Anthropologist goes from iguanas to Intel

Streaming video to wireless screens dotted all over the house might seem like a cracking idea in Silicon Valley, but how about in a two-room Beijing apartment where six people share the only TV every night?

Or how about the small Indian business that hires someone just to sit in the back room and hit “connect” every time the shaky server drops offline. Write a software program to replace him? Well, not if he’s your cousin and you don’t want to put him out of a job.

Issues like these received scant attention at U.S. tech companies until a few years ago, when vendors started to realize that their notion of the “digital home” — or the digital office, for that matter — might not be the same as everyone else’s. And that growing profits and reducing headcount don’t equal progress everywhere in the world.

Enter Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist at Intel Corp. whose job it is to travel the world and live among different peoples to figure out what they actually want from technology, instead of what Intel thinks they want. She reports back to the company and stops it from pursuing daft ideas like trying to create the paperless office, which a good anthropologist could have told you 10 years ago is never going to happen. People like paper, Bell said in an interview this week. “It’s what anthropologists call a persistent and stubborn artifact.”

Her life has been richer than most, if not everyone’s idea of fun. Born in Sydney and raised in Melbourne, she left her modern surroundings when she was about 6 years old after her mother, recently separated, earned a Ph.D. in anthropology and moved to the central Australian outback to study aboriginal peoples. Bell spent the next eight years living among aborigines, including a community of about 600 near Alice Springs.

“I dropped out of school, stopped wearing shoes and went hunting with people every chance I got,” she said. Dinner often included witchetty grubs, a type of caterpillar that lives among tree roots, and iguana (which tastes like fish, apparently, not chicken). “I was very fortunate. I had the most blessed childhood,” she said.

At 19 she earned a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She landed at Newark Airport in New Jersey, alone and with no idea where she was. She stayed at Bryn Mawr long enough to get a Master’s degree, and, like her mother, eventually earned a Ph.D. in anthropology, from California’s Stanford University.

That’s where the Intel thing started. In 1998 she was in a Silicon Valley bar with a friend who was being chatted up by an attractive stockbroker, she said. Being a dutiful companion, Bell made small talk with his friend, a local entrepreneur, to keep him amused. The entrepreneur asked lots of questions and decided that Bell could be making a pile of cash plying her trade for local technology companies.

Six months later, at 31, she was hired by Intel, along with a second anthropologist. They hosted lunch meetings and tried to convince engineers that not every application of technology is a marvel just because it can be done. It was slow going at first. “I think they just thought we were good for a laugh,” she says. “We had a lot of stories to tell.”

But over time Intel warmed to her ideas, and the company now employs about a dozen anthropologists. Traditionally a part of its R&D (research and development) group, three of them were moved into “platform” groups this year, which means they are closer to product development. Bell is in the Digital Home Group, while others moved into Emerging Markets and Digital Health.

She just completed a three-year study that involved spending her days in hundreds of homes in cities around Asia, watching how people live and use technology. Her recommendations have led in part to Intel’s China Home Learning PC, an educational tool, and its Community PC for rural India, which it plans to roll out early next year, she said.

But much of her work these days is busting technology myths in Intel’s engineering department. Like the idea that people are pining for wireless video streamed around the home. Or that every business wants to boost efficiency and lower headcount.

“There are all kinds of assumptions about behavior, the idea that everyone wants to sell a lot, get franchised and become the next McDonald’s, or else build a business and be acquired by Microsoft. These notions of success influence the way technology is developed, so scalability becomes very important, efficiency, getting rid of tasks that can be replaced my machines.”

In fact, she noted, almost four-fifths of businesses around the world are small, and in many regions they exist primarily to support families, pay for marriages and provide employment for relatives.

Market research has its role to play, but ethnographic studies are essential to help Intel figure out what people really want and need, she says.

“Intel is a chip company, but one of the challenges is to know the kind of devices those chips will power, what will they do and how will they be used. There are all kinds of technology answers, but for me there’s an earlier set of questions to ask: What will be the experiences of people using these devices? And are they going to want them?”

It’s a long road from the outback to Silicon Valley, and a long way from academia to one of the world’s most profitable technology companies. Sometimes Bell would like to return to her earlier roots, and when she visits her mother in rural Australia it can be difficult to get back on the plane.

“But you know, Intel is kind of a field trip for me too, and I never stop being an anthropologist. There are times when I get through the day by looking around the office and thinking, my God, aren’t the natives here strange.”

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