Technology's foremost fortune teller: Why Intel has an anthropologist on its payroll
Genevieve Bell tells David Phelan why she thinks our gadgets will make us better people
Wednesday 25 September 2013
Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist. She works for Intel. But before you conclude that there has been a terrible mix-up in HR, she's meant to be there, talking to and listening to the people who make the silicon that powers computers around the world. She's there to give her opinions on what the future will be like.
She's in London just days after giving a keynote speech in the US about the mobile future, or, as she sees it, the seven billion mobile futures that await us – one each. Talking to Bell is like going to a therapist. In no time at all, she has made your brain feel bigger than it did before, sparking synapses that you had forgotten about and springing open mental doors where you barely knew a door existed. This is because she talks across multiple subjects effortlessly –and at a breakneck speed that carries you along on an intellectual theme-park ride.
Bell has identified four things that will help define those mobile futures. Technology needs to: be truly personal ("we want the devices to know us and being known to us to act on our behalf"); unburden us with fewer cables, chargers and passwords; interrupt us less ("keep us in the flow is how it comes up in our research a lot"); and, finally, make us better.
"I know that sounds crazy," she says, "but I think there's that concept of technology allowing us to access our best possible selves."
Technology that unburdens us sounds appealing. A phone that doesn't need daily charging means not having to carry around a spare battery or cable. And how about those endless passwords? Apple's iPhone 5s has a fingerprint scanner to help here.
"Around the notion of security and identification, clearly fingerprints are one way of doing that but we have been testing hardware in Intel labs where you are recognised by your gait, the way you walk," Bell says.
"There is some lovely work being done in the labs around the world which read the veins in your palm because those are actually as unique as fingerprints are. Sounds creepy, probably is, but it seems to be terribly effective. There are multiple things where effectively your body becomes your identification protocol."
Wearable technology is another buzz phrase of the moment – Samsung launched its Galaxy Gear smart watch yesterday, while Apple is rumoured to be working on one – but as Bell points out, this is nothing new. Think of the sword. Or the ear trumpet.
"We've had mobile technologies on our bodies for a long time, to augment ourselves, to extend our physicality. The difference now is that much of that technology is connected to something else," Bell says.
"Watches started as technology objects and quickly became fashion objects. Watches conveyed something: who had a Rolex, who had a Timex. We know how to read those, what they signalled. Most of the wearable stuff at the moment is a bit blokey."
But isn't that because technology generally is blokey? Like Bluetooth headsets, the unofficial signifier of the taxi driver and courier? "No, although for a long time Bluetooth headsets had issues with the megahertz range in the microphones. They just didn't hear women's voices. There was a beautiful experiment done at a research university, one of the really early R&D experiments in voice-recognition technology.
"It had a 10 per cent error rate, no matter how much they recoded it. They went through every possibility until they realised the only time it didn't work is when the one female graduate student out of the 20 graduate students is the one talking to it. They'd pinged it around the male voice register. It literally had been programmed not to hear women.
"But tech is not predominantly blokey – women spend 17 to 20 per cent more time online than men, smartphone ownership is 50/50, ereaders are more than 70 per cent female ownership."
OK, but what about phone makers who decide to appeal to female audiences by going for a feminine hue?
"Ah, yes, the pink-it-and-shrink-it brigade. What's fascinating for me is that when the technology is compelling, people will buy it anyway."
So is the smart watch the beginning of something new, something non-gendered?
"Watches are fascinating: you wear one, you can tell the time but watches signal to others that you're someone who cares about the time. In the early days of watches, they signalled that you were a punctual person, at a time when punctuality had a set of other socio-political, even religious overtones. Punctuality, next to cleanliness, next to godliness."
But this doesn't mean that watches are the most sensible direction for wearable tech. "I saw some amazing stuff in the labs – my CEO held a thin display that was utterly bendable, e-ink, twice the pixel density of the most recent Kindle. Stupidly beautiful. As soon as you have flexible, bendable high-density displays plus some kind of Bluetooth or low-powered wi-fi, why would you think of a watch?
"Are watches just a phone accessory? But if you say maybe they're going to stand on their own, be their own computational objects, why do we imagine them quite so literally? The things we put on our physical selves are used to communicate who we are. It's really symbolic. And at the moment, all the technology we can put on our body is really literal."
As Bell talks, she often says "we need to take notice of" or "we can see". I ask her how much of her job is encouraging people to see things from a different viewpoint.
She laughs. "That's my job. The thing about being an anthropologist, and my job at Intel, is to bring the voices from outside the room into the room, bearing witness to what the world is like outside the technology field for the people who will ultimately be the ones who use the vast majority of the technology we produce. One of the biggest challenges about most technology companies, and indeed most companies, is that the senior leadership no longer reflects the people they most want to impact.
"There are lots of ways to bridge that, with data, with imagination, but I think the other way you bridge it is to try to bring the stories of what those other lives are like into the conversation. And I think that's in no small part my job."
Born in Sydney, Bell arrived at Intel 15 years ago from an academic career at Stanford. "On my first day, they asked: 'Is there anything else we need to know about you?' And I said, 'Well, I'm a kind of an unreconstructed neo-Marxist and a radical feminist'. And, to the credit of the man who hired me, they asked: 'Will we like that?' One of the extraordinary things about Intel is that 15 years ago it had the foresight to work out that it didn't have all the tools in-house. It had an extraordinary manufacturing legacy and an incredible population of engineers but it also had enough awareness to realise that where its technology was going, that wasn't going to be enough."
So Intel hired a small team of social scientists, including Bell. But the first months weren't always easy with both sides learning new languages. "Market penetration was the jargon that always got me. Is that coercive or consensual, I'd always ask."
We end by circling back to wearable technology. "If you take the technical attributes of these gadgets and you say they're going to be on our bodies, well, that's a place that we know is incredibly intimate, is incredibly personal. I think we're at the very beginning of what will be a fascinating couple of years as people begin to play in that space and we see what comes next."
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