Analyzing Intricacies of How People Use Technologies in Daily Life

Analyzing Intricacies of How People Use Technologies in Daily Life

Chasing what’s next can be seductive, but what about solving serious problems that exist now? Intel Labs researcher Genevieve Bell on shape shifting the future of our digital world by harnessing the past.


What are the chances that your next mobile or wearable device will be made by savvy designers and engineers but also by social scientists? Pretty good if you happen to choose a device that has Intel technology inside.

Rather than tinker with transistors and software code, Dr. Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist, analyzes intricacies of how people use technologie in their daily lives. She’s even been known to glean valuable insight just by peering into trunks of people’s cars.

As director of user experience research at Intel Labs, Bell leads team of 100 or so social scientists, human factors engineers, anthropologists and designers. They zero in on how people use technology in their daily lives and synthesize findings that are being used to build new experiences into consumer electronics, automobiles, cities and communities, which could benefit from Intel processors and expertise.

According to a recent profile in the New York Times, Bell may still sees herself as “just a feral kid from Australia,” but for Intel she personifies the company’s strong aspirations to be regarded as more than just a chip maker.

“You have to understand people to build the next generation of technology,” which is becoming evermore personal and people-centric, she told the Times.

Shifting Focus on Mobile World Congress

After 16 years at Intel, she is gearing up to give her first keynote presentation at Mobile World Congress this month in Barcelona, Spain, where her colleagues will talk about future 5G wireless networks, built in security for mobile devices and the rapid evolution of what’s no commonly called the Internet of Things. Until now, the annual event has been the stomping grounds for global business titans from telecom industry and device makers. Her “Forget What You Think You Know” talk just might reshape the event from one focused on new mobile phones and services to one that encompasses everything that connects and computes.

“I like to make familiar things unfamiliar again so that you have that moment of surprise where you see things from a different point of view,” she said, describing her technique as de-familiarization, which can quickly propel staid conversations far forward without leaving the past behind.

She delivers proof that stories from our past can inform what the future will look like. Sure she works with cutting edge technologies but always with a wide eye towards how people deal with fear, anxiety, love and family in a world that is increasingly dependent on Internet-connected technologies.

“We’ve been wearing technologies on our bodies for tens of thousands of years, or in the Western tradition, for some 2,000 years,” she said.

Some of the technologies we put on our bodies have fundamentally changed the way we thought about the world around us and some were about adjusting the world to us, like the history of glasses. A technology that was used to build telescopes, which helped us find our place in the universe, then came on to our bodies and changed the way we literally see the world, in a physical and symbolic way, she said.

“What if we were to look at some of the significant game changers of those technologies and ask what were they about? Where they about physicality, conveying power or about protecting us? I want to deconstruct each one of those historical game changers and then look at the current wearable stuff and say at the moment the conversation we are having about wearables is, ‘Where are you going to wear them and what’s it going to do?’ as opposed to saying, ‘Why are we going to wear it and how is it going to do that work for you?”

Bell is concerned that the conversation about wearable technologies is too focused on where they will be placed on the body and what they can do, but for most people that conversation has not turned to why would you put them on unless you’re a geek or early adopter.

“The much bigger question is not one about style but about meaning,” she said. “Why are we going to wear these objects on our bodies? What are they going to say about us to others? Why would others care about them and what is the symbolic work these things do?  How will that connect up to the things we care about?”

“It means we’ll have to start managing information in new ways, and imagine it in new ways so that we are clearly address the real problems we face or the behaviors we’re trying to enable,” she said.

Getting People Smart About the Internet of Things

“My suspicion is that when we say Internet of Things, lurking beneath it all is this incredible complexity. That’s where it gets fascinating because it’s about how to do all of that safely and securely, make it sustainable, make it operate easily so it doesn’t drive bonkers. At the point if you have to reboot traffic lights, that’s going to be a very bad world for us all.”

She is fascinated by the tension caused by new, smart mobile devices that are creating a wave of information, bringing more layers for us to manage. She points to so-called quantified self material from wearable technology that’s giving you constant feedback about your activity and well being. These, too, account for the population explosion of “things” on the Internet.

“These things let you know more about yourself, but you also have to manage through all of that information to decide what you want to do about it. Part of the challenge at the moment is how do you navigate through an incredible deluge of information to find the things that are compelling or interesting or useful. Now you have to carve out time to go look for those things rather than just having everything brought to you.  The peril of today’s algorithms is that they deliver up all of the things we might like, but we often have to make the time to find the things we really want or like. Instead just take what is presented to us.”

Call it laziness or whatever, but it has another consequence, one that drives a desire for what’s next, which can prevents us from solving the problems were are having right now.

“Creating the future can be quite seductive, but what about solving important problems we have right now, say like battery life? she asked.

“I imagine I will see many people at MWC reaching out and searching for an outlet to charge their phones.  Power remains a persistent problem. It’s not a next thing, it’s a now thing.

Sustainability and Security

The other now things that are needed include better forms of security and sustainability.

“Most of us drawers full if old devices we don’t know what to do with or how to recycle them appropriately,” she said. “If we can resolve these ‘now’ issues, we can move on to explore what it means to we live in a world that produces more data.”

We have arrive at that now, and it requires us to dig in, look around and better understand who’s going to have access to our data and what they are able to do with it.

“Those are questions that are not yet easily resolved. We will continue to have conversations about these as citizens, consumers, enterprises, regulators.”

The other is to refine security technologies and how we use them, which is complicated in the same way that people are complicated.

“It is embedded in social relationships, convenience and concerns we have about,” she said.

While we all know we should practice better security, it needs to be easy and beyond having more complicated passwords.

“Part of it is knowing what needs to be secure under certain circumstances. It’s also about things like trust, privacy, reputation, risk, what do you want to disclose and under what circumstances.  How do those things change over time?”

It’s one thing to have one key to your house. In the digital world there are multiple places where things about you are located, and all of those have different people coming and going.

“You can’t have tens of thousands of keys that you given to many people so they can rummage in and out of your digital life,” she said. “Most forms of biometric IDs have mechanisms to spoof them that are well established, so how do you resolve these things without it becoming creepy or having them be too much work for people to use?”


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