Ducks, Dolls & Robots: A Genealogy of Socio-Technical Anxieties

Date: April 2, 2014
Dr. Genevieve Bell, Intel

Genevieve BellThe introductions of new technologies are rarely seamless and silent affairs. There are the inevitable boosters and utopian dreamers who will tell us and sell us on the notion that this new technology will change our lives, in both big and small ways: we will be cleaner, safer, happier, more efficient, more productive, and of course, more modern with all that implies. The message here is everything will be different, better. There are also the equally inevitable naysayers and dystopian dreamers who worry along equally familiar but slightly different lines: we will be less social, less secure, more isolated, and more homogenous. The message here is everything will be different, but perhaps not so much better. Of course, running in between these larger conversations are the practicalities of living with new technologies—how much does it cost? where does it live? who should look after it? what will we will do with it? and, in the end, what will we do without it?

Perhaps it is no surprise then that we worry, that new technologies are frequently accompanied by anxiety, and sometimes even fear. In this talk, Genevieve traces the roots of these hopes, fears and anxieties back through our history with machines—Vaucason’s Duck, Edison’s Talking Doll, the tea-cup robots of the Edo-period in Japan, Frankenstein’s monster and Ned Ludd’s polemics are all part of this story. She takes an expansive view, crossing cultures and historical periods, to create a genealogy of our socio-technical anxieties. Ultimately, she suggests a framework for making sense of these anxieties, and in so doing, a new way of thinking about the next generation of technologies we are designing.

About the Speaker
Dr. Genevieve Bell (@feraldata) is an anthropologist and researcher with 15 years of experience driving innovation in the high-tech industry. As the director of Interaction and Experience Research in Intel Labs, Bell leads a team of social scientists, interaction designers, human factors engineers and computer scientists. This organization researches new computing experiences that are centered around people’s needs and desires. This foundationally shapes and then helps to create new Intel technologies and products. In this team and her prior roles, Bell has fundamentally altered the way Intel envisions and plans its products so that they are centered on people’s needs rather than simply silicon capabilities.

In addition to leading this increasingly important area at Intel, Bell is an accomplished industry commentator on the intersection of culture and technology and has been extensively featured in publications that include Wired, Forbes, The Atlantic, Fast Company and the Wall Street Journal. She is a frequent public speaker and panelist at technology conferences worldwide, sharing myriad insights gained from her extensive international field work and research. In 2010, Bell was named one of Fast Company’s inaugural “100 Most Creative People in Business.” Bell is a passionate advocate for the advancement of women in technology and in 2012 was inducted into the Women In Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame, as well being honored by the Anita Borg Institute as the 2013 Woman of Vision for Leadership. Her first book, Divining the Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing, was co-written with Prof. Paul Dourish of the University of California at Irvine and released in April 2011. Bell is also the recipient of several patents for consumer electronics innovations.

A native of Australia, Bell moved to the United States for her undergraduate studies and graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. She then earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Stanford University where she also taught as an acting lecturer in the Department of Anthropology from 1996-1998. With a father who was an engineer and a mother who was an anthropologist, perhaps Bell was fated to ultimately work for a technology company, joining Intel in 1998.

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Ducks, Dolls & Robots: a Genealogy of Socio-Technical Anxieties from CHIFOO Communications on Vimeo.