If you build it, it doesn't matter: Author Kentaro Toyama throws cold water on tech utopias

The author of Geek Heresy crashed the EFF with a simple thesis: Technology doesn't drive social change

By Dan Raile , written on July 13, 2015

From The Odd Futurism Desk

San Francisco, Wednesday. 

On the third floor of the Electronic Frontier Foundation offices in San Francisco, a few dozen attendees -- representing the payrolls of a number of Silicon Valley concerns, along with cyber-libertarians of various synthetic hair-colors -- gathered for an hourlong presentation and discussion of a newly published tome: Geek Heresy: Saving Social Change from the Cult of Technology.

The book is an examination of ICT4D, which is neither a new Star Wars character nor an exotic psychoactive substance but a field of academic and commercial research, standing for Information and Communication Technologies for Development.

Geek Heresy’s author, Kentaro Toyama, is a computer science academic and a founding executive of Microsoft Research India. He’s a ten year veteran of corporate ICT4D efforts, and his experience has furnished him with a message to those who believe technology is a driver of social change: It isn’t.

The renegade futurist arrived at the EFF conclave with books to sell and armed with a thesis:

“Technology amplifies underlying social forces. It does not have a net additive effect,” he said.

Weilding this discursive tool, Toyama went about poking holes in Facebook’s campaign in India, Hillary Clinton’s longstanding support of technology as ‘democratizing’ and a ‘leveler”, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s efforts to improve schooling outcomes with iPads.

He paid special polemical attention to Facebook and

“Facebook is an advanced technology that harvests human energy to feed itself and provides humans the illusion that they are having a pleasant life,” Toyama said. “It’s only a difference of degree between Facebook and the Matrix.

“ is part of the growth division at Facebook, and is really only concerned with how many more people are going to be on Facebook. It’s neocolonial, exploiting under the guise of helping. And it’s not going to matter for anybody. It’s not going to lead to sudden improvement in wealth, education or health care.”

Toyama has less invective for the Google Access team, to whom he recently made a similar presentation.

"I did a [email protected] talk at Google," Toyama said by email, "where my host was the Access team (which works to extend Internet access to people who don't have it -- something I would say isn't worthwhile as a way to alleviate poverty, though I don't see a big problem with a private company putting in their own resources to do it; what doesn't make sense to me is public resources and attention supporting such efforts)"

This last assessment might seem at odds with the guiding principles of the EFF, evidenced in an essay for Wired in 1993 by co-founder Mitch Kapor:

“Policy makers and business leaders need to ask themselves these key questions before committing to any one path: Who has access to the network? Is it affordable? Many basic human services transactions – in health care and social welfare for example – could be handled far more easily over a ubiquitous voice, data, and video network, saving the elderly, the infirm and young mothers with small children a trip on public transportation downtown to municipal, state and federal office buildings. But unless there is a safety net that guarantees an affordable connection, the network will further stratify society, not bring it together.”

The thrust of Toyama’s argument is that guaranteed affordable access has little social impact.

Toyama advises two vectors of praxis:

*Apply technologies to trends or organizations that are already doing the things you endeavor to do.

*Prioritize getting the human forces right. “Organizations like the EFF are critical in that they get the legal, criminal and economic forces pointing in the right direction,” he said.

Of course, the neutrality and amplification argument is an old and contentious one.

The ‘neutral tool’ argument is the principal target of Jerry Mander’s classic 1977 work “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.”

Like Toyama, Mander was a turncoat – a former advertising executive who eventually became one of that industry’s most outspoken critics. And his critique goes quite a bit further than Toyama’s.

“If you accept the existence of advertising, you accept a system designed to persuade and to dominate minds by interfering in people’s thinking patterns,” Mander writes. “You also accept that the system will be used by the sorts of people who like to influence people and are good at the basic nature of advertising and all technologies created to serve it will be consistent with this purpose, will encourage this behavior in society, and will tend to push social evolution in this direction...the basic form of the institution and the technology determines its interaction with the world, the way it will be used, the kind of people who use it, and to what ends.”

Around the same time that Mander was writing, the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum developed an essay titled “Computer Power and Human Reason,” arising from his observations of people using the ELIZA software he’d created, which allowed users to “converse” with the computer program in plain English.

Weizenbaum agreed with Toyama’s assessment that new information and communication technology had an amplificatory effect. Computers, he wrote, “merely reinforced and amplified those antecedent pressures that have driven man to an ever more highly rationalistic view of his society and an ever more mechanistic image of himself.

