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Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology Kindle Edition
Computers in Bangalore are locked away in dusty cabinets because teachers don't know what to do with them. Mobile phone apps meant to spread hygiene practices in Africa fail to improve health. Executives in Silicon Valley evangelize novel technologies at work even as they send their children to Waldorf schools that ban electronics. And four decades of incredible innovation in America have done nothing to turn the tide of rising poverty and inequality. Why then do we keep hoping that technology will solve our greatest social ills?
In this incisive book, Toyama cures us of the manic rhetoric of digital utopians and reinvigorates us with a deeply people-centric view of social change. Contrasting the outlandish claims of tech zealots with stories of people like Patrick Awuah, a Microsoft millionaire who left his engineering job to open Ghana's first liberal arts university, and Tara Sreenivasa, a graduate of a remarkable South Indian school that takes impoverished children into the high-tech offices of Goldman Sachs and Mercedes-Benz, Geek Heresy is a heartwarming reminder that it's human wisdom, not machines, that move our world forward.
"High-tech insider Kentaro Toyama's compulsively readable manifesto will change minds about all those new technological quick-fixes for poverty."-- "William Easterly, professor of economics, New York University"
"Toyama's research reminds us that there are very few one-size-fits-all solutions. If technology is going to improve the lives of the world's poorest, it must be grounded in a deep understanding of human behavior and an appreciation for cultural differences."-- "Bill Gates"
The book takes a spike-studded tire iron to the efforts by technology entrepreneurs and their enablers to reimagine how we eat, learn, heal, govern, and battle poverty."-- "New York Times"
A white paper largely of interest to education theorists and aid specialists, with occasional asides for the Jaron Lanier/Nicholas Carr crowd.-- "Kirkus" --This text refers to the audioCD edition.
From the Inside Flap
Computers in Bangalore are locked away in dusty cabinets because teachers don't know what to do with them. Mobile phone apps to spread hygiene practices in Africa fail to improve health. Executives in Silicon Valley evangelize novel technologies at work even as they send their children to Waldorf schools that ban electronics. And, four decades of incredible innovation in America have done nothing to turn the tide of rising poverty and inequality. Why then do we keep hoping that technology will solve our greatest social ills?
In this incisive book, Toyama cures us of the manic rhetoric of digital utopians and reinvigorates us with a deeply people-centric view of social change. Contrasting the outlandish claims of tech zealots with stories of people like Patrick Awuah, a Microsoft millionaire who left his engineering job to open Ghana's first liberal arts university, and Tara Sreenivasa, a graduate of a remarkable South Indian school that takes children from dollar-a-day families into the high-tech offices of Goldman Sachs and Mercedes-Benz--Geek Heresy is a heartwarming reminder that it's human wisdom, not machines, that move our world forward. --This text refers to the hardcover edition.
- ASIN : B00TT1VSA2
- Publisher : PublicAffairs (May 26, 2015)
- Publication date : May 26, 2015
- Language : English
- File size : 1185 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Sticky notes : On Kindle Scribe
- Print length : 354 pages
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,062,890 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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Kentaro Toyama takes us on an intellectual yet deeply personal journey through his many years of seeking technology solutions for global poverty. On the one hand, his search was wildly successful: though the book does not tout it, his projects gained widespread acclaim for their creativity and rigor, and he became an authoritative leader of an international research community with similar aspirations. If anyone in the world was going to demonstrate how technology could help the developing world, it was Toyama.
Unexpectedly, however, Toyama's search led him to an inconvenient truth: that technology may NOT be the most important agent of social change. With disarming honesty and humility, Toyama explains how -- time and time again -- the technologies invented by himself and colleagues were most useful to highly motivated and capable organizations, rather than the poor and downcast communities that he sought to help. In other words, technology always served as an amplifier of existing social forces -- including existing inequalities -- rather than offering any particular benefit for the poor.
Due to his unique insider's perspective, Toyama's critique of technocratic solutions is no less incisive than William Easterly's critique of the aid industry. From the slums of Bangalore, to the classrooms of Accra, to the rice fields of Jharkhand and the streets of Karachi, Toyama offers a vivid yet intimate narrative that gently leads the reader to his hard-hitting conclusions. Along the way, Toyama also provides a masterful review of related research findings (including 90 pages of detailed notes and references).
