Reinventing Technology

29 Feb 2012

Author: Gayle Bryant

Photography: Intel Corp

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Anthropologists are best known for studying cultural differences. So how did one rise to the top of a leading technology company?
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A background in anthropology isn’t what most people would assume you’d need for a successful career in technology but it is this experience that led Genevieve Bell to become one of computer giant Intel’s top executives.

Bell’s role as head of Intel’s Interaction and Experience Research group has been instrumental in helping the company realise that it is people and their experiences that matter more than the technology when developing devices.

Bell’s team comprises about 100 researchers, from ethnographers and interaction designers to computer scientists and physicists and is charged with reinventing how people experience computing.

“We have a strong interdisciplinary approach that shapes everything from framing questions to the projects we tackle and how we choose to share our thinking,” she says.

According to Bell, one of the most important things her department changed at Intel, was getting the company to actually think about people as part of the process.

“When I first arrived everything was about megahertz and Moore’s Law,” she says. “Both of those things are really important, but the thing about Moore’s Law is that it doesn’t say what happens next. It just predicts that microprocessors will get smaller and faster and cheaper on a known cadence. I was really interested in what people would do with all that computation.”

She says getting Intel to understand that it was people who made Moore’s Law matter, not the technology itself, was a big breakthrough. “Now, when I watch the CEO stand up and say the future of computing is about experiences, I know we helped get him there. I know we changed his mind,” she says.

What Bell has discovered through her work is that much of the technology used today is “content consumption”, especially with devices such as iPads.

“We were struck by how much consumers want to make things – even if it is to get pictures off the phone and send them to their parents,” Bell says. “We are hard-wired to be makers rather than passive. Reciprocity and exchange are the two keys things we want, that is, we do things to people and they respond. The explosion in technology is really about people wanting to make things.

“For example, we worked with Intel’s engineers on the recent launch of the Ultrabook. They were focused on the extended battery life but we could see that while it is important, the battery life is not the reason why someone would buy an Intel Ultrabook – rather it is what they can do with the product.”

Some of Bell’s more memorable experiences within Intel have been in the field, not in the office. “I have been lucky enough to spend time in people’s homes all over the world, getting a sense of what they care about and what they want from themselves, their families, their communities,” she says.

“I had a very Australian moment and just decided to take the plunge and jump off into this very different world.”

Bell grew up in Melbourne and Canberra but also spent a large part of her childhood living in Aboriginal communities including Alicurang – a settlement north of Alice Springs. Her mother, Di Bell – a pioneering feminist anthropologist – was working her way through university when Genevieve was little.

“Mum likes to joke that I was kicked out of my first anthropology class when I was four years old,” Bell says. “Apparently, I solved some complicated kinship problem that bewildered all her classmates.”

Bell says her childhood was remarkable and she felt extraordinarily privileged. “I got to know Aboriginal people in a way others didn’t,” she says. “In these communities once children can prove they can do something, the adults step back. I became that way very quickly and stopped doing what kids my age were doing. It changed my life.”

She believes her upbringing showed her how to connect with all types of people and to learn how to fit in anywhere. She remembers, however, when she moved back to Canberra after her time living with Aboriginal communities she had trouble integrating. “I didn’t want to wear shoes, I ate the plants on the trees in the botanical gardens because I knew they were edible and were just going to be wasted if someone didn’t eat them,” she says. “I spent a lot of time in detention as I got into fights with teachers about Aborigines. I soon learnt that different cultures have different rules. Part of my work I believe is to tell these stories.”

While Bell says it was a childhood like few others experienced, it didn’t leave her thinking she should be an anthropologist. Instead it filled her with a strong sense that she had to change the world. After school, Bell was accepted into the University of Sydney to study law but decided to take a year off. She went to the US with her mother who had won a visiting scholarship and, once there, was encouraged to attend Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia. While initially she wasn’t considering studying anthropology, she decided to take a class, and when she walked into a classroom and saw the textbooks that were so familiar to her, she felt at home.

“At the time I was 20 years old and 13,000 miles from home,” Bell says. “It was Philly in the late 1980s. I didn’t understand what people were saying and I was very homesick. Then I took my first anthropology class and everything was familiar. I say that I took anthropology as a cure for homesickness and it turned out that I was good at it.”

Bell graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology and then went to Stanford University for post-graduate studies where she earned her Master’s degree in 1993, followed by a doctorate in 1998 – both in anthropology. She was lecturing in Stanford’s anthropology department when Intel approached her in 1998 about a job. At the time it was unusual for a technology company to approach an anthropologist.

“As it was, I think I am the only person that Intel ever recruited out of Stanford’s anthropology department,” Bell says. “And it took a lot of convincing to get me to join them. I didn’t know any of the social scientists who were working in the tech field and I didn’t know much about that whole area. I couldn’t quite work out what my job would be, or how Intel thought I was even qualified to work for them. Ultimately, though, I had a very Australian moment and just decided to take the plunge and jump off into this very different world.”

In her time working for Intel Bell has been recognised with a number of awards including one of the top 25 women to watch by AlwaysOn and one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company magazine. She is also one of only 60 Intel Fellows, who are the most senior technical people in the company. 

“There are 60 of us in a company of over 100,000 so it is a huge privilege and a recognition, in my case, that knowing something about the people who use technology is important,” Bell says. “I think most Intel Fellows are champions of ideas – we drive innovation and change, and I think we are all pretty passionate.”

Bell was a speaker at the TEDxSydney* 2011 conference, where she spoke about the value of boredom.

Bell found it fascinating how talking about this topic struck a chord with people. “I think for many of us, we worry about how much time is consumed by technology and screens and the demands of digital devices, and trying to imagine being bored was a bit of a stretch,” she says. “I also think there is a lot of nostalgia about our childhoods and the luxury of being kicked out the back door on summer days and told to come home when it was dark.” While technology appears to be taking over our lives, Bell says it is easy to forget how new technology really is. She remembers how her grandparents and parents used to negotiate over the television: should it be left on when we have company; does it need warming up first? Bell says we are currently negotiating the “messiness of technology”.  “Already we have different relationships to mobiles then we used to,” she says. “There are some things we will never go back to. I remember when the first ATM came to Canberra and I broke it because I tried to put coins into it. All these things took time to get used to and new ways of doing things often make people anxious, but in 10 years time this anxiety will be gone. At the end of the day, we all like to be connected to the rest of the world.” *TED is a nonprofit devoted to ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ and brings together people from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment and Design.