“Almost every genuine human dilemma is seen as a mere paradox, as a merely apparent contradiction that could be untangled by judicious applications of cold logic derived from a higher standpoint...rips in the social fabric can then be systematically repaired by the expert application of the latest information-handling techniques – at least so it is believed.”

Toyama and Weizenbaum may seem to fall into agreement about the insufficiency of technologic thinking to address big societal challenges. But whereas Toyama insists that technology itself is neutral, Weizenbaum had a very different appraisal.  

“[Tools] constitute a kind of language for the society that employs them, a language of social action...A tool gains its power from the fact that it permits certain actions and not others,” Weizenbaum wrote in 1976.

“...the twentieth century has witnessed the invention of at least a modest number of tools that do actually extend the range of action of which the society is capable. The automobile and the highway, radio and television, and modern drugs and surgical procedures immediately come to mind. These things have enabled society to articulate patterns of action that were never before possible. What is less often said, however, is that the society’s newly created ways to act often eliminate the very possibility of acting in older ways.”

According to Toyama, his research-based retelling of the “neutral tool” argument is finding sympathetic ears attached to the heads of tech industry leaders.

That may come as a surprise, but it probably shouldn’t. Mingled with his criticism of certain Silicon Valley business interests, Toyama also offered a prophesy for a stunning age of technological advancement, cautioning that its net effects depend only on who controls the emerging super tech and to what ends.  

“A couple of days ago I was at Google,” Toyama said. “With recent developments in machine learning and computer vision, I think we really are approaching the Singularity. What does that mean? I think it will be the atomic bomb of digital technology, and it will be set off within a one hundred-mile radius of San Francisco. But I believe that if this happens and is only directed at increasing shareholder value, we will be in a lot of trouble, without regulation and a policy framework.”

It’s the sort of argument that clearly activates the salivary glands of an organization like the EFF, which would carry an ensured relevance into a tech wilderness inhabited by strong, corporate Artificial Intellegence.

But Toyama also reinforces the hype of the Singularity – a belief in the imminent transcendence of computer technology into an entirely new class of being, a belief that is as cultish and Millenarian as any in vogue in Silicon Valley.  

Toyama thus issues a call to benevolence for the gatekeepers of this new technology, accompanied by a blanket, a priori assertion that the products of the corporate research laboratory are benign in and of themselves.  

His own research interests also include computer vision and machine learning; his academic work on automated video image processing was incorporated in the development of the Microsoft Kinect. He had praise for Google’s recently-launched DeepDreams program.

“It’s very cool how they’ve been able to recreate the kind of image processing that we do when we are dreaming,” he said at the EFF event.

After his presentation, I asked him whether he believed that the activities of the human mind could really be replicated and surpassed by machines.  

“Unless you believe in something supernatural, your brain is just a machine. For example, you could be an Artificial Intelligence and I wouldn’t have any way of knowing,” he responded.

Not everyone in the audience was sold on Toyama’s arguments. A man in a leather cap said he didn’t buy the neutrality claim.

“For example, I think of TOR as a technology of liberation, whereas [the NSA’s] xKeyscore is one of repression.”

Kurtis Heimerl, one of MIT Technology Review’s “35 Innovators Under 35” for 2014, objected to Toyama’s characterization of the impotence of Facebook’s efforts.

“The reality is that Facebook is used overwhelmingly in the sorts of situations you are talking about,” said Heimerl, whose company Endaga sells cellular reception base stations intended for remote and underserved populations. “For instance, among Indonesia’s poor, Facebook represents 60 percent of all internet traffic.”

Most of the crowd, however, seemed to accept the ‘neutral tool’ premise, or at least to go along with Toyama on his thought journey. Virgil tells us that the majority of Trojans were able to overcome the outspoken objections of the few in regards to what should be done about the wooden horse. Recall the tragic tale of the priest Laocoon, who was put to death by his countrymen for his attempts to uncover the Greek deceit:

"Either there are Greeks in hiding, concealed by the wood,

or it’s been built as a machine to use against our walls,

or spy on our homes, or fall on the city from above,

or it hides some other trick: Trojans, don’t trust this horse.

Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts."

Over the past few months, Toyama and his “simple theory” have been explaining technology’s role in development at whistlestops including the headquarters of Microsoft, Google, Singularity University, the United Nations, the World Bank, the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, and Oxfam.

“Technology is neither necessary or sufficient to cause revolution,” he said, calling bullshit on the idea of the Arab Spring as a “Facebook revolution.”  

As ever, the necessary and sufficient ingredients for revolution are compelling narratives and deep pockets. Beware of geeks bearing gifts.