"Geek Heresy" is far more than a critique, however. In the second half of the book, Toyama offers a compelling alternative to a technology-centric view of social change. Instead of investing in technology, we should invest in people. Instead of seeking quick and flashy changes, we should slowly nurture human hearts, minds, and wills. Instead of assessing people's "needs", we should assess their aspirations, and offer mentorship to help fulfill those aspirations.
Ambitious and powerfully presented, Toyama's vision for development holds its own against other heavyweight philosophers, from Adam Smith to Amartya Sen. It forces us to reconsider our assumptions about human growth and well-being, and inspires us to create a brighter and more sustainable future. Transcending his background as a technology researcher, Toyama's message will appeal to innovators, educators, and policy makers alike.
If every mid-career professional could spend a decade traveling the world to apply their talents for the benefit of marginalized populations, I am sure there would be no shortage of epiphanies on hand. But for the vast majority of us who are unable to do that, this book brings the epiphany to the comfort of your armchair. Buy it, read it, share it, but beware: it might just change your worldview.
Two problems with the narrative are an absence of a discussion of Scientism and an insufficient emphasis on cultural anthropology. Scientism refers to an undeserved trust in science to solve social problems. Cultural anthropology has provided a body of knowledge with a robust self-criticism that is unmatched in the social sciences. Cultural relativism is at the core of Toyama's concerns and solutions.
Yes, science has the power to amplify ongoing cultural norms and Toyama is not the first to point this out. What has photography done to change views of personal identity? What has the printing press done for world literacy? What have atomic weapons done for world peace? It may require generations to analyze the impact of new technologies on society. The search for appropriate answers may require both new and rephrased questions.
Child development through mentors, family and society rather than laptops makes for good posters but produces more questions than answers. Experimental design, scientific biases and falsification are always problematic in the social sciences. Definitive proof that a computer technology intervention has improved education or reduced poverty might remain lacking for decades. There is a chance that nontechnical readers may find this book too scholarly. This autobiography has 335 pages with 111 pages of footnotes and references. Nevertheless, Geek Heresy is an important retelling of the interactions between culture and technology from a writer with impressive credentials and experiences.
Top reviews from other countries
Toyama has an American perspective; he co-founded Microsoft Research India and had a particular dream of educating or empowering in some way the developing nations through technology. His book reads very much like those texts by business gurus. In Britain we have a very different outlook. Toyama writes of surprise at discovering that technology as a teaching aid tends to fail without enthusiastic and able teachers and mentors. We always knew that. He seems totally unaware that in Britain we had a revolution in schools with the introduction of the BBC Micro; a low cost computer aimed at homes and schools, the first real PC before the 'PC' was invented. The BBC Micro was arguably the first really user-friendly computer; the first with proper page displays, and fonts, and spreadsheets, and an excellent word processor. It also had though a built-in BBC Basic interpreter that allowed instant running of real programmes that could be written by children in minutes, or by adults to solve real problems; it was used in school not to teach facts (we'd experimented with teaching machines in the sixties and abandoned them!) but to teach programming, and hence thinking, and it was a great success, with pretty much every school getting involved. The BBC also backed up the project with television programmes. What the BBC computer also had was an easy to use parallel interface port - real things could be made to operate, from simple relays to servos and robots, without the need to understand the complexities of USB or RS232. In line with traditional BBC values it was created to do good, as part of a well-thought out programme involving teachers and schools, not just to sell things to them, but it's demise came with the invasion of the PC, which was designed to sell, and then with Windows, with was designed to lock us into the commercial world of Bill Gates and a path of never ending expensive upgrades. As an electronics engineer and programmer I was enthused by the BBC computer, but came to hate Microsoft and Windows. I know no-one today who does not despise Windows and the policies of Bill Gates. For a brief while we witnessed technology at it's best, enthusing teachers and children alike. We don't need Toyama's 'Law of Amplification' to teach us about technology in society; we saw it hijacked by business interests, and we see that while kids in the 80s learned to program, the kids of today are more likely to play games or chat to friends on social media. There is a glimmer of hope in the new projects being launched here in schools, around the 'Rasberry Pie' microcomputer, and the BBC 'Microbit' that brings easy programming back to kids.
