WASHINGTON - Kentaro Toyama always knew what he wanted to do for a living. And in 2004, he was lucky enough to be doing just that: working as a lead technology developer at Microsoft.
“I grew up thinking I would always become a scientist or an engineer,” Toyama said. “I grew up with the biographies of Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein, thinking that it was science and technology that would make the world a better place.”
But the Harvard and Yale-educated computer scientist said there was still something missing in his life.
“I just felt that it was one thing to develop interesting technologies for people who could afford it, but I really wanted to have a different kind of social impact. India seemed a perfect place to do that,” he said.
Toyama traveled to India to observe first-hand how technologies like computers and the Internet could be used to improve the lives of the many millions of Indians who subsist on little more than a few dollars a day.
That was in 2004.
And for a little over five years, Toyama oversaw around 50 pilot projects that introduced technology to poor, rural regions to help better education, the environment, agriculture, and medical care.
Made things worse
What he found over those years, he said, was not what the engineer who believed technology makes the world a better place was expecting to find.
“There were times technology helped improve people’s lives, but just as many where not only didn’t it help, it actually made things worse,” he told VOA.
Now a “recovering technoholic,” Toyama has pulled together his experiences in India to draw lessons about what works and what doesn’t in the just-published book “Geek Heresy: Rescuing Societal Change From the Cult of Technology.”
Looking back, Toyama says the key to successful projects which improved people’s lives wasn’t so much the machines used, but the men and women on hand to use and run them.
“A computer doesn’t make a classroom better just by being there,” he said. “Sometimes it actually makes it worse.”
For example, Toyama recalls bringing a new piece of technology – a computer-powered overhead projector – into one classroom in a rural village where most residents were barely scratching out a subsistence living. Toyama thought integrating images to underscore the student’s lessons would help speed learning and recognition. But, he said, the teacher and the technology were not up to the task.
“Initially he couldn’t get the projector to work, so he started fumbling around with equipment,” he said. “After several minutes I thought I should jump in and help, because class time was being wasted.
“We ended up having to find power from another outlet, and then rebooting the computer,” Toyama said. “By the time we got everything up and running, we were half-way through a forty-five minute class, effectively having wasted half the class time just to get the technology to work.”
Law of Amplification
This led Toyama to what he calls the “Law of Amplification.” Simply put, technologies such as a computer in a medical clinic or the Internet in a classroom aren’t inherently good or bad. Rather, they serve to focus and amplify the underlying strengths and weaknesses on hand in the specific setting.
“Technology amplifies underlying human forces,” he said. “So where those forces are capable and positive, technology can augment that. But it also means that technology doesn’t help much in cases where the human institutions are either dysfunctional or corrupt.”
What Toyama and his colleagues found is that as they rolled out projects in schools, for example, technology did provide a measureable benefit in those settings that already had good teachers and adequate resources on hand.
But for schools that needed the most help, where perhaps teachers weren’t confident in their technical skills or the classrooms suffered for lack of books, technology only amplified the situational weaknesses, making things worse for everyone.
“That’s the heresy of this book,” Toyama said. “You can think of a geek as someone who makes a fetish of technological solutions. The heresy is that technology has limits in the kinds of problems it can solve. Specifically, it’s not a solution to very deep, persistent social challenges.”
For years, many in Silicon Valley and the larger tech community have extolled the benefits of technology in near utopian terms.
Google chairman Steve Schmidt, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, and Bill Gates – who became the richest man in the world through Microsoft – all have spoken frequently of the need to increase access to technology in classrooms, medical offices and small businesses around the world.
But Toyama says in order to be effective, the technology must match the conditions where it’s deployed.
“There was one instance in which we tried to replace a system of networked computers that a sugar cane cooperative was using in rural India outside of Bombay,” he recalled. “It turned out the system was being eaten up by rats and they were housed in these leaky fertilizer sheds and so forth.”
“We said, ‘well thanks to mobile phones we can actually replace this costly system of PCs with simple mobile phones,’” he said. “And we showed that farmers actually liked this better, because farmers could get results more quickly through their own phones.”
Unfortunately, this success was ultimately undercut by a political rivalry between those who championed using mobile phones and leaders of the cooperative. That, said Toyama, was a perfect example of how even productive technologies can be undercut by larger social weaknesses.