Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology

Kentaro Toyama

334 pages, Public Affairs

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We live in an age of technological utopianism. Every time a tech company goes public, it seems, one or more new philanthropists “go public” as well—new benefactors who believe they can save the world by redirecting their technical acumen from business problems to social ones. Underlying this utopianism is a simple conviction: “Talent is universal; opportunity is not.” (So said Megan Smith, who was chief technology officer of the United States at the time, during a talk in 2011.) The solution, according to this way of thinking, is to increase opportunity. Take a kid from an illiterate family in India, for example. If you give her a laptop and get her online, then maybe someday she’ll find a cure for cancer.

In Geek Heresy, Kentaro Toyama dismantles the idea that we can solve big social problems if we just apply the right technology to them. He writes from experience with that topic. He was a cofounder and managing director of Microsoft Research India, where he spent years directing the resources of one of the world’s largest technology companies to some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Today he counters the technological utopians with an observation of his own: “Talent is universal, and opportunity is the nurturing of that talent.” Nurturing talent is messier and more organic than working with 1s and 0s ( the raw stuff of technology). It requires nuance and humanity. Most important, perhaps, nurturing is not very scalable.

Scaling is in the DNA of the technologist. Part of what makes digital technology so powerful is that it scales up so easily. Twitter has more than 300 million active users; the user base of Facebook exceeds 1 billion. That kind of scalability doesn’t exist in the social sector. No nonprofit has the market penetration of Twitter or Facebook. Yet technology tempts nonprofit leaders into thinking that scaling up is the only path forward—that they can reach more people by removing the human factor from their work. Geek Heresy offers a critique of that temptation.

In the first part of the book, Toyama tells stories about technological “silver bullets” that missed their target. Putting computers in the hands of poor children (as the much-publicized One Laptop Per Child initiative aimed to do) or installing them in the walls of slum communities (as the Hole-in-the-Wall organization has done in India) hasn’t eliminated poverty. Khan Academy, an online collection of instructional videos, hasn’t eliminated educational inequity. These efforts aren’t necessarily bad, but they focus primarily on using tools—tools that don’t work in isolation.

Ultimately, Toyama isn’t trying to dismantle technological utopianism. He’s trying to dismantle the fetish that many of us have for silver bullets. Too many philanthropists, policymakers, and nonprofit executives are searching for the one intervention or model that would solve this or that big social problem—if only we could implement it properly: If only we had smaller classrooms. If only local entrepreneurs had access to microloans. If only…

To read a book that points out that there are no silver bullets is refreshing. But it is also somewhat frustrating. While reading Geek Heresy, I found myself looking for Toyama’s version of a silver bullet; “Do these five things for success” or “Follow this framework for better results.”

Toyama doesn’t offer pat solutions of that kind. But in the second part of the book, he presents several examples of people and organizations that have achieved success by embracing the human element of social change. Among these exemplars are Asheshi University, an institution in Ghana that is educating the next generation of African leaders, and Digital Green, an organization that combines video content with in-person facilitators to help the owners of small farms increase their output.

When I look around the social sector, I see two extremes. I see technologists with visions of utopia, and I see organizations that are so resistant to technology that they miss out on significant opportunities to broaden and deepen their impact. What we need, I believe, is a push to integrate technology into the work of social change. In Geek Heresy, Toyama nods toward this idea. He writes, for example, about using “packaged interventions to amplify the right human forces.”

At the same time, Toyama highlights the potential adverse effects of technology. In a discussion of education, he writes, “Technology amplifies preexisting differences in wealth and achievement.” Indeed, technology has not been the great equalizer in education that many people have hoped it would be. Khan Academy, for example, is a great tool, but it mainly serves to augment the resources and capacities of those who use it. Students who receive a lot of social and parental support are more likely to use Khan Academy well than those who wake up hungry every day. Technology, as Toyama notes, is an amplifying force: It can amplify effective solutions, and it can amplify entrenched inequalities.

Technology is a necessary component of social change. It would be wrong for anyone to conclude otherwise from reading Geek Heresy. In fact, we need more and better technology in the social sector. But technology, although it’s necessary, is not sufficient. My hope is that technological utopians—perhaps inspired by this book—will spend more time learning about the real constraints and opportunities that exist in the social sector. By the same token, I hope that social innovators will learn to embrace technology as a tool that can extend their work.