'Geek Heresy', though it claims to have discovered something, is mostly anecdotal. Toyama has set out to take technology to India, and failed, but that is not how science proceeds. Society is the domain of sociology, anthropology, and psychology, whose practitioners follow the scientific process; of hypothesis followed by the design of experiments to support or disprove the hypothesis. Scientific 'laws' only come about when there is consensus following many such experiments, so it gets my back up when non-scientists try to give us 'laws' (psychologists and psychotherapists of the sort that write self-help books are very prone to inventing 'laws'). A proper approach to this subject would begin by asking, 'who are we and what do we want out of life'. This requires knowledge of the relevant sciences and experiments that have gone before. It would then ask, 'how might technolgy help us achieve these ends'. The things we want, I suggest, go way beyond the imaginings of this microsoft man, to encompass peace, security, fulfilment in life, shared family values and community, trust not abused by scams and viruses, a better balance between work and pleasure, an end to pollution and global warming, answers to life's big questions, and a lot less hassle. My view is that we have been best served by technology in the hands of idealists and men of passion - Lord Reith's BBC, the music producers who brought us good recordings, the film makers who showed us things we had never seen, and roused our emotions. Set against these things, which don't even get a mention, the age of the Internet and the PC can appear to many of us, even those who are very involved with it, as a force primarily for evil. This is a book of many words but devoid of real thinking.
The first half of the book delivers on this and provides an alternative to the standard theory of technology evangelists who only see benefits, namely that tech merely amplifies:
Once you get the machines involved, whatever was going on before gets turbocharged; it does not necessarily get better. So an iPad in the hands of my diligent daughter will be a tool to learn more, provided I’m there to guide her. And an iPad in the hands of my Minecraft-crazed son is like buying a drink for a drunk friend, especially if I’m not there to enforce limits on his screen time. Summed over my two kids there are no great effects, but in terms of the spread of outcomes I’m looking at much more pronounced extremes. (Yes, I know, I’m not presenting this too well; buy the book, Kentaro does!) And same way neither the radio, nor television really transformed education, for example, we should not have high hopes for the Internet or cheap laptops either. It’s good teachers that we will always need: humans who will motivate the young to learn and achieve.
So all that gets you to page 100 out of 218 and at that point you’re done with the discussion about geeks, technology etc. because the book never really was about technology. This is a book about how to make the world a better place! In particular, we follow Kentaro from his high-flying job as an image recognition and face recognition engineer with Microsoft to his travels in India, where his aim became to use technology in a way that would aid Indian development in education, healthcare, self-sufficiency, agriculture, women’s emancipation etc.
Viewed from the angle of Part 2 of Geek Heresy, throwing tech at a problem is an example of a “packaged intervention” and is thus never going to get to the root of a problem. “Packaged interventions,” from vaccine programs, mosquito nets, laptops and microfinance all the way to free elections in a country that has not had them before, can only be of lasting benefit if they are introduced at the right time and in fertile ground as part of a package by locally embedded teams of teachers, mentors and dedicated professionals whose focus must be to help the locals understand, formulate and work toward attaining their own aspirations for their lives. Not ours!
It’s not so much material resource that’s missing in our world, as much as it’s dedicated and knowledgeable professionals who will apply their time toward understanding where the needs of the people we are trying to help stand in the “hierarchy of needs.” Once their aspirations have been identified and formulated, our interventions should be all about providing them with the means to deploy their own heart, mind and will toward achieving these goals. Only in that context should we reach into our quiver for technologies, know-how and “packaged solutions.”
The message of the book is a positive message: not only are billions of people across the planet moving on from the basic needs for food and shelter, but people at the very top of the pyramid are moving toward the noble need to help others do better, and (despite the financial crisis and its aftermath) this is happening at a pace never seen before in history.
Jeff Sachs once tried to write this kind of a book, where you pivot from your area of expertise to applying this expertise toward the greater good. It was called “the Price of Civilization” and to my eyes it was a failure.
Kentaro, on the other hand, has pulled it off. WOW!
So I’ll close with a couple pedantic comments: it’s hedone and meden agan, not hedonia (p. 90) and medem agan (p. 94). Such a tremendous book, you know where I live, you know I’m Greek, next time you write a book, send the Greek stuff through, dude.
Ah, that’s the other thing. Kentaro is 46, but this book is written very much in the style of the very last book an author will ever write. I genuinely hope I’m wrong about that. I really enjoyed Geek Heresy.
The good: lots of arguments with additional notes and research, sometimes, it is an easy and a really pleasant read.
The bad: the author often goes on social change tangents and repeats the same thing over and over again: it may get boring at times!