Interview by Kirsten Mowrey | Photography by Joni Strickfaden
Smartphones. Skype. Tablets. Email. Apps. Technology weaves itself into our lives, penetrating every aspect of daily living, making most of us scramble to keep up with its continual metamorphosis. Memes go viral, and we become absorbed with football players on bent knees, or “fake news,” peeling back the skin of society to show us unspoken underlying feelings and beliefs. Few of us have time, or take time, to evaluate what place we want technology to have in our lives and how it affects quality. We are racing to keep up. Often hailed as the resolution to the world’s ills, my life experience led me to believe otherwise. Then I read Geek Heresy, and felt engaged in a nuanced conversation of on the ground social change.
Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology (PublicAffairs, 2015) argues that: “Technology is never the main driver of social progress…. that even in a world steeped in technology, social challenges are best met with deeply social solutions.” The author, Kentaro Toyama, worked in Silicon Valley, and currently researches technology’s role at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. The essential question of his research is how do you apply digital technologies to support socioeconomic development? His conclusion: technology amplifies whatever underlying human forces are already present. Humans must be the directors and managers of social change with technology as the tool, not the opposite.
Heretic is a strong term. Webster’s defines it as “a religious believer opposed to the orthodox doctrines of a church” and then expands it to include all disciplines as “a person who holds any opinion opposed to official or established views or doctrines.” Language about technology is akin to religion: read the iPhone 10 reviews.
What converted this technologist from believer to skeptic? Born in Japan, he moved to the United States for the first time when he was six months old, crossing the Pacific four times before completing high school in Japan. While studying physics at Harvard, he became attracted to the creativity offered in computer science and completed a Ph.D. from Yale. He said that, “as a kid he was attracted to the hard sciences because they were certain, determinate, and would hold true forever,” but became attracted to computer science because of the ability “to write [programs] uniquely your way. It was more satisfying.” That may have been the beginning of his journey to Geek Heresy. He also began to work on how people can apply technology to address social challenges on the ground where he was working for Microsoft Research in India.
I sat down with Kentaro Toyama one solidly rainy Thursday in late March. In person, he is slim and well spoken, thoughtful, very cautious of over-generalization and firm in his beliefs. He wears glasses and his hair short, his clothing nondescript. Starbucks was full of loud ambient music and laptop zombies, so we walked over to the Michigan League and talked amidst the hubbub of human interaction outside a banquet hall. We discussed his work — the complexities of creating transferable models — whether for developing countries, technologists, or democracies; how we understand hierarchies and networks to enact social change; if access to computers amplifies quality of life; thoughtfully raising children in a technological society; and growing the right heart, mind, and will in ourselves.
Kirsten Mowrey: You started to talk about the difference in work environments on our walk over here, a corporate versus a university environment.
Kentaro Toyama: Well you know, I only know a couple versions of each. One is, universities give this big aura of being very egalitarian places. People kind of have an understanding: there are faculty and there are students, but the hierarchy at universities is very strong. In some funny ways, it’s much stronger than at a private organization, where technically there is a line of command, and in theory your boss is your boss, but in practice... in a funny way, it’s administratively more hierarchical, but socially less hierarchical.
Kirsten Mowrey: At a tech company?
Kentaro Toyama: Yes, whereas at a university, it’s opposite: administratively less hierarchical, culturally more hierarchical. Because of the culture and faculty, I don’t think [they] are that aware of it. They don’t realize that they are basically monarchs unto themselves in this world, especially if you are tenured faculty. There are very few things that can touch you. Especially students, I think, really feel that difference in power. That’s very different from, at least, a tech company.
Kirsten Mowrey: So you do feel faculty forgot where they came from once they get to their position?
Kentaro Toyama: A lot of faculty I think have never known life outside the university, at least as an adult, so they just don’t recognize things are not as hierarchical in other contexts.
KM: Have you had this conversation with any of your colleagues, now that you are in this environment?
KT: (laughs) I’ve had it with a few, especially those who have had life, who have experienced life, outside academia and I think we all agree. At the extreme end, faculty are very entitled. It’s an incredibly blessed life, to have this time flexibility, because it’s just not afforded in that many other contexts. And yet, and I’m included in this, we all complain about all the administrative meetings we have, but compared to a corporate environment, it’s nothing.
KM: When you think back on your Microsoft days?
KT: Yeah, yeah, I mean we had a full-time job and then there were all the meetings atop meetings.
KM: How much do you teach versus how much research?
KT: That’s a good question. During the semester it feels like it’s much more teaching but the reality is I’m fortunate to be in a school that’s very well run and has a lot of resources. I usually teach one class per term, which during the semester takes about a third of my time. The rest is research and other efforts that support the University.
KM: You did mostly research when you were at Microsoft?
KT: I was at Microsoft Research, so the predominant activity was research.
KM: Is that a similar environment to research in a university?
KT: At Microsoft it was, because our V.P. at the time, Rick Rashid, he came from Carnegie Mellon University. He very much believed in a model of research that was modeled on the university scheme. So we as researchers had an incredible amount of flexibility in choosing the kind of research we wanted to pursue. We didn’t have a teaching requirement that you would have at a university but a strong encouragement to find ways to positively impact the company.
KM: According to your book you were doing research but then got asked to go to India, correct?
