Genevieve Bell, Intel anthropologist - 10 visions of the future

When Intel hired Genevieve Bell in 1998 she was tasked with two things. The first was to help the company understand women, and the second was to understand the rest of the world.

Thirteen years later and Bell says she hasn’t even started to get anywhere near an answer, nonetheless, we caught up with the Intel Fellow and Director of Interaction and Experience Research at Intel on a brief visit to London to find out how she was getting on working out how the entire planet thinks.

“You have to make your something compelling enough to make someone unplug something else,” chimes Bell at the start of an hour long talk that will see little silence.

Bell’s main job is to look at what motivates people, and in turn understand how they think, so that ultimately Intel can work towards creating better products. If you’re wondering why that should be important to a company that makes processors rather than actual consumer devices like smartphones or tablets, don’t. Bell’s response is simple.

“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.”

So what has Bell learnt over the last decade and what have we got to look forward to?

 

1) The Internet will get more feral

Bell believes that the Internet and the way we access it will become more feral in the future. No it’s not going to suddenly jump out from the screen and bite you like a rabid dog, but it will look different wherever it does turn up.

“What will the internet look like in the car?” asks Bell. “How will different languages on the Internet affect how the Internet looks?”

The Internet is no longer just on the desktop cites Bell. It’s on your phone, on a tablet, on your TV, in your car, and each time it finds a new platform it changes and adapts. For smartphones, the need to have access to the Internet didn’t really become popular until apps for example.

“I use the term feral, because the Internet is like the rabbits in Australia. Once they got out they just kept going.”

Spin that out into a wider global community and what is already clear is that the distribution of the Internet is changing. If you look at history, Bell points out, 12 years ago the USA was the largest user, now it’s in the minority. As time goes on many, like Bell, have predicted that "the Internet" as such will disappear and become the silent structure on which everything performs rather than an experience led largely by a browser.

 

2) Next-gen interfaces will become old hat

This, says Bell, is the idea that today’s toddlers will have a totally different expectation on life and how things work to you. Take a two year old for example. If they live in a house with a touchscreen smartphone and a tablet, everything in their world with a glass screen is touchscreen even if it’s not.

“He will grow out of this, but we all know that if you use a device that isn’t touchscreen after using a touchscreen device you end up bashing the screen trying to get it to work. Turns out the touchscreen isn’t broken, it’s you,” she comments.

It’s the same problems we face when trying to work out voice or gesture believes the anthropologist.

“The Intel engineers I work with once told me how all televisions in the future would be voice activated. My response. You’re all very lonely people. You live by yourselves. There is no way with a group of people voice activation software would work. Why? Because then a television would have to solve the problem no human being has been able to solve. Who is really in charge of your relationship.”

It’s the idea that certain technologies will work in certain places. Voice works perfectly on the phone, but not in a busy environment, like your lounge, and that means we should expect different control mechanisms for different devices in differing situations.

“Remote controls make it really easy to understand who is in control because someone gets to be in charge. But the remote control, even in its naming, suggests a paradigm that is going out of fashion. Should it remote interact?”

 

3) We will still be social but the way we use the networks will change

Social doesn’t mean Facebook. Half of the world isn’t on Facebook for example with many other social networks doing their best to connect people around the world. That said, the fastest growing group on Facebook right now is 50, 60 and 70-year olds coming online to join that party their children and grandchildren have been talking about. That massively changes the dynamic of Facebook believes Bell.

“People want to engage in new types of storytelling; Twitter, YouTube, Hashtags are all being used. All those mediums will eventually find their place in sociality.”

In 2010, YouTube grew up and was conquered by media companies to promote Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. It’s no longer small boys sticking fingers up their noses as they set fire to their cats. As the networks mature, so will the way in which we use them and eventually they should become the tools for every generation.

 

4) We will "sledge" each other...

“We’ve just finished doing a project on sport that basically finds that sport is a great excuse to insult your mates, across multiple formats,” Bell tells us. “Social isn’t just about being friendly.”

It's a fair point. Banter is an important part of interaction. Of course, the difficulty for online sociality in matching face to face in this aspect is that the written form doesn't allow for all the same verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate the subtleties of what is being expressed; a tricky on to overcome in the short term.

