Thursday, September 25, 2008

Web 2.0 Expo: Designing for the Internet(s) of the Future with Genevieve Bell

Thursday afternoon, Sept. 18 at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York had one of the best speakers: Genevieve Bell, who works for Intel. Though it might have eschewed the technical, the talk was fabulous for opening our eyes to other peoples and cultures that use the Internet. As always, my words should not be accepted as an accurate transcription of her talk and I take responsibility for any errors of transmission.

Bell introduced herself as an anthropologist. Her desire is to tell stories as a means of understanding people and their thinking and to recognize it may be different from the way we think.

She told one story of a bar in Adelaide, Australia (her home country). From this bar, the closest Internet connection was 100 kilometers away - in a McDonald's. When asked, a person inside the bar questioned his need for the internet -- he has a TV and a cellphone. "What more did he need?" So for a person like that, what kind of value does the Internet have? (Apparently he thinks he's not missing anything.)
Genevieve made us question issues such as democracy, transparency, openness. Though we may be used to them where we live, they are not necessarily universal truths. They can be politically influenced. For example, if you're in a country that lacks a town hall, a virtual town hall will be meaningless.
What do we do next? We do it by calling on social behaviors that are universal.
The Internet goes feral. It has gone from domestic to wild, and is available on all sorts of different devices (not just computers, but cellphones, games, etc.).
Thus the Internet is transformed by the medium on which it is delivered, e.g. TV, phones, computers.

We have to realize that this transformation of the Internet means that it may not be first encountered on a computer, and recognize that makes a qualitative difference. People don't want keyboards on the sofa. In Africa (for example), one's first encounter with Internet is on the phone. In that case it's a highly transactive medium where people are looking for specific data.

Genevieve then proceeded with the story of another person : A woman who claimed to use the Internet. Yet she's living in a house with no electricity, she's illiterate, and has no computer in the house. So how does she access the Internet? She told her son to send a message to her daughter who lives far away. The son went to cybercafe, sent a message, went away, then returned to receive the daughter's response, and then reported it to the mother. So that's how the mother uses the Internet. She didn't need to have electricity, a computer, or anything. For her, the Internet meant she can reach out to family that lives far away.

It makes a very different experience of Internet and how to design it.

Talk about language: Chinese has now exceeded English as the most prevalent language of communication. Undoubtedly the use Chinese (and other non-English languages) on the Internet will continue to increase, so that English will never again regain the dominance it had. What does this mean? Think about the rise of these languages, particularly those that use different alphabets. Each language implies a different culture and a different set of cultural practices.

For example, take
Mandarin: It's idiomatic, visual, and carries subtext. So its characteristic form of communication is not about what is being said, but what is NOT being said; it's also what the words you're hearing relate to. In Chinese there are plays on words. To provide an example, Genevieve mentioned the Australian colloquial word for friend is which is "plate." While the surface meaning may be obscure, the derivation brings clarity: There use to be the phrase "China plate." This rhymes with "mate" and thus provides an understanding of why a plate can be a friend (mate).
When dealing with language issues such as these they move us beyond hypertext into metasubtext. How do you encode these things on the web? Think about the situation that exists in many countries where people read the news for what is
not said as much as what is said. How can we and do we think about what is NOT said or written?

With so many languages, and so many different characteristics, there is an inevitable incompatibility. Now, multiply this issue out when you consider that each language (at least) will bring a whole different set of cultural references among the users of that language.

Some examples of unusual cultural traditions making their way on the Internet: From Beijing, there are state-sponsored online shines for one's deceased ancestors. In South Korea there is Cyworld (here is the Cyworld US version ): There has been the practice of dressing oneself in actuality based on the appearance of one's avatar.

How do we search for things when they're not in English? How do work the Internet when the reference points are profoundly different? A Chinese search site (for example) is tagged with terms filled with cultural references.

There are different models of connectivity. Video content requires more bandwidth. Different payment structures are evolving.

The Internet is about the value it has for us - whenever we need it. But different modes of satisfaction yield to different payment structures.

How can we explain the popularity of cybercafes in some countries (whereas they seem to not be popular in the US).

Think of the growing size of material that people download. No doubt we'll see an increasing numbers of caps (i.e. maximum size and rate) for downloading, and probably it will become more frequent in future. Think of the United Kingdom and how they are pondering out to fund the upgrading of their Internet connectivity.

The future: you can't expect to rely on the current structure of the Internet (without extra charges for increasing demands on service). Sometimes there is prioritization: the government of India decided that water is a higher priority than the Internet, and has put resources into getting everyone clean water.

Regulating the net: Who else is going to demand a seat a the Internet? Bell told a story of how the Maori of New Zealand have traditionally received a portion of government assets, but with the rise of the Internet, have put out a claim for that too (which the government disagrees about). This story makes a link between citizenship and a right to technology.

This is part of the social regulation side of the Internet. It magnifies social concerns. Researchers at Cornell University found that 100% of those participating in a survey lie about something. Also social "regulation" and "stalking." For the Chinese, the idea of trashing people's reputations is a very serious matter.

Imagine the Internet as not "all that is good" in society, but rather a part of our society: People can be anxious about things unnecessarily. New questions arise: What's the state of my reputation, what's my accessibility, etc. Questions of authenticity, issues about ownership, piracy, and cultural health in general. The question arises: Is the Internet destroying local culture? Bell doesn't believe so, but people still worry. The Independent (UK newspaper - see the picture above) asks: "Does the Internet know too much about you?"

We need more info about ex-users or non-users of the Internet. We need information about those who never used it or stopped using it. Some of this issue is money, but what about other issues?
There are people who want to buy their way out of technology. Vacation destination where it's not possible to connect to the Internet are becoming very popular with people who want to "get away." What is the future of net: We possibly might find those who want to be connected, and those don't and finding how they achieve that.

At the conclusion of her talked, I asked about her position - clearly that of a cultural anthropologist, yet working for Intel. She responded that Intel felt it a necessity to be connected to the rest of the world now and see what's happening in it.

As I look back on the Expo, Genevieve Bell's talk was the best because it stretched our thinking and forced us to look beyond ourselves. Brava, Genevieve!

See also her blog entry:
The revolution will be televised and then switched off (April 10, 2007; Blogs@Intel)


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