KT: Right, and again, that’s another example, it’s not as hierarchical as it seems. My immediate manager at the time, he was South Indian. He got the sense politically within Microsoft that he would be able to go ahead to do a research lab in India and he asked me if I would be willing to go with him as his assistant director. Obviously this would be risky for the company. Because this was about starting a new research lab. It was even more than just the funding; it was, “Are we willing to stay in this country and have a research lab there?”
KM: Were you teaching when you went to India?
KT: I was a researcher, and when I moved to India, I stayed a researcher but I also took on management duties, as well as the assistant director of the lab.
KM: In your book, you mark that experience in India as where you began to ask the questions that became Geek Heresy.
KT: That’s correct, absolutely. Most of that book is based on what I learned in experiences in India. I used to do technical computer science research, and when I moved to India, I decided to look at what we could do in that country that was unique to being in India. I changed my research direction and it became more about how do you apply digital technologies to support socioeconomic development.
India was a great place to do this. On the one hand you have a very — it’s considered an information technology superpower, it has a very high capacity in information technology. But most of that is relegated to a very thin strata of very well educated, very wealthy people at the top. The rest of the country is extremely poor. Many different people in the country, from government, from nonprofit, they are all asking this question, which is: “Can we take something of the success of this technology industry and spread it in some way to the rest of the country?”
KM: Take that thin strata and build roots that go down through other classes?
KT: The way that I would say most people conceive of this is people say, “Hey, there’s something about computers that make most of the country rich, can we spread more computers into rural areas and urban slums and maybe those computers will make those people become more rich?”
KM: So the theory is money goes along the computer lines?
KT: I don’t think anybody would actually say, “Yes, if you interact with a computer you are going to become wealthier.” But somewhere in the back of their mind that is the association: a computer can get you into jobs that raise your income, or will allow you to find ways to become an entrepreneur yourself, or something like that.
KM: Your book is about that premise in some way, not just in India, but in the U.S. as well, and how that doesn’t necessarily follow.
KT: Absolutely. Just around the time that I moved to India, the world as a whole was moving toward ways digital technology could impact social change overall. The exact same story I told about India was kind of happening on a global scale. People were saying, “OK, here’s this great success story called Silicon Valley. Can we take this success and spread it to the parts of the world that aren’t doing so well?”
Today we see that manifested in comments a lot of our leaders make. For example, Mark Zuckerberg has basically said on the record that the world’s 500 million richest people are far more wealthy than the world’s remaining 6 billion people combined and the way to solve that is by getting everybody online. Maybe that’s expected from a technology tycoon, but we are also now hearing it increasingly from our political leaders. Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, pushed a foreign policy called “Internet Freedom”: the more we push a free and open Internet, the more countries become democratic and more likely their governments become accountable to their citizens. This Silicon Valley success being a force for positive social change in many other contexts began in the early to mid 2000’s, and I would say is not only ongoing but growing.
KM: It’s interesting that you mention this piece about freedom following networks. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book, The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World (Yale, 2017), talks about how networks function different from hierarchies. [Slaughter, a famous academic, was the former Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department under Obama.]
KT: In quite a few social science disciplines, there’s a fairly well established [theory] that information, as well as social movements, go through these kinds of network phenomena. It’s often grassroots efforts that spread through social networks, not digital networks. If you believe that, it’s very tempting to say, “If that’s happening without technology, then can’t we both speed it up and make it better by overlaying a digital one, where networks are no longer limited by who you can meet face to face but they could conceivably be across the globe?”
My overall conclusion, which applies not only to this network situation but to almost all situations where technology and society interact is: technology amplifies whatever underlying human forces are already present.
So I do believe that technology can facilitate these overall network building things, but the polarity of whether that is good or bad is not dependent on the technology, but the people. What [Slaughter] is saying is probably true in the sense of, Yes, we have these social networks and they help to spread certain kinds of ideas and movements, but whether that is overall a good or bad thing for you depends on what forces you are interested in seeing amplified.
KM: I read an interesting piece talking about spreading along networks: the explicit, deliberate spreading and the implicit hidden pieces that go along with it and can be counterproductive to the explicit purpose.
[The piece referenced is “7 Questions with Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America,” from Time Magazine, March 16, 2017. Slaughter explains, “When you hear ‘Make America great again,’ that nostalgia is not just for a time when America was more homogenous in terms of jobs, race, and gender roles. It may also be a longing for the clear lines of the Cold War — dangerous, but clear.” In this context, the explicit is the homogeneity; the implicit is a Cold War mindset.]
KT: I would say about those implicit things, oftentimes they are implicit in the actual text or videos that you might be able to receive, but they are not implicit in the sense of our hearts collectively.
One of the things I stress about amplification is that anytime you see something that looks like it went "viral" that usually there was a latent desire for that thing among the population it went viral in to begin with. It’s very easy to point to the thing that went viral and say there’s something special about that thing that caused it. The reality is conditions for that thing to go viral were already implicitly present in the population.
For example, recently there’s been a lot of talk about “fake news,” and depending whether you are left lean or right lean on the political spectrum, you might say, “This is not fake news at all, it’s real news. It just so happens it’s underreported by the mainstream media.” Or you might say, “This is fake news and it should be stamped out, nobody should be allowed, people should take responsibility for propagating, it’s false.”
