Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

A blue sky with red fragments of digital devices being sucked into a grey cloud.
A painting I commissioned from my brother for my office. I asked him to portray the relationship between people and technology.

An autobiographical synopsis of Kentaro Toyama’s “Geek Heresy”

I fell in love with computers early in life. My parents brought home an Apple IIe, and I used it to illustrate, to play games, to practice arithmetic. I used my TI-82 graphing calculator and it’s simple programming language to create little text adventures and action games. I read books about computer graphics and implemented 3D graphics libraries and user interface toolkits. Computers were a canvas for my imagination.

But while I have always loved computers, I have also always been drifting away from them. My brother was a big part of this. From an early age, he was a committed luddite, twisting and warping the original intents of the machines in our lives to his will, exploiting them for their frailties. While computers were to me a device for personal expression, for him, they were a fragile, inept, and fraught technology that should be ridiculed through mischief. This meant, among many other things, dipping his first digital camera in a glass of water to see what twisted, grotesque images it might produce of our friends, and forcing my beloved software applications to misbehave in unimaginable ways.

And so while I knew that I loved computers, I knew that others did not. Far from being a perfectly powerful tool for change, they were just a tool. And as a tool, they amplified their users’ intents, for better or worse. This basic intuition led me into computer science, to understand the power of computing, but also into psychology, to understand human intent. This led me away from early interests in artificial intelligence, to the more humanist field of human-computer interaction, and it’s embrace of the tensions between the power of automation and the primacy of human will. This led me to choose academia with its balance between research and teaching over a prestigious position at Microsoft Research, which mostly centered on innovation. Most recently, this has led me further away from the core of computer science, to research on computer science education, which centers human ability above computer ability, positioning computers as just one of many tools that humans might use for good or evil.

Therefore, when I first started reading Kentaro Toyama’s Geek Heresy, I felt a familiar story to mine. Kentaro, like me, had started fascinated by the powers of computing, but had eventually found himself disillusioned by it, instead centering human ability. But Kentaro’s story as a reformed technologist, far more than mine, was one of deeply engaging in attempts at change and facing the blunt failure of technology to cause change firsthand.

In the early chapters in the book, Kentaro lays out his theory by staring with a simple premise. Social change—whether helping people escape poverty, improving health, achieving racial or gender equality, supporting democratic freedom—is caused by people. People have intents to make change, they use their skills, their desires, and their ability to bring people together, to navigate the complexities of habits, beliefs, inertia, policy, and resources, to achieve big goals. They may use technology to amplify their efforts—in fact, they may rely on it to achieve the scale of change they want—but in no way is the technology itself the driver of change. To imagine so from this premise would be ridiculous: Twitter, as a software service, has no specific agency to cause democratic uprisings. People do, and they use Twitter and other tools to amplify the speed and scale with which they achieve it.

And yet, as Kentaro points out repeatedly, technologists look retrospectively at successful social change, and seem compelled to attribute all success to technology, rather than the immense human persistence at organization, communication, coalition-building. As he puts it:

“Novel, measurable, large-scale, turbo-charged, value-free, market-oriented packaged interventions for freedom-drunk, goal-driven, meritocratic individualists dominate our notions of social change. This creed has been terrific so far for those of us who have benefited. But the world’s persistent challenges and imminent crises suggest that what got us here won’t take us further. For a more enduring humanity, we need a better narrative of progress.”

The better narrative of social progress that Kentaro advocates is largely one of empowering people. Empowering them to lead with their heart, pursuing self-transcendent, empathetic goals. Empowering them with new knowledge and skills through education and mentorship, growing their capacity for change. Empowering them through will, by developing their confidence, their self-regulation, their self-efficacy in the world. He argues that only by focusing on these efforts will meaningful social change occur.

Of course, Kentaro isn’t arguing that technology is irrelevant. In fact, he suggests that technology can be a powerful tool in these efforts. He suggests a few rules to guide the work of social change:

  1. Identify or build human forces that are aligned with your goals
  2. Use packaged interventions to amplify the right human forces.
  3. Avoid indiscriminate dissemination of packaged interventions.

These rules put human forces at the center of change efforts, and apply technology in targeted, intentional ways that amplify the efforts and intents of people driving change. Again, in Kentaro’s words:

To adapt Jean-Paul Sartre, technology is nothing else but what we make of it. And as Sartre noted, that responsibility is both a blessing and a curse — on the one hand, we can decide what to do with technology; on the other hand, we must decide what to do.

In a way, the abstract argument above does not do justice to the substance of Kentaro’s book. Most of the writing is actually deeply personal storytelling, surgically establishing the book’s theories of social change by centering the stories of individuals that he’s encountered in his life that were the true drivers of social change. He talks of students he’s educated across the world, partners in change in projects he’s led, and numerous failures as a technologist in his time at Microsoft. The summary of the argument I’ve given above is easy enough to understand abstractly, but to truly understand how the ideas manifest in people’s lives, read the book.

I remember talking with Kentaro in my visit to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, back in 2017. I’d known a bit about his ideas because of a talk he gave at the Snowbird conference in the previous year, and was enamored with his position. I had recently pivoted to computing education research, similarly disillusioned with the power of technology to make change. And yet, it was clear I still didn’t really understand his ideas. I had given an invited talk about tools I was creating to ease programming language learning, and new work on understanding programming strategies. When we met together, I remember him expressing a deep skepticism and saying something to the effect of, “The innovations are great, but don’t pretend they’re going to help anyone but people already in a position to learn.” At the time, I was a bit frustrated by this flat dismissal, and remember trying to convince him that lowering barriers to learning would increase access to knowledge. But he resisted.

Now, having finally read his book, and gained a bit more wisdom of my own, I can see why: nothing I invent will every change the deep, structural inequalities that exist in education. My innovations will only amplify what is already there. The youth too concerned about their safety at home and their next meal, will find no time or will to use our educational technologies; they will spend their time seeking security. And the safe, supported, well-resourced youth with after school tutors will benefit from my innovations greatly. If I really want to change who has access to knowledge about computing, I have to change the underlying human forces of inequity in education. And that means changing the people who shape education: teachers, teacher educators, and policy makers. I want to do to educate eager teachers about both the powers and perils of computing, so that they can educate marginalized youth about those same powers and perils that invisibly shape youths’ lives.

While Kentaro’s book, like any technology, did not cause me to take this new trajectory, the book has amplified my efforts to make social change, giving me clarity in my goals. I look forward to using the book both as a guide for my efforts, but also sharing it with others’ to guide their journeys.

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This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Amy J. Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on our individual and collective struggle to understand computing and harness it for justice. See our work at https://faculty.washington.edu/ajko

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

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