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Sunday June 21, 2009

“Marrying” anthropology and science

What does anthropology have to do with IT? Plenty, says Intel’s User Experience director, who believes her role helps make technology more accessible and user-friendly.

A FIERY Australian red-head who speaks her mind, has a great sense of humour and who used to struggle with IT jargon is not exactly someone you would expect to find working for the world’s biggest semiconductor maker. And, she’s an anthropologist to boot.

Then again, Dr Genevieve Bell has probably defied every stereotype in the book. The Intel Fellow and User Experience director (Intel Corporation Digital Home Group) was among those pioneers who believed in “marrying” anthropology and science.

In Penang recently, Dr Bell explains the beauty of the “relationship”.

Anthropology is, “in fact, a science. It took 10 years of banging my head against a wall to convince my colleagues of that.

“Anthropology is a study of people and cultures but it has rigorous, tried and true methods and theories. I always like to remind people that it is a long-standing intellectual pursuit that has been around since the 1850s – I’m pretty sure we didn’t teach computer science then,” she adds, with a laugh.

Dr Genevieve Bell says that nowadays, it is common to have anthropologists in telecommunications and technology-based multinationals.

Raised by academics, Dr Bell literally grew up in universities. She used to “tag along” with her anthropologist mother, Dr Diane Bell, when the latter pursued post-graduate studies in Australia.

Following in mum’s footsteps, she was a professor at Stanford University in the United States before joining Intel in 1998, in the advanced research and development laboratory.

“I met a man in a bar in Palo Elto, California, and he owned a company that Intel had invested a lot of venture capital in.

“He asked what I did, and said it was interesting. I was in a bar; of course everything I said would sound interesting.

“Later, the man called every anthropology department in the bay area looking for a ‘red-headed Australian’ because I didn’t give him my number. When he finally got me, he kept calling for six months – to offer me a job.

“I finally went through an interview with the social science researchers at Intel but no one could tell me what exactly I would be doing.”

She spent her first year figuring out what she was going to do there because “there was no one like me”. The subsequent years were spent breaking down barriers.

“I was working with ‘the geekiest of the geeks’ who found women and people who talked a lot scary. They found me very scary. Whenever I introduced myself, they would ask, ‘Anthropologist? What? Why are you here?’ It was when personal computers started becoming a big thing in the US that my role became clearer.”

Realising that PCs would take the world by storm, she began studying how the technology was going to be used in “far flung” places like China, India, Malaysia and Egypt.

“Where was the technology we were building going and what were going to be the opportunities to build other things that responded to who our users really were? I was so excited. I wanted to meet people and go into their homes. That was when my role became clear.

“When I started, my role was to show how anthropology could link with science and this I did for about six years in the research and development labs.

“I had a lot of grey hairs from that period trying to change the conversation at Intel labs so that when we started thinking about innovation, it was about what people wanted not just what we could build.”

In the early days, she adds, her IT and engineering colleagues were focused on making silicons smaller, faster and cheaper.

“When we came back and presented our data, we realised the need to have a bigger conversation about technology and what Intel made possible. It’s not about megahertz. It’s about what we can do for the education, the consumer and medical industries and to enable small businesses to thrive from your home,” she says.

Four years ago, Dr Bell moved out of the labs and into Intel’s consumer electronics group, which involves “a completely different set of activities”.

Anthropologists in telecommunications and technology-based multi-nationals are common today, but there was a period where her academic colleagues were “horrified” that she had thrown everything away.

“They thought I was behaving in a reckless Australian manner and that I would regret it. There was a point when academics scorned anthropologists who do what I do for a living. Now, they send their students to study with me.

“I still write and publish my work in academic journals. To me, what we do in companies like Intel is the cutting edge of anthropological study.

“We form a relationship with the consumer and represent their needs. It’s a moral obligation to tell their stories.

“We find out what makes people tick, not just so that we can sell them things, but to make life better for them by ensuring that people in small towns and emerging markets can afford it. We want to help create technology for more people.”

Asked to differentiate her work from that of marketing teams who conduct surveys to determine consumer trends, Dr Bell says anthropologists observe and ask questions.

“We innovate and explore to find out what moves people; we are not just creating branding messages to sell our products.”

Her research work on the India Rural PC and the China Home Learning PC were precursors to Classmate – a small, mobile learning assistant that Intel specially developed for students in emerging markets.

“It was our first attempt to see that if we could understand a market and create specific technologies for particular segments.

“We built a laptop from the ground up to suit an environment which may not be conducive for technology.

“There is definitely a lot of potential for us to help improve technology in areas that are relevant to the community,” she explains.

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