Thursday, June 16, 2011

Intel anthropologist: Fieldwork with the silicon tribe

Anthropologist Genevieve Bell gives the chip maker insight into how people experience new technologies

How did you come to work as an anthropologist with a tech firm?

My mother was an anthropologist. I grew up in Australia on field sites and Aboriginal settlements, running around with no shoes and killing my supper. My father and grandfather were engineers, so being surrounded by people who constantly take things apart is very much part of my life.

What does your work involve?

At Intel, my job is to bring humanity back into the technology equation. I talk about what people care about, what motivates them, and then think about how understanding their everyday practices might generate new forms of technology.

At Stanford you studied Native American culture. Are there parallels with your work today?

Initially, Intel was like a field site. It was so profoundly foreign. That let me ask naive questions and it created a headspace I could work in. They also knew anthropology was interesting and believed you could apply it to anything. It was liberating. I was able do research that I could not have done had I stayed in a university.

How does your work fit in at Intel?

It can drive silicon in the making. We studied why people love TV and learned it's because you press one button for a story - it is straightforward, flexible and lets you get away from the everyday.

The engineers said they didn't care. I said, "You do." A traditional microprocessor needs a fan to cool it down - which has implications for designing chip-based consumer electronics. This noise is going to kick in and ruin the mood. If television is about telling a story, nothing should get in the way of that story.

Do you often knock heads with engineers?

Engineering tends to start with what is technologically possible. Part of my job is about how you talk about experiences as a starting point instead. Taking a shower, for example: you don't need to know how plumbing works, but what people love about showering. This approach creates very different solutions.

Who are you designing for?

To design for real people, you've got to think of messy apartments where everything is plugged into the same electrical outlet. As an engineer you tend to imagine you're designing into a blank space. It's a different problem to think about how to create technology so compelling that a person is willing to give something up, to unplug it to plug your thing in.

Now we have touchscreens will user interfaces change again?

At the moment, we're thinking about how control by voice and gesture will materialise. The engineers I used to work with would tell me how they were going to make all televisions with voice recognition. I thought, as soon as you have more than one person in a room there is no way you want voice recognition. It would mean the television has to solve the problem of who's in charge. Remote controls make it easy.

Your new book is about the rising role of computers in everyday life. Why did you pick this topic?

Paul Dourish and I have been writing papers together for nearly a decade. He comes from a computer science background, and we've shifted each other's perspectives considerably. We thought the conversation about where technology development has come from and where it's going should have a broader audience: the field has moved on so much.

Your book deals in depth with privacy. How big an issue is it now?

Privacy was a big issue a decade ago. Today, people are more worried about reputation. We tested people with future scenarios, such as if your smart television could update your Facebook page about what you're watching. No one liked it. People said things like, "My girlfriend put the show on and left the room" or "I've only ever watched it once". We talk about the content we watch as part of who we are. One of the biggest anxieties we have about these technologies is that they reveal what we're really up to - what dreadful dorks we are.

Genevieve Bell is director of Interaction and Experience Research at Intel. She holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from Stanford University, California. Her first book, Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing is co-written with Paul Dourish and published by the MIT Press

Webb, Jeremy. 2011. "Intel anthropologist: Fieldwork with the silicon tribe". New Scientist. Posted: May 31, 2011. Available online:

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