Models, Replicability, and Getting to Scale

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Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer from Ruleville, MS speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington, September 17, 1965, after the House of Representatives rejected a challenge to the 1964 election of five Mississippi representatives. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

New Orleans    Talking on KABF’s Wade’s World to Kentaro Toyama, tech wizard, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and for now a Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, was fascinating. As we went back and forth about his stimulating, bubble-bursting book, we talked a bit about the problems of scale, much needed, but hugely difficult to achieve in social change, as well as technology, and maybe joined together, twice as hard for all I know. This is something that Toyama is still spending a good chunk of time thinking about and researching now as well, and he was he was spot on in calling me out as well for having spent decades on the practical problems of achieving scale in community and labor organizing.

Toyama might call it something different, but the problem and potential starts very simply, though many might both disagree and ignore this, by looking backwards. To get to scale something has to be replicable. To be replicable it has to work. To work in many places there has to be a model. If it isn’t replicable, it may be an innovation, it may be a revelation, it may be the best thing since slice bread in whatever field of endeavor, but whatever “it” may be, no matter how wonderful, it’s not a model.

Not to get off on a tangent, but it is amazing how many people stumble right at the gate and blur the distinctions by referring to one-off experiences as a model even though they have not been duplicated and perhaps are unable to be duplicated. A sure sign is in the “secret sauce.” If it’s a secret, it’s not a sauce easily cooked by others, so it may be amazing, award winning, and game changing, but it is not a model, and it will live – and die – right where it was born in all likelihood no matter the ingredients.

Organizing is an amazingly creative and courageous affair for many. I’m now reading a book about the civil rights organizing in Sunflower County in the heart of the Mississippi Delta being done by SNCC and Mississippi Summer workers in the early and mid-1960’s, which is always inspiring. Having spent time there over the years, where my grandparents lived and my mother and her brothers were born and raised, all of the little, similarly sized towns would seem about the same to someone just driving through, and most would just step on the gas and be done with it. Ruleville though was a hot bed of organizing, while Drew, only a few miles down the road, was a wasteland. The organizers were the same, their approach, their canvassing, their issues, and their campaign was all about the same, but there was never what might be called a model, because with replicability in an organizing model, there also has to be a high level of predictable success within acceptable ranges. Ruleville turned out to have a different economic base allowing more membership protection. Ruleville also had Fannie Lou Hamer, an exceptional, unique leader to keep the fight welded together and sustain the momentum. Leadership is central in all effective organizing models, but for a model to work it has to depend on standard off-the-shelf, garden variety leadership – and organizers – within the range of normal human capabilities, rather than unique one of a kind leaders like Hamer or organizers like Bob Moses.

There have to be resources, there has to be sustainability, and there even has to be a reasonable expectation of success in widely different situations and environments before there is a model. Too many simply think if something worked well one place, it’s just add-water-and-stir, put in more, and wham-bam, there will be more, but even before we cross the bridge in creating social change to scale and the myriad challenges and obstacles that lie on that road, if there’s not a real model as the foundation, none of us will be able to get there from here.

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Popping the Bubble on Tech Utopians and the Law of Amplification

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy, with his 10-year-old Nokia phone. (Erynn Rose photo)

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy, with his 10-year-old Nokia phone. (Erynn Rose photo)

New Orleans    Every once in a blue moon there is a piercing needle that bursts the bubble of hucksterism, no matter how well-intentioned, and brings its wild claims based on hope and hustle down to the hard ground of reality. In this case, the sound of the pop is louder because the sharp points are delivered from an insider, Kentaro Toyama, a tech company veteran with the years in grade and degrees to prove it, in his book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Right from the title, I knew this was a book worth reading, and Toyama delivered time and time again. Spoiler’s alert: it’s one thing when working stiff organizers points out that the tech emperors of our times are naked as the day is long, day in, day out, but when it’s the geek speaking the heresy to comrades in wealth and power, its rich with the flavor of truth and justice.

The backstory on Toyama is that he started on the path of Silicon Valley privilege with the degrees from Harvard and Yale and the big job at Microsoft and all was going swell. Then he was recruited to go with a respected and senior colleague to open up the Microsoft research center in Bengaluru. They did this and that, and he was responsible for some bit of gee whiz niftiness, but there was a problem. Rather than being the usual LED screen potted plant, he had tried teaching calculus in Ghana before going total geek, and though he didn’t go native in India, he did actually visit the schools where they were working and take a good look. Worse for many other sacred cows of international development and research from microfinance to high flying randomistas, like the widely touted Poverty Lab, who argue for data and metrics as the benchmarks for all development work, he actually went into the field, met the folks, and dug deeper, and despite preambles full of praise for the big whoops, his bubble bursting is categorical and indisputable.

Not because Toyama and Geek Heresy are on a mission of destruction and global depression, but because he is a realist unable to become a true believer of the utopian claims of the modern day tech babblers. He just can’t help saying what he’s seen on the ground. He argues for what he calls the Law of Amplification as an antidote to the utopian claims. In plain English, his law holds that nothing will change just because of technology if the necessary support system of people, training, resources, and infrastructure are not in place to take advantage of the technology. To organizers on the ground, this is so obvious that it should be gospel, but from the partnership of Silicon Valley and Wall Street is so powerfully steering the hype machine, that it’s hard not to drink their Kool-Aid.

Toyama has spit it out though. His examples are endless, but time and time they are of the kind that gently points out that cars are great inventions, but without roads, gas, or people who are taught how to drive, they really won’t get you too far. Tools are really just tools, no matter how high faluting. We all know this, but still have to sometimes catch ourselves and stop from nodding about the outrageous claims for computers, the internet, Twitter, Facebook, and the like, all of which are wonderful, but none of which can change the world without “amplification,” roads, gas, drivers and the like. Microfinance, as we have pointed out repeatedly is not the silver bullet to end poverty, and Toyama is devastating on this as well. He also takes down the data freaks and randomistas worshipping at the altar of testing and metrics, by reminding that the local partners with years of experience, staffing, resources, and pure and simple competency essentially have their fingers weighing heavily on every measuring scale. He introduces another law, the Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules, which heartbreakingly points out that “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero,” which before any of you jump off the cliff is a helpful reminder that because something works well locally or in one context, does not mean that it will automatically work well when scaled up in others. Wisely, Toyama also pops the pretense of philanthropists who claim one-and-done to a grant as if that ensures success rather than failure as it goes to scale.

As an organizer often in the field, whether India, Kenya, Houston, or Little Rock, who sits side-by-side with brilliant, caring, courageous organizers trying to “amplify” their ability to make the computer a tool, rather than a paperweight, access the internet despite the cost, technical, and training barriers, and do simple research, organizing math, and other tasks for our members, it was great to be Toyama’s partner page to page with the truth that you find under your feet, no matter the sugar plums being fed daily to your brain.

There’s no substitute for doing the real work. Praise be to the heretics, like Toyama, who can speak truth to tech power, and who, wonderfully, still believe in and are committed to social change. Don’t let his voice be unheard!

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