News and analysis
June 17, 2015

Tech’s No Panacea for Saving the World, Says Computer Scientist

The nonprofit Digital Green uses video as part of its work teaching new agricultural methods to poor farmers in more than 5,000 villages in four countries, including Jharkhand, India.
Kentaro Toyama has a Ph.D. in computer science and spent more than a decade as a researcher at Microsoft, so he’s an unlikely champion for the argument that people — not technology — are the key to solving tough social problems. But that’s exactly the case he makes in his new book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology.

Mr. Toyama co-founded Microsoft Research India in 2004, and during his five years there he was involved in more than 50 research projects that sought to use technology to improve the lives of the poor.

Although many of the projects yielded interesting results, Mr. Toyama was surprised at how few had a real impact on the people they were trying to help.

Jasmit Kaur
Kentaro Toyama, who co-founded Microsoft Research India, has been involved in more than 50 technology research projects to improve the lives of poor people.

When he investigated why some projects made a difference and others didn’t, it all came down to the organizations that carried out the programs, says Mr. Toyama, who is now a professor of community information at the University of Michigan.

If the group was good at what it did and committed to its mission, the project succeeded, he says. But if the group was dysfunctional or not particularly devoted, it didn’t matter how good the technology was; the project failed.

"To me it seemed clear that the defining factor was not technology but the people who implemented the work," he says.

Mr. Toyama talked more about technology’s role in philanthropy with The Chronicle:

You say the Law of Amplification determines how effective technology will be. What does that mean?

The Law of Amplification is this idea that technology amplifies underlying human forces.

If the human forces that are already there are positive, then the technology will amplify that, and things will tend to go in a more positive direction. If they’re negative, then technology will amplify that and things will tend to go in a negative direction.

Does that mean the places most in need of social change are where technology would least likely make an impact?

That is exactly right. It’s kind of an ironic conclusion. It’s exactly where you most want something like technology to help that it doesn’t.

This is true of just about every kind of philanthropic intervention. In the poorest places, where the people have the least political power and where they’re most isolated from any kind of social influence that could help them, everything stacks up against them.

You write that the Law of Amplification also applies to other solutions that are applied broadly, like charter schools or elections. How did you come to that conclusion?

I would give talks about the Law of Amplification with respect to digital technology. Very often people in the audience would come up to me afterward, and they would tell me how they saw similar things but with, for example, microfinance.

Despite his tech background, Mr. Toyama says people are the key to solving social problems.

They said the credit that you extend to people is the same way. Good entrepreneurs can take credit and build businesses with it. But the people who are poorest and who don’t have the means to build the business are the ones who take credit and end up with nothing when they pay it back and often suffer under the loan.

There’s a very strong temptation in philanthropy to look for solutions that scale. I mean, that’s what people will talk about all the time. Where is the scalability? And scale is really the one thing that is not easily achieved in social change.

For real change to happen, there has to be change in people, and people are incredibly hard to change. And you have to deal with them on a one-to-one basis and engage them very intensely.

So if technology and packaged solutions aren’t the answer to social change, what is?

It is about both individual and societal human change.

This idea that we can keep giving people more technologies — different kinds of seeds, different kinds of electronic gadgets, different kinds of medicines — and somehow that’s going to be the thing that transforms their lives keeps coming up in philanthropy over and over again.

I think it’s because we’ve lost sight of more traditional conceptions of charity, which is to nurture human beings.

It’s a cliché to say that if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but if you teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime. And yet I think very few organizations actually take that to heart. For the most part, philanthropy’s in the business of giving away fish.

What do you hope nonprofits will take from your book?
This book is meant as a critique of very large organizations that want to see large-scale impact through a single, easy-to-replicate intervention. Hopefully it will provoke them into thinking hard about why what they’re doing doesn’t seem to have as much impact as they would like.

At the same time, my hope is to provide rhetorical ammunition for smaller nonprofits that often engage a very localized area, maybe one or two villages, and do everything they can to help the people in those villages grow, both in terms of their individual capacity but also as a coherent political entity that can push back and demand what they need.

I have an incredible amount of admiration for the people who do that. They’re the ones who are kind of forgotten in a lot of media portrayals of philanthropy, because it’s so easy to look at the sexy projects where billions of dollars are being spent on a certain cause. But in reality, I think it’s these tiny, individual efforts that are actually making a lasting impact.

When you talk about the need for individual change, is there a danger in blaming the victims of poverty or discrimination for the difficult circumstances they find themselves in?

We’ve become so worried about blaming the victim that we are afraid to suggest that the people that we most want to help need to change in some way for things to get better for them.

There also need to be external changes. There’s no doubt that there are very deep structural reasons why poverty continues to exist, but pretending that individuals don’t need to change is basically tantamount to saying that education is unnecessary.

What kind of response have you gotten to these arguments, especially from former technology colleagues?

Interestingly a lot of it is begrudging acceptance. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘You know, I was expecting to disagree with everything that you say, and at this point, I find myself being turned around 180 degrees.’

I’ve seen lots of people go from, Let’s do technology, and then five, 10 years later what they’re talking about is, Let’s help build the capacity in these communities so they can take advantage of the technology. And I think that’s exactly the kind of change that we want to see.

Send an e-mail to Nicole Wallace.