.

Although I enjoyed the book, I wished for more.  In particular, for a book by a technologist, there’s surprisingly little technology in it.  Toyama uses the term as generically as I would, not differentiating between different kinds of technology.  Since Toyama is pretty deep into it, I had thought I would be getting a bit more insight and texture on technology itself; the application of technologies, the design of technology, the conditions and requirements for technologies to be successful.  It would be interesting to learn something about how Toyama – or Microsoft — think about different technologies.  But none of that kind of detail is included.  Instead, it’s a rather broad critique; well argued but not specific enough that I feel any smarter.

kentaro-toyama-2-300x225Differentiating between technologies or their applications would be useful especially for practitioners and analysts.  But since much of the book is really about the “substrate” the human and institutional context for technology I would have expected – and wanted – more operational guidance on that.  How do we evaluate and differentiate?  What different strategies and tactics might be used in different circumstances?  How do we design better interventions based on an assessment o the intrinsic development of a country, or partner organization, or individual?

The book is also missing a political analysis. Toyama clearly has life experience that would have brought him into close contact with injustices both profound and petty, yet he does not tackle the political dimensions to development, nor to technology.  The status quo serves the interests of some, as do technologies.  The obstacles people face are not all intrinsic – many are extrinsic and structural.  Toyama knows this, and mentions issues like corruption, caste, and the social revolutions.  But his examples are all individuals breaking free of their constraints and achieving higher levels of wisdom.  His primary recommendation is mentorship, which seems a pretty mild response to some of the horrors the world faces.

Overall, the book is an engaging read.  Toyama’s got enough snark to appeal to the skeptical hearts among us, but he’s also clearly a very optimistic, even altruistic, person who chose to make his cause social change and human development when more lucrative career paths were open to him.  There are many useful insights, including interesting historical notes in the various parts.  It’s a rather personal book, but sources from broader frameworks, psychology and history.  But it feels like a first effort, like a scrimmage before the real game.  I hope he keeps on with this work because we really need more.  We especially need more operational guidance for how to evaluate technologies, but also how to evaluate the “substrate” on which technologies can offer benefits.

July 10, 2015
Duncan Green