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Bursting the Technocrat Bubble

By: Ryan Shinkel
December 18, 2015

ow can technology improve the lives of the world’s poorest people? What, realistically, should we hope for it to accomplish? In 2005 Kentaro Toyama, a computer scientist now teaching at the University of Michigan School of Information, co-founded Microsoft Research India to sort out these questions. The results proved sobering. In Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Toyama rejects blithe optimism about technology’s social benefits. The scientism Toyama critiques does indeed call our technical and moral capabilities into question, but also affects and undermines his alternative to technological utopias.

According to a widely shared dream, every social problem can and eventually will yield to a technological solution. Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, for example, believe we can best improve the global quality of life by dramatically expanding and accelerating techno-based connectivity. Rural “telecenters,” for example, are frequently celebrated as an encouraging innovation. Wikipedia defines them as public places “where people can access computers, the Internet, and other digital technologies that enable them to gather information, create, learn, and communicate with others while they develop essential digital skills.” Toyama finds, however, that although telecenters provide villages and slums access to information about better healthcare, education, and agriculture, customers “saw little value in impersonal medical advice, teacher-less learning, or academic papers about agronomy.” The oft praised “Digital Green” project, for example, uses how-to videos about better agricultural practices to supplement teaching sessions conducted throughout 10,000 Indian villages. Toyama believes technology may enhance qualities necessary for progress, but can neither substitute for nor generate them. The main factor in Digital Green’s success was that its researchers, implementers, and beneficiaries had the raw materials of “intrinsic growth”—laudable aspirations, discernment, and self-discipline.

Toyama explains why telecenters fail and Digital Green succeeds with his “Law of Amplification.” Heavy, uncritical reliance on technology is a type of “packaged intervention,” which he defines as an “easily replicable partial solution meant to address a social problem.” New technologies often amplify pre-technological human patterns—things happen faster and on a bigger scale—but are no substitute for the intrinsic growth of individuals and institutions.

Why have we relied on packaged interventions when diagnosing and addressing social ills? Toyama blames our technocratic culture, but mischaracterizes the danger of neglecting internal progress and relying on packaged interventions. Yes, the disproportionate role of economics in moral and political deliberation elevates transactional efficiency over human flourishing. But one can avoid this problem if social science and moral philosophy inform each other. Moral philosophy aspires to a comprehensive statement of the ends social science can help pursue. Toyama acts as though they are mutually exclusive.

This false dichotomy is due to a larger error. Toyama argues that classical and Christian traditions centered politics on personal virtue, while Enlightenment thinkers believed external progress was “desirable and systematically achievable” through developments in science and technology, democracy, property rights, and markets. While the Enlightenment served its purpose, scientific progress is an unsustainable faith. For Toyama, this inherited idea of external progress precludes the internal growth we urgently need.

But Toyama errs by assuming something similar to what Herbert Butterfield called “the Whiggish Interpretation of history”—a narrative about the Enlightenment that exalts the era’s achievements in order to disparage the less “progressive” past. This assumption leads him to omit the fused tradition of Hellenic philosophy and Christianity from consideration as a viable source of intrinsic growth. He overlooks how Christianity invented the individual, first as a moral category, in that each conscience is equal before God’s judgement, which led to its establishment as a political category, when equality before God translated into the truth that all are equally free under the law. As Larry Siedentop has demonstrated, this millennium-long process eroded the ancient pagan belief in natural inequality. Western Classical liberalism shows that the intrinsic growth of individuals and societies preceded a belief in external and scientific progress.

By neglecting our inherited traditions of intrinsic growth, Toyama repeats the cult of technology’s error. Both assume that we can reconstruct everything, rather than cautiously reform and improve inherited cultural traditions and institutions. Friedrich Hayek, in The Fatal Conceit (1988), claimed that economists believed morality could be remade afresh—rationalized—a conceit that prevented them from grasping how civilizations develop through the evolution of traditions that sustain our morality, the basis for material improvements.

Toyama, who trusts changes guided and constantly adjusted by civil society and local institutions more than technocratic management of packaged interventions, should be sympathetic to this concern. But his alternative to packaged interventions is for nurturing institutions to develop individuals, such as by funding new schools with good teachers instead of donating superfluous computers. This common sense innovation does not really require his new narrative, and his solution will work only to the sense that is informed by robust moral traditions, rather than the sort of thin, vague aspirations that lead to the building of telecenters.

Toyama’s account, though worthwhile, is marred by its reliance on secular, modern liberal premises. He would do well to consider the late Robert Fogel’s historical argument that religious revivals, following periods of great inequality, have catalyzed political and social reforms—the First Great Awakening promoted the rights of man, the Second abolished slavery, and the Third built new civil associations as well as motivated progressive reforms and the later Civil Rights Movement. These past American cycles of inequality, revival, and reform evidence a need for our religious traditions to ameliorate social capital inequality that technology amplifies. Here, Toyama can bridge the divide between the secular and the religious by considering an old idea—that Judean-Christian religious and moral traditions, which incorporated the classical ethics, are best suited to rebuilding social capital and reinterpreting equality for the modern age.

The cult of technology’s fatal error is assuming reason creates morality, rather than seeing morality as developed through moral and religious traditions and institutions. By slighting the sources and development of these moral understandings, Toyama’s argument against the cult of technology is less revolutionary than it seems. In Geek Heresy he describes himself as a “recovering technoholic,” but this recovery has more steps to go.