Written on 2019-01-14
“Silicon Valley Syndrome” is the name I give to a wide-spread myth that is frequently found in affluent, tech-savvy circles. It is the belief that “Every social problem can be solved if you just throw enough technology at it”. This belief lies at the heart of many, many attempts to make the world a better place. Their proponents will say things like: “We can save democracy by combating fake news with algorithms”, or “We can solve Third World hunger using satellite imagery”, or “We can improve education in poor areas by giving every kid an iPad”. These are all laudable attempts, and yet their fundamental assumption is all too often sadly misguided. Why is that?
The crux of the matter is that social problems are never just technical, but always at least in part human. Societies are made up of humans, and anybody who ignores this human aspect is doomed to (at least partial) failure.
Let us start with a personal example. All students and freelancers know the problem of procrastination. There are thousands of tools devoted to helping poor souls better manage their time (most of them based on some variation of the humble to-do list). But no to-do list, no matter how technologically advanced, has ever forced anybody to do anything. In the end, it is still the individual's choice whether or not to follow his or her plan, or to procrastinate. To-do lists can help keep us organised, but they cannot of themselves change our behaviour. Thus, they do not solve the underlying problem. In the end, procrastination remains a human issue.
We see the same pattern when we turn our attention to the higher level of social problems. One area that seems to be particularly susceptible to the Silicon Valley Syndrome is development aid. Growing up in Africa, I have had a fair bit of exposure to this, so let us take a closer look at some examples from this field.
Sometime in the last two years, friends of mine in Zambia received a visitor from the United States. A well-to-do philanthropist, he wanted to donate a set of laptop computers to a rural school. Ignoring all advice of people on the ground, he looked around for a few days and chose a school. When it was pointed out to him that the school didn't have electricity, he just shrugged and said the laptops could be taken to the next village to charge. That that village also had a school that could have taken the laptops didn't seem relevant. Several months later he returned and was very upset to discover his laptops hadn't even been unpacked yet. The reason? None of the teachers at the school knew how to work with computers…
There were two big problems with this work of charity. First, and more obviously, the utter cluelessness of the philanthropist. Although his motivation was noble, his ignorance of the local situation and his unwillingness to listen to advice meant that a lot of money ended up being wasted. But secondly, note his assumption that a set of computers was the single best investment for a rural school in Africa. Why not invest in text books instead? Or even better, teacher education?
Education is a complex thing, but one thing pretty much all the experts agree on (along with most school children) is the supreme importance of good teachers. Yes, good teachers profit from good tools. But pupils will learn a lot more from a good teacher with bad tools than from a bad teacher with the best tools money can buy. Why is that? Because teaching is a fundamentally human enterprise. Far from being a mere transfer of knowledge, teaching is just as much about relationships and how a teacher interacts with his or her pupils. And that is something no computer can replace.
(Some will argue now that teaching is not necessary for learning to take place; and that given the right resources, students can teach themselves even in the absence of a capable teacher. To this I would reply that while that is indeed true, the percentage of school pupils able and willing to do so is negligible. And even so, they would still learn a lot more effectively if they did have a proper teacher. In short, one shouldn't base the national education strategy on this observation.)
So instead of investing it into technology (the computers), the philanthropist's money might have been better spent training teachers. This isn't easy, it isn't quick, it isn't sexy – but it works. And instead of computers that die from the dust of the African dry season or are dropped or stolen, the output of this investment is a cohort of teachers with careers spanning decades.
One project that has taken this route is FCE Masaiti, a Christian training college in Zambia. Their courses include diplomas in community development, agriculture, and teaching. Their whole approach is based around the tenet of “serving the community”. Their students live in a rural setting and are taught the skills they need for their probable future situation right from the start. When they leave, they will be government certified teachers ready to teach in any primary school in the country; and they will have been given the vision of serving their community. (Having worked alongside one of their graduates, and knowing several current students, I can attest to the quality of their training.) FCE is investing into people to help solve social problems, and their influence will be felt across the country for years to come.
“Give me a place to stand, and with a lever I will move the whole world”, said Archimedes. Having recognised the power of even a simple piece of technology to change the world, his remark is valid to this day. Technology, from the first papyrus to the printing press and the smart phone, has changed and will continue to change the way we communicate, travel, and live. What it has never once changed is human nature. It is a tremendous tool that can be leveraged for spectacular good (and just as spectacular evil). But it can never, ever, be a self-sufficient solution to a social problem.
The lever that was to move the world still needed Archimedes to operate it. As long as humans are involved – and in a social problem, they are so by definition – a technical solution will only ever be half the story. Perhaps this is most evident when working in an intercultural setting, such as development aid. Developing viable, sustainable solutions in this context requires an intimate understanding of culture: how individuals think and how communities function. Any “solutions” that pay no attention to these atechnical, human factors will never get off the ground. But it doesn't matter whether we are looking at aid work, crime reduction, or the defence of democracy; the bottom line remains the same. Societies are composed of humans, and so any workable solution to social problems – though it may also include technology – must consider the human perspective.