How thinking differently will shape our future digital lives

15 Sep 2011

Genevieve Bell, director of Intel Corporation's interaction and experience research lab

Named last year as one of the top 25 women in technology to watch by AlwaysOn and one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company magazine, Genevieve Bell’s job as director of chip giant Intel Corporation’s interaction and experience research lab is to help Intel’s R&D people decide how people will use computers in years to come.

The anthropologist has a critical role in deciding how technology will shape our future lives. She instinctively helps engineers, scientists, venture capitalists and marketers figure out how we’ll all be using technology and what are the right products to create. Bell would have been involved in big bets like the Centrino chip, which effectively unleashed the mobile computing revolution.

“When we did that 10 years ago we said people would be able to walk away from their desks and keep working wirelessly. Today that seems opaque but then that was a vision of the future. Intel is full of smart technologists and engineers, but you also need to have a vision about what are the right problems to solve,” she explains.

“We don’t think of a TV as being technology anymore. The hallmark of a good technology is when you stop having to think about it that way. The TV is one of the most successful pieces of technology ever invented. People still watch four to five times more TV than surfing the internet.”

I point out that our relationship with computers is changing. Gone are the beige desktops; tablet devices and ultrabooks are the new personal computers and smartphones have changed our lives forever.

“Devices won’t disappear. People will always carry things, people are tactile,” she says, pointing to how women in Japan began attaching cuddly toys to their ever-shrinking mobile phones.

“The hipster set in Japan is now buying all the old Nokia candy bar phones, hacking them and turning them into smartphones. It took this phone 15 years to go from cool to cool again.”

The tech industry’s biggest challenge

Bell says the biggest challenge for the technology industry is to remember engineers aren’t designing products for themselves, but for people.

She refers to how Apple re-imagined computing by creating products people desired. “I think the unsung hero at Apple is not Steve Jobs, it is Jonathan Ive (designer of the iPad and iPhone), who created an entire grammar of technology out of thin air for interactions that are utterly pervasive.

“Ive created a look and feel for gadgets that are recognisable, a design of what technology is understood as. Industrial design was not understood 10 years ago. Now you have Samsung, HTC and people making phones, TVs, computers and cameras with an emphasis on good industrial design.

“The obstacle is how we get out of our own heads and learn to think about other people. As technology goes global, the challenge is keeping a gut instinct for what works and what doesn’t. The problem is often our gut instincts don’t scale and that’s where anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists have a role to play.”

Educational backgrounds in future tech industry

Bell says the technology industry going forward will have as many workers with liberal arts backgrounds as scientists and engineers.

“I grew up in Australia but went to the US in my 20s, determined to get a liberal arts degree. I had a concentration in anthropology but was exposed to maths, chemistry, science, German and economics. A liberal arts degree is really a commitment to critical thinking.

“I’m not an engineer, I read poetry in my spare time. My starting point is usually a different set of questions. Engineers would ask about a problem and try to solve it – I will think about three different problems.

“The CEO of Intel’s undergraduate degree is in classics. The head of Telstra in Australia did an undergraduate degree in anthropology and then did an MBA.

“If you scratch below the surface you’ll discover that half the CEOs in America didn’t start out in engineering and science.

“Steve Jobs was right to make a call for more liberal arts in the technology sector. You want as many different world views and ways of thinking about problems – that way you get more interesting solutions,” Bell concludes.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years