The reality is, in the U.S., we have free speech and it’s not actually against the law to outright lie. You can say things that are false, [things] there’s not strong evidence for, and we believe that’s an important part of democracy. People should be able to raise issues that not everyone thinks is settled fact. There’s even historical cases that the majority thought to be settled fact and turned out to be false. And now that we look back, we can say the people we thought were wrong were actually right. And in those instances, you don’t want to stifle that kind of speech.
To me, the underlying issue with false facts is not that there are now accelerated ways of getting false facts out there, but the fundamental political division that causes some people to want to believe certain things. And once they have an excuse to believe those things, they are more than happy to [believe it] and they spread it to their friends. To me, that’s the underlying issue. The false facts issue is almost a superficial overlay on top of this deeper underlying political division. And if we can’t address that political division, it won’t make a difference what we do with technology or with our attempts to minimize false facts, because largely what will happen is the divisions will stay there. And the next time there’s something tempting for one side or the other, people will believe it.
With “fake news,” that more people see the news, that is technology. What people choose to do with that news and what they believe, that is a function of the individual.
KM: When writing about India, you mention this acronym that I’ve seen other places: WEIRD [for Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic]. I wondered, do you encounter that mindset in the technology world, and especially when they start to expand the technology to other communities?
KT: (chuckles) That is a great question and I would say absolutely yes, and it’s even a stronger version than WEIRD. A lot of people who are successful technologists often imagine their own personal experience is easily generalizable to everybody else. One of the places where I see this all the time is in education. A lot of the people in the technology world are extremely curious, bright people who, for whatever reason, when they were young kids, basically taught themselves about technology.
They remember vividly the first time they interacted with a computer and how it opened up a new world for them — suddenly they realized how much excitement there was in the world that they didn’t otherwise see. I think it’s great that there are people in the world like that, but a lot of times those same people grow up and the way they imagine to change the world is so that every kid has that same experience they did.
I think they are ascribing the cause for their positive experience entirely to what they perceived to be the change in their world, which was the machine, and not to other factors that might have led them to be the kind of people that were curious and capable and self-driven and all that. [In] the rest of the world — there are actual experiments along these lines — most people don’t suddenly become world class mathematicians or scientists just because you put a computer in their lap when they were five years old.
If your goal is education for everybody, high quality education for everybody, it’s just not enough to put a laptop in the lap of every child. Even though that might work for a very small minority of people. When you mention WEIRD, the big problem with these ideas is we have a tendency to overgeneralize from a very small minority’s experience and to assume that what’s true for that minority is true for everybody else. So, yes, I would say many of the positive things, let’s say in the U.S., don’t necessarily generalize to other contexts for a whole range of reasons. Similarly, the experience that individual successful technology entrepreneurs have with technology certainly doesn’t generalize to the population as a whole.
KM: I want to ask then, of WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic], which do you feel is most easily transferable?
KT: You mean out of the WEIRD? Ohhh (pauses, thinking). Obviously we can’t change geography, but if we were to decide, [and] my experience as a technologist cannot be generalized. I would say the following: each of those letters is individually very difficult to change, whether education for a large population or industrialization for a country or wealth for a country or democracy for a country. If you don’t have those things now, there’s no magic switch you can flip to have them next year, even if you made a very dedicated effort. These are the things that take on the order of decades to achieve, so I don’t think there’s an easy solution.
I would answer a different question, which is: Which one of those is the most worth working for? I would say it’s education, because in the end it’s underlying all of these other qualities, assuming you believe they are valuable. It is often possible to provide education in contexts that are otherwise challenged, so you really don’t need a lot of, at least, material substance to provide a good education. You do need good human adult supervision, you need good teachers, good parents who believe in education and so on. Those things are difficult to achieve and costly, but to me that’s the one that’s most worthwhile to make.
KM: In the conclusion of your book you talk about an organization in India called Pradan, that does focus on the people. [Pradan places well-educated professionals within marginalized communities to educate and mentor, especially in rural India, through strategies like social mobilization and food security; more info at pradan.net.] It doesn’t sound like they have a great deal of material wealth as an organization, so they focus on their human capital, and you actually talk about it in terms of mentorship. You define that as “relevant expertise and resources.” When you talk about bolstering education, do you mean following that kind of mentorship model?
KT: Exactly. I use mentorship as a word because I think it encompasses what we think of as formal education but also a wide range of educational activities that don’t necessarily happen in school. Which can often happen between people who are peers, or people who are in hierarchies. But some of the important things about mentorship are what mentorship is really about: how do you help the mentee grow as their own person, helping them become better versions of themselves? It’s really an exchange; the mentor should not be seeking to get something material out of it. If there’s anything for the mentor to get out of it, it’s an opportunity for them to become a better person in the process as well. Mentorship is one of the few types of relationships where it’s willing to acknowledge there’s some differential of power or level or skill in a relationship and still be focused on what I think is most beneficial for the person being mentored and possibly both parties.
KM: Quite a few a business books and business environments actively encourage mentorship to transfer information and expertise. It does seem like cultivation. Is that encouraged in academic environments?
KT: (mmhmmm, nodding) Oh yeah, I think academia is almost all about mentorship. Senior faculty mentor junior faculty, junior faculty mentor graduate students, graduate students mentor undergraduates. Certainly education institutions, to the extent that they are really good, really highlight mentorship as an activity. You mention business environments, business people really believe in mentorship. We think a lot about venture capitalists investing money in organizations, but they see a lot of their job as mentoring young entrepreneurs to become better entrepreneurs.
