One of a small, interdisciplinary team of research scientists in the People & Practices Research group at Intel - which includes "blue sky" thinkers who ponder the future - anthropologist Genevieve Bell focuses on how technology can be integrated and incorporated into people's everyday practices. "Rather than saying, 'here's a hard technical problem we're solving,' we say, 'here's a set of things people really care about and the social practices that are incredibly important to people. So how do we either design technolgy that supports that, or at the very least, how do we design technology that doesn't ignore that,'" explains Bell.
For companies like Intel - as well as organizations like IBM, HP, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Ford Motor Company, Sears Robuck, and Harrah's Casinos that also employ anthropologists - one of the challenges is that the market that consumes the technology has shifted away from being people just like us to people very unlike us. As your market shifts from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and you move past the assumption that they want to be just like you, one of the challenges becomes finding the right tools to figure out what it is that those people want.
"It becomes a really big challenge of how do you get a handle on those things," says Bell. "Ethnography in particular - anthropologists, sociologist, psychologists - we all have a set of skills and expertise that allows us to get a those kinds of things. One of the virtues of what anthropology does when it does it well is to question the way the world works...and de-center people's notions of fixed and human truths, and say, 'no, those are actually just local cultural practice.'" In other words, anthropologists try and get companies to question their assumptions and what they take for granted, both about themselves, and, more importantly, their customers. "For me, a lot of the things I got told in the field and a lot of the stories that people shared with me served that purpose of saying, 'we have all these assumptions about what technology does, but really, those are cultural assumptions and not universal truths.'"
So how are the data that Bell generate used by companies like Intel?
According to Bell, the primary benefit of her type of anthropological field research is to remind her colleagues at Intel "that there's a world out there that often is very different from their own. It doesn't have the same values and aspirations. The rest of the world isn't just waiting to grow up and become just like America...always a good thing to kind of suggest." Westerners like to assume that as globalization proceeds, non-Westerners want to be just like us, but Bell found that assumption to be questionable at best. "I think people have this interesting assumption that...people want to be, aspire to be like Americans, with all the things that includes: notions about democracy, capitalism, civil society." Even Western countries like Great Britain and the US which have a fair amount in common harbor different ideas about the way these institutions work. "I think one of the challenges is how you let go of a sense that there's this kind of aspirational point that everyone is striving for. Once you let go of that, you have to imagine that maybe things like privacy, security, trust risk - a lot of words that we bandy around when we talk about new technologies, may also be constituted differently in different places. They many not be the first things people imagine. Part of it, I think, just means starting to imagine the world a whole lot more broadly than we have."
An interesting implication is that many different kinds of applications and services will be incredibly successful outside of the US, but will have no market here. This approach directly impacts corporate strategy and investment, and marketing and branding, as a recent product roll-out in China demonstrates - a PC developed, tested and marketed specifically for the "educational aspirations" of Chinese families.
In thinking about what "appropriate technology" would look like in different regions, Intel took some of the ethnographic work that Bell had collected in the field in China, partnered with a local Chinese design firm, and started to think strategically. They jointly developed a PC that addressed Chinese parents' concern that having a computer in the house would interfere with their children learning Mandarin. Unlike in the US, where it's assumed that computers are good for kids at any age - the younger they're exposed, the better - in China, where learning Mandarin is incredibly important, parents worry that a computer is a distraction until the language is mastered, around the time the children are entering secondary school. Her team analyzed just what it was about a computer that could be construed as a problem. They pondered: "Was it the computer in general? Was it the fact that it doesn't support the learning of Mandarin? Was it that the internet is out there and kind of wild?" To address the parents' concerns, they built a physical locking mechanism into the computer that enables it to switch between two modes: an ordinary open-to-everything mode and an "education-only" model. Because the parents also worried that if the locking mechanism were a software program their offspring would simply hack around it, the computer has a physical key that can be eyeballed from across the room, and the parent can see what position it's in.
Seven Countries, 100 Homes, Countless Assumptions Re-Examined
Bell recently completed a three year field project in which she visited and interviewed 100 households in seven Asian countries. The purpose was to examine how culture dictates people's relationships to technology in urban Asia. She discovered many eyeopening facts and implications:
- SMALLER HOMES: Homes are smaller than the classic American usage models of home space with 2500 square foot floorplans assume. "If your home is only 400-600 square feet, you make very different choices about what kind of technology you buy and what you do with it. You tend to calculate: Do I really need this? What's it going to get me? Does it replace something else that's already in my space?" In the case of technology like wireless streaming video, in a 400 square foot home, there are not many rooms to stream things to, and if you do have a wireless router - a device which allows you to walk from room to room with your wireless gadgets - chances are, you will be broadcasting signals beyond the confines of your walls, which can impact how other objects function. "I've had people in Singapore talk to me about how their wireless printers occasionally will just be possessed. That's really an issue. There are huge implications for technology consumption and development."
- DESIRES & ASPIRATIONS: Westerners tend to aspire to having their own stuff, whereas Bell discovered that in Asia, it was quite the opposite. "We [Westerners] tend to think it's a much better world when you have your own MP3 player and your own cellphone and your own laptop, and your own car, even, and you don't have to share them with others." The Asian families she interviewed decided in favor of a joint family computer, despite having the economic resources to purchase more than one. On a conference call between Malaysians and Americans, the Malaysians reported that their kids were content to share a PC, which was kept in their room. "And what became clear was that the children all shared a bedroom. And the Americans on the phonecall were like, 'your kids share a room?' And the Malaysians were like, 'yours don't? Are you punishing them?' It was a wonderful cultural disconnect about the fact that in the US, we're used to the notion that children would have a bedroom to themselves. Whereas, in Malaysia at least, that was seen as a terrible thing to do to a child. The child would be terribly lonely."
