Geek Heresy Book Review

Toyama’s (2015) Geek Heresy is a poignant self-reflection and examination of the misguided promises and immense pitfalls of techno-centrism within information and communications technologies for development (ICT4D) work, particularly in relation to international efforts and projects attempting to foster economic development or address the knowledge gap. That is, throughout this accessible, non-academic read, Toyama debunks techno-deterministic myths and imaginaries within industries such as education, business, and computer science. He illustrates the ways in which these narratives have misinformed ICT4D interventions and led to failed attempts at addressing social ailments. Moreover, by taking a self-reflexive approach and outlining the progression of his thinking, from a seemingly techno-centrist stance while working at Microsoft, to a more socio-culturally sensitive approach to this work, Toyama invites the reader into his process of re-evaluating his philosophies regarding the role of, and impact of, ICT usage within an increasingly digital society. In the end, he casts doubt on the ability for new forms and uses of digital technology to solve historical, and systemic, issues of inequality.

Put simply, Toyama’s Geek Heresy poses two important overarching questions to readers and invites them to consider: 1) How have the public perception of technology and a utopian, techno-determinist viewpoints of ICT4D work led to failed campaigns and ineffective intervention design? 2) How might these efforts be improved by taking an approach that emphasizes the “human” side of ICT4D work, and the social and cultural contexts of these projects, as well as factors such as motivation, use types, and skills? Rather than assuming an uneducated and universal audience for these interventions, Toyama argues for a need for more grounded and contextualized intervention projects, which include participatory and collaborative elements to such research. Through presenting a plethora of case studies and research regarding the need to interrogate technologists’ seeming over-emphasis of technology in shaping society, and their failures to undertake such a contextualized and socio-cultural approach toward technology intervention design, in favor of a more elite-informed and universalized “magic bullet” approach, readers are repeatedly asked to reconsider the narratives they hear about new technology and its role within a networked society.

In conclusion, though Toyama’s book incisively critiques the problems with placing a focus on technology (rather than people and their socio-cultural contexts) within international development work, I remain somewhat skeptical about the book’s impact. That is, though Toyama’s prose, argumentation, and evidence are clear and convincing to someone with sympathetic leanings, I wonder if this book as an intervention in technologists’ lives is enough to debunk lifelong techno-centrist imaginaries. These women and men have spent their careers attempting to convince others that technology is important and integral – that it can be greatly helpful in addressing societal issues. However, to have them fully ascribe to this philosophy and seemingly undercut the significance of their vocations, it might take more than one read or one moment to reshape their thinking.

Looking at Toyama’s life as a case study, it might require a multitude of self-reflexive moments and questioning, in order to shift techno-centrist perspectives. Moreover, in my opinion, though countering techno-deterministic narratives is an important contribution to conversations regarding ICT4D and technological research, Toyama’s most important contribution is his invitation to readers (and all technologists or ICT4D practitioners) to constantly self-interrogate and be open to new streams of thinking. Only then can real social change and effective development work be carried out successfully.

Toyama, K. (2015). Geek heresy: Rescuing social change from the cult of technology. New York, NY: Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group.