When you are a global company like Intel, you want to be sure that your technology can be used everywhere in the world and in a predictable way. But there are many cultural differences between someone living in California and, say, Indonesia. So, back in 1998, Intel hired an anthropologist, Genevieve Bell, to see how its products were used around the world. Now, after two years of extensive research and living with families in India or Singapore, Bell is almost ready to deliver her final report, which should be published later by MIT Press under the name "Other Internets." In this article, the San Jose Business Journal writes that Bell found that some Chinese people take their cell phones to temples to be blessed or that Muslims in Malaysia are using GPS-enabled phones to find the direction of Mecca before doing their prayers.
Here are some short excerpts from the San Jose Business Journal article.
After conducting an initial study of technology uses in western Europe, Ms. Bell realized that American engineers assumed that a global middle class was emerging in Asia that was interested in buying and using consumer electronics in the same way the Western world did.
But was there?
To answer that question, she began working with local ethnographers in India, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, China and Korea (a list that her administrative assistant short-handed as I AM SICK). The ethnographers helped her find families in each country who were willing to let her move in with them for a few days to watch how they interacted with each other as well as with the technology in their homes and offices.
I'm sure you know that companies like Microsoft or Intel want to be present in our digital homes. But how is it different in Asia?
When an American designer said that each of his kids had PCs in their rooms, "the guys in Malaysia said, 'Wow! Your kids have their own rooms? Aren't they lonely?'"
Ms. Bell found it very easy after that to explain that there are very few forms of universal human truth, but lots of forms of cultural logic and truths. The Malaysians, she says, worry that their children would be lonely if they weren't sharing a room with siblings. The Americans, she says, were reverting to their cultural model of everyone wanting to have their own stuff in their own place.
During her travels, Ms. Bell found people in China who take their mobile phones to a temple to be blessed, Muslims who used the GPS capabilities of their phones to locate Mecca for their prayers and Asian families who burned paper cell phone offerings for their ancestors to use in the next world.
Genevieve Bell was also recently present in the press, like in this article from Reuters. Here is a couple of short quotes.
"Technology, per se, is uninteresting," she said. "Technology in context is interesting."
Perhaps her most provocative research centers on the role religion plays in technology use, a subject rarely touched by Silicon Valley executives. Some religions, she postulates, might be inherently resistant to the always-connected, always-on culture of the Internet.
Bell was also interviewed by The Oregonian (registration might be needed) about how people's cultural practices impact their relationships with new technologies. Here is one of her most important answer.
One of the things that became clear in Asia, and is becoming true in the West, but we're not really good at seeing it, is that people are using these technologies for those third activities. In Asia, it's visible in the way people use mobile devices to support religious activities. The nicest example is people using their mobile phones to find Mecca. LGE, a Korean handset company, has produced a Mecca-finding handset with GPS technology in it. So it's a tool of religious devotion. They anticipated selling 300 million units in the first couple years.
Bell also delivered a keynote address at MobiSys 2004, held in Boston in June 2004, "Talking Phones: a cultural reading of mobile technologies."
Well, it looks like she has an interesting job.
Sources: Janet Rae-Dupree, San Jose Business Journal, August 13, 2004; Intel Corporation website; Reuters, May 5, 2004; Ted Sickinger, The Oregonian, May 9, 2004; MobiSys 2004 website