Intel’s Genevieve Bell talks about why we adopt some gadgets and spurn others and why tech companies underestimate female users
Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist in a technologist’s world. Whereas most of Intel’s staff is dedicated to making and selling chips, Bell, who directs Interaction and Experience Research for the company, tries to imagine how people will use computers, mobile devices, and other gadgets in the future. And whereas an engineer might draw you a curve showing processors getting smaller and faster, Bell might spin a yarn about what Australian farmhands think of 3‑D printers. She’s already made a name for herself by breaking down outdated narratives about who uses new technologies and why; now her lab is putting her ideas into practice, developing products that will reinvent the way we experience computing. Here, Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal asks Bell what nerds misunderstand about Japanese robots, haptics (that’s touch technology that provides tactile feedback), and kitchen tools—and what these case studies reveal about how we’ll adapt to the gadgets of tomorrow.
Alexis Madrigal: Could you go through the traditional way of thinking about gadget adoption? Which new users does it leave out?
Genevieve Bell: One of the things we told ourselves for a long time was that there was a particular group of early adopters. When I joined Intel, my boss sat me down and said, “We need your help on two things. [One,] women.” I said, “Which women?” And she said, “All women.”
We had this fascination with what the youths are doing and this notion that technology was being used by men. The data just didn’t reflect that. When you look the globe over, women are 44 to 45 percent of the world’s Internet users. They spend more time online than men—17 percent more a month. If you look at social-networking sites on a global scale, women are the vast majority on most sites, with the exception of LinkedIn. Facebook is an extension of social communication, which has often been the realm of women. Same with things like Skype, whose average user is 20-to-30-something, college educated, female. If you look across the sale of e-readers, those are vastly driven by women. The same with downloading books, which is a lucrative space right now. If you look at smartphone data, again, women are about half the users on the planet, but spend more time talking, texting, and using location-based services than their male counterparts. When I put all that together, I had this moment of going, What? What is it that makes people think we’re not using the technology