When cultures shape technology

Chicago (IL) - Tech firms flood consumers which new products every month. Every single one will radically change the way the world turns, at least if we trust common marketing phrases. But a growing number of US IT firms believe that a great idea is just not enough to create a globally successful product. In an interview with Tom’s Hardware Guide, Intel’s anthropologist Genevieve Bell explains why cultures will determine the development of new products.

Anthropology and development of information technology are not necessarily two sciences one would tie to each other on first thought. But cultures influence the way we allow technology to participate in our life - most apparent perhaps in the field of mobile communication. People in Asia, Europe, Africa and America use their mobile phones in different patterns and sometimes with surprisingly different purposes. The reason behind : Culture.

Genevieve Bell, 37, is a senior researcher in Intel’s 11-member People and Practices Group. For more than five years, Bell studies for Intel cultures around the world to understand their understanding and needs of technology. Australia-born Bell has received a PhD from Stanford University and initiated at Intel a new way to think about the connection between people and technology, their cultural practices and "daily habits," she says. Rather than innovating and then trying to make people use products, the idea is to start with people and their needs first and learn what individual cultures care about.

Bell just completed a three-year-long cultural practices research project in urban Asia, which included countries such as India, Malaysia, Singapore, China and Korea - with surprising results.

Tom’s Hardware Guide (THG) : Intel is known especially as a chip manufacturer and not as a company which develops consumer devices. Why is it important for Intel to invest in anthropology ?
Genevieve Bell (GB) : We have learned to think more concretely and in more detail about a region we only knew as a statistical number before. For example, it was really easy to look at Asia-Pacific. We knew that there is a lot of technology consumption. But we did not have a real sense what people are really doing with our devices. This research allows us not just to reproduce what Americans expect from technology but to develop new technology platforms that relate to cultural practices.

THG : Has your research changed the way Intel develops technology ?
GB : That might be a bit of an unfair question given the fact the results of my work only have been available for the last six months on this project. If you look at Intel in a year or two, you will see a stronger influence of my work.

THG : What triggered Intel to look at anthropology research ?
GB : There were anthropologists long before me at Intel, the ethnographic work started three years before I got there. Initially someone creates in the early 1990s the sense that people do not use technology the same the world over. I think that it is important that this sense came from somebody who was not American. There was lots of skepticism about this work, it was questioned what value it could offer. When I came along, there already was a well established tradition in this research at Intel. I suggested we should pay attention to Asia. We just did not know why people in Asia are not doing the same things with technology then they do in the US.

THG : How does such a study work ?
GB : It is some sort of social research. I have worked with local anthropologists in each of those countries. Local experts in the region helped to guide the process and also recruit families. I have been lucky enough to have been working with internal marketing from Intel in most of those markets. In a couple of markets they were doing huge quantitative samples 10,000-15,000 and were able to ask the questions to find out what was going on. This had more statistical value through its significant sample size. The people I visited were people I thought they were regular users of technology.

THG : What kind of "technology" did you have in mind ?
GB : To be a technology user means something very different in different places. A regular technology user in Indonesia for instance might think of him as using the Internet regularly but perhaps never has seen a computer. I talked to people who considered being regular Internet users and they never touched a computer. They dictated messages to their grandchildren who went to cyber cafes and got responses there. They printed them and read to their grandparents - Who considered themselves to be regular Internet users.

THG : What do you expect from your research ?
GB : To be totally surprised. To have every single one of my assumption challenged and thrown on the head. It happens every single time.

THG : Such as...
GB : I would say that I was totally surprised how people were using information and communication technology to support their religious practices. People were using their mobile phones in Malaysia to find Mecca. It is really rare for us to think of mobile phones as devices to support spiritual devotion. That is a completely different usage model and also implies a thinking of what technology should or shouldn’t do.

THG : How do you communicate what you have learned to developers at Intel ?
GB : I tell a lot of stories the same way I tell it to you. I translate my research and make the results relevant. For example, homes are much smaller in Asia than in the US. The average American home is 2500 sqft in six or seven rooms ; the average Asian home has 400-500 sqft in two or three rooms. This number does very little by itself, since the average hardware engineer would look at me and ask why he should care. But it turns out that you build that caring in everything you do, you just haven’t thought about it before.

THG : For example... ?
GB : When we build a wireless router we think that we need to broadcast the signal around the typical American floor plan what is about 2500 sqft. This house has as six or seven rooms, but if you take that same router and stick it into a home in Singapore, your printing is going somewhere else, your music is playing on someone else’s stereo. Hardware engineers mostly think about engineering categories, but we actually also have to consider cultural categories when we develop new products.

THG : What role does culture play today in the development of technology ?
GB : There has been a long tradition in parts in Europe to design or think about how to take cultural practices as a starting point rather than saying, ’You know this thing there, buy it !’ Firms such as Nokia, Philips or Siemens do this research for quite some time. For Intel, it is a relatively new approach.

THG : How strong will cultures influence the development of new technology in future ?
GB : I think, culture changes technology. Technology is not a stable category, it means something different in different cultures. In American culture, technology is strongly linked to things like modernity, progress, change and revolution. The technology people usually talk about is technology which fundamentally changed certain things for us. But technology changes things in different cultures in a different way. If we know the things people care about, we can satrt to understand whe certain technologies are successful. Only if technology allows people to do what they care about, it can be successful.

THG : Thank you.

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