What’s interesting about that to me is the following: if you talk to any entrepreneur about what is going to make the world a better place, they are thinking in terms of products and services that their company makes. “If you buy my product, your world is going to become better,” “If you buy my service, we can help you achieve something.” Yet within their own companies that’s not how they think about how to help the company become better; they think in terms of mentorship.
Young junior employees need mentorship from senior employees, executives need mentorship so they become future C.E.O.’s and so on. On the one hand, they completely understand the value of mentorship, but as soon as it becomes interacting outside of the walls of their office, they think of making the world a better place not in terms of mentorship but through selling products and services. To me, that’s a kind of schizophrenia which is very much visible in Silicon Valley.
For example, when I was at Microsoft, we would routinely hear from Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer and the entire leadership that “the employees of the company are the companies’ greatest assets.” They would tell us in all kinds of contexts why this was important. So when you are hiring, you want to hire people who are better than you so the company becomes stronger. And when you are a manager, you want to make sure you are giving enough growth opportunities to all of your employees so they can become better employees and so on. But then as soon as they look outward, they say, “OK, so the way your company can become better is to buy our products (rueful grin/laugh). Your family can be better served by using more technology.” So again, it’s this schizophrenia. If business leaders just transferred what they understand about mentorship within their companies to how they think about how they should engage with the rest of the world, to me, that would be a dramatic and more valuable shift than most of the same people trying to find ways to solve complex social challenges through innovative products. (laughs)
KM: I wonder if that’s what people find so difficult in corporate environments: they like the company but they feel torn and conflicted about the values that it expresses.
KT: Sure, it’s a challenging thing. One of the reasons I left Microsoft was as much as I felt it was a great corporate environment for me personally, I eventually just thought I’m no longer interested in being at a company whose primary goal is to sell more technology to whoever is willing to pay for it.
KM: Did that happen for you when you were in India, or when you had come back to the States?
KT: l left India and Microsoft at exactly the same time. It was basically one and the same.
KM: Did you come to Ann Arbor next?
KT: I then spent five years writing the book and trying to get it published. I had a kind of fellowship like situation at U.C. Berkeley for a year and a half and I did a bunch of part-time gigs, some of it with the Gates Foundation. I did a lot of volunteering for nonprofits during those years. I kept doing some kind of work, but it was mostly part-time and writing.
KM: What brought you to Ann Arbor?
KT: I started thinking after my book is done, I need to get a real job again. I applied for faculty positions at several universities and the University of Michigan position was by far the best.
KM: Did you have family you needed to uproot?
KT: Yes, my wife came with me. We were in a moment of transition because she had just given birth to our son two months before we moved here, so a lot of things changed at the same time.
KM: Big change — is it just the three of you or has your family expanded?
KT: Just the three of us.
KM: And how old is your son now?
KT: He’s two and a half.
KM: You came here for this position and your spouse, is she in the academic world as well? How has it worked out for her?
KT: She had decided to go back to school at that point. She and I met when we were at Microsoft, and at some point during the five years that I was without a full-time job she worked at Microsoft in Seattle, so we lived in Seattle for awhile. Now she’s actually interested in starting a company around data science for human resources, which was her area before.
KM: I know that you are here [at U-M] and you are also listed as being with Dalai Lama Center in Cambridge. How much time do you spend in each place?
KT: Actually, I’m here full-time and I’m also a fellow with the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at M.I.T.
KM: That’s a fellowship you did?
KT: There was actually no formal component to it. The man who runs it is a monk, an Indian man who is a Tibetan monk who is a disciple of the Dalai Lama. He started this center at M.I.T. [thecenter.mit.edu] and he has a very interesting background. He’s ordained as a monk in the Tibetan tradition and I think he majored in physics at Syracuse University, so he’s very into East/West, both at very high levels. What he’s interested in is getting more of the secular but highly educated population in the West to engage in issues that are important to [Tibetan] Buddhism. Things like compassion and kindness and empathy and acting on those values. He has this Center and he has a number of people he designates as fellows and we go back once or twice a year and give talks. On a few occasions I have advised the Center on projects that it’s doing.
KM: Is it like the way McArthur grants work, where you get a letter one day and you are chosen?
KT: Not the same level of prominence, but something like that. There was no application process, he just got in touch with me.
KM: What do you lecture about, your research?
KT: I talk about my research. When the book came out I went and did a book talk.
KM: How was the book received when it was published?
KT: That’s a great question. My core targets for the book are two different kinds of groups. One group is technologists who are really interested in trying to apply technology for social change. The other group — people who work in international development — are increasingly interested in using technology to that end.
I’m quite happy with the fact that I think both of those groups have at least been exposed to the book in various way… and there are various degrees of agreement.... I believe you can use technology to positive ends, it is just part of this amplification: technology works where there are already positive efforts happening. It doesn’t fix situations where the human situations are somehow not working.
KM: It amplifies what’s there.
KT: Exactly. One kind of comment that I’ve heard, a lot of people who come to my talks say something like this: “I completely agree with what you are saying but the person you really need to convince is my boss.” And of course, the boss is not at these talks. I know, from working in the corporate world and nonprofits and academia, the big challenge is that a lot of the people who set the agenda and who have the capacity to direct resources in various directions are either really not interested in what’s happening on the ground or given to very deep reflective thinking before they take action….
