‘Geek Heresy’: Why this former Microsoft researcher says tech is not the answer

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Kentaro Toyoma
Kentaro Toyama holding his book, Geek Heresy, and 10-year-old Nokia phone. (Erynn Rose photo)

Our guest on the latest GeekWire radio show and podcast was Kentaro Toyama, the author of “Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.” This former Microsoft researcher reveals how years of work in India changed his perspective on the role of technology in affecting real social change. He takes the position that technology is not, on its own, the solution to improving conditions around the world.

If you missed the show, or just prefer text, continue reading for edited excerpts.

geekheresyQ: Things have really changed for you. Back in the day you were deep in Microsoft research and here you are with a new book called “Geek Heresy.” What happened?

Toyama: Well I went to India and I saw things very differently. Oftentimes you don’t really see the situation even in your own life until you go somewhere else and see the extremes. In India what was interesting was that not everybody has a smartphone, not everybody Googles for information, and as a result I got to see how technology actually works in a very wide range of situations, and the conclusion I came to is that technology can help in some ways but it is by no means a solution in and of itself.

Q: Many of the big tech executives are looking to technology and putting internet out into the far reaches of the world to try to improve conditions. Do you think that those initiatives are worthwhile?

Toyama: On the whole, not. At least as far as they are intended to address global poverty and inequality. I often say that concert musicians don’t imagine that playing the violin is going to save the world but somehow computer scientists believe that the tools they work with are in fact going to save the world.

Q: What would you offer as a solution? Can technology play any role at all?

Toyama: The core of the book is this idea that technology amplifies underlying human forces. What that means is that when people can use technology to help them achieve their goals, it can have a great effect. But the positive effects of technology don’t necessarily come from the technology itself, they come as a conjunction of technology and people. So when you go to an environment where the human institutions are dysfunctional or corrupt, the technology may have no effect or it may even harm the situation.

Q: You went to India as part of Microsoft research. At what point did you start questioning the approaches technologists were taking?

Toyama: There was no one single point but what I noticed as we were doing these projects was that on one hand they were doing well in small research pilots, but as we started to try to get things rolling out at larger scale, they often didn’t have the same impact. When I looked for a pattern for why that was, I found that it had nothing to do with our technology and everything to do with who our partners were.

Q: How did Microsoft’s yearly TechFest event shape your pre-India view of the technology world?

Toyama: TechFest was an annual event that Microsoft research put on for the rest of the company and they would often bill it as the ‘and’ in R&D — meaning it was the event that glued together the research with the product development. Ideally it would spark new tech transfer opportunities where the company would take research developed in the lab and put it into products. One of the things I learned from that experience was that even at a company like Microsoft, which is very technology centric, in the end it comes down to the power of relationships when it comes to technology transfer.

Q: You spent a semester working at Seattle’s prestigious Lakeside School. What did you observe there and what did you learn from it?

Toyama: All of the students are required to carry laptops, and they communicate via email and IM with their teachers, and the teachers post assignments online. So the question is, if a parent of a Lakeside School child wants an extra boost for their kid, what do they do? I was there as a tutor for students who needed extra help. What many parents wanted was extra adult supervision, and that tells us a lot about what we intuitively know about education. It’s certainly about better adult guidance and more of it for the children who have the most difficulty with learning. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use technology, but in the absence of a good teacher, no amount of technology is going to overcome the deficiency in education in our world.

Q: Are there lessons for parents in what you have discovered and what you are writing about in the book?

Toyama: The first thing is for every parent to understand that more time with an electronic gadget doesn’t make a student more likely to have a job at a technology company. There is a huge difference between knowing how to drive a car and having the engineering skills to design an engine. The next point is that because technology is so powerful, it amplifies our negative side as well as our positive side. With kids the danger is that on one hand they are very curious and naturally want to learn, but they also have a tremendous potential to be distracted and the technology amplifies both.

Q: Are there lessons for technology companies here in terms of really making an impact?

Toyama: Whether you are a technology company or just a technologist and you are interesting in affecting some sort of social change, the lesson is not to imagine that the mere distribution of technology is going to have an impact but to work with organizations that are doing well and then to help them do even better with technology.

Q: What would you do if you could change our mentality towards technology in a way that was more constructive to the world?

Toyama: We need to focus on the human side, the thing that gets amplified by the technology, if we really want to have positive social change. Once society as a whole is moving in the right direction, the technology kind of does the right thing on its own.

Listen to the full interview below or via this MP3 file.


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