Toyama’s “Geek Heresy: Rescuing social change from the cult of technology” documents the change of heart of former Microsoft Research India Director who was “once addicted to a technological way of solving problems”. The book’s main thesis is that technology amplifies pre-existing social forces, but does not shape them. A school tech project improves education where there are good teachers and capable administrators. The first half of the book illustrates the point from the failure of MIT’s One-Laptop-Per-Child project to the limits of “packaged interventions” (microcredit and vaccines) and technocratic cults (RCT, social enterprise, measurement). The second half of the book lays out Toyama’s solution: It’s the human, stupid! What matters is the “heart, mind, and will” which can be fostered through mentoring and training. That technology in itself is not transformative is probably not news to most of you but the message is worth recalling. I’d recommend the book but you can also watch a 5-min BloombergBusiness interview or listen to a 30-min Geekwire podcast. A key take away is that with or without development organisations’ assistance, technology may help people where positive social change is, even nascent. The hard part of the work is where technology won’t go. As Hans Rosling, who recommended this book, put it: “UNICEF should be where cell phones are not”.
The Economist’s special report “Mental illness: The age of unreason” tells us that demand for mental-care is on the rise and looks at the connection between this trend and, economic development and aging. Serious mental illness affects between 1.5 and 3% of the global population. Milder forms of mental illness are more common, impairing up to 20% of the population in rich countries, and costing up to 4% of GDP. This week’s special report also unpacks mental illness trends for children, young adults and older people. This is all welcome. But it remains very US-centric. So I asked myself: where are the good reports and numbers about these fundamental issues in middle-income, poor and crises affected countries?
My map of the week is from the Pew Research Center’s “A global middle class is more promise than reality” which looks at trends in income distribution in 111 countries for 2001-11. Much hope is put on the “rise of the middle class” as a force for change, including to reduce inequalities. This study tells us that this trend is less obvious and more concentrated than expected. The middle class (those living with $10-20/day) doubled in size during the considered decade. But the low income population grew more, and 71% of the global population remain poor (less than $2/day) or low income (between $2-10/day) in 2011. And most of the middle-class growth happened in China, South America, and Eastern Europe.
My quote of the week is from Nina Simone in “What happened, Miss Simone?” [48’30”]: “I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I found myself. That to me is my duty. At this crucial time in our lives [Referring to the US Civil Rights Movement] when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. […] I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?“