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.

  • Technology won’t necessarily fix inequality, but it does raise the standard of living for everyone. That 13% of the U.S. presently considered “in poverty” is much better off than the poor of a few decades ago.

    • margaret myers

      it depends what you consider “better off”…

      • Mushetsteel

        He is only taking current technology into account. The core reason for poverty is simple: Material Lack. The answer to this from technological means is NANOROBOTS. If everyone has Self Replicating NanoBots to construct the material goods they want then noone could ever be poor again. I mean, unless you change the definition of poverty, which is relative. Think about it: If every human has their own personal replicator, nanofactory, or mass of nanobots to assemble atoms from dirt, air, water, and rock using solar and water hydrogen energy into any material item they want, how can people remain poor/poverty? Everyone would be nearly endlessly MATERIALLY rich.

  • Mpach

    The best way to combat poverty: BIRTH CONTROL! People having children they cannot afford is the main cause of poverty.

    • Jueni

      This is one of the simplistic views about poverty and development

  • Jueni

    What Mr. K. Toyama is saying is really banal (no disrespect meanth). Why do news media and policy makers systematically ignore the obvious on poverty and development issues? Simply because theres money and publicity to make in associating technology with the fight against poverty.

  • Sherpra

    Mr. Toyama is right…technology cannot end poverty. Educating the educated to assist in how to help the poor learn the basics of survival in poverty stricken nations can (i.e. boil water before ingesting). If an effort was made to help these poverty stricken nation in action and word would make all the difference. The basis of poverty is ignorance and until that is addressed poverty will always prevail.

  • CD Tauber, M.D.

    Toyama is right at one level. It is shameful that a country like the US spends so much money on “defense” – money wasting and on violation of external and internal human rights and so little on the human values of solving the problems of poverty, health (physical and mental) and education in the world. Yet, we should not throw out the baby with the bath water. I believe that technology has its place in LONG TERM (that is, not quick fixes, which are good only for publicity) programs to deal with these problems. Such programs are labor and time-intensive and are not glamorous. However, at least they work. Let us change the way that we look at the assistance of people and put more thought, time and resources into it.

  • Terry

    Impressive statements, hope he continues to get traction and can educate all of us about the crazy paradoxes–some deliberately imposed on us–of trying to be mindful of the benefits of technology while mitigating the downsides. Kevin Kelley’s recent book “What Technology Wants” is an interesting complement to Toyama’s important message.

  • Remember ‘Technology’ is just a tool. So technology by itself cannot fix our enormous problems like poverty, starvation and education. Just because people are wasting technology and just because people are misusing and abusing technology does not mean that it’s not helping civilization. Corruption is not the fault of technology it is the fault of ignorant humans. Just like any tool if it’s not used properly it will not help. And if you don’t teach people how to use tools properly those tools will be wasted just like every other tool in human history. And to use technology to say that technology is not helping is not just contradictory it’s completely ignorant. That’s like saying a pitchfork can’t feed starving people. No but it can make it easier to loosen dirt that will help plant seeds, which can then help grow food that can then help feed people. Don’t blame the tool or the technology. Blame our education system that fails to teach human’s basic skills and proper behavior. A laptop can’t teach everything to a child but it can help teach a child who has no teacher or no school. It boils down to maximizing our actions and fully understanding our best choices and using our tools effectively. So communicating this information and knowledge is extremely important. You have to be clear when showing people the ways they can help. And technology can definitely help speed up this process.

    • Joeaverage

      Exactly. Give a computer to an engineer and you might get a CAD drawing of a solution. Give that same computer to another person and you might get cutesy messages scrawled across pictures of kittens. What I see in 2011 is the same thing I saw in 1997 when I first got on the ‘net – average people just playing with a tool, not doing much with it. Once people get past using it as a toy, the computer and all the related gadgets might have a chance to make a difference. People must have the desire to make the difference though. You want to make a difference? Teach people to use tools for constructive purposes. Teach kids carpentry, CAD, welding, machine shop, etc. Encourage and enable them to build large complicated projects that don’t just have to fit into a three week period. Start a project in one grade and help them contribute to it and refine it each year for several years. Teach and steer them towards success and refinement. Too often I see kids who are taught the basics and then left to their own devices. Seldom taught the refinement necessary for real success.

      Rather than giving a poor person an expensive computer to draw and write on under challenging conditions, why not a drawing table and pencils? Why not a basic word processor? I have seen people do amazing things with very basic tools.

      I use and buy technology as part of my job. It is exactly as the article said – expensive, time consuming to maintain, and the software demands upgrades of the OS and hardware both leading to more expense. Linux is close to the right tool for folks who don’t want to get stuck in the expensive loop of updates and security software. We’d be better off instead of all rushing for the next shiny OS or gadget – making more of what we’ve got already. I do more with an eight year old desktop than most of my friends do with their brand new shiny computers with all the latest and greatest tricks.

  • Mushetsteel

    He is mistaken. If he is only talking about current things like personal computers, sure. But when we get 3D Printers that can make more replicators, nanobots and the like, he is totally wrong. When every man and woman in the world in every country has their own personal nanobots to assemble atoms from the dirt and sand into fresh material goods and solar power cells to power them cheaply and “freely” from the sun, how can anyone be poor? You would be able to mass produce anything from Armani suits and Spyderco Knives to fresh beefsteaks and anything. Let’s not get into arguments about “What about government controls?” etc. The people will have nanobots to make the goods and there would no longer be poverty, period. 

  • Hi23

    Absolutely convoluted view. Technology is not to be equated with the things Microsoft handles. There is a whole world of robots, nano technology, bio-chemistry, medicine, energy etc. etc. Do not give a laptop to poor but give him an energy efficient small home to live. Give the poor a way to undate his skillsets using technology. Microsoft was more interested in selling itself and that is why its ‘charitable’ aims failed.