Monday, June 13, 2016

Geek Heresy

I just finished reading Kentaro Toyama’s new book, Geek Heresy, tackling the cult of technology as a cure-all for society’s ills. He’s a geek (former Microsoft Research guy) who is making the case that technology doesn’t make the kind of social impact it claims to deliver.

There’s often more value to me in reading iconoclastic books than feel-good affirmations of popular icons! For example, I extracted many insights about the international development field reading books like Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts or Maren’s Road to Hell. Toyama offers up strong criticisms as well as constructive advice about how to best apply technology to social problems. At the same time, there are some flaws in his arguments that are worth pointing out.

Smashing Icons

Toyama’s central thesis is that we tend to overstate the benefits of technology as a magic bullet. He’s countering the world view that the technology just needs to get in the hands of the poor and miracles will happen. He broadens this to tackling what he labels “the packaged intervention,” the neatly wrapped solution that will solve a social problem.
Along the way of making his case, he takes on a lot of the popular tech and business for social good memes, like:
  • One Laptop Per Child 
  • The Hole-in-the-Wall experiment 
  • The Arab Spring as social media revolution 
  • Toms Shoes 
  • The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (CK Prahalad) 
  • Telecenters 
  • The fetish of school testing (aka No Child Left Behind) 
  • Google (especially some optimistic pronouncements) 
He scores some good points here, usually by pointing out that the hype doesn’t match up with the claims. As a geek who is trying to apply tech for good, it is instructive to hear the critiques. Of course, from my long experience in the field, I didn’t find Toyama’s choice of targets all that surprising.

Constructive Observations

Toyama makes some excellent points about the application of technology, and I think this is where the most value is to be gained.

His “Law of Amplification” was particularly insightful: “technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces.” A short-hand for this might be that technology is most useful in the hands of people who are ready to use it. He uses this to analyze why many technology interventions are successful in the pilot phase and fail when they go to scale. In the pilot phase, you frequently have the best (human) conditions: the best partners and the best program staff making something work. But, when you go to scale, you reach many partners (such as schools) who lack the human capacity to use the technology effectively. He notes: “the right people can work around a bad technology, but the wrong people will mess up even a good one.”

Wishful thinking makes many people dream of quick fixes. Why is it in the social sector we think it is so easy? I often run into this thinking, where ideas which would not be taken seriously in business are suddenly sensible in social good. Toyama on that issue:
If a private company is failing to make a profit, no one expects that state-of-the-art data centers, better productivity software, and new laptops for all of the employees will turn things around. Yet, that is exactly the logic of so many attempts to fix schools with technology. 
His prescription for how to use technology successfully is the following:

  1. Identify or build human forces aligned with your goals. 
  2. Use packaged interventions to amplify the right human forces. 
  3. Avoid indiscriminate dissemination of packaged interventions. 
His biggest prescription is around connecting with these human forces. A great teacher is going to be better than a software program on a laptop or tablet. A mentor is going to have a more powerful impact over somebody than YouTube videos.

I found this to be an eminently sensible approach. When the personal computers were first dropped into American schools, they didn’t have the desired impact because the supporting environment wasn’t there. A technology intervention is only a tool, a seed. And planting a seed in a dry desert is not going to yield an abundant harvest.

Collateral Damage

Although I found Geek Heresy to be a useful critique of the misapplication of technology and packaged interventions, Toyama seems to overreach in my opinion. Sometimes to the point of being just wrong.

In addition to the icons I mentioned above, Toyama also takes on:
  • Vaccines 
  • Randomized controlled trials (calls their proponents the Randomistas) 
  • Elections 
  • Conditional cash transfers (labeled as manipulation) 
  • Social entrepreneurs 
Now, these criticisms were more balanced than the first wave. Toyama takes vaccines to task for not curing all preventable diseases, perhaps to emphasize how the wrong people can mess up a good packaged intervention? He’s happy to use research trials to prove that One Laptop per Child doesn’t work, but takes them to task when he thinks they get the underlying truth wrong (he picks one RCT that showed a successful result and makes the case that the positive result was really an observation of correlation not causation).

It’s on the last one that Toyama makes his biggest error. He seems to define social entrepreneurs as rapacious for-profit businesspeople who are modeling “themselves on the Steve Jobses and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.” He criticizes the founder of Toms Shoes, Blake Mycoskie, as a prototypical social entrepreneur exploiting disadvantaged children on the way to making a few hundred million selling out to Bain Capital.

This mistake seems odd, given that most of the people he cites as outstanding counter-examples against the badly applied packaged intervention craze, are what everybody else calls social entrepreneurs. People who start novel organizations like Ashesi University in Ghana, Technology Access Foundation in Seattle, and Shanti Bhavan (a boarding school) in India. It is also odd given that he cites David Bornstein’s seminal book, How to Change the World, to make an unrelated point and omits the full title: How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. None of the people Bornstein profiles meet Toyama’s straw man definition of social entrepreneur as for-profit entrepreneur willing to step on the little people to make a buck.


Social change in the real world is difficult, and magic bullets are few and far between. Kentaro Toyama’s Geek Heresy reminds us of this, and emphasizes that leaving humans out of the equation is a losing strategy. The hubris that is frequently on display, and the often overwrought hype claiming incredible results, are worth taking on. His observation that technology tends to amplify pre-existing differences in society is a useful insight.

Toyama’s biggest point seems to be that people matter. And that tech innovations are not done to people, but intimately depend on people for any impact they successfully make. Something that any geek that aims to do social good must keep in mind!

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