Geek Heresy

By Kentaro Toyama

Link to book’s webpage

Talent is universal, opportunity is not.

Opportunity is the nurturing of talent. Build internal strengths. Community fund of knowledge. Focus less on external provision. Scaffolding.


  • Technology does not cause behaviours, it amplifies the underlying personality. The Walkman did not create a new market. Humans have always loved music, since the beginning of mankind. The Walkman just made it easy to listen to music that you like. FOMO, ATUS Addiction To Useless Stimulation, PORM Pleasure Of Receiving Messages, SWAP Seeing Work As Priority, UTSI Urge To Seem Important.
  • The Arab Spring occurred because the social unrest was already in place in those societies. If social media didn’t exist, the revolution would still have occurred. As with the end of the Cold War when there were no high speed IoT devices. In Saudi Arabia the revolution was curbed at its very root - arrest whoever speaks in dissent. In Egypt, with existing trade unions and social organisation, the revolution was bound to succeed.
  • Literacy is a spectrum. Some can identify letters, others can read some words, yet others can pronounce words but can’t understand a text. The degree of literacy correlates with the measure of abstract reasoning capacity. If you are literate, you’re better at navigating a technology interface.
  • Radio, TV, video were all seen as silver bullet solutions for substandard education. And now it is technology and the internet.
  • If technology companies - which work hard to automate everything - have to spend 5% of their workforce managing IT, imagine how much more difficult it is for other organizations. (2010 Microsoft had 4000 full-time employees keep IT systems running)
  • “I am an IT guy, but some of my best friends have trained in anthropology. They are good at seeing the human issues behind technology.”
  • New laptops don’t necessarily make employees more productive. State-of-the-art data centres don’t cause better strategic thinking. And knowledge management systems don’t cause rival departments to share information with one another. Yet CIOs (and bureaucrats) everywhere are asked to perform exactly that sort of wizardry. Technology can improve systems that are already working - a kind of amplification - but it doesn’t fix broken systems. There is no knowledge management without management.
  • Cyber balkanization. Selective exposure. Online you find self reinforcing groups and thus people become radicalised, intolerant and less likely to trust important decisions to people whose values differ from their own.
  • Technology isn’t a bridge, it’s a jack. It widens existing disparities. Imagine if you and a less privileged person were given equal access to technology and the internet and were tasked with raising funds for charity or learn a new skill/language - who would do it quicker and better? Similarly if you vs Bill Gates had to play this experiment, who would win?
  • Your ability to predict a technology’s success is based on an intuitive grasp of the human condition. Human preferences, more than technological design, decide which products succeed.
  • Technology results in positive outcomes only where positive, capable human forces are already in place.

Dev sector

  • If a private company is failing to make a profit, no one expects that state-of-the-art data centres, better productivity software, and new laptops for the employees will turn things around. Yet this is exactly the logic of so many attempts to fix schools with technology.
  • Large-scale studies of education technology rarely show positive results. In any representative set of schools, some are doing well and others poorly. Introducing computers may result in benefits for some, but it distracts the weaker schools from their core mission. Case in point nearly half or more of the period is over by the time the computer runs properly. Or teachers have to prepare digital and analog versions of their lesson plans in case the technology fails (no bijli!).
  • In our trials (MultiPoint), we relied on special conditions that we had imposed. We chose partner schools with capable teachers and principals and thus students were focused on learning. They followed instruction without much distraction. And as researchers we could always step in where we found the teaching capacity wanting. We lined up all the social conditions favourably so that the technology had a chance to work.
  • For real impact, three factors are at play -
    1. The dedication of the researcher, towards social impact, not towards research outcomes.
    2. The commitment and capacity of the partner organisation.
    3. The intended beneficiaries must have the desire and ability to take advantage of the technology provided.
  • Even in an elite private school, where students have all the resources and social privilege at their disposal, there are teachers. The parents want extra adult guidance for their children. That’s what makes them learn, not the resources by themselves.
  • The problem with measurement obsession is the obsession, not the measurement. The drive for lower cost books squeezes out all but best sellers. A mania for RCT crowds out complementary approaches. A tunnel vision on technology steals attention from non technological essentials.
  • Technocrats like to say that “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed” but this is simply not true. Most of us manage our relationships with friends and family without measurement. In fact you’d worry about anyone who needed metrics to manage relationships. A poem is more than just its rhyme, meter and number of lines.
  • It is important that we acknowledge that important but numberless qualities will always exist, and that we account explicitly for that fact in our decision-making. We can know the number of mobile phones but we can’t know how many life-changing conversations they’ve carried.
  • Sustainability is not just one-time injection of cash that would yield immortal credit to the donor. Meaningful expenditure on long-term capacity building and investment in human capital is necessary.
  • Sustainability can occur as a knock-on effect of a seemingly unsustainable fiscal investment. Shanti Nivas spending $1500 per student per year is an exorbitant cost but in one swoop they are able to lift a family out of poverty as the students are elevated into the middle class. They invest in their students over 14 years and ensure that they nurture their social sensibilities and not just employability.

If today’s African college graduates – just 5 percent – could be persuaded to work toward Africa’s future, the continent would be transformed in twenty years when that 5 percent would inevitably assume leadership.