Genevieve Bell has a message for technologists who espouse the self-serving view that the more cell phone, laptops and other gizmos we integrate into our life the happier we'll be: people often get fed up.
That notion may be obvious to anyone who has experienced the simultaneous, and seemingly unending, flow of instant messages, emails and ringing phones, all proclaiming to be urgent. But you generally won't hear it from the companies who are trying to force their hardware and software down our throats.
Bell is a "resident anthropologist" at Intel, who has conducted years of research into everyday people's attitudes about technology. Her finding is that people are frequently looking for a respite.
"Someone once said to me they thought of their cell phone and the bundle of technology in their backpack as being like a nest of chirping birds and all the little mouths of baby birds all demanding to be fed," Bell said to a small gathering of reporters. "It had gotten to this point that what they really wanted to do was fling their backpack into the river."
Bell reached the conclusion by observing people somewhat out of the mainstream. She's spent a fair amount of time studying enthusiasts of recreational vehicles, backpackers and people who own second homes, usually used for several months out of the year as vacation spots. The idea: these seekers of alternative abodes can tell us a lot about the way we all would prefer to live.
The finding is that people often feel compelled to add ever more devices to their daily arsenals and this "techno determinism" leads to fatigue. One of the chief reasons people sought out second homes, she said, was for the permission it gave them not to answer phones or check email accounts. People often opted to read local newspapers printed on dead trees, rather than browsing news sites, too.
"What becomes really interesting is: is there a connection between that desire to not have to answer ringing phones and a sense we have recently moved into a time when there is an extraordinary amount of pressure in our lives from technology?" she said.
Beyond the weariness, people can also grow tired with the lack of local distinction that comes from global networks that beam pictures, IMs and dispatches from around the world. What second-home people are yearning for, she said, are destinations with a distinctive local feel, whether it's cuisine, geographic locations or unique cultures.
At first blush, we are a bit suspicious of the research. People who go through that much trouble to seek out alternative living situations are much more likely to be dissatisfied with their current one, and that probably includes their technology devices. It's a little bit like polling a group of reforming alcoholics about what they think about scotch. (Bell says people outside the mainstream are often more useful in determining attitudes of the whole, though we didn't entirely understand why.)
That said, it's refreshing to hear someone in the tech world provide an alternative to the usual Utopian drivel assigned to the latest inventions.
Another contrarian view we found notable: second-homers are much more attached to television than the internet. With all the talk about YouTube becoming the new paradigm, that is sure to stick in the craw of some people. The idea is that TVs are simple devices that don't have to be rebooted and require minimal amounts of time to learn how to be used. Spend 15 minutes with a first-time PC or Mac user and it's easy to agree with her assessment.
Of course, Intel's objective in commissioning such research isn't to contradict all its flashy advertising that shows how exhilarating it is to use a PC with a Core 2 Duo inside. Rather, the chipmaker wants to use the research to reshape attitudes and develop products that are more pleasant to use.
"Outside of the tech elite our laptops still are really seen as work objects," she reasons. "How do you make it less like a brief case or a typewriter and more like something else?" ®