Geek heretic: Technology cannot end poverty

Kentaro Toyama

Kentaro Toyama is clearly a heretic. A geek heretic.

Kentaro Toyama is clearly a heretic. A geek heretic. And, based on his career path, I would guess brilliant.

A computer scientist currently at the University of California, Berkeley, Toyama co-founded Microsoft Research India in 2005 and remained there as assistant managing director until 2009.

If you’re not familiar with what they do at Microsoft Research, think artificial intelligence, computer vision, terabyte juggling, high-octane mathematics and the craziest things you can try to do with bits, bytes or any kind of information technology.

While in India, Toyama launched Microsoft Research’s Technology for Emerging Markets group. (The website shows a toddler who appears to be sending a text message by cell phone.)

So you’d expect Toyama to be another one of those folks claiming that if we can just “bridge the digital divide” in poor countries, many chronic problems will be more easily solved. You’d expect him to be happy to see headlines like this New York Times article Can The Cellphone End Poverty?

Nope. “That’s the reason I quit Microsoft,” said Toyama.

“Technology is just an amplifier of human intent and capacity,” Toyama says. After years of struggling with his colleagues in India to find effective technological solutions for the many different manifestations of poverty — illiteracy, poor health, lack of employment opportunities — he decided technology was not the answer.

“Technology is just an amplifier of human intent and capacity,” Toyama said. Bringing new technologies to poor communities can help to some extent, he said, but the root causes of poverty and inequity remain.

“Technology is not going to solve these problems,” Toyama says. The ill-fated One Laptop Per Child scheme, he notes, is just one of the more high-profile examples of how simply introducing a new technology (in this case aimed at improving education in poor countries) seldom works.

Yet the idea of applying information and communication technologies for international development (the idea even has its own code word — “ICT4D”) is incredibly popular. Toyama estimates that billions of dollars are spent every year by donors, development organizations and aid groups on some variation on the ICT4D theme.

As he wrote in an article for the Boston Review, the reasons this is such a popular development strategy are pretty easy to understand:

  • It is much less painful to purchase a hundred thousand PCs than to provide a real education for a hundred thousand children.
  • It is easier to run a text-messaging health hotline than to convince people to boil water before ingesting it.
  • It is easier to write an app that helps people find out where they can buy medicine than it is to persuade them that medicine is good for their health.

Toyama is certainly not opposed to using technology to assist in the fight against poverty and disease in poor countries.

He’s got a grant right now from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, looking at the effectiveness of using cell phones for agricultural extension projects in Africa. And he serves on the board of the Seattle-based Grameen Technology Center, which is using cell phones on a number of development projects.

But the technology, Toyama says, has to be applied within a broader context that simultaneously works to improve the communities ability to make the best use of it. Otherwise, the technologies often do little good — and can even do harm, actually magnifying the inequities or social dysfunctions already there.

Again, from the Boston Review article:

In effect, technology helps the rich get richer while doing little for the incomes of the poor, thus widening the gaps between haves and have-nots.

Technology costs money not only to acquire, but also to operate, maintain, and upgrade. And this “digital divide” persists even when the technology is fully sponsored. For instance, most public libraries in the United States provide free access to the Internet, but poorer residents have less leisure time in which to visit them and a harder time reaching them because of transportation costs.

As Toyama notes in his TEDxTokyo talk (see the video below), the rapid introduction of new information and communication technologies in the U.S. over the last few decades has done nothing to reduce poverty rates here at home (they’ve remained steady, at about 13 percent, a rate Toyama says is “shameful” for such a wealthy country).

Anyway, I could go on and on based on Toyama’s fascinating and heretical ideas. But you should hear it from the heretic himself:

Here is Toyama’s website. He’s moving to Seattle, where he hopes to complete a book about his views on development and global poverty. I expect we’ll be hearing much more from Toyama in the future.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.