If a company has a problem with, say, a sales force that is chronically unaware of the latest findings from the research division, its managers might turn to technology to promote better communication between the departments. But that’s missing the point, says Kentaro Toyama, an associate professor of community information at the University of Michigan School of Information. Toyama calls himself a “recovering technoholic” who once believed technology was the answer to almost every problem in the world. Now he is trying to spread the word that the more technology we have at our disposal, the more we need human skills, both to solve problems and to use all this technology effectively.
In his new book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology (PublicAffairs, 2015), Toyama describes how his world view evolved. After earning a B.S. in physics from Harvard and a Ph.D. in computer science from Yale, Toyama went to work for Microsoft and became a cofounder of Microsoft Research India. Working in India from 2005 to 2009, he found it was impossible to achieve the goal of getting a computer into every classroom except in the schools that already had conscientious administrators and good teachers, not to mention reliable power supplies — in short, the schools where the students were already privileged.
Toyama, who is also a fellow at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics & Transformative Values at MIT, has observed a similar pattern in the corporate world: Technology works best in organizations that are run well to begin with. He spoke recently withstrategy+business about his research into what he calls the crossroads between technology and human development.
What are we getting wrong when we try to tap into the power of technology?
Think about technology as the engine of a car, and society as the driver. In many cases, we’re trying to build a faster and faster engine without paying attention to whether the driver knows where the car is going. This is what happens, for example, when we embrace the belief that using technology for global communication can create greater understanding among people. The idea that the Internet will help authoritarian societies become more democratic comes from a Western belief that the Internet is going to look the same everywhere. But the fact is, the Internet looks completely different in authoritarian societies. North Korea, for example, built its own Internet — isolated and disconnected from the rest of the world except through a small portal that effectively only government officials can access. And of course, when people do use the Internet to spread ideas, it isn’t always the ideas we in the West like. Look at the way organizations like ISIS use it as a recruitment tool.
The technology industry itself has perpetuated the idea that technology will solve the world’s problems. I think it’s an overstatement when [Google executive chairman and former CEO] Eric Schmidt tells people that thanks to technology, no country can remain isolated. Everyone wants to believe the work they do is good for society. But a lot of people in the industry have drunk a little too much of their own marketing Kool-Aid.
The reality is that powerful technologies will work in exactly the direction we point them in. Almost paradoxically, as more technology becomes available, human judgment and wisdom matter more.