May 2011 Features

Does Technology Fail Us? Q&A with Genevieve Bell '90, MA '92

Bell

At Intel Labs, Genevieve Bell ’90, M.A. ’92, leads a team of social scientists, designers and engineers to develop new products in the company’s consumer electronics business. Prior to joining Intel, Bell was a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University, where she had earned her master’s and doctorate degrees. She has written more than 30 journal articles and is the co-author with Prof. Paul Dourish of UC Irvine of Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing (MIT Press, 2011).

You’ve been called Intel’s “secret weapon!” Why?
That particular headline [by analyst Rob Enderle in an online commentary] is my boss’s favorite! One of the things that always surprises people is that Intel has anthropologists working here. We also have psychologists, cognitive and experimental sociologists, communications theorists and scholars—even someone who specializes in interpretive dance. That’s part of the secret.

What’s a nice anthropologist like you doing in a place like Intel?
We still tell a story to ourselves that technology is being innovated in Silicon Valley. The challenge here is that the people who drive most of that innovation look less and less like the people who are buying, using, rejecting, exploiting technology. What anthropology lets you do is bring some of those other experiences, those other voices, those other lives into the conversation where the technology is being created. Technology companies are increasingly investing in a range of skills to create the next generation of meaningful technology.

Where is technology heading?
The use of information and communication technologies has scaled out beyond the West pretty spectacularly. What—800 million cell phones in circulation in India; 750 million in China. The second biggest country for Facebook is Indonesia. Clearly the most interesting stuff with technology in some ways isn’t even happening here anymore. In 1999, 70 percent of the world’s Internet users were based in North America. By 2009, it was less that 16 percent. That astonishing statistic sort of tells you the world has moved on its axis.

How does culture affect technology?
I’m an anthropologist so I look at culture and values and how technology is incorporated into that culture. For example one of the most popular websites in India is the matrimonial classified…getting a husband is a database problem. Mobile phones across the Middle East, North Africa and Islamic Southeast Asia are often used to find Mecca because your phone has GPS technology so that when you’re on the road you can pray five times a day.

You are the second woman to be a Fellow at Intel.
In the interview process, one of my dear colleagues—now a dear colleague—asked me: “Is there anything else we need to know about you?’ And I’m thinking oh my god, “Well yes, I’m sort of a bit of an unreconstructed feminist.” And he looked at me and said: “Are we going to like that?”

Apparently, the answer is yes! What about the role of women in technology?
Women are often early adopters of new technology. Women mastered the first round of what were in some ways intensely unreliable gadgets—refrigerators, washing machines, ovens. They became similar custodians of telephones and television. They led the way in driving mobile phones from road warriors into the general population. I am always interested about the way we tell the story that erases women’s technology prowess—in no small part because most of the technologies women mastered became invisible very quickly. They became appliances. We took away the sexiness of mastering them.

Why this rap that women are technologically-challenged?
Well I’d be tempted to say patriarchy. Of course, in reality it is more complicated than that. We don’t tell a lot of stories about women as technology masters despite the fact that they always have been. I think we need to get better at acknowledging our own expertise!

What about age prejudice?
We associate technology primarily with the next generation. So people talk about baby boomers as not being very good with new technology. . . [But] boomers have been at the forefront of new technology their entire lives. They drove cars with manual chokes and gearboxes. They went on to microwave ovens, VCRs, computers in the work force. They’re the fastest growing group on Facebook, online dating, online investment strategies. Yet we talk about them like they’re somehow technology-illiterate. We wrap technology around the young and that makes us unable to see the technology prowess of everyone else.

Which products do you use?
I’m on my second generation of Kindles. I’m a woman who loves books, too. If you were to pry the Kindle out of my hand, you would discover it’s full of the trash that I would once have bought in airports to read on airplanes. It’s become my trashy book file. I also have a digital single-lens reflex camera. A Blackberry which lets me have a 15-hour-a-day conversation with my best mate in Australia. A laptop, a ThinkPad. A Bluetooth headset. An iPod.

Any huge dangers on the horizon?
You know that technology is important at the point that people become convinced it’s going to destroy everything. Look at the introduction of electricity: one of the first things said in testimony before the Senate was that it would be the end of the American family. I’m like, “Really?” Radio was going to be really bad because we were going to stop talking to each other. Television was going to be really bad because it was going to atrophy our brains. Movies were going to destroy books. This kind of wonderful story gets mobilized about new technology and inevitably links it to the decline of everything we think we value. One of the challenges here is that all this [digital] technology is so new—less than ten years in common circulation for the Internet. And what a surprise—we don’t know the answers yet.

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