If I could convince Bill Gates of some of the substance of the book, I would say that is far more impactful than if I convince 100 other people who work for him…. He blurbed the book really kindly, but I’ve a feeling that was done more out of our previous interactions and his staff read the book and said, “Here, here’s something you can write about it.”
KM: “Here, sign this?”
KT: (laughs) Yeah, it was probably more along those lines. That’s the real challenge. I do say to people who tell me this: “You’re right and the only thing you can say to this kind of leadership is, it’s the same kind of thing we try to get the people we try to help… to collectively organize, collectively organize and then push back against people who have power.”
KM: There’s a professor at the Ross Business School who says the same thing about middle management — Robert Quinn.
KT: Oh, that’s very interesting. I believe a similar thing. There’s a similar dynamic that happens not just within organizations but across organizations, especially in the nonprofit world where, you know, there are lots and lots of nonprofits who function entirely through grants.
KT: They might as well be employees of those foundations [they contact for grants]. They are limited to only doing what the grant more or less directed for. I also think people who work at foundations, project officers, are very aware that they are not doing the work on the ground and therefore they are open to listening to their grantees, as long as their grantees are willing to step up. It’s a risk for the grantees, because maybe if you say something offensive you won’t get that next grant, but if you band together as a group of grantees and collectively organize there is a potential to cause that change. That’s something I often say. Being in a position to work with say, rural farmers who are politically organized, we say, “You need to band together.” We need to follow our own advice! If we can’t do that, there’s very little hope for somebody who has very little education and less economic slack to do those things.
KM: Be the change you wish to see.
KM: What you are seeing in terms of the community you wrote the book for, have some taken up your ideas?
KT: I don’t think it’s created a large scale change, that definitely hasn’t happened. It’s certainly helped change a lot of things. It’s provided ammunition for a lot people who already believed some things similar to what I believe. I think for some people, a small minority, it’s changed their minds, at least from feedback I’ve heard. It’s affected how they think about what kind of job they want to pursue and so on. For some people, it’s a kind of practical guideline for projects that want to engage in technology.
KM: Were you ever tempted — there’s a footnote in Chapter 5, where you mention trying to sell the manuscript and editors said it was very fair and balanced and so perhaps would not sell well — to be more aggressive?
KT: It’s great that somebody reads the footnotes! A lot of stuff ended up in the endnotes that I wanted in the original book, but it was too wonky and so I put it there. To be completely honest, I made it as attention getting as I could without going beyond what I believed was true. I am an academic and a researcher and we basically get brainwashed during the Ph.D. process not to say anything that we cannot justify with ten citations or our own research. But I do think it’s important that people [who] have a conviction for [a] need to get expressed, even if those things are (laughs) too rational and sane to catch attention. I think that brings up a larger question of the kind of world we live in now, where just the sheer number of different ways we can get news out — it’s becoming more and more of a competition as to who can get more eyeballs.
KM: Did you ever watch the TV show The Newsroom? There is a scene where they are trying to verify a report from a second independent source, and they are being pressured to report without the verification to be the first on the air.
KT: Exactly, that pressure is so great. Again, I would say that is technology amplifying the sensationalist in all of us. As much as I would like journalists to stick to that, I also want to see it before everyone else. So until we live in a world where everyone has sufficient education and self control to realize that’s not ultimately good for us, it’s really hard — basically technology is amplifying that and making it easier and easier for that to come out.
KM: What about that self control — as a technologist, and now a father, how do you find yourself finding self control and balance?
KT: As a personal matter, I just think any use of technology has to be very deliberate and has to be supporting your own non technology goals. Rather than that you just have it because it’s a cool thing to have. Despite the fact that I am a computer scientist by training and work in a School of Information where people find social media an interesting phenomena to study, this (pulls a Nokia candybar phone from the early aughts out of his pocket) is my cell phone and people are still shocked sometimes. “Where is your cell phone? Where is your smart phone?” I can’t respond to emails the moment people send them to me, I often find myself wishing I could browse where the nearest coffee shop is, but all of those advantages are not outweighed by the fact that if I did in fact have a smartphone, it would dramatically distract me from what I am doing in the moment.
KM: You call yourself a recovering technoholic? Is a small phone part of that?
KT: I’m not as much of a gadget freak as some of my friends and colleagues are. I put that in to sell the book, to create a marketable spin around it. I would say I had bought into a belief that more and better technology necessarily makes the world a better place and I no longer believe that.
I just see this so much in the people around me that I have a constant reminder. I think that different people can handle it different ways. I’m also fortunate to be in a generation which is not [dependent]. You don’t feel you’ve completely lost touch with your peers if you don’t have a smartphone.
With my son, we make a fairly strong effort to keep him away from any kind of screens at this point, other than for the purposes of FaceTime or Skyping with his grandparents, who are not in Ann Arbor. That’s a very deliberate, purpose driven choice. We believe in the value of him communicating with his grandparents once in a while is far outweighed by whatever he might get out of that.
The funny thing is, you know, kids are drawn to the technology. The fancy blingy way in which user interfaces are designed is designed exactly to grab your attention and you can see it in my son. The first time he saw a YouTube video, he was just mesmerized, and now, if there’s a hint of a possibility that that’s going to happen, he will beg for it. To me, that’s exactly what we don’t want to give into. We want to raise a son that has enough understanding and engagement with the physical world and the social world before he starts interacting with screens.
