Challenging the Technological Quick Fix

By Henry Reichman

Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology by Kentaro Toyama. New York: Public Affairs, 2015.

With degrees from Harvard and Yale in physics and computer science and experience as a former manager at Microsoft, Kentaro Toyama, now a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, is a certified technology “geek.” His heresy is to reject the typical geek’s addiction to “a technological way of solving problems.” In his view, the “technology hype” has failed to “engage with rigorous evidence. It was empty sloganeering that collapsed under critical thinking.”

Toyama proposes what he calls the “Law of Amplification” to describe technology’s actual social impact. Embracing a “curmudgeonly skepticism,” he argues that “what people get out of technology depends on what they can do and want to do even without technology.” In other words, “technologies don’t have fixed additive effects. They magnify existing social forces, which themselves can be good, bad, or neutral.”

For faculty members barraged with evangelical exhortations to embrace a veritable torrent of all sorts of fashionable technological quick fixes, such an argument is refreshing. And, indeed, first among the “geek myths” that Toyama skewers is the myth that computers will revolutionize learning. “If history is a guide,” he points out, “new technologies will be absorbed by schools but will do little in the end to advance education,” a point he proceeds to demonstrate with a series of examples that would be hilarious were they not so tragic.

According to former secretary of education Arne Duncan, technology offers “a powerful force for educational equity” and “empowers students and gives them control of the content.” Yet Toyama reports an avalanche of studies that powerfully disprove such claims. A study of a one-laptop-per-child program in Peru demonstrated that “students gained nothing in academic achievement.” Another found a similar result in Uruguay, concluding that “the technology alone cannot impact learning.” An ambitious program that placed weatherproofed laptops in walls in public spaces in Indian slums and villages was widely celebrated—its main proponent won a TED prize for it—but soon was forgotten by its supposed beneficiaries, as the computers either quickly disappeared or were used only by “a few boys . . . usually for things like games.”

Here in the United States, Toyama reports on a California study of classroom Internet use, which concluded that “placing computers and Internet connections in low-[income] schools, in and of itself, does little to address the serious educational challenges faced by these schools.” A 2013 study involving over one thousand students in grades six through ten found that students randomly selected to receive laptops for two years did no better “on a host of educational outcomes” than did a control group without computer access. And then, of course, there was the $1 billion program to distribute iPads to all students in the Los Angeles public schools—a plan that had to be abandoned when students hacked the devices to play games, go on social media, and view porn.

In a conclusion that will hardly surprise most teachers, Toyama writes:

Anyone can learn to tweet. But forming and articulating a cogent argument in any medium requires thinking, writing, and communication skills. While those skills are increasingly expressed through text messaging, PowerPoint, and email, they are not taught by them. Similarly, it’s easy to learn to “use” a computer, but the underlying math skills necessary for accounting or engineering require solid preparation that only comes by doing problem sets—readily accomplished with or without a computer. In other words, there’s a big difference between learning the digital tools of modern life . . . and learning the critical thinking skills necessary for an information age.

Geek Heresy expands this argument about technology and education, previously summarized in a widely read and important article that Toyama published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in May 2015, to a variety of other efforts at social change. The good news is that the virtues of that previous article (which sparked my interest in Toyama’s work) are to be found as well in this book. It is lively and readable, accessible to nonspecialists, and full of compelling and illuminating anecdotes, many of them taken from Toyama’s own experiences working for Microsoft in India and then with a variety of development programs throughout the world. The bad news is that these virtues also become the book’s vices, especially in its latter half, when Toyama shifts from critiquing the technological creed to proposing an alternative approach to social change. After a while the anecdotes become repetitive and the jargonfree plain talk becomes simplistic, even hackneyed.

Geek Heresy can be read as two different books bound in one cover. The first five chapters offer an engaging and powerful critique not only of technocratic orthodoxy but also of all sorts of similarly simplistic “packaged interventions” that promise quickly (and cheaply) to improve the human condition while ignoring the central role of human factors. Toyama argues that “any solution—technological or otherwise—that improves education depends crucially on parents, students, teachers, and principals. Anything that augments agriculture depends on suppliers, farmers, extension officers, and produce buyers. Anything that enhances governance depends on bureaucrats, administrators, leaders, and citizens. The lack of attention to these necessary human factors leads to the broken medical equipment, shuttered offices, and collapsed democracies that litter the history of social causes.” These chapters, as promised, “provoke tech optimists, vindicate tech skeptics, and liberate others from the cult-like hold of technology.” I can’t recommend too strongly that you read them.

But Toyama’s proposed path forward, which occupies the book’s last five chapters, disappoints. Emphasizing the development of “intrinsic motivation” through appeals to the importance of “heart, mind and will,” Toyama’s solutions seem little more than an awkward pastiche of anecdotal “lessons” and simplified insights culled from necessarily superficial readings in social and psychological theories (with Abraham Maslow, the psychologist often associated with theories of “self-actualization,” enjoying a special seat of honor). His “core thesis—that we should see social situations less as problems to be solved and more as people and institutions to be nurtured”—is not so much wrong as inadequate and commonplace. As I worked through these chapters, I pined for the excitement I had found in the book’s first half and eventually ended up counting pages to the finish.

Nevertheless, Geek Heresy deserves a wide audience, especially among those, like too many college and university administrators and trustees (as well as politicians), who need to be disabused of their misguided faith in technology. Toyama’s conclusion is simple but powerful and merits close attention: “We want to believe that our technology, the fruit of our self-actualizing ingenuity, will save us from our own vices. The belief is both an acknowledgment that we need saving and a wish to be saved. Yet in clinging to this belief, we are renouncing our potential and our responsibility to save ourselves. . . . Ultimately, people govern technology.”

Henry Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University–East Bay. He is first vice president of the AAUP, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and chair of the AAUP Foundation. His e-mail address is [email protected].