Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

45 pages in: So far I'm hearing everything that I want to hear

And I'm hearing it from somebody who is credentialed, who has worked for Microsoft, and who teaches in an information technology program, so it must be right!

Toyama's basic point about education is that while you can find really good and really bad anecdotes for anything, the schools that are likely to make the best use of digital technology probably also make really good use of chalk and desks and books, and the schools that are likely to realize the fewest benefits from digital technology probably also realize relatively few benefits from chalk and desks and books.  Likewise, in discussing the "Facebook Revolution" in Egypt, he notes that a lot of the participants didn't actually use Facebook to organize, and what really mattered was that there was an existing civil society whose members used a variety of tools.  In other Middle Eastern countries there was no "Arab Spring" because all of the Tweets and Facebook posts in the world cannot create a civil society overnight.  People problems are people problems.

In the realm of business, Toyama notes that digital records have done great things for inventory control at some companies, helping them become more efficient and profitable, while digital medical records have done little or nothing to control the spiral of US healthcare costs.  Problems of people, organizations, incentives, and economics existed long before there were computers, and some of those problems were managed better than others in the pre-digital era, just as in the digital era.

Of course, Toyama has a book to sell, so he can't just put that idea out there and say "So, yeah, I guess we're done here."  That doesn't get you sales and speaking invites.  He has to add a Big New Idea.  His Big New Idea (BNI, hereafter) is The Law of Amplification:  If somebody is already advantaged, or already has a good system in place, then wise use of technology will probably lead to even more success.  If somebody is already stressed or disadvantaged or working in a bad system, then without some very careful though, some hard work, and at least a little bit of luck the technology will at best do nothing and at worst be a boondoggle.  By the standard of BNIs it's relatively inoffensive and commonsensical.  My question is whether Toyama will start pointing to every single phenomenon under the sun as an example of the Law of Amplification.

Finally, I really like the example on page 45:  A company was having problems with a  low-performing regional office.  They decided to set up a sales database to fix it.  However, the person dispatched from corporate headquarters learned that sales staff were evaluated solely on the number of new clients that they signed, not on whether those clients paid their bills.  There was thus no incentive to get reliable clients, just numbers, and the sales staff acted accordingly.  The IT person told headquarters that there's no harm in a better database but the real problem is a sales staff with bad incentives.  Toyama summarized this example with:
In large organizations such as universities, governments, and corporations, one hand frequently doesn't know what the other hand is doing.  To break down silos, it's tempting to set up Web portals and internal social media sites, but the real issues are almost always those of management, internal politics, and even limited human attention.  Unless those social problems are dealt with, technology doesn't have a base to amplify.

Next book: Geek Heresy by Kentaro Toyama

The next book that I will blog is Geek Heresy by Kentaro Toyama, formerly of Microsoft Research and now at University of Michigan. It describes his disenchantment with boosterism for technology as the solution to all social ills, especially technology-enhanced schools. The book's attractions for me are obvious. The biggest danger is that it's a book that will probably tell me what I want to hear, written in an attention-getting short format with a lot of anecdotes.