Geek Heresy

For various reasons I’ve had a lot of time to read recently, and I’ve just been given a book by an old friend. It’s called Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology by Kentaro Toyama. And despite being a little long-winded, I think it’s worth reading.

The main argument of the book is that technological solutions to social problems don’t work, or at least not on their own. Toyama cites many examples, from the well-known ‘One Laptop per Child’ initiative and the many schemes aimed at helping sub-Saharan subsistence farms through mobile technology, to countless smaller initiatives. While pilots often work, and may show good results, these solutions generally don’t scale, and in some cases end up generating further downstream problems for the communities they are intended to help.

For Toyoma, the reason is that these are ‘packaged’ initiatives; cookie-cutter solutions which work when supported by eager researchers keen to prove their thesis in a pilot study, but which do not deliver when such supporting infrastructures are not present. Context is all-important. Technology may amplify prevailing social trends, but it doesn’t change them.

His solution for effective social change is, rather, a much longer-term people- and person- centric model, based around mentorship, community engagement and support, and encouragement of local personal development. If a packaged piece of technology helps with that, fine, but it isn’t the point. Don’t use technology for its own sake.

Now this may seem pretty obvious to many of us, and we at Sollis discovered many years ago that our solutions often weren’t well used without a lot of personal engagement, coaching, support and regular contact. Yet I keep seeing adverts in the trade press for Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and more recently Internet of Things technologies, which suggest they will ‘fix healthcare’ or at least make a huge difference.

The message from Geek Heresy is that they won’t – or at least, not on their own, and not without a lot of thoughtful effort by many knowledgeable and engaged people over a considerable time. There are no quick technological fixes.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t a role for technology solutions, but they need to be selected carefully and applied with care, within the context of a lot of other work, including changes to individual mindsets, process and practice. And we will often need to look for benefits over a longer timeframe than is common.

If we can learn some of these lessons, then we may just get there.