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Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology Hardcover – May 26, 2015
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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"High-tech insider Kentaro Toyama's compulsively readable manifesto will change minds about all those new technological quick-fixes for poverty. From previous claims for radio and TV to today's claims for broadband, he convincingly shows that technological solutions are neither so new nor so quick. Technology does not solve problems; people do, Toyama reminds us. He balances his refreshing skepticism about technological utopias with inspiring faith in the motivation and creativity of human beings."
--William Easterly, professor of economics, NYU, and author of The Tyranny of Experts
"Everyone from field staff and managers to researchers and funders will benefit from his unique perspective; geeks and non-geeks, alike. Finally, we have a book that can help temper our technology addiction with an approach guided by critical thought and practical application."--Trina Gorman, Monitoring and Evaluation consultant
"If you find yourself even remotely optimistic about technology and development, you should read this book." -- Chris Blattman, Associate Professor of Political Science & International and Public Affairs at Columbia University
"It is notable... when a techie insider steps outside the tent to chastise his tribe at book length -- and has the gall to both criticize and dedicate the book to his former boss, Bill Gates." -- Anand Giridharadas, The New York Times
From the Inside Flap
After a decade designing technologies meant to address education, health, and global poverty, award-winning computer scientist Kentaro Toyama came to a difficult conclusion: Even in an age of amazing technology, social progress depends on human changes that gadgets can't deliver.
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.
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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.
This book is a radical expansion of his thesis, and it's an impressive effort. Toyama recasts his idea about technology as a Law of Amplification. As before, the Law explains why technology fails. However, in this book, Toyama goes much further. He uses the Law to offer recommendations for the right way to use technology and to stress the central importance of human change.
The chapters go like this...
Intro - Toyama's background and set up for the book
Chap. 1 - Digital technology in education doesn't do a lot.
Chap. 2 - The Law of Amplification says that technology amplifies people.
Chap. 3 - The Law debunks common technology myths.
Chap. 4 - Other interventions are also like technology in being quick fixes.
Chap. 5 - A technocratic orthodoxy prevails in modern efforts at social change.
Chap. 6 - To use technology well, use it to amplify positive social forces.
Chap. 7 - What really matters in social change is human development.
Chap. 8 - Human development happens through evolving aspirations.
Chap. 9 - National development happens through evolving mass aspirations.
Chap. 10 - Mentorship is the best paradigm for encouraging social change.
Conclusion - "We should see social situations less as problems to be solved and more as people and institutions to be nurtured."
As you can see from the chapters, Geek Heresy is packed with big ideas. Unlike some books that drone on about a single idea, every chapter in this one introduces a new concept that challenges common assumptions. Several times I started off disagreeing with him but then came around. This happened a lot in Chapter 3.
The book is highly readable with good anecdotes from Toyama's personal experience. The pessimism of Part 1 is countered by the inspirational content of Part 2. Portions of the book may be wonky for some readers, but Toyama keeps most of the dense scholarship in the endnotes. Especially if you like to think, this book is a pleasure to read.
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