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Intel researchers study cultures not circuits

May 06, 20043 mins
Computers and PeripheralsWi-Fi

Researchers at Intel want to know more about you.

Though the chipmaker may be better known for its research and development work in physics and computer science, a small group of approximately 10 anthropologist and psychologists has been steadily accumulating research on how people use computer technology in their work and home lives since 1997.

The purpose of the People and Practices group, which is based in Intel’s Hillsboro, Ore., research and development facility, is to help translate this knowledge into better Intel products.

One of the group’s researchers, Genevieve Bell, believes that this kind of study may be particularly useful for understanding how regional differences affect home technology use, an area that is often overlooked by U.S. companies. Intel had a good idea of how customers were using its products in business settings, “but we were not good at looking at the home,” Bell said, speaking at a press event held at Intel’s Santa Clara campus Wednesday.

Bell knows something about technology in the home, particularly in the Asia Pacific region. She recently completed a two-year study of over 100 families in seven Asia Pacific countries trying to better understand how different factors like culture, social standing and religion, drive technology use.

The Stanford University Anthropology Ph.D. spent time with 15 families in each of the seven countries covered by her research, travelling to Malaysia, India, Singapore, Indonesia, China, Korea and Australia in 2002 and 2003.

Bell’s research tries to understand why and how technology is being used in different ways among different cultures. Asia was chosen because of Intel’s interest in the growing markets of India and China, she said.

Though she is presently assembling her findings into a book, Bell did share a few of her observations at the event. For example, religion, she said, may play a greater role in the way people use technology than is typically acknowledged.

In Malaysia, LG Electronics offers a mobile handset that helps the user find the direction of Mecca for daily prayers. In China, phone buyers will hold out for auspicious mobile phone numbers, and the biggest mobile phone services for China’s quarter of a billion mobile phone users is a lunar almanac, Bell said.

Religious ideas may play into the adoption rates of computers and mobile phones in countries like India and Malaysia, where such devices may be thought of as a “polluting” influence, more suited for a workplace environment, she said.

In other Asian countries, however, cultural differences have allowed for more widespread mobile phone adoption. Bell even offered an anthropological reason to explain why mobile phone technology has caught on more quickly than the personal computer in some Asian countries. “People have traditionally had a lot more of their social connections outside the home. Mobile phones really augment this very effectively,” Bell said.

And in some of the countries she studied, people used mobile phone numbers in far more flexible manner than in Western families. “There are cultures where people’s identity is often not as an individual first,” she said. Some of the families Bell studied would share a mobile phone or perhaps even a basket of phones that would be shared between family members.

In South Korea, worried parents are able to track their children’s movements by means of a mobile phone tracking service, Bell said.

With her research now complete, Bell intends to spend the next few months synthesizing her findings into a book. “My plan for the next six months is to think and write,” she said.