Kentaro Toyama

The uncritical embrace of new technologies will not solve our social challenges. But human wisdom can.

Professor, MIT Fellow, and Author of Geek Heresy

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Kentaro Toyama | Professor, MIT Fellow, and Author of Geek Heresy
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It’s a common enough refrain: technology will save the world. But can laptops and cellphones really enact social change? In his new book Geek Heresy, Kentaro Toyama debunks the claims of tech zealots and reveals why humans are more effective than gadgets. In our quest for better learning, stronger communities, and global poverty reduction, Toyama shows that social challenges are best met with deeply social solutions.

Kentaro Toyama is W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information and a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT. He is the author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology and writes The ICT4D Jester, a blog critiquing technology for development.

 

“Toyama’s research reminds us that there are very few one-size-fits-all solutions. If technology is going to improve the lives of the world’s poorest, it must be grounded in a deep understanding of human behavior and an appreciation for cultural differences.”

— Bill Gates

Until 2009, Toyama was assistant managing director of Microsoft Research 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 poorest communities interact with electronic technology and to invent new ways for technology to support their socio-economic development. He is a co-founder of the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD) and co-editor-in-chief of the journal Information Technologies and International Development.

 

Toyama serves on several non-profit boards including those of Digital Green, Humanosphere, Innovations for Poverty Action, and Village Health Works. Prior to his time in India, Toyama did computer vision and multimedia research at Microsoft Research in Redmond, WA, USA and Cambridge, UK, and taught mathematics at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana. Kentaro graduated from Yale with a PhD in Computer Science and from Harvard with a bachelors degree in Physics.

Speech Topics

Technology
Geek Heresy Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology
Kentaro Toyama was a self-described “technoholic” and award-winning computer scientist whose research paved the way for cutting-edge products like Microsoft’s Kinect. In 2004, he co-founded Microsoft Research India, and he set his mind to design electronic inventions to improve education, agriculture, health care, and governance in the developing world’s poorest communities. What Toyama experienced in India, though, shook his faith in technology. 

At a school outside Bangalore, Toyama saw computers locked away in a dusty cabinet because teachers didn’t know what to do with them. Mobile-phone projects to disseminate health information routinely failed. “Telecenters” intended to teach rural farmers better agriculture devolved into places for sleazy web surfing. Meanwhile back in the United States, Silicon Valley executives who evangelize novel technologies at work sent their children to Waldorf schools that ban electronics. And, four decades of incredible innovation have done nothing to turn the tide of increasing poverty and inequality. Why then, do we keep hoping that technology will solve our greatest social challenges? In this talk, Toyama inoculates us against the rhetoric of digital utopians and reinvigorates us with a genuinely human paradigm for social change. A heretic among technologists, Toyama is uniquely able to reveal why social progress depends on human changes that gadgets just can’t deliver. He provides a fierce critique and a heartwarming reminder that it’s human wisdom, not machines, that move our world forward.