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!


Remembering Elena Hanggi, Jack Lavey, and the Wilbur Mills Expressway Fight

ACORN President Elena Hanggi leads marchers.Rep National Convene Dallas, Republicans in 1984.

ACORN President Elena Hanggi leads marchers. Republican  National Convention Dallas  in 1984.

New Orleans  The obituary for Elena Hanggi Giddings said so little that it was almost hard for me to believe that this was the same woman I knew so well and so long.  Her stint as chair of the regional advisory board of the Federal Home Loan Bank in Dallas was acknowledged, along with her graduation from law school, her four daughters, and her grandchildren.  Not that these brief notes weren’t true, but they were really mere footnotes to the real courage and accomplishment of this woman.  She never practiced law, and her time with the Federal Home Loan folks came as a result of her having been the third national president of ACORN in the 1980s and the last from Arkansas where she served several terms before joining the staff with the Institute for Social Justice, where she specialized in training other grassroots elected leaders within the organization. 

            Elena was beloved by ACORN members and the reason was always clear.  Her story was so many of their stories, and she told it well and from the heart. She painted the story of her life as that of a silent, housewife, whose only opinions were those expressed at her own kitchen table, until two things happened almost at the same time.  First, she was doorknocked by an ACORN organizer named Barbara Friedman, over and over again, until she was literally pried out of kitchen to a meeting of the newly formed ACORN community organization in her neighborhood, and worked up the courage in a cold sweat and total panic, to say something at the meeting about what concerned her and was shocked to find her own voice and the support of her neighbors.  Secondly, the plans of politicos and real estate moguls to divide the city, racially and economically, with an expressway in order to cut 3 minutes of commuting time to the western suburbs where they wanted to make their fortunes would run right through her family home not far from McArthur Park and right smack in the path of the expressway, which meant that her new found voice suddenly had to reach the level of a battle cry. 

            In a sadly, tragic coincidence Elena, one of the lead plaintiffs along with ACORN in the suit we finally filed to contest the inadequacy of the environmental statement for the highway and its failure to seriously consider other options, passed away at 72, a week after our lawyer in the Mills case, the great Little Rock labor and civil rights attorney and my longtime friend and comrade, Jack Lavey at 81.  His obituary, not surprisingly, was well written by Ernie Dumas, the former editorial writer for the Arkansas Gazette in those days and weekly columnist still for the Arkansas Times, so I can add little to that save, “amen.”  Even in Little Rock, it is probably less ironic that simply a continuing statement of fact that a peoples’ leader’s passing should be barely noted next to that of a practicing lawyer of the bar.

            Nonetheless, as critical as a lawyer’s skill, and Jack’s was far reaching, and as deep as his commitment to social justice, and my debts will never be fully paid to him, because he never said, “no,” to any request for help or representation or advice that I ever made to him, it is the courage of an Elena Hanggi and so many leaders that emerge like her, and the unfathomable depth of her will and the magical power of silenced voices that rise with work, discipline, and magic to break the bonds of silence and roar with anger, accepting the call to change everything in their lives in order to fight with their people for justice. 

            I watched Elena find her voice and a lifetime cause.  I watched her not back down to police in Chicago at a national march and find herself hauled away to jail.  I watched people rise to their feet when she gave the call to action to thousands with rage and tears in her voice.  I witnessed both her pride and terror when she and other leaders were arrested for holding signs in a Congressional hearing and faced jail for the protest.  I sat over many years at her kitchen table myself, and I knew her family, her hopes, dreams, fears, and struggle as a person, a woman, and a worker to find her true self and live past the limits caging her. 

            There are no replacements for leaders like Elena and peoples’ servants like Jack, but for their sakes, as long as the fight for justice, freedom, and equality is waged, it is all of our jobs to continue in the struggle and to help find others to follow in their footsteps.  We owe it to them.  We owe it to ourselves.