KM: Was this all intentional, did you and your wife have a lot of conversations about this?
KT: I would say it was definitely intentional. I don’t know that we had so many conversations, she definitely understood. She has a smartphone, so she has made a different choice about her personal device and I admit to occasionally asking her to look up stuff because I don’t have the smartphone (laughs). I’m borrowing it, so I can’t completely condemn her use of it. But yes, to the extent possible, we’re very deliberate about it.
KM: You’ve made these choices for your son, but you work at the University. Is this a conversation you bring in?
KT: Yes, I do in fact. In one of my undergraduate courses, I ask the students to try to go on an I.T. fast for 24 hours. Most of them cannot do it. They try and it’s either too difficult — and I allow them to use the technology for anything they need for coursework, but even so they find it very difficult to go for 24 hours. Some of them come to the conclusion after that that they are so dependent on this that it’s a little bit scary. Some of them think, “Well, this is the way the world is, so why should they have to go without?”
I think of it like automobiles. Automobiles are this very powerful technology, and when you are an adult, at least in the U.S., if you can’t drive or don’t have a car it’s very difficult to get around, at least in most cities. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to give every five-year-old driving lessons or give them a car when they are ten. We make very careful choices about when kids get cars and that’s not just expressed within the family, but in a societal way. Usually you can’t get a driver’s license until you are 16, at least in most states. To me, that is an indicator: here is a great technology that we understand is necessary for our life and that we as adults believe we should have, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should lower the age that kids should have access to devices because we are human beings, and until we have a certain amount of self control and understanding of moral things, and some training with the device, it would be crazy to let 12-year-olds on the road.
KM: Except in rural areas.
KT: But that’s a particular context and it’s understood. They still aren’t allowed to drive in the city and can’t go fast. I don’t know what the choice should be, but we made a choice as a society and a very deliberate one. I think we have not had the chance to do that with these (gestures to my recording smartphone) devices. Despite all kinds of parents having challenges with it. There is not a parent I haven’t spoken too, ever, who thinks everything is perfect with their child and the new technology. Most of them want to limit it in some way, or if they try, it’s very difficult. Yet we are strangely kind of paralyzed in inaction.
I could easily see the kind of situation where every school has some kind of P.T.A. meetings before the terms begin where they ask, “Okay parents, what would you like the rules [around technology] to be?” Some schools have already instituted mobile phone bans during the school hours, which I think is terrific and wise. But maybe parents need to decide amongst themselves what is a good age to give a kid a smartphone. Because once a whole bunch of kids have it, it’s that much harder for another parent to refuse their kid. But social pressures shouldn’t be the reason any one family should feel like they have to give a phone to their child.
KM: Social and class pressure.
KT: Exactly, exactly, I count all of that as social pressure. If you have a seven-year-old who comes home and says, “Well, all seven of my best friends all have smartphones and they are texting all the time and I feel left out with it,” its really hard as a parent to just say no. To me, it’s another case where what we really should be doing as parents is getting together and discussing these things in advance, not one off buying decisions.
KM: I’m trying to picture my friends who are parents all getting together to have this discussion.
KT: I would guess they all want to get together and have those conversations and kind of scheme about when their kids should be getting phones.
KM: That’s phones and personal use, but what about this push in the U.S. to get computers in every classroom, or iPads to every student?
KT: At this point, I would say in 90 percent of these attempts to get more technology in the classroom, that money could be much better spent on something else. The reason I say that is for a number of reasons. One is people used to worry about the digital divide, which is the divide between kids who have access to technology and kids who don’t. I don’t think you can ever close the digital divide; richer households are always going to have more technology than poorer households and you can’t get away from that. Richer schools are going to have more technology than poorer schools. However, as of about a decade ago, there is reasonable evidence showing that most schools have a few computers, increasingly because of programs like the F.C.C.’s E-Rate Program, [a federal program that helps schools and libraries obtain affordable broadband, with discounts ranging from 20 to 90 percent] so most schools have Internet access.
It’s no longer a question of “Do kids have access to technology or not?” It’s “Do students each carry around an iPad or not?” But the real question we should be asking is, "Is the technology actually being used in a way that contributes to learning?" because technology is so difficult to integrate in a deliberate, learning focused way for students. This is true for the younger students even more than older students. I would say most schools and teachers dramatically underestimate the supporting costs that are necessary in a way that is actually beneficial for students. Most programs end with “we’re going to distribute all these iPads to all these kids,” rather than seeing that as a starting point and realizing they now have to do a whole lot of additional curriculum development, lesson planning development, training of teachers, training of parents in terms of what they should expect at home, so that devices ultimately contribute and add something to education rather than distract students.
KM: So to be fully integrated, schools need a whole new curriculum and programming.
KT: Absolutely. If the rhetoric is that technology is going to transform education that means that the educational system has to be prepared for that transformation. There are now very good research studies that show that if all you are doing is giving everyone a laptop, that in no way contributes to better grades, better test scores, better attendance, better motivation to study. The kids with the laptops are not learning anything more than the kids without the laptops.
KM: So it comes down to teachers again.
