Kentaro Toyama is a technologist deeply committed to human development and the cultivation of virtue
. An optimist-turned-realist who believes that technologies "increase possibility," he has come to conclude, over the course of a career in technology for development, that "actual outcomes depend on other assets" -- namely, human intentions and capacity. "Technology is terrific," he says
, "and it’s helped the rich world come far, but in the end, there’s no real progress without change in people."
Toyama is the W. K. Kellogg Associate Professor at University of Michigan’s School of Information and a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT. He just released (last week!) his celebrated book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology
, based on what he learned over the past decade, exploring how digital technologies can support the socio-economic development of very poor communities.
Until 2009, he was assistant managing director of Microsoft Research (MSR) India, which he co-founded in 2005. At MSR India, he started the Technology for Emerging Markets research group, which conducts interdisciplinary research to understand how the world’s poorer communities interact with electronic technology and to invent new ways for technology to support their socio-economic development. The award-winning group is known for projects such as MultiPoint, Text-Free User Interfaces, and Digital Green.
Prior to his time in India, Toyama researched computer vision and multimedia at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington and Cambridge, UK, and taught mathematics at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana. Toyama graduated from Yale with a PhD in Computer Science and from Harvard with a BS in Physics.
"If I were to summarize everything I learned through research in ICT4D [information communication technology for development]," Toyama writes
, "it would be this: technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity.
It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied a basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around."
The lesson, he says, "for anyone expecting to save the world with technology: you can't.. . at least, not unless the technology is applied where human intent and capacity are already present, or unless you are willing also to invest heavily in developing human capability and institutions." "It's not that technology is powerless or irrelevant; it's that technology is not the problem. Technology is just a tool; its impact depends on how it's wielded. If tool after fancy tool doesn't build a better house, maybe we should invest more in the carpenter."
Toyama was born in Tokyo and raised in both Japan and the United States. He lives in Ann Arbor.
Five Questions with Kentaro Toyama
What Makes You Come Alive?
Mentoring someone who is eager to grow.
Pivotal turning point in your life?
When I was 15, I entered a high school physics egg-drop contest in which we were supposed to design the lightest container that would allow an egg to survive a drop from a water tower. I won, but was disappointed that the victory wasn't trumpeted in the next morning's school-wide announcements. That led me to introspect, and I found that (1) I was unconsciously seeking public accolades for my ingenuity; (2) I felt immature doing so; yet (3) I couldn't think myself out of the desire. I see that moment as the beginning of my conscious adulthood, as well as the defining crux of my life. It has been with me ever since, despite having tried a lot of things to grow beyond it. The only way to let it go, it seems to me now, is a single-minded pursuit of the aspiration until I'm exhausted of it.
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
In third grade, I returned to Japan after many years in America. My mother sat next to me for hours and forced me to read the text for an assigned reading over and over, so that I could read it fluently in class (something I would not otherwise have been able to do, given limited literacy in Japanese). Sure enough, the teacher called on me the next day, and I was able to read it straight through. That was, of course, just one incident. There is no single person who has done so much for me -- and so much of it well before I could appreciate it -- than my mother.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
To be able to re-experience the world as a single whole, untainted by symbolic thinking.
One-line Message for the World?
There is no real progress without some change in people.