Author: Tech Firms' Rhetoric Outpaces The Actual Good They Do
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to Kentaro Toyama, an award-winning computer scientist who teaches at the University of Michigan. Now, he argues in his book "Geek Heresy" that there's a misplaced belief in the transformative power of technology. And Toyama is skeptical about stories that present technology projects as major solutions for developing countries.
KENTARO TOYAMA: So I think one of the things to be aware of with most of these projects is that what they're doing is helping a relatively well-educated elite in the developing world plug into an elite industry in the developed world but in no way addresses the far deeper inequalities within those countries.
So for example, in Nigeria, you know, there's a country with 170 million people, most of whom earn, you know, relatively very small amounts of money. I mean, even if 100,000 of them became software developers in the United States, that's a small drop in the bucket. It's not even 1 percent.
CORNISH: You argue also that technology promised solutions to some global problems it couldn't keep. Can you give some examples of that?
TOYAMA: Sure. There's many examples. Probably the best-known one is a project called One Laptop per Child. This was founded by Nicholas Negroponte who was a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab. And his idea was that in so many places in the world, education is in shambles, and so the solution is a low-cost laptop for children. He would insist that it wasn't a laptop project as much as it was an education project. And I think in that case, it was exactly the opposite. It was in fact a laptop project. The problem with these projects is that in and of themselves, the technology doesn't actually provide the education. You still need very good adult guidance.
CORNISH: For you, why does technology tend to fall short of delivering on social change?
TOYAMA: Well, I do think they change the world in some way. The question is whether they're really causing some kind of social progress of the kind that we would be interested in, whether it's alleviation of poverty or the reduction in inequality. In the United States, we've seen a golden age of digital technology and innovation over the last four decades. But during that same span of time, the rate of poverty has actually only increased. Inequality has skyrocketed, and social mobility has stagnated. So that suggests that without something else also being tended to, technology by itself simply does not address these problems.
CORNISH: Where is Silicon Valley itself in all this? I mean, is there truly any kind of commitment in this direction, or are these kind of one-offs, business opportunities?
TOYAMA: On the whole, I would say at this point that Silicon Valley's movement, at best, is rhetoric, and the worst case is, it's largely a way for companies to increase shareholder value by claiming to address a societal problem but in fact really working only at the margins at best.
CORNISH: Kentaro Toyama, before you leave us, how would you like people to start thinking about this differently?
TOYAMA: Well, if you believe that technology is a tool that amplifies what human forces already exist, then the more technology we have, it's all the more important that we focus on the human forces and making sure that those are right. It's a little bit like the engine in your car. The more powerful the engine, the more important it is that the person behind the wheel knows where they're going and knows how to drive well.
CORNISH: Kentaro Toyama, thank you so much for speaking with us.
TOYAMA: Thank you very much.
CORNISH: Kentaro Toyama - he's author of the book "Geek Heresy." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.