Beyond technology

The digital revolution is no substitute for human capabilities when it comes to driving widespread social change, writes Kentaro Toyama

Between 2004 and 2010, I spent most of my waking life working on projects at Microsoft Research India, in which the goal was to see how digital technologies could support socio-economic development.

Together with an interdisciplinary team of researchers, we tried more than 50 different projects: personal computers with multiple mice so that many children could interact with a single machine; mobile video as a way to deliver healthcare information to mothers in rural villages; SMS messaging systems as a way to help agricultural cooperatives communicate with farmers – and on and on.

We used good principles of design. We immersed ourselves in the lives of potential users. We designed prototypes with them, seeking their input at every step. We considered the economics of our solutions, keeping in mind the hidden costs of technology. And we tested our solutions with scientific methods.

But when I looked back across all of our projects, I discovered that it was rarely the technology that separated the successes from the failures. Of course, bad technology rarely led to good outcomes – but even well-designed technology was no guarantee of positive change.

In fact, when I searched for the qualities that made impactful projects impactful, they were all about good people: the dedication of the project team, the good intentions of relevant officials and the capacity of our partners. Even in a technology project, what mattered most was the heart, mind, and will of the people involved, not the technology itself.

In an age of digital miracles, it’s easy to believe that technology will solve complex social problems like poverty, injustice and oppression. A laptop per child could boost basic education. Telemedicine could provide the best medical care to remote patients. Social media could bring people together. But while all of these ‘coulds’ illustrate the potential of technology, they are poor representations of reality.

Even the best-designed technology is not a substitute for positive human intentions and capabilitiesRigorous studies show that on average, students provided with free laptops – at home, or at school – show no improvement in grades, test scores, school attendance or overall discipline compared to students without. Medicine at a distance inevitably runs into economic challenges: why would doctors in the city serve people in far-flung areas who typically can’t pay the high fees urban hospitals command? And whatever can be said of social media, it doesn’t appear to be bringing peace across deep political or religious divides. There are now 1.4 billion Facebook users in the world and over 7 billion mobile phone accounts, more than the global human population. Yet conflict continues and, in many places, it appears to be intensifying.

This is true even in locations where technology is advanced. I live in the US where everyone watches YouTube and it’s not rare to see children with their own iPhones. Over the past four decades, America has given birth to many incredible technologies. Yet, during that same period the country’s rate of poverty stagnated at about 12 to 13 per cent – growing higher since the 2007-2008 recession; its citizens became more politically polarised; and inequality climbed to record highs.

In other words, a golden age of technology did not catalyse a golden age of social progress.

My experiences with technology-for-social-change projects have led me to a theory of technology and society that I call the Law of Amplification: that technology’s primary effect is to amplify underlying human forces.

Thus, even the best-designed technology is not a substitute for positive human intentions and capabilities. Laptops are helpful in education where there are capable teachers and caring administrators. Health IT improves healthcare systems that are already well-run. And people connect online with the same people they would connect with offline.

The unfortunate consequence of the Law of Amplification is that technology alone doesn’t fix broken institutions or heal social rifts. It requires a base of positive human forces to amplify.

But amplification also leads to clear recommendations for action. First, we should dispense with ideas that more technology in and of itself will bring widespread social change. Projects whose primary goal is to spread more technology typically fail to attain more meaningful outcomes, whether in health, education, or governance.

Second, the impact of meaningful work can be amplified. For anyone hoping to apply technology to social causes, the best approach is to find excellent partners and amplify their efforts. Good schools can benefit from good technology; capable nonprofits can raise more funds via online campaigns; and citizen groups working toward peace could expand their reach through social media.

Third, for economic growth, it’s far better to be a technology producer than a technology consumer. When someone buys an iPad, it’s not the buyer, but the shareholders and employees of Apple who grow richer. Apple’s technology effectively amplifies its ability to achieve its goals – to transfer wealth from its customers to itself. In the world of consumer technologies, technology creators are the ones who see economic growth for the most part, not customers.

Lastly, amplification implies that in a world full of digital devices, what is most important is to nurture better human intention and more human capacity, with or without gadgets. The march of technology will undoubtedly continue, but it will require good, capable people to put it to positive ends.

About the writer

Kentaro Toyama is W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information and author of ‘Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology