It’s Not About Privacy Any More; It’s About Digital Gossip

ad copy for princess phoneThe new worry in the digital age is not loss of privacy. It is that our devices will turn in to “terrible, terrible digital gossips” and tell everyone what pathetic, nerdy lives we live, according to Genevieve Bell.

A senior anthropologist with Intel research, Bell also asked us to imagine a TV remote activated by voice. It sounds great at first until you realize how the current model is controlled. Picture the mayhem if the wife and kids started ordering the television around, too!

An Australian, Bell was speaking at Innovation Interface meets IxDA Dublin last night, and told of her experiences in places as diverse and exotic as Malaysia and corporate America. An Intel fellow, and Director of Interaction & Experience Research, Bell and her staff think about the uses of technology in different cultures and its potential uses in future.

She gave a very lively talk — her fourth of the day, apparently — and peppered it with numerous examples of industrial design, user interface problems and cultural conundrums.

The design challenges faced by today’s tech companies are not new, Bell said. Showing a slide of an 1860s typewriter, she said it was built by Smith & Wesson who diversified to make up for loss of firearm sales after the end of the American Civil War.
But the typewriter came to market with its end users in mind. The qwerty keyboard was designed deliberately to slow down typing to prevent the mechanism from jamming. The manufacturers also realized that men would not be patient enough to use it.

One hundred years later, Bell Labs wanted to sell more phones. Their problem was that anyone who was interested already had a phone. So, Bell Labs turned to their industrial designers and they decided to appeal to women with models that would come in from the hallway. They built a the “Princess Phone” that felt good to hold and came in different pastel colors. A magazine ad at the time said, “It’s little, it’s lovely, it lights.”

But, Bell noted, nothing in the ad mentioned making calls. It was a precursor of Apple’s marketing for the iPhone: It was all about the experience.

Bell said it is also important for companies to remember the environments where their products may be used. In urban centers, it is easy to imagine the internet is always available, Bell said. In fact, many devices are built with the assumption that they will always be connected to power and a data stream. But this constant connectivity is not always welcomed. Bell showed a sign in one Korean church that said, “It would be a blessing if you turned off your phone.”

There is also a trend where people are booking vacations where they cannot get connected. Bell said researchers had mentioned that they could turn off their devices, but people wanted that decision forced on them.

Meanwhile, “certain technologies persist,” Bell said. Television is more watched now that it was 10 years ago. How it is watched, however, has changed. TVs are now “co-located with other devices.” When people watched television with a laptop five years ago, it was to check Google or IMDb. Now, people are using Twitter and Facebook to offer running commentaries or interact about the show online.

Use of the internet in Asia is a different experience and is governed by very different languages and cultures, Bell said. The most popular website in China is Baidu. This is also the name of a poem about the search for a beautiful woman in the mist, Bell said. Interestingly for a search engine, the woman is never found in the poem.

Other sources of digital stress come from sharing data. While people seem resigned to certain amounts of data being accessible to employers, governments, businesses or landlords, they now worry about devices spilling the beans to other nearby devices. Televisions cannot tell if you are watching a program ironically, Bell said. Nor can it tell you watched some awful show because you happened to be in the room and wanted to keep the peace. But it can record that you watched it.

And it can share that information with nearby devices, Bell said. This is another source of worry since we are very concerned about reputation and image. Or technology could start interfering in our lives. A smart phone with a pedometer app could tell a smart fridge to keep the freezer door shut if we didn’t do our exercise.

In a great example of how cultures impact the use of technology, Bell told of how the same motherboards failed at higher rates in parts of Asia. American engineers arranged a conference call with their Malaysian counterparts to discuss the problem. It turned out that unreliable power in Malaysia forced people to unplug electronic equipment after they have finished using it. In industrial environments there, they also wrapped up the gear just after it was unplugged. However, the equipment did not get a chance to cool down and motherboards started failing at higher rates than they did in the West.

While the engineers were talking, a Malaysian told how he had one computer in his childrens’ bedroom because they all slept in the same bed. Hearing one of the American’s astonishment, the Malaysian asked what arrangement the others had. The American said his kids had their own rooms. “Why?” the Malaysian asked. “Are you punishing them?”

Image of Princess Phone courtesy of Eric Fischer on