Viewpoint: Anthropology meets technology

By Genevieve Bell
Corporate anthropologist, Intel

Image caption,
Intel shows off its latest products at the Computex 2011 fair in Taipei

The first question anyone asks when they meet me is: "What does a corporate anthropologist do?"

I joined Intel, the US semiconductor giant, 12 years ago, at a time when the technology industry was experiencing the first wave of what we now call consumerisation.

By that, I mean PCs were moving from being a tool for the office into the home and becoming part of people's personal lives.

At that time, the question among tech companies was, could you get out ahead of that shift.

So Intel hired me and a number of other people like me to help it better understand human beings.

Over the years, the team has grown to include people of a variety of different stripes: anthropologists, sociologists, cognitive psychologists, industrial designers, interaction designers and human factors engineers.

And our role has evolved to thinking about a broader array of questions.

Part of this is educational - explaining to a technology company what happens after Moore's Law, in which technology gets progressively smaller, faster and cheaper.

But the job is mainly to help the people who design our products to better understand those who will use them.

That involves getting out into the office, into the field, and into people's homes to ask questions about where technology empowers them, where it frustrates them and to learn about the diversity of experiences they are having with technology around the world.

On the move

One of my early projects tested the assumption that early adopters of technology in urban Asia would behave the same as in America or western Europe. And of course we found that they are very different.

Indonesia is a fantastic example of that today. The proportion of the country's online population using Facebook is one of the highest in the world.

Image caption,
Tablets are the next evolution in consumer electronics

But because of the issues they have with the quality of broadband, the majority of people accessing the internet are doing it via their phones.

Back in 1998 when I started at Intel, computing was all about the PC. Flash forward 12 years and we are in a world where computing smarts are embedded in all sorts of things - and the interesting question is, what's next?

One place where we expect to see a lot more computing technology in the next few years is in cars.

There are nearly a billion of them on the planet and new cars today already have somewhere between 12 and 24 computer chips in them.

We've been in Singapore, Malaysia, China and Australia asking people to let us turn out the contents of their cars: front to back, glove compartment, doors, in between the seats, under the seats, boot (trunk) and everything.

We put it on a tarpaulin and photograph it, a little like an archaeological dig.

We want to get a better understanding of the role that content plays in their lives and where computing technology might intersect with that.

In Malaysia and Singapore, for example, we were surprised to find people kept "ang pow" packets (envelopes of money given at Chinese New Year and thought to be lucky) in their cars all year round.

In a sense, people there were using their cars to keep them socially safe, not just physically safe.

Ultimately, my team's role is about making sure the product development processes start from an understanding of what people care about when it comes to technology.

And that as an organisation, we are literally testing our silicon against that ideal at each and every step of the way.

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