Anthropology extracts the true nature of tech

Genevieve Bell on how fieldwork and observation can guide technology.

Genevieve Bell, director of interaction and experience research at Intel Corporation, says when she approaches technology she is “less interested in thinking about the piece of technology itself and more interested in the kind of work that technology is trying to do and the larger context in which it finds itself.”

In the following interview, Bell discusses her experience as a “Thinker in Residence” and how anthropology concepts can be used to make tech more consumer centric.

You were an Adelaide “Thinker in Residence” for South Australia. What does that involve?

Genevieve_BellGenevieve Bell: The South Australian government over the last seven years has invested in a program to bring preeminent thinkers from around the world to tackle the problems of the future of the state. I was the first Australian, which was very odd. But over the years, they’ve brought people to Australia to think about things like water security, supply chain management, juvenile justice, homelessness, urban planning, public transportation systems, and early childhood development. The government has implemented recommendations from those thinkers that have ranged from changing how they do supply chain management to introducing childhood development learning centers in schools.

My task was to help think about what was going to be the role of information and communication and entertainment technologies in the future of South Australia and, indeed, Australia more broadly. It ended up happening that this project took place against the backdrop of a much larger national debate about the role of broadband. The project had an interesting focus on looking at what the barriers to adoption and the drivers to high-speed broadband were going to be in South Australia.

In order to come up with some sort of solid recommendations in that space, I chose to do something quite unusual for this project and in this program — I went and did fieldwork. I spent about two months traveling in South Australia. I think I logged about 12,500 kilometers by the time I was done — I went through two state fleet vehicles; they’ll never forgive me for that. I talked to people in about 45 different communities that ran the gamut from remote aboriginal communities to urban centers. It gave me a sense of what made South Australians tick, and it helped me find out what they care about. I also did a piece of ethnographic research with the government itself to work out how the government functions and how it thinks about things.

For me, it was really about trying to think through this question: If you were in government, what would you do — what would you need to do — to make the state a good place for broadband to happen? It wasn’t just about getting households connected. It was about capacity building, both in the citizenry and in the state. I asked people to participate in our website with me — send me pictures of the technological stuff in their lives, tell me about it and I would respond to that. We also did a massive postcard drive — I knew I couldn’t ask everyone to get online and talk to me, so we distributed free postcards and asked people to mail them back. We generated a whole lot of postcards as a result of that.

The report is available online for download from the SA Stories site and from the Thinker’s website. The government is in the process of inducting — and has already inducted — some of the recommendations and it’s debating the others. It was actually a really inspiring, exciting process. I was incredibly fortunate that one of the things that Intel lets you do after working there for seven years is to take a sabbatical. Most people, sensibly I would say in retrospect, choose to spend that as down time. I seem pathologically incapable of having downtime, so I decided I’d go to work for someone else in that period. Intel actually was very kind about letting me go and do that and giving me the space to have a different moment of intellectual work. And I did, in fact, come back to Intel very differently energized as a result of it.

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What parts of your anthropology background do you find particularly applicable to technology issues and solutions?

Genevieve Bell: As an anthropologist, one of the things that’s really useful is that we’re trained to think at a systems level. We’re trained to think about things holistically. When it comes to me approaching technology, that means I’m less interested in thinking about the piece of technology itself and more interested in the kind of work that technology is trying to do and the larger context in which it finds itself. And for me, it’s always about being able to ask this larger set of questions.

I’m really interested in getting at the critical distinction between what people say they’re doing and what they’re actually doing. A lot of technology development is really focused on what we think people should do or what we imagine they’re doing or what they tell us they’re doing. The reality is often something completely different.

What techniques do you use to get at that reality?

Genevieve Bell: The first principle is fieldwork. I’m a big believer in actually going to the places where technology is being produced and consumed, and spending time with people in their lives to get a sense of what they care about. For me, that means you have to be able to ask bigger questions about what people value. I’m really interested in seeing what life is actually like, not what we hope it looks like.

How has your team made Intel a more consumer-centric company?

Genevieve Bell: Out of sheer force of will and being stubborn. That’s never a good answer, but it is, in fact, one of the answers. I think we’ve done it partly out of persistence and out of a vision that said we knew that what people wanted could change the way Intel made things.

Before my current job, which I’ve been in for about a year, I spent five years working in our consumer electronics business. Part of my role there was to transform what had been a quite traditional Intel business into something that was much more consumer centric.

Part of how we drove that kind of different thinking was literally going and spending time with people all over the world in their homes.

We made different decisions about what we built and what we didn’t based on the feedback we were getting from consumers, not just customers but consumers. I’m really proud of that work because we actually transformed the
way the company — and that piece of the company — thought about itself and what it was doing. When anthropology is done right in business, it can change the way a company thinks about itself and what it values. That’s the stuff that endures.

Genevieve Bell discussed the intersection of technology, data, and real-world uses at Web 2.0 Summit 2011. Her full presentation is available in the following video:

This interview was edited and condensed.