A heresy worth considering…

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Geek Heresy

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kentaro Toyama back in February 2018 when he visited our campus for an engaging seminar on the role of technology in addressing social problems. Dr. Toyama is the W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan, and his 2015 book, Geek Heresy, articulates what I consider “hard won” insight into the role of technology in society and, more specifically, how technology impacts social change.

Toyama began his career as a computer scientist working for Microsoft in their research division.  If you have ever enjoyed the Kinect accessory in Microsoft’s XBox—the stereo imaging system that converts a player’s motion into real-time video game inputs—you are at least tangentially familiar with some of Toyama’s early research that led to the development of Kinect.  Ultimately, though, Toyama found this work unfulfilling and a far cry from the idealism of his youth that had drawn him to the sciences in the first place.  His original goal was to help solve the energy crisis.

In 2004, after seven years of serving the world’s “gadget lovers,” Toyama was offered a position in a new research facility that Microsoft was launching in India.  The goal of this new research lab resonated with him: how might electronic technologies contribute to social causes in the developing world?

eReaders will transform the developing world – in and outside the classroom

This is probably a good point for me to disclose some of my own Luddite tendencies.  Particularly when it comes to solving problems in places that haven’t yet experienced our level of industrialization.  I still have vivid memories from the year 2000, when I was teaching in a government secondary school in Musoma, Tanzania, of an attempt to share the wonders of modern technology with our school’s secretary.  I was given a barely functional Apple laptop by local development workers from Sweden who had recently upgraded.  In addition to weighing over seven pounds, charging the battery involved electrical tape and two bare-ended wires plugged into a 220V outlet. For some reason, it only worked on battery, which probably explains why our Swedish friends were ready to let it go.

The Evolution of Apple Design Between 1977 and 2008

But I was convinced that this little laptop had the potential to transform the overall efficiency of the school’s main office. Not necessarily that laptop… but my basic logic was that once everyone could experience the potential for improving efficiency around the office with digital technology, we would then be poised to have a bigger conversation about fundraising for computers and training the staff. When your only competition is a manual typewriter, the bar for achieving quantum leaps in improving overall efficiency feels rather low.  As you might have guessed, though, nothing close to transformative occurred.  Without a printer, ink cartridges, reliable electricity, or a safe way to plug it in, the laptop was little more than a novelty.

Part One of Toyama’s book is filled with countless examples that run in a similar vein.  From the famed “One Laptop per Child” program that came out of MIT to Mohamed Yunus’s ventures in microcredit that earned him a Noble Prize, the past two decades are littered with technical “quick-fixes” that ultimately failed to deliver the positive social outcomes that were originally promised.  Many of Toyama’s own projects in the Microsoft lab seemed to work under controlled conditions. But when the time came to scale-up and begin generating measurable impacts, most ideas seemed to fizzle.

Toyama’s own experiences attempting to improve social conditions through technology, combined with his extensive research into the efforts of others, ultimately led him to what he describes as the Law of Amplification: “technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces. Like a lever, technology amplifies people’s capacities in the direction of their intentions… A mobile phone allows people to perform desired communication tasks across greater distances, with more people, and with greater frequency than would be possible without one. But whom one can communicate with and what one can expect of them depends on one’s existing social capacity.”

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Toyama on the role of technology in changing the world https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7P8-_KlgDiI

It isn’t just technical solutions for the developing world that receive a grim assessment from Toyama.  Here in the U.S., efforts in K-12 education often focus on new technology to help struggling school systems (or at least the students in them) satisfy an ever-expanding array of quantitative evaluation criteria.  More troubling, though, is Toyama’s description of the “Technocratic Orthodoxy” that seems to be driving these trends.  What really struck an awful chord with me, especially from the perspective of vocation, are the theoretical underpinnings of this orthodoxy that Toyama describes as the “Tech Commandments” (and yes, there are 10):

