Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Geek Heresy

I recently read a book called Geek Heresy, whose central thesis is that often we in the development field get too caught up in trying to invent and implement technical solutions to problems that are at root social, cultural, political, or economic.  In other words, we try to fix problems that technology can't solve by throwing better technology at them.  Beyond not being effective, technology inherently amplifies whatever prevailing dynamic exists in a situation.  So if there's lots of inequality, more technology will lead to more inequality.  If you've got an effective school or hospital system, more technology will make it more effective.  If a government is oppressive, more technology will broaden its oppressive reach.

The author, Kentaro Toyama, expands his thesis to encompass not just technology per se, but any kind of "packaged intervention" that attempts to inject one standardized technical response to problems in diverse contexts where the nuances of each individual context are in fact more important contributors to the problem than are any single technical barrier. 

I liked the book a lot.  It put into succinct words something that I've long felt but wasn't able to describe myself.  My unease with a focus on standardized indicators to measure development progress, with the concept of "scaling up" a given innovation, all of this unease is pretty well captured by Toyama.  A really useful idea he puts forth explains the recurring conundrum of a given technical approach working very well at a pilot level, but then floundering when it's scaled up to thousands or millions of people.  According to Toyama, the frequent success of a pilot phase has more to do with the fact that the staff and the participants in a pilot intervention tend to be very skilled and very motivated.  It's easy to make anything work under these conditions.  However, the jump to making the intervention work with less motivated, run-of-the-mill bureaucrats or employees is a lot more difficult.  They aren't the best of the best, they aren't inspired by participating in a novel pilot, and they can't cherry-pick beneficiaries that will give good results.  When it's just normal, flawed people doing their job with normal, flawed beneficiaries, it's a lot harder to make anything stick, no matter how good of an idea it was to begin with.

Another useful nugget Toyama offers are his Tech Commandments.  These are an ironic setting-forth of the laws and even the epistemological or ontological tenets that underlie the type of tech-worshipping development work that Toyama is criticizing.  Here they are, with explanations either from me or directly from Toyama's text:
  • Measurement over meaning--it's most important to be able to measure something, even if what you're measuring isn't ultimately important or what is ultimately important is not measurable
  • Quantity over quality--if you can't quantify something, it doesn't matter
  • Ultimate goals over root causes--"focus narrowly on the end goal to ensure success", and don't let complicated reality and complex, intertwined causes get in your way
  • Destinationism over path dependency--"Ignore history and context, and take a single hop to the destination"
  • External circumstances matter most; internal change of people and systems is impossible or too difficult to pursue
  • Innovation over tried-and-true--this is a pet peeve of mine, where we go for anything new because it's more interesting than boring old methods that have worked well for decades
  • Intelligence over wisdom--"Maximize cleverness and creativity, not mundane effort.  Use intelligence and talent to justify arrogance, selfishness, immaturity, and rankism".  I have referred to this in my take on Steve Jobs, and in the recent article about our new entrenched class-based meritocracy.
  • Value neutrality over value engagement--don't think about values or ethics, just be "neutral" (code for favoring the status quo arrangements of power and worth)
  • Individualism over collectivism--Go for competition in everything, and be suspicious of cooperation.  "Any inhibition of individual expression, including compromise to support the common good, is the same as oppression".
  • Freedom over responsibility--"Encourage more choices; discourage discernment in choosing.  Any temperance of liberty, including encouragement of responsbility, is tantamount to tyranny"
All of these really resonated with me.  In my career in economic development, and simply as a participant and spectator in US politics and world events, I have seen at play much of the hubris, lack of nuance, and unwillingness to understand or even acknowledge complexity, that Toyama lays out here in his Tech Commandments.

So I liked the book.  That said, I don't know if it offered me many new insights.  I already agreed with most of Toyama's arguments, even before reading the book and hearing them from him.  More importantly, Toyama doesn't offer many concrete recommendations in terms of getting away from the sort of tech-centered, packaged innovation approach he so deftly criticizes.  He calls for more humility in development workers, more willingness to engage as peers and equals with the beneficiaries or clients of development interventions, and a more iterative, context-aware approach.  In other words, Toyama simply says we should be practicing good development as it's currently defined by a large swath of academia and practitioners--development that's sustainable, locally-driven, and adaptive.  Thus Toyama's criticisms are a lot more insightful and novel than his positive recommendations. 

Toyama summarizes his recommended approach (which he calls Intrinsic Growth) in terms of Heart, Mind, and Will, or put differently, Good Intention, Discernment, and Self-Control, both for implementers and for beneficiaries.  I understand these to mean that you should have good values to promote the greater good, you should approach your work in an intelligent and insightful way, and you should stick with it to see it through.  These are so obvious as to seem trite, though admittedly we in development often don't live up to these values, especially the last one of sticking with something beyond your three- or five-year funding and evaluation cycles.  But I don't know how useful Toyama's analysis is in this part, which takes up the latter half of his book.  In fact, at times Toyama's trinity of Heart, Mind, and Will, while on the surface sage advice, can border on a cruel, conservative justification for why poor or violent or dysfunctional communities are the way they are.  They just aren't moral, or smart, or determined enough.  Nevermind an objective lack of money or other resources, entrenched inequality, or oppressive and exclusionary political arrangements.  Just get yourself some Heart, Mind, and Will and you'll all be cool.  And if not, it was all your fault anyway.  I know Toyama doesn't mean to argue this, but the logical implications of his arguments can at times be read this way.

At any rate, I would recommend Toyama's book for anyone involved in international or local development processes.  For those of us already convinced of his arguments, the book offers a succinct, very cogent and lucid set of arguments in favor of a more human-focused, less tech-centered approach to development.  And for those of us who are currently more tech-centered than we probably should be, Toyama might help us to temper some of our base instincts so that we can do more effective development work.

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