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Mon, May 10, 2004 - Page 12 News List

For technology, it's no small world after all

CULTURE MATTERS It's not just price that's important when buying high-tech products for the home -- it is also a question of space, religious values and electricity


A public mobile-phone charger in China photographed by Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist employed by Intel Research, to support her thesis which has has documented crucial differences in cultures' approaches to technology.


Over the last two years, Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist employed by Intel Research, has visited 100 households in 19 cities in seven countries in Asia and the Pacific to study how people use technology.

Twenty gigabytes of digital photos later -- along with 329,600km, 19 field notebooks, two camera batteries, five umbrellas, three hats, two doses of anti-malarial drugs and one pair of her favorite sandals -- she has come back with some provocative questions about technology, culture and design.

Some of what she learned in the field will be folded into Intel's design process, passed on to industrial designers and engineers and perhaps eventually embodied in a device. But many of Bell's findings also raise deep questions about the meaning of technology in an interconnected world.

Her fieldwork project began four years ago with the insight that Intel might have a misconception about the potential users of its products elsewhere in the world.

"We thought, there's a group of people just like us all over the world who will buy the technology and have it fill the same values in their lives," Bell said. "I was fairly certain that wasn't going to be the case. I'm an anthropologist. Culture matters."

Bell, 37, who received her doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University with a dissertation on American Indian boarding schools, joined Intel in 1998. She is working on a book for MIT Press about her Asian research.

Bell's project sent her to seven countries: India, China, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Australia. She found that in some places, "It's harder for some forms of technology to get over the threshold of the home" -- not simply for economic reasons but for religious ones as well. For example, she said, values of humility and simplicity may make technology less welcome in some Hindu homes in India or some Muslim homes in Malaysia and Indonesia.

"If part of the value of the home is this space of purity that's protected from the pollutedness of the world, a place where you express values like simplicity, humility, modesty, grace," Bell said, "that becomes a barrier to adopting some technologies."

She also pointed out that most US homes have space for leisure activities, and often that space is private. By contrast, Japan's tighter quarters afford little privacy, which may account for the attraction of young people there to text-messaging over mobile phones.

Even the reliability of power may be an American assumption to be overcome: In Malaysia, power surges caused by monsoons can fry computer motherboards.

Such insights challenged Intel's vision of a world of "smart homes" and a chip-driven lifestyle, Bell said, which assumes that users are secular. In those visions, there's no point at which residents stop to pray, visit a church, or have a moment of internal reflection.

All this prompted her to ask David Tanenhaus, Intel's vice president of research: "What if our vision of ubiquitous computing is so secular, so profoundly embedded in a set of Western discourses, that we've created a vision of the world that shuts out a percentage of people in a way we can't really even begin to articulate?"

Intel is not alone in wanting to know more about values and habits in emerging markets.

"Over the last 18 months we've seen more interest in doing international and intercultural research in design for products," said Mike Kuniavsky, a principal with Adaptive Path, a San Francisco-based consulting firm that works with international clients like Peoplesoft, a major business-software company.

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