10 Myths of Development & Technology

Kentaro Toyama, a colleague at the iSchool at UC Berkeley and previously of Microsoft Research India, lays out his observation of 10 myths of ICT4D, which are what I see as examples of technology determinism.  These are myths that typifies technology determinism, which according to Wikipedia, presumes that "a society's technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values". (note that Wikipedia also rightly claims that there is a spectrum of believers from 'Hard' to 'Soft', which I think appears in all sets of beliefs or theories.) I will be linking some previous writing to this post in the near future about current theories of ICT4D, but for now, I would like to share Kentaro's findings:

Note:  I've taken the liberty to adapt his findings from his Powerpoint file and my comments are in italics. 

Kentaro's 10 Myths of Technology and Development:
  • Technology X will save the world. Yup, typical reaction to any new technology, from the invention of the alphabet to the printing press to steam engines to....
  • Poor people have no alternatives I appreciate this human dignity approach, although, it does depends on what the issue is, or how deep in poverty the particular people are. His example is in semi urban Bangalore, but I have witnessed certain poor communities in villages or hilltribes that have little alternatives to inexpensive and reliable information. However, a GENERAL assumption that poor people have no alternatives is wrong
  • Needs are more pressing than desires His point is that most needs of poor people are not technologically related, but that actually they are willing to spend more proportionally than the urban rich on technology. I do agree, although it does depend on what poverty level they might be in. 
  • Needs translate to business models. there are certainly many more factors than needs that are in play here. Just reflect on ourselves who have individual needs, but we certainly don't start a successful business per se in response. 
  • If you build it, they will come. This is the classic India 'Hole in the Wall' example. They might not come for a variety of reasons: lack of knowledge, lack of local content, lack of resources, political or social reasons, etc. Worse, sometimes, if we build it, it might stifle local entrepreneurship. 
  • ICT undoes “rich getting richer." ICT itself does not. At best, it merely amplifies the social and economic problems that the poor are already facing. 
  • Technology permits socio-economic leapfrogging. Only if the right social economic and politcal conditions are in place and technology is applied appropriately. 
  • Hardware and software are a one-time cost. If only- in fact in most of my previous programs, best practice has shown that tech itself (hardware/software) is only about 20% of TOC (total cost of ownership). We usually budget an extra 80% for training, technical support and overcoming the challenges of social/economic/political factors for adoption.   
  • Automated is cheaper and better. Another technology determinism track. 
  • Information is the bottleneck.International Development is like a chess game that is being placed in 4 dimensions. It is very hard to identify a 'bottleneck' correctly. There is usually not a 'bottleneck' per se anyway, most problems are dynamic and interrelated. 

Why then do we have this attitude? 

  • Desire for an easy solution
  • Desire for a one-time, catalytic investment
  • Desire to see ingenuity triumph
  • Seductive power of technology in the developed world
  • Not enough insight into actual poor communities
  • Misleading explanations of successful ICT projects ("this project worked BECAUSE of the technology")

Key Lessons:

  • Technology amplifies human intent and capability.
  • Technology requires support from well-intentioned, competent people or organizations.
  • For successful ICT4D, partner with competent, organizations or be prepared to build your own.


I think that this Powerpoint is pretty spot on, and those are usually the attitude adopted by people coming from a technological or even economic discipline (vs. a social one). However, after a short time in the field, these myths will soon start to dissipate. I hope to catch Kentaro Toyama at the iSchool for a deeper chat soon.

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