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Kentaro Toyama: ten myths about technology and development

Kentaro Toyama is a visiting scholar at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.  Until 2009, he was assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India, which he co-founded in 2005.

Kentaro identified a number of myths that surround the field of ICT4D and argued that these can confuse our thinking about the proper role for technology in addressing development problems.

Myth 1: Technology x will save the world: The history of writing on technology shows that each new advance tends to be greeted with unbridled enthusiasm about its potential impact. Where once people were convinced television could solve all social and political problems, today we are putting that burden onto mobile phones.

Myth 2: Poor people have no alternatives:  We can often assume that technology is the only way that poor people will be access certain goods. In reality, there are usually non-technological routes to information and services that are free and therefore preferable.

Myth 3: ‘Needs' are more pressing than desires: A high proportion of the income of the very poor goes on what Western observers might view as ‘luxury' items: (music, photos, festivals & weddings) rather than ‘basics' such as healthcare.

Myth 4: ‘Needs' translate into business models: Building a business model around the needs of poor communities is possible, but there are significant barriers. Poor populations are harder to reach, and they may not want to pay for the services you provide, even if their value seems obvious to you.

Myth 5: If you build it, they will come: Spending is not always rational. An eye hospital in India offers extremely high quality cataract operations for free and covers all related costs. 10% of those offered the service will still refuse to have the operation.

Myth 6: ICT undoes the problem of the rich getting richer: In contexts where literacy and social capital are unevenly distributed, technology tends to amplify inequalities rather than reduce them. An email account cannot make you more connected unless you have some existing social network to build on.

Myth 7: Hardware and software are one-time costs: Kentaro estimates that the average One Laptop per Child will in fact cost $250 per child per year to cover breakage, connectivity, power, maintenance and training.

Myth 8: Automated is always cheaper and better: Where labor is cheap and populations are illiterate, automated systems are not necessarily preferable. Greater accuracy may be another reason to favor voice and human mediated systems.

Myth 9: Information is the real bottle-neck:  Those in the ICT4D world are prone to overestimate the significance of information gaps. Even if you connect a farmer to an agricultural expert via a PC, there are a host of other barriers to be overcome before he can actually increase his yields, including: literacy, poor transport links, and a lack of volume buyers for seeds, pesticides etc.

Kentaro contends that when technology makes a difference in development, it is always as much to do with the input of committed and competent individuals and organizations. Despite this, the focus when reporting ICT4D projects quickly slips into extolling the virtues of the technology itself, not the human component. This says much about the seductive quality of technology. Myths about its potential persist because we have a strong desire to see the triumph of clever ideas and ingenuity, and to believe that one time catalytic investments can have such an impact. The reality is always more complex.