A Cultural Perspective on Technology
By Barbara Spector
Cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell ’90, M.A. ’92, has spent the past two years on a research project that involved traveling to 16 cities in six Asian countries, where she has been a guest in more than 85 homes. Through warm, animated discussions with her hosts, she is learning how technology helps members of Asia’s urban middle classes accomplish their daily tasks and interact with others.
Bell, born in Australia, received her Ph.D. in anthropology from Stanford University in 1998. She is now a design ethnographer at the Intel Architecture Labs in Hillsboro, Ore. She is part of a team of anthropologists, psychologists, designers and engineers seeking new applications for Intel’s technologies — and new users for its equipment. Their findings are incorporated into Intel product design.
Bell has met with families in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, China and Korea. She says these interactions soon “cease being interviews and start being conversations.” By observing people in their homes, Bell says, she gleans how cultural ideals differ from cultural practices with respect to technology.
“Ethnographically inspired work allows us to get at the disconnect between what people say they do and what they actually are doing,” Bell explains. ”It’s not good enough to keep producing technology with no notion of whether it’s going to be useful to consumers. In industry, we need as many tools and as many ways of getting at who these people are as we can get, and ethnography is a powerful way of doing it.”
In her field research, Bell says, “I ask people to take me on a tour of their homes and to tell me what is in there that they care about, and why.” She first asks her hosts to describe the people in the home. She then asks them to “tell me what you did yesterday.” From their answers, Bell learns how each inhabitant consumes media such as radio, newspapers, television and the Internet.
“My challenge,” Bell says, “is to come up with overarching themes you can see across Asian countries that are different from themes in the West.” One finding, she notes, is that Asians’ use of technology is shaped by religion. For example, she says, mobile phones in Malaysia are programmed to find the direction to Mecca so Muslims can determine which way to face when praying. And in China, she reports, Buddhist monks are blessing mobile phones — which are smaller than Americans’ cell phones and often worn on a cord around the neck.
In the next phase of the project, Bell will return to Australia, which she says is more like Asia than the United States in its use of technology. “It’s more wired than the States,” says Bell, who hopes to write a book based on her Asian research.
Bell’s first trip to the United States was a 1985 visit to Bryn Mawr College. Bell, then 18, was accompanying her mother, Diane Bell — now a professor of anthropology and women’s studies at George Washington University — who was invited to participate in the College’s centennial celebration. Jane Goodale, who chaired Bryn Mawr’s anthropology department, had served on her mother’s thesis committee at Australian National University, where Diane Bell received her Ph.D.
“The undergraduates were the most poised, smart, elegant women I had ever seen,” Genevieve Bell recalls.
Genevieve entered the College at age 20. “I deliberately left Australia to get out of my mother’s shadow,” she says. But ironically, Bell — who as a child had lived in an aboriginal community while her mother did fieldwork — turned to anthropology to help ease her homesickness. “I thought I understood Americans,” she says. “But America turned out to be very foreign.” Bell was surprised, for example, by the perfunctory way in which Americans reply to the question, “How are things?” In Australia, she notes, “you didn’t ask unless you really wanted to know the answer.”
Finding a Niche
Through anthropology, Bell says, she found her niche. She cites department faculty members Jane Goodale, Richard Davis and Philip Kilbride as mentors. “Every door was always open to you,” Bell recalls. “I spent a lot of time in Jane’s office just talking about things.”
Bell was admitted to Bryn Mawr’s graduate program in her sophomore year and earned an M.A. degree. Alejandro Lugo, then a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr who taught Native American studies, encouraged her to apply to the doctoral program at Stanford. After earning her Ph.D., Bell taught a range of anthropology courses at Stanford.
Bell connected with Intel through an acquaintance who knew the company employed ethnographers. “At the time,” she recalls, “there weren’t that many anthropologists working in industry. The ‘appropriate’ place for an anthropologist to end up was in the academy, and I was clearly being fast-tracked for that.” What drew her to the Intel job, Bell says, was the opportunity to follow her instincts. “There were almost no rules for what you were supposed to be doing, and few expectations.”
Today, Bell says, “I miss having a classroom,” although she notes that her interactions with Intel’s engineers resemble conversations with students. “I like the interdisciplinary aspect of my current research,” she says.
Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the executive editor of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.