  • Measurement over meaning: Value only that which can be counted.
  • Quantity over quality: Do only those things that affect millions of people.
  • Ultimate goals over root causes:  Focus narrowly on the end goal to ensure success.
  • Destinationism over path dependency:  Ignore history and context, and take a single hop to the destination.
  • External over internal:  Do not expect people to change; instead, focus exclusively on their external circumstances.
  • Innovation over tried-and-true:  Never do anything that has been done before, at least not without new branding.
  • Intelligence over wisdom:  Maximize cleverness and creativity, not mundane effort.  Use intelligence and talent to justify arrogance, selfishness, immaturity, and rankism. (Rankism is abuse, humiliation, exploitation, or subjugation based on any kind of social rank.)
  • Value neutrality over value engagement: Bypass values and ethics by pretending to value neutrality.
  • Individualism over collectivism: Let competition lead to efficiency; avoid cooperation, which breeds complacency and corruption.  Any inhibition of individual expression, including compromise to support the common good, is the same as oppression.
  • Freedom over responsibility:  Encourage more choices; discourage discernment in choosing. Any temperance of liberty, including encouragement of responsibility, is tantamount to tyranny.

If someone asked me to describe the theoretical underpinnings of vocation, perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to take each item in this list and state its inverse.  Toyoma does point out that these so-called commandments are an exaggeration—but only by a little bit.  What I appreciated most throughout the book, though, is Toyama’s insistence that technology itself is neither good nor bad.  It is the “heart, mind, and will” behind its use that determines whether the fruits of technology will nourish community or diminish it.

A succinct and relevant description of the path forward that Toyama advances comes from another review of Geek Heresy by Kyoki Uchida:

Toyama emphasizes that those who design, implement, and fund development projects must also tend to their own “heart, mind, and will” if they hope to achieve lasting results that are truly sustainable. “What’s missing in today’s main paradigms of social change,” he writes, is “a framework of internal human betterment” that fosters intrinsic growth in the rich and powerful as well as the poor and marginalized — and which strengthens and is reinforced by “societal intrinsic development.”

This assessment aligns well with our discussions surrounding vocation, and Toyama’s book provides a much-needed bridge between vocation and the technocratic orthodoxy.  Is such a bridge needed?  Oh my, yes!  The proof that I would offer appeared in my inbox this very morning as the lead story in the American Society of Engineering Education’s (ASEE) daily news briefing.  Consider the following snippet about how “UCLA Researchers Use AI To Turn Smartphones Into Microscopes”:

The International Business Times  (4/11) reports that while some believe deep learning technology “could prove devastating for humanity, but recently, a group of researchers has shown how it could drastically benefit people, particularly those living in underdeveloped parts of the world.” The UCLA researchers say the smartphone camera technology “could ultimately be used to conduct inexpensive lab-grade analysis in poor parts of the world, where technologies for high-quality diagnostics are unavailable.”

I couldn’t begin to describe “deep learning” from an AI perspective.  Seriously… I have no idea what it means and the 5 minutes I spent reading Wikipedia about it yielded nothing worth sharing.  I do hope, however, that these researchers get a chance to read Toyama’s book.  I hope everyone does!

Jeff Brown teaches engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. His essay, “Unplugging the GPS: Rethinking Undergraduate Professional Degree Programs” is part of the collection Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2017).


2 thoughts on “A heresy worth considering…

  1. Thanks for the follow-up, David. I have to credit Hannah for locating that video! I was just impressed by how quickly he was able to get his point across in that incredibly short interview. Maybe it made sense to me because I had spent so much time trying to digest his book.
    Toyama also uses the Daedalus myth (parable?) to make a similar point about adult guidance. Techno-skeptics point to the story and argue that it was ultimately the technology that led Icarus to his doom. Technophiles will argue that even though Icarus died in the end, it was a small price to pay for the experience of flight. Toyama’s interpretation: “But had Icarus exercised restraint, or had Daedalus taken more time with his son to convey the risks, they could have benefited from the technology without the tragedy. The real lesson, then, is not about technology at all – it’s about the right kind of heart, mind, and will.”

  2. Thanks, Jeff, for this fine analysis. I hope it is read widely! I also hope that people follow the link to the interview on YouTube, as Toyama’s comments there are worth our attention as well. One of the interviewers notes that, ultimately, this perspective is an argument for good teachers. Toyama responds: “Absolutely. . . . There’s just no way around good adult guidance for learning.” This is an important reminder for NetVUE institutions as they think about what will make the biggest difference in the lives of their students.

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