- PRIVACY: The fact that people choose to share their technology and enjoy it communally - despite being economically capable of purchasing items for individual use - has direct implications on what privacy means to different cultures. "People have very different notions of privacy, because those are culturally constructed and constrained ideas. What we mean by privacy looks very different in America that it does even say, in Australia, where I'm from. So we have a different assumption about what everyone knows about us, and what they don't." In the case of Japanese homes, it's been suggested that the fact that they are small and have less privacy accounts for the phenomenal popularity of text-messaging in that country. Bell found that in countries like Indonesia, it's quite common for entire families to have a single phone and email account. "People talk about the fact that they really like that because you get to know what's going on. It's different from you or me; we maintain multiple email address, controlling in some ways who has access to you, and how you know what's out there. In some places, that is considered to be quite unnecessary."
- THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT: Bell also discovered that government often played a significant role in setting many people's aspirations about technology. "It is quite common for the leader of a number of these countries - India springs to mind - to stand up and say something like, 'the internet is going to be the future of India' and for the families I visited knowing that that meant that they had to go and make it happen. The call to arms, the call to action, was something that they actually had to materialize. It's very different in some ways than the American experience with technology." She makes the point that in both Singapore and Korea, the remarkable proliferation of broadband has been made possible by the government.
- THE CUTTING EDGE OF TECHNOLOGY? NOT THE U.S. From different kinds of handsets, to different applications and software, Bell explains that much of the cutting edge of technology is coming out of countries like India, China, and Korea - and not the US. "I think it's tempting to imagine that the centers of innovation of that stuff are places like the States and maybe Western Europe, but it was really clear from what people were doing and what was available to them that the centers for innovating and creating new technologies were already shifting."
- RELIGIOUS PRACTICES: Some of the newest cellphones can orient you to Mecca, remind you to pray five times a day courtesy of a built-in alarm, and then turn themselves off for 15 minutes so there's no chance of your prayers being disturbed. (These phones are quite popular in predominantly Muslim countries like Malaysia.) "I was really struck by the ways that people were using a lot of this new information and communication technology to support their religious practices. That was really interesting just to see how incredibly resourceful people are in shaping the technology. There are things they want to do, and in so doing, it tends to interrupt some of our assumptions about who should use things."
- As a quintessential symbol of modernity, Bell found it surprising and interesting the degree to which technology supports ancient cultural practices: online memorials to deceased ancestors (supported by the Shanghai & Beijing governments); having a lunar almanac available on one's mobile phone; having phones blessed by Buddhist monks; using webcasts to have your house blessed; the sheer number of temples across the region that maintained websites allowing devotees to make devotions and spiritual pilgrimages. The fact is, technology has been enthusiastically adopted for religious purposes worldwide. When the Vatican launched their Papal SMS service - a daily, uplifting textmessage from the Pope - within two months, they had 3 million subscribers. Bell points out that the most recent Pugh internet research data about the United States showed that somewhere around 128 million Americans (just under 70% of online Americans) use the internet for religious purposes, from checking a church's times and services online to watching a webcast from the Willowcreek megachurch in Michigan, which also offers its entire service on DVD. "For researchers, it's a really interesting kind of conundrum as to what that's about. There's clearly a lot of things going on in that space."
- MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT WHO USES TECHNOLOGY & HOW THEY'RE USING IT: Bell's interview with a young couple in India was interrupted by the grandmother of the house, wondering why it wasn't her being questioned. "It turned out, she was the one in the family who did all of the instant messaging." In fact, there are a number of gender and domestic "digital divides" that need to be addressed: What does it mean to use technology when you wear bifocals? What if you're not literate in English? You're not literate at all? "There's a whole series of those I don't think we're so good at thinking about." Not only is age an important operating constraint - much of technology has yet to be designed for use by older people - but gender is also an issue. Men and women not only operate under different constraints, they want different things from technology. "Plenty of women I've talked to in other parts of the world are perfectly skilled to use technology, but choose not to because there are so many other things in their lives that they're doing. If technology is competing with childrearing, having a child, looking after your aging relative, cleaning house and cooking, it is maybe less appealing and less useful with issues of ease of use."
- A NEIGHBORHOOD THAT EXTENDS FROM HYDERABAD TO HOUSTON: By receiving nightly instant messages from his mother in India, a son living in Houston reported feeling closer to his family that he had in a long time. "He was part of what was happening every day, but his mother had to stop telling him what she was cooking. Every night she would get online and tell him what she had made for dinner, as a way of expressing her love for him. But for him, it was of course breaking his heart," says Bell. "There was something in that moment of realizing that it's really tempting to imagine this technology is about this circulation of information, and it's about opening up these global possibilities to people, but really, when it comes right down to it, it's all about people supporting very local things."
- A GLOBAL VILLAGE - NOT GLOBALIZATION: By using technology to customize the world, it has led people to do what anthropologists describe as "reinscribing" the local cultural practices. "You can have a little, tiny piece of Hyderabad existing in Houston. It wasn't about globalizing at all, it was about expanding the reach of the local."