KT: Exactly, it comes down to teachers. Having both been a teacher and interviewing teachers who are in these situations, when you put technology in a classroom, it actually places a greater burden on the teacher to make greater use of it. Because it’s a lot more complex. You are dealing with something that potentially has a lot more power and now you have to worry about how that power is put to use.
KM: Is that the focus of your research?
KT: It’s one of the things I look at, yes. Right now I’m working with an undergraduate student, she is doing interviews with faculty here and their perception and views on technology. Because often teachers’ views are not taken into account. Parents, who feel they are being left behind, or kids, but the impact [of teaching with tech in the classroom] on teachers tends to get ignored.
KM: Is she going across departments?
KT: Across departments and also intentionally choosing faculty who we know love technology and are doing some fancy things in the classroom, as well as some faculty we know are a little bit less excited about the technology.
KM: What are your other areas of research?
KT: I have a lot of eclectic research projects happening, partially as a result of the lessons I explained in the book. My own research has not only changed [because of the book, but] I’m actually trying to understand what kind of research is more useful. I’m trained as a computer scientist, my background is in technical computer science, but I no longer think that’s the thing that makes society better. It can contribute to it — it’s like the engine in your car and making it faster and better and more powerful versus who’s behind the steering wheel and driving. If you believe technology will save us, you would focus on a better engine. I think the real problem is the driver: they are schizophrenic, unsafe, and the pace is unsafe. If you think of the Earth as the vehicle, our schizophrenia shows in that we have many different ideas about how to drive that vehicle and things change regularly: elections, for example. So rather than going faster, I would like us to come up with a unifying vision for how to use our vehicle. I use the driver analogy to help people grasp the issue of values and changing them. As a researcher, I am not excited about building technology. What I find exciting and the focus of my research in various different contexts is: “How do I help people achieve their own aspirations?”
KM: Since you have decided these are social questions and you are a technology person, are you working cross discipline to expand your view and become that better driver? Are you working with a sociology colleague or others?
KT: Yes, absolutely. One of the reasons I came to Michigan is I’m not at the Computer Science Department, I’m at the School of Information.
KM: How is that different?
KT: That’s a great question. Historically the School of Information was a library science school which became the School of Information because libraries are asking themselves this kind of question: What is our relevance in a digital age, where even paper books may eventually go away?
KT: I don’t want to see that world, but that’s one kind of direction. At the same time, because computers are becoming more ubiquitous, there are more and more social science questions around the use of computers. Forty years ago those were minimal, but today, it’s a matter of social concern what people are doing with their smartphones and so on. The third component is the technical computer science itself and how that can be built in a way that supports positive social activity. At the School of Information we’re interested in the intersection of all these things. We always say we are interested in questions that involve people, information, and technology.
One very big reason I came to this school and to this university is the School of Information itself is very interdisciplinary. We have people who have degrees in computer science, library science, various social sciences from psychology to economics to anthropology and so on. I certainly work with colleagues who have very different backgrounds than mine on some of these research projects. This is a great research university in which so many of its departments are top tier in their own categories. I have projects with faculty at the law school, in the Ford School of Public Policy, and others.
KM: What’s the project with public policy?
KT: That’s an interesting project. It’s a collaboration with an economist in my department and a woman who works a lot with Arab American populations in the Dearborn area. We are trying to understand whether or not there are ways that you can diminish discrimination against Muslim Arab groups within the U.S. and whether or not that can be done in a relatively short conversation. It’s based on another research study that showed fairly strong effects by having a certain kind of conversation, but for transgender issues. Political scientists who studied that found that if you have a 10-minute conversation where you ask the participant to think about situations in which they have felt discriminated against, and how that might apply to somebody who is transgender, it often results in a positive change in their perception and a greater willingness to support transgender legislation, for example. So our approach is “Can a similar approach work for anti-Muslim or anti-Arab sentiment in this country?”
KM: That seems very relevant right now. When did you start that project?
KT: We just got a grant for that a couple of months ago. We started thinking about it before the election.
KM: Before the election or the campaigning for the election?
KT: Before the results of the election, but of course, the campaigning had been in full swing. One reason why we are working on this project is our own personal interest, but the Ph.D. student who is working on this is himself Muslim and from a Muslim country, so it’s very interesting for him as well.
KM: Is he in danger — is he from one of the targeted countries, in danger of being deported?
KT: He is a permanent resident of the United States and I think is, at this point, in the clear, but in order to protect his privacy, I won’t say more. He is initially from one of the seven countries that Trump was trying to ban.
KM: He’s in that group.
KT: Yes, even though he’s not directly affected, he has family members who may have a harder time coming into the country who, at least until last year, had no problem coming to visit.
KM: One of the phrases you use in your book a lot is the phrase “the right heart, mind, and will.” How would you define that to someone who hasn’t read your book?
KT: I think of heart, mind, and will as being the critical building blocks for people to become better people, better versions of themselves. It’s important that those three are all present. I think almost everything we think of as a positive character trait can be broken down into those three things. Heart is basically positive intentions toward more and more people. That begs the question of what a positive intention is, but it’s the obvious things: Do you want to help prevent suffering for more people? Are you trying to avoid causing suffering for more people? Does more people include not just you and your family, but large groups of people, maybe the people within your religion, maybe the people within your country, maybe the whole earth? Your intention of getting better and better includes other people’s pain and larger and larger groups of people. That’s heart.