 

5) There will be stubborn artefacts

“Over the past 15 years, I learnt that there are things that just don’t go away,” says Bell.

Television will get rid of radio. The Internet will kill television. Funny then that both are still around. Television viewing figures actually increased between 20 – 30 per cent over the last year, and that’s before you include watching video and television online.

Television has actually come back into vogue in the US with it having the ability to dominate our schedule, our living rooms, and even our furniture. What of the new present will remain as artefacts of the future have yet to be predicted.

 

6) We will be bored together

“Objects like the smartphone will mean that you’ll never be bored again. It promises that they will never be a moment on a train platform or an airport where you’ve got nothing to do,” explains Bell. “There is something interesting about the nature of that promise.”

In fact Bell points out that the word boredom doesn’t enter the English language until 1852 in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.

Why? It’s all because boredom isn’t deemed possible until the industrial revolution. Before that you had idle and as Bell tells us “boredom and idle are two very different things”.  

“It’s become impossible to do nothing. We all now feel that we should be doing something.”

“There is a notion that not being connected means you are bored. Not being bored means you are connected.”

Unfortunately for Bell, it’s really hard to study.

 

7) We will have a lot of stuff

It’s clear that we have a lot of stuff, and we will have a lot of stuff still in the future.

“The management of stuff keeps coming up in our research whether it’s looking into people’s bags or cars to see what they carry around,” explains Bell who is eager to get into the Pocket-lint bag and find out what we are carrying.

The idea is that by studying people’s bags or what they carry in their cars, you can tell a lot about society. Cars are the best for this. Look in your car today and you’ll find that you’re carrying a lot of stuff that just isn’t relevant, or has been there for some time. Chances are you’ll probably have CDs that you never listen to, emergency kit that wouldn’t be suited for an emergency, or even chargers for a phone that you no longer have. 

 

8) We will manage our connectivity, we will manage our disconnectivity

“India is a really interesting example of this. 850 million mobile phones, but only around 11m of them are connected to the Internet. However most of them have media content on them. How?” asks Bell wondering whether we would be surprised to hear that India, for all intents and purposes, has a 4G network.  

“When you ask how, it turns out that there is a man in every train station in a booth that will put new stuff on your phone. These people are effectively operating as a 4G network pushing content to the devices.”

However while most strive to be connected, the flip side is a society that actively wants to be disconnected from it all too.

“We started tracking this with middle class households buying a second home or booking a holiday and found that they actively look for places where they couldn’t get coverage. When asked whether they realised that most devices have an off switch they say that it’s complicated to turn them off. They don’t mean how the switch works, but the politics of doing so.”

It’s much easier, Bell cites, for people to be out of coverage than admit they are actually turning their phone off for the weekend.

 

9) We have to maintain the network

All this need to be connected, to avoid boredom, comes with the pressures of supporting the network that we are creating. We don’t just mean the ability to access our files from the cloud or make a phone call up a mountain, but the ability to support the new range of devices we buy, be it support from the store to put the flat screen television on the wall, or getting the servant (third world countries) to make sure your computer doesn’t have a virus. Without this support, the system starts to break down.

 

10) We will develop new anxieties

And so what does all this technology bring? Well according to Bell a stack of new anxieties to fight and enjoy.

“TiVo guilt. It’s the notion that the TiVo box itself will be upset that you’ve recorded lots of shows but haven’t had the time to watch them.” Bell tells us worryingly.

We’ve seen it many other places too. RSS feed readers that are overloading, Twitter streams that cause people to panic they are missing out. The Internet influencers have even given it a acronym; FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out, and it’s supposedly something you should worry about if those Twitter and Facebook status updates designed to make you jealous that you’ve not got the day off, or are not on the beach really do get you all stressed.

“10 years ago the biggest internet anxiety was privacy, now it’s reputation online,” suggests Bell. “What if your smart television can tell Facebook what you are watching on TV?”

Universally it seems people don’t want such features with Bell telling us that most explain that “I only watch that show ironically”. Instant posts to Facebook would not come with the same excuses from your TV.

 

The Future

And so to the future, what does it hold?

“New devices, new infrastructures, and new experiences for starters, but also more of the same it seems. We want to be social, we want to be engaged, we like a good story.”

The quest, then, continues.