Fata Morgana (chimerically) wrote,
Fata Morgana

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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.

China is the world's largest market for mobile phones - there are 300 million mobile phone users in China, which is twice the US market and one third of the world market. There are new mobile phone applications that make sense in China but not elsewhere. When dealing with a character-based language, SMS suddenly becomes much more useful. Rather than fragmented, semaphore-style messages, in Chinese one can send out a novella via SMS, and indeed, someone is. In Shanghai, where electricity isn't a given, there are rapid-recharge centers on streetcorners, where your phone charges in minutes while you're entertained by videos of Britney. This isn't the best for your mobile phone battery, but there is great demand for services like this.

South Korea has extensive infrastructure, but there are still different uses of technology. S. Korea has the highest broadband adoption in world; 80% of wired homes (70% of homes are wired) have high-speed internet. Interestingly, S. Korea also has fastest growing cyber-cafe market in world - even though the number PC's in homes has also gone up. In the US, having a computer at home means you don't need to use one in a public space, but in S. Korea, people use computers at both locations. Their use is fragmented in different places, on similar platforms.

Indonesia has a very different infrastructure and different responses to technology. Much of the country has TV and phone via satellite, which was put in in the 70's. Until the last thirty years, Jakarta was only built-up city in Indonesia - the Dutch invested in this port and just extracted resources from the rest of the country. In the last few years they've had an aggressive ICT policy that has connected universities, government labs, and other research centers, and the government is very concerned about universal access (what we call the "digital divide"). Indonesia is a Muslim nation, but on the liberal end. Mosques are central in many people's lives, so the government placed public-access computers in mosques, which provides people with a cultural context (as well as supervision) to their computer use. Unfortunately, this program ran out of momentum when the IMF "re-evaluated" Indonesia's economy.

In Indonesia and other places, pornography is consumed in public (though highly gendered) cybercafes, and not at home. Looking at home would be insulting to one's wife and family. This demonstrates that our ideas of "public space" and privacy aren't universal.

If you get a mobile phone in Malaysia, it'll come with Islamic applications. A popular mobile phone program tells you when to pray, and tells you which direction to point (optionally with the help of GPS, or just based on the cell you're in). You can find Mecca from 5,000 cities around the world, hear the call from Mecca, and hear parts of Koran read to you.

This is not the only instance of spirituality on mobile phones; it's just one of the most spectacularly obvious. If you're Catholic, you can pay thirty cents a day for an SMS from the Pope. Three million Italians subscribed to this in the first month. Eighty-five percent of the world is religious, and millions of Americans use the Internet for spiritual purposes; see the popularity of belief.net, belief-o-matic, U.S. religious personals, and others in the U.S., and the India Times matrimonial classified section and many more worldwide.

Until one does fieldwork in Africa, the value of infrastructure isn't always obvious. West African countries are in an interesting place to think about technological infrastructure. When they tried installing phone lines, the copper fibers kept being dug up and sold for scrap. Some of the fastest growing markets for mobile phones are in Africa. The ways mobile phones are being used are not what you'd anticipate. One common practice is "flashing" (called "peeping" in Morocco, relating to the way people communicated by fire on mountaintops), where one calls and hangs up before the receiving party answers. While this is generally reserved for pranks in the U.S., in Africa it's a form of free communication, since caller ID will tell you who was calling. In Nairobi, a study found that 90% of phone calls weren't being answered. Some develop flashing codes - for example, two rings may mean "where are you," one ring "I'll be there soon."

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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