October 10th, 2004

rock shadow

Genevieve Bell - ethnography, technology, and Intel

Friday afternoon at Grace Hopper, Intel anthropologist Genevieve Bell talked about where technology is going in the rest of the world. She's been traveling the world, working with local anthropologists (to bypass or shorten the usual "adjustment period") to discover local uses of technologies such as computers and cell phones.

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So all of this means that we need to think differently about what computers can and should do around the world. The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to individuality. In other places, the "smallest unit of personhood" isn't always the individual: people may have notions of themselves individually, but the fact that they're part of organizations such as families or religions is much more important. Sometimes families just have a collection of cell phones anyone in the family can take - if you're an outsider, anyone can answer because everyone knows a lot about others, and if you're an insider, you don't need to call, you "already know anyway." How can computers be designed for use by groups of people?

Notions of gender, class, sexuality, and more also differ greatly from place to place. In some places, women are so tied up in domestic chores that though they have access to a computer, they don't have time to learn how to use it - this is sometimes called the "domestic divide." There are women in India who can't read, but are great at reading money ledgers.

Also, many of the metaphors we use for technology, from desktops on, are culturally-defined and thus inappropriate elsewhere. (She met one fellow who kept trying to send an email to his daughter, but the postal worker kept returning it.)

Finally, in many parts of the world, buying a computer is a considerable investment for a family or even a community. Given this, computers should last longer than they do and the software should be more interoperable than it is.

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