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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Hand Collecting Dues is Very Difficult, Payroll Deductions Matter

fraternity-collection-agency-320x179Frankfurt      The latest word from insiders and lobbyists in Austin is that for the minute the bill to block all payroll deductions for public employees is bottled up in committee.Of course it could change in an instant.   The latest word from Baton Rouge has two bills that might have been primarily directed at teachers but seem to include all public  employees steaming ahead towards potential passage.   The rightwing, Republican assault on unions is in full flower.   Where right-to-work bills are not flourishing, either statewide or county by county in Kentucky or almost city by city in Illinois, and blocking all payroll deductions are not in vogue with Republican controlled legislatures, eliminating prevailing wages is also on the docket in a handful of states as well.

These issues matter.   Sure some can pay by bank draft, and that’s how all of our Texas and Arkansas members in Local 100 United Labor Unions are now being enrolled along with their payroll deduction, but it’s still harder, which is the point of the legislation after all.

I’m in route to Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad on my annual visit to India to spend time on the ground with ACORN’s organizers.   We have a lot to celebrate in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.   Our union of hawkers and other street sellers now has enrolled 35,000 members, 29000 of those in the last year.   It takes the breath away and speaks to the immense talent and hard work of Suresh Kadashan,   ACORN’s organizer there.

The problem for this visit though is how to more successfully solve the problem of collecting dues from our members so that we can grow to the next level and deepen the organization.  We are organizing informal workers without employers, so there is no possibility of any payroll deduction, because there is no payroll.   Our members live by their labor on a daily basis.   Our dues rate is deliberately set low, less than a dollar per month, but the trick is how to collect it from members in scores of markets and hundreds of streets in a half dozen cities in several states.

The organizing was done by hard working committees at the each market fanning out and enrolling the members with the organizer bouncing from place to place, training, coordinating, advising, and always moving the organization forward.   Practically speaking though the organizer cannot be the dues collector; there’s not enough time or space for one person to be routed to 35,000 every month.  As fast as the organization has grown since my last visit a year ago, there’s also not enough trust, market-to-market, baked into individual leaders to convince the members to cough up their hard earned rupees for dues, nor in the main are there bank accounts that might be drafted on the daily exchanges of hawkers in their all-cash business.   Construction trades for a century or more used hiring halls to control the flow of labor and handle dues collection, monitor work sites, and create jobs, but informal work needs no hiring hall.    It’s a job that requires hustling and with hawkers it’s largely stationery.   In fact our biggest campaigns revolve around protecting market locations and viability.

If it’s not hard enough to organize unions in the first place and get to scale and density in the second place so the union has real power, now we have the problem of sustainability. We have our work cut out for us!

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My Liftin’ Days Are Done ( Boilermakers Lament ) by  Rusty Rivets

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