Genevieve Bell | A cultural anthropologist studying technology innovations



“My job is to make sense of what makes people tick, what delights and frustrates them, and to use those insights to help shape next generation technology innovations.

I sit happily at the intersection of cultural practices and technology adoption”

Since January, Dr.Genevieve Bell has been a Professor at Australian National University (ANU). She was previously a Vice President and senior fellow at Intel for over 18 years.

A member of the Technology Hall of Fame in 2012, she has given several TED talks, and was thinker in Residence in Adelaide from 2008 to 2010. She has now returned to her first love, research in Academia.

Meanwhile, she has travelled the world interviewing and observing how technology is used. Her brief, from the people who appointed her at INTEL, was to research the relevance of technology to women and to the rest of the world.

“You have to understand people to build the next generation of technology.”

“The point of view I’m trying to bring to bear is who’s ultimately using this stuff, what are they trying to get done with it, what are going toe their continued pain points. If you can make an engineer understand why a processor needs to work without a fan, not because of a power need, but because of a social one, then you can make them create devices that fit into our lives better.”

Professor Bell is from a background of anthropology. She grew up in aboriginal communities, in Australia with her anthropologist mother. In the USA, she taught anthropology and Native American Studies at Stanford University. Her doctoral research was on The Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Her knowledge and interest in native communities enriches her understanding of the needs of technology.

When she stared at INTEL, it was a novel idea to employ an anthropologist: “You talk to people? Oh my God, what do they say?” We took photos of all the people we interviewed. We’d take prime quotes from those interviews, and stick them on poster board and we put them up in the cubes. So that every time you went down the corridor you couldn’t help but be faced with people telling you stuff, and that was considered to be radical.”

“I really like it because it means you have to pay attention to what’s going on in the world.”

“I think it’s sometimes really easy to forget the rest of the world exists, Silicon Valley is so compelling. It’s so easy to be seduced by it. It’s really easy to think that’s ‘the world’.”

“There is also a tone deafness in the technology industry about the role the industry is playing in job displacement and under-employment.”

“One of the challenges is, how do you run a critique of Silicon Valley without sounding like you are anti-progress? How do you run a critique of that without sounding like you dislike innovation?”

Professor Bell seemed set for a career in anthropology in academia, when serendipity led her to an interview at Intel. e warned them she wouldn’t fit in, as she wasn’t a technologist, she didn’t do PowerPoint, she used a Mac and she was, a “radical feminist and an unreconstructed neo-Marxist.”

As a feminist, she challenged the culture at Intel and also at Silicon Valley.

“I was routinely the only woman in the room. There were moments when people did look at me and go, ‘you have a PhD? And yet you are a girl?”

“Some things I do quite deliberately, I wear French perfume. I wear heels. I dress like I am actually female.”

“There was a hyper-masculinity in Silicon Valley that over the past 20 years has increased, not decreased”

Currentlyshe looks at the anxieties around Artificial Intelligence (AI), which she sees as being our anxieties about being human. “The question is not will AI rise up and kill us, rather, will we give it the tools to do so?”

“One of the unintended consequences of big data and the Internet of things is that some things will become visible. You build the perfect machine and it abandons you. There’s a notion that the technology is self-determining and its decision is to leave us.”


City Eye
About the author

City Eye became interested in Overlooked and Overshadowed women, both in contemporary times and through out history. The former would include the women passed over for the Nobel in favour of their male colleagues. The later would be the wives of famous men, such as Mrs. Mandela. Her study of women written out of history, led her to interviews with interesting and inspirational women, (and some men). Extracts will be published in the articles. In no way is this men versus women, as to who is better. Simply that an overly macho, military, testosterone fueled environment, mainly men, needs the balancing attributes, often, though not exclusively, assigned to women: caring, conciliation, communication. Find out more: City Eye Blog ©christina

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