Mind is good judgment. It’s kind of hard to pin down, but each of us knows somebody who we feel is very wise in some way, who has a lot of good judgment. They are the kinds of people you go to when you have some kind of problem and you want to talk things out. They may not have the answer, but they are very good at helping to guide you to come to more clarity about those issues. People who have good judgment help with — you know [the saying] the road to hell being paved with good intentions? People have very good intentions but have terrible judgment, and to me that’s what that saying is about. The third one is will, which I think of as willpower and self control.
The reason why I say you need all three is, so let’s take an example that applies to your personal health. You might be somebody who is a very smart, very well intentioned couch potato. You want to have better health, you know what it takes to do it — exercise and good nutrition, but you don’t have the will power to follow through on what you know you should do. Even though you have two out of these three things, you are not going to have the best health you could have because you are lacking.
Another way that this might happen, you might be an extremely motivated nutrition researcher but somebody that’s so focused on their research career they don’t think of their own health as requiring attention. I would say that person has a good judgment, they know what is required, and a lot of willpower, but its not being directed at their own health, and therefore, that person won’t probably live as long as they possibly could.
KM: Does this come from a certain spiritual practice or upbringing? How did you come to this?
KT: It comes from having a real interest in philosophical foundations for the way the world is the way it is and how we could make it better. The heart, mind, and will breakdown: for the sake of the book — this was not a conception I had until I started writing the book, but for the sake of the book— I was trying to find a way to package what I thought was crucial for positive social change to happen in as small and as catchy a package as possible. I also say in the book it’s about intention, discernment, and self control, but that’s not quite as catchy as heart, mind, and will (chuckle). I spent a great deal of time thinking about how to frame it. That’s where heart, mind, and will comes from. I have a natural philosophical bent, so if you think of any given virtue, to me they can be broken down into these three things.
KM: You also write you want to be “someone who can better execute what he knows.” That also sounds like a spiritual path, along with heart, mind, and will.
KT: Let me go back to the spiritual thing. At some level, this book is emphasizing spiritual principles. I have intentionally left any religious spiritual language out of the book because the people I’m wanting to convince are largely secular and find anything mentioning anything smacking of religion as something they don’t want to engage with and they associate with fluff. That decision is very deliberate. Interestingly, I’ve had a number of people who read the book tell me that, “Oh, this sounds just like Jesuit Catholicism. Or Buddhism. Or the way I think of Christianity.”
KM: Does that come out of your upbringing?
KT: I would define myself as being spiritual but not formally religious. I don’t think of myself as aligning with any one existing organized religion, but I’ve read a lot about various religions. Many religions, at heart they have a very similar message, and to me that message does not require in any way, shape, or form a belief in a supernatural entity to be valid. That’s the part that’s spiritual. It’s really just about how do we become better versions of ourselves.
KM: Sounds like Charles Eisenstein’s work. [Author of Ascent of Humanity, Evolver Editions, 2013.]
KT: That’s right, and I don’t think it’s an accident that those commonalities are there. I do believe there’s a phenomenon of religious mysticism where some people can basically shut off the thinking part of their brains and they are better able to experience a state of mind that I think naturally gives expression in some of these religious principles. A lot of it is associated what different religions think of as the essence of their religion, whether it’s love, or oneness with God, or oneness with the world. I think in all of those cases, the underlying understanding is that sentient creatures have the capacity to feel suffering as well as joy. If you can understand what suffering is and how you don’t want it, then it naturally makes sense that you should be working toward minimizing that suffering for as many sentient creatures as possible. To me, that’s the underlying essence of spirituality.
KM: And humanism.
KT: A lot of these religious beliefs come from an intuitive place. People didn’t come from a logical place; they didn’t necessarily think these through. They are part of an underlying truth and if you think about them in a very scientific way, you will come to a similar conclusion.
KM: I think of how science hypothesized that competition was the basis for all interactions in the natural world, but as we have added different researchers, we have learned that collaboration also plays a part, that it’s a choice of strategy.
KT: Science can support some of these conclusions, but there is some point where you need to make a non-scientific normative decision. You might require science to reason through, but ultimately science is indifferent. From a scientific perspective, whether or not a gazillion people are suffering is not a scientific question. It’s either true or not. But beyond the factual truth of that, it’s not a question of whether we should increase it or decrease it. At some level science has no goal around it.
KM: It has no value judgment.
KT: It has no value judgment. It has a goal of understanding the truth as it is, but beyond that, there is no further [goal] that science as a discipline has — scientists may be different, but science doesn’t have [one]. Even if the science were that humans are competitive and want to hurt each other, I would still say the spiritually clear thing, the morally clear thing, is to try to avoid that. As much as I think it’s somewhat helpful when science actually comes out and says, “Hey, it turns out collaboration is actually good for us” — that explanation always makes me uneasy, because what if the science was another way?
KM: What you’re saying is, no matter what science tells us, at some point as humans, as fully realized humans, we have to look at our values and make a judgment. We are compelled to use all of our gifts and use our heart, mind, and will and make that value judgment.
KT: Yes, yes, exactly, and to take the path that is hopefully more positive.
Kirsten Mowrey is a bodyworker, somatic educator, and writes the Green Living column for Crazy Wisdom Community Journal. She may be reached through www.kirstenmowrey.com.