The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He was certain technology would save the world. Here’s what changed his mind.

Firsthand experiences in India taught Kentaro Toyama that the digital revolution isn’t the solution to creating social change. (Euan Rocha/Reuters)

For a long time Kentaro Toyama was a believer in technological utopianism. He studied physics at Harvard and earned a PhD in computer science at Yale. Toyama went on to do research at Microsoft. The work was demanding, but something was missing.

“At the end of the day, I was helping to make better gadgets for wealthy people who could afford to play video games,” Toyama told me.

In 2004, when his boss asked if he was interested in opening a research center in India, Toyama accepted on the spot. He’d never even been to India. But he was hungry to make more of a direct contribution to society.

Here was the chance to sprinkle tech fairy dust on a developing nation and watch success after success.

Except it didn’t play out like that.

Toyama spent five years in India with a team of about 10 and hatched about 50 projects. He found the projects that had a real social impact were ones in which he worked with capable organizations that were committed to their mission.

Good schools with strong administrators were places where successes happened. But if he was working with an incapable nonprofit or corrupt organization, it didn’t matter how good his technology was.

Toyama recalled going into a school to watch a teacher use some technology his team had created. The teacher struggled to get his computer running. He had to reboot the machine and find a different electrical outlet. Soon 20 minutes of a 40-minute class were wasted.

“I saw this sort of thing happen over and over and over where the technology worked as advertised, and we could even do research on it that showed in certain conditions it outperformed not having the technology,” Toyama said. “But those special conditions in which it worked, turned out to be exactly what was missing in those places that we wanted to roll it out in.”

Toyama arrived hoping to unleash his team’s technologies in places where teachers were apathetic, where headmasters weren’t focused on education and students were facing social challenges outside school. But the technology couldn’t rise above those environments.

The humans mattered a lot more than the technology, he found.

Toyama settled on a new view of technology. It’s an amplifier of human intentions, not a cure-all for human problems. For technology to be a part of positive change, the environment it enters must already be moving in the right direction.

Toyama, who is now a professor at the University of Michigan, details his personal journey and findings in his new book “Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.”

Toyama spent a year just taking notes and thinking about the book. Then another year writing a first draft. Then three years finding a publisher. Encouraged to make it less wonky and more of a narrative, he spent another year rewriting it.

The result is a deeply researched and insightful look at the nature of technology and its limitations to change our world for the better.

He’s quick to point out the contradictions that are rife in technology. It’s more than just guys like Steve Jobs keeping their kids away from iPads. Governments praise technology as a promoter of human rights, while using those same technologies to spy on citizens in new ways.

He calls out Silicon Valley executives for praising technology’s merits, while some send their children to schools that ban electronics.

He notes how Thomas Edison thought the motion picture would revolutionize our education system.

“Television was supposed to uplift millions,” Toyama writes. “Instead, millions sit in thrall to the Kardashians.”

Technology is said to educate the masses, but hand a kid a smartphone and they will likely play Angry Birds, not open up an educational app. Even as the Internet has spread across the United States, the poverty rate remains unchanged.

Toyama believes it’s foolish to think education is about having content available to study.

“The fundamental problem of education is not content, it’s motivation. You have to find a way to help productively direct the motivation of the student,” Toyama said. “The idea that they can do this just because we have fed it to them online possibly through some fancy interactive graphic I think is just a crazy notion.”

He sees attempts by Google and Facebook to spread Internet access around world as misguided. Giving the Internet to someone who doesn’t have vaccinations or clean water isn’t going to make them wealthier.

“The effort and the cost of doing that for the sake of helping those people would be much better served if we provided more basic things,” Toyama said. “It’s very clear that they have other motives as well. Whether or not they’re philanthropic ideas. In the case of Facebook, this is a company that will casually buy a company like WhatsApp for $19 billion because their calculation is that’s $50 an eyeball, that’s not so much. Of course they will happily provide Facebook and a few other Internet things for more users.”

Now after spending so many years on the book, what’s next for Toyama? He tells me he’s interested in using unwise behaviors as ways to encourage better habits. For example, what if a low-income person is given a lottery ticket every time he or she deposits a certain amount of money in a savings account? That might be an effective way to use the inclination to believe in luck to teach the value of saving money.