Geek Heresy: There is no techno-fix for poverty

Geek Heretic: For the Humanosphere podcast we talk with Kentaro Toyama on the limits of technological solutions to poverty and inequity.

For today’s podcast, we are talking with Kentaro Toyama, a renowned computer scientist that Humanosphere has long known as the Geek Heretic. Properly speaking, Kentaro is the W.K. Kellogg chair associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information. He’s widely known in his field for research on computer vision. So, yeah, he’s a super geek.

What we talk to Kentaro about is how he went from super geek to heretic when it comes to the role he thinks technology can and should play in development – aka the fight against poverty and inequity. In 2004, Kentaro helped launch Microsoft Research India. Bill Gates asked him to look for technological solutions to some of India’s massive problems with poverty and inequity. He and his MSR colleagues set out in full confidence, introducing computer schemes into classrooms to boost children’s educational opportunities and the like. But what Kentaro said he eventually learned, to put it bluntly, is that there is no technological solution to poverty.

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Geek Heresy coverTechnology can only ‘amplify human intention,’ for better or worse – that is Kentaro’s mantra and one of the main points of his new book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Due out May 26, the book is not aimed at attacking the techno-fix mentality in aid and development so much as it is intended to put these techno-fixes in their proper context. Even Uber Geek Bill Gates, in a blurb for the book, agrees:

“Toyama’s research reminds us that there are few one-size-fits-all solutions. If technology is going to improve the lives of the world’s poorest, it must be grounded in a deep understanding of human behavior and an appreciation for cultural differences.” – Bill Gates

Or as economist Bill Easterly says in also recommending the book: “Technology does not solve problems; people do, Toyama reminds us. He balances his refreshing skepticism about technological utopias with inspiring faith in the motivation and creativity of human beings.”

We’re going to ask Kentaro to walk us through his experience, and explain how he eventually came to the conclusion that there is no technological solution to poverty – not solely technical anyway. We briefly explore the gist of the second half of the book, in which Kentaro explains how we need to instead ‘amplify people’ and their power to affect social change – sometimes using technologies to achieve positive change. But the primary focus, Kentaro explains, has to be on empowering people politically, socially and economically.

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And as usual, Tom and I discuss some of the top news items of the last few weeks (catching up after a hiatus on podcasting) including the ongoing need in Nepal for assistance following several massive earthquakes, the political unrest in Burundi and a debate that flared up during a recent Gates Foundation confab over how best to move forward in the global fight against poverty and inequity.

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About Author

Gabe Spitzer

Gabriel Spitzer covers health and science at KPLU, after a year covering youth and education. He joined KPLU after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago.

  • Ted Johnson

    I pre-ordered the book and was very happy when I saw it automatically downloading to my e-reader app.

    Speaking of technology for development:

    I’m in Madagascar doing development work with technology, and my Internet connection is never great — not at home or at work. Your podcast MP3 is at 192 kbps which, for me, which meant I could not stream it in your embedded player without buffering issues. I had to look at your source code, find the URL, and then download it.

    At 128 kbps the file would have been 2/3 the size. You don’t need CD-quality audio for a podcast. I think it would have streamed without buffering interruptions even with my slow download speeds.

    I’m about halfway through the podcast now, and am enjoying. Thanks.