Originally posted on Forbes on July 31, 2015, this continues the discussion I had with Dr. Genevieve Bell, an Intel Fellow and VP in the company’s Corporate Strategy Office. Here we talk about the value of paying attention to things that run counter to prevailing narratives, what she finds interesting about wearable technology, and overcoming the seduction of data.
What’s that thing that let’s you know there’s something worth exploring further, that there’s a there there?
Listen at some level, I have a spidey sense for that. I don’t even know how quite to describe it, but I would talk about it as informed intuition. Chalk it up to 15 years in homes of people all over the planet and the fact that I’m a reasonably good anthropologist.
But I’ll tell you: I sometimes think as researchers, we spend a lot of time looking at what lots of people are doing, like what’s the normative thing. I think there is often more interesting things to be seen in what are the outliers. What is the thing you don’t hear so much about or that when hear it, you think, that runs counter to the logic of everything that everyone’s been doing for the last couple of years?
The language of productivity is giving way to the language of connectivity and connectedness and socialness. . .
Or you see a couple of things where you think those are part and parcel of the same thing. For example, I would have said Secret, Snapchat, Whisper were all part of the thread about a changing notion about memory, privacy, reputation. Also this interest in how do you take advantage of the sheer scope and size of a digital network without necessarily wanting to buy into the notion that everything has to be saved. The notion of digital ephemera, which at first part is just interesting because it looks like it’s ephemera. But what if digital ephemera is actually an emerging privacy practice? What does that tell us?
And so for me it becomes, how do you also see patterns between things that don’t necessarily look like they are immediately connected?
So you have to consume culture broadly in order to make those connections.
I try and maintain a point of view that extends beyond just the immediate domain that I work in. I watch commercial television because it’s good to know what people are watching. I watch what’s popular. I read trashy magazines. I pay attention beyond the immediate scope of the valley because I think you have to have that broader lens where you’re seeing patterns beyond just what were the five apps that netted well on an IPO. You want to be paying attention to what are the kids AND the grown-ups are talking about. What do those conversations look like in the arts and museums community, as well as in the playground, as well as in political circles? What are people doing in sports, or religion? I am paying attention across most multiple domains.
Let’s switch gears. In preparation for this conversation, I was looking at an interview you did in 2013 for the MIT Technology Review, and you were saying that companies really hadn’t figured out why people would want to wear technology. Has your position changed at all ?
That’s a good question. Perhaps not unexpectedly when Apple entered into this conversation they brought something new with them. Now there’s an Intel piece of wearable that I think aesthetically pushes the bar much further that anything else I’ve seen. It’s called the MICA bracelet, it’s big but it starts to suggest that not everything needs to be a watch. A woman I heard talking at a conference I was at last week has a thing called Kovert that was a necklace or a ring that was really just about managing notifications and it did it through vibration and heat. It’s not about is this just your phone smaller on your wrist. There are some threads now where people start to disconnect with technology from its previous iterations and start to imagine what might it be if it isn’t a watch or if it isn’t a screen in a traditional sense and I think that’s a fascinating thread. An interesting thread is about the use of haptics: Not text based, not sound based, but you can feel it. That idea of where does the body play in all of this was always the interesting space. Also starts to manage closer to what we were calling ubiquitous or ambient computing ten years ago. Think about, what is it gonna be like when we live in a world where the everything around us is also smart? Do you want the entire world around you giving you notifications that are text based? Dear God, we’ll all go mad!
Apple is very good at what figuring out what is the interaction you might want in that particular environment [of the watch] because they are pushing that forward. And I also have to say, as the usual, their advertising collateral is extraordinary. They understand that this is about love and affection and flirtation and family and pride. It’s not free-floating productivity, it’s about I can run faster so I can chase the girl…up the stairs! All of these pieces—the MICA, the Kovert pieces, the Apple Watch—are becoming more about the symbolic registers we operate in.
The landscape of what technology says has changed. It’s no longer only about productivity. Devices no longer necessarily have to say, “I am an efficient and connected person.” The language of productivity is giving way to the language of connectivity and connectedness and socialness, all of which I think is interesting.
Last question: When you look out among your peer group of social scientists in corporate settings, how do you think they’d rate the level of corporate receptivity to culture?
I think we’re in such a different place than we were ten years ago. When there is a growing delta between the lived experiences and gut instincts of your decision makers and the audience with whom you want to have a relationship, and when it gets harder and harder to put yourself in their shoes, the bigger that gap grows. Then it becomes more and more important to have formal and informal mechanisms for bridging it. The reality is also knowing that part of that gap is a gap about empathy and imagination and the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes, however fleetingly. And I think ethnography and other social science design are all part of how you bridge that gap. Increasingly, what you see is an awareness of this in lots of places. Whether it is non-traditional market research. Whether it is make sure you do a walk around in the places where you’re doing things. Whether it’s about starting to ask different questions of the data. Whether it’s about having social science on the payroll. I think [cultural anthropologist Grant] McCracken and Netflix is a really interesting combination.
On the other hand, that’s the seduction of big data: Imagining that data is what’s going bridge that gap. I’m actually getting extraordinary data. But people are also starting to realize that to make sense of it, it’s not just about what does the data tell you, it’s what you ask of the data.