No Tech Solutions for Poverty, says Former Microsoft Researcher

Choose one thing that can lift people out of poverty and level the playing fields everywhere. It’s gotta be tech, right? From Lagos to Lima, computers and smartphones let people access the same information and design their own futures. But Yale and Harvard-trained computer scientist Kentaro Toyama argues that tech will never solve the world’s problems.

Toyama tells Tiny Spark, “Many of the misguided programs that we impose on the world happen because we tend to see the world as a machine, and people as cogs in that machine. So if we find the right technology, and the right place to put the new technology, then the machine will work better. But I think ultimately, that that’s a mistake.”

Such a big mistake that Toyama’s written a book about the limitations of tech. It’s called Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Toyama describes his time working for Microsoft in India from 2004 to 2009, when he was tasked with finding out how tech could improve the futures of the poor. But after more than 50 research projects, he began having a change of heart, like when he was trying to get computers into schools that had very little else. “In those schools in which you don’t have a strong administration, good teachers and so forth, the technology will usually not have any kind of impact whatsoever, and in some cases, it can cause outright harm.”

Toyama explains, “Several times, we would try to run a technology project where there would be a teacher there who was very eager to show us what he or she was able to do with the technology, but they would spend a good chunk of the class — often up to 10, 20 minutes of the initial part of the class — just setting up the technology and getting everything right. And these are schools in India where the class time is maybe 45 or 50 minutes. So by the time that the technology is set up, half the class is over. To me that’s a waste of that class time. If we didn’t have the technology there, trying to run these programs, they could get on with their regular educational curriculum, and it would probably end up being better for the students.”

Toyama working for Microsoft in Rajasthan, India. (Credit: Toyama)

Toyama with school children in Rajasthan, India. (Credit: Toyama)

Pushing back against the idea that tech is a global game changer, Toyama mentions that the U.S. has seen a “golden age of digital innovation” but at the same time, poverty and inequality have risen and social mobility has stagnated. “So that in itself tells you that, you know, even if you have the world’s most technologically advanced country, even then it’s not addressing these deep social problems.”

Toyama cites another example: Kickstarter. Not too long ago, actor and director Zach Braff used it to raise more than $3 million for his film. Toyama explains, “What you see is that your existing influence and status as a celebrity gets amplified using the technology, but those gains don’t necessarily apply to everybody else. What happens is that people with wealth or education or social influence end up benefiting much, much more from the technology than people without.”

Toyama working for Microsoft in Uganda. (Credit: Toyama)

Toyama with community workers in Uganda. (Credit: Toyama)

This former tech evangelist has now come full circle, and he champions an intervention that is much more old school: mentorship. “The idea with mentorship is to really ask first, ‘What is it that the other person aspires to? What do they most want?’ And then to see if we can help using the advantages that we have, help them gain the skills and the resources and the personal connections that are required to achieve their own aspirations.”

Toyama says he’s now less interested in developing or spreading technologies. “What is much harder, and a much deeper problem, is how do we spread this idea that more of us should really actively seek to be better versions of ourselves? How do we cause that social change to happen? So in my own research, I focus more and more on people and on the human psychology and sociology or true human development.”

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