In a world of incredible technologies, further progress requires change in human behavior.

Share story

IN thinking about social change, a lot depends on choosing the right metaphor.

I once saw society as a machine whose problems could be fixed with engineering. But after many years of trying that approach, I’ve concluded that I was wrong. We would do better if we saw social progress as something like the cultivation of an orchestra.

In 2004, I moved to Bangalore, India, to start a new research group for Microsoft. I hired an interdisciplinary team composed of technologists and social scientists, and we set about using personal computers, mobile phones, digital cameras and other electronics to solve the problems of developing-world education, agriculture, health care, governance and microfinance.

Town Hall Seattle

Former Microsoft computer scientist Kentaro Toyama will talk about his book, “Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.” Town Hall Seattle, 7:30 p.m., June 22.

Our pilot projects generally did well. We often found that technology could boost outcomes, whether it was new software to support education or videos to spread health information to rural villagers.

But our innovations rarely performed at larger scale. Gadgets that worked magic under the attention of dedicated researchers and capable partners did nothing (and sometimes caused harm) when handed off to indifferent administrators and dysfunctional organizations.

I saw this phenomenon happen so often in the 50-odd projects I oversaw that I’ve come to call it technology’s Law of Amplification. Technology doesn’t cause a fixed benefit wherever it’s used; rather, it amplifies underlying human forces. Thus, good schools incorporate technology to augment learning, but underperforming schools are made worse by the distraction. Democratic governments use digital tools to improve transparency, but repressive regimes censor content and track voices of protest online. Even vaccines — which save lives on injection — rely on the strength of human institutions of health for delivery. It’s no accident that the countries that suffer most from preventable diseases are those whose health systems are in shambles.

Of course, technology is important. Modern civilization wouldn’t be what it is without it. But what amplification implies is that especially in a world of incredible technologies, further progress requires change in people. Without improvements in our collective intention, discernment and self-control — without better heart, mind and will — we won’t use the fruits of our innovations to best effect. Thus, inequality in America increased despite four decades of digital innovation. Bountiful agricultural technologies have not eliminated malnutrition (the leading cause of death worldwide for children under five). And, 13 of the 15 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000 — none of our green technologies in and of themselves are undoing climate change.

Out of the research we did in India, the project that has had the most impact is one that we spun off as a nonprofit called Digital Green. It uses how-to videos featuring local farmers as teaching aids to spread better agricultural techniques. As the name implies, Digital Green works with all kinds of technology, from handheld “pico-projectors” to an online data-analytics dashboard. Ultimately, though, it’s a methodology that amplifies the impact of existing institutions that directly engage with farmers. There would be no Digital Green without its human partners.

Digital Green has large projects in India and Ethiopia funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but those are two countries where there is broad government support for agricultural extension. Elsewhere, Digital Green is limited to sites where there are agricultural organizations vested in farmer welfare. In other words, the bottleneck is not missing technology, but missing human institutions.

If institutions are the critical part of social progress then the question stops being, “How do we fix broken systems with ingenious technologies?” It becomes something closer to, “How do we support the growth of well-intentioned, high-capacity organizations?”

That brings us to orchestras. Musical ensembles, of course, are groups of highly trained individuals with skills in their respective professions, who work sometimes as soloists, sometimes in concert, to arrive at a transcendent goal. In other words, they’re a lot like a healthy society in which productive individuals work together for the common good.

With music, we know how to build such ensembles: early music education, years of individual practice, high-caliber tutelage, inspiring leaders, an appreciative culture and years of practicing together.

With music, there is no shortcut to human effort.

The same is true for the world’s persistent social problems. It’s tempting to look for technological solutions because they’re easy to replicate. But just as no amount of technical innovation will raise a nation of concert musicians, no amount of technology will solve global poverty or global warming. What we need instead are orchestral health systems, symphonic schools and a population of climate-preserving virtuosos.