Why People Really Love Technology: An Interview With Genevieve Bell

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The thing I love about Intel researcher Genevieve Bell is that she finds surprising things by looking at what's left out of the dominant narratives about technology. She finds data that's ignored because it didn't fit into the paradigm of, say, how people adopt technology. The dominant narrative is that young men determine the popularity of phones, computers, websites, and the like. But when Bell looked at the data, the story we told ourselves about how the world worked was not reflected in the numbers.

That's why I wanted to talk to her about what gadgets people around the world might be using over the next decade. I figured she was someone who could look past the conventional wisdom and find the missing pieces of the future. What follows is an extended remix of the conversation we had, which appears in a shorter version in the latest issue of our magazine.

How did your current role at Intel come to be?

About two years ago, Justin Ratner of Intel approached me and asked if I would consider coming back to the R&D labs. The start of my career in Intel was in the R&D labs, but I had moved into the products groups, because I was determined to work out how to make social science and anthropology have a business impact.

I said, I think what I want to do is reinvent the way we experience computing. He looked at me and said, "You're already late." And I was like, "Is that a yes?" He said, "Yes, that'd be excellent." And I was like, "Good. Well, I've got an idea for the sort of people I want to assemble to do that." I knew I needed social scientists other than myself, because you want people who have that training, that deep connection to people, and an ability to understand what they're telling you even when they're not saying anything. And I wanted a bunch of interaction designers, human-factors engineers, user-experience people, because I really wanted that ability to start bridging from the ethnographic work I know how to do into things you can start to move engineers with.

Then I decided sort of radically that it would be good to actually have some engineers this time. I said to my boss, "Could I have some engineers please?" And he was like, "What do you think you'll do with them?" Well, after he processed the initial shock, I said, "I want to have the conversation." I realized if you want to talk about the future, you also have to start building it. And what I realized about my time in the tech industry is that people were stumped for ideas. You have to put things in people's hands to start letting them imagine what's possible. I wanted to start to be able to push the boundaries of what was happening, in terms of having people who understood the latest gear build their own and hack their own. And I realized, too, that I was incredibly interested in the hacking/DIY/making movement--running the gamut from the kind of classic maker's fare to the kind of stuff I grew up with in Australia.

You know any Australian worth their salt has a shed somewhere on their property that is full of stuff that they're inevitably cobbling together, right? I was back in Australia over the weekend and talking to some of the farmers out near where my family has a farm, and they are just mesmerized by idea of 3-D printing. Here's a bunch of pretty burly boys with their harvests, tractors, and dirt under their fingernails for the past 35 years. And they're going, "This 3-D printing? That's pretty cool."

And I'm like, "What? Why is that cool?" And they were like, "Mate, you've been in my shed, you know it's full of stuff I've been collecting because one day I'm going to need to make a thing that will hold that bit and that bit, and I'm always cobbling it together and finching it and [using the Australian version of crazy glue] and a four-inch nail. But 3-D printing might just make it." And they were like, "Here is this thing that could make the thing that could make the thing out of the stuff."

Could you go through the traditional way of thinking about gadget adoption? Which new users does it leave out?

One of the things we told ourselves for a long time was that there was a particular group of early adopters. When I joined Intel, my boss sat me down and said, "We need your help on two things. [One,] women." I said, "Which women?" And she said, "All women."

We had this fascination with what the youths are doing and this notion that technology was being used by men. The data just didn't reflect that. When you look the globe over, women are 44 to 45 percent of the world's Internet users. They spend more time online than men--17 percent more a month. If you look at social-networking sites on a global scale, women are the vast majority on most sites, with the exception of Linked-In. Facebook is an extension of social communication, which has often been the realm of women.

Same with things like Skype, whose average user is 20-to-30-something, college -educated, female. If you look across the sale of e-readers, those are vastly driven by women. The same with downloading books, which is a lucrative space right now. If you look at smartphone data, again, women are about half the users on the planet, but spend more time talking, texting, and using location-based services than their male counterparts. When I put all that together, I had this moment of going, What? What is it that makes people think we're not using the technology?

What does your analysis say about how other groups will adopt new technology?

We have this incredible fetish for youth. I want to laugh. Of course young people are using technology: their parents are paying for it! That's like saying I took my children to a buffet and they ate themselves silly. As soon as they start paying by the course, they eat differently. When people move into having to pay for their technology, their patterns of use change. What's interesting is, if you look at the data, you also see a lot of people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s using this technology, and they're not the people we talk about either. They're the fastest-growing groups on Facebook. They're the biggest users of online dating. Unsurprisingly, they're the biggest users of online financial services, online medical-information sites, and e-readers. All of which are kind of hot things at the moment. And you know, I'm sure there's an argument to be made that Facebook got a lot less sexy when everyone's grandparents joined.

What development are you tracking most closely right now?

The different trajectories of technology adoption the globe over. We don't do a good job of tracing the genealogies of technology, and I think when you start to trace those out, you see these interesting threads that are deeply cultural and historical. There is a kind of anxiety in the post-Enlightenment West, fueled by 60 years of science fiction, that if computation gets too smart and achieves "consciousness," it'll kill us. I think of it as the Hal/Terminator/Blade Runner-singularity kind of anxiety.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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