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gentle observer
November 29, 2012 1:10 AM   Subscribe

Why People Really Love Technology: An Interview with Genevieve Bell The thing I love about Intel researcher Genevieve Bell is that she finds surprising things by looking at what's left out of the dominant narratives about technology. She finds data that's ignored because it didn't fit into the paradigm of, say, how people adopt technology. The dominant narrative is that young men determine the popularity of phones, computers, websites, and the like. But when Bell looked at the data, the story we told ourselves about how the world worked was not reflected in the numbers. That's why I wanted to talk to her about what gadgets people around the world might be using over the next decade. I figured she was someone who could look past the conventional wisdom and find the missing pieces of the future
posted by infini (30 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've heard people talk to a lot of consumers in the U.K. over the past couple of years, and anyone who has got digital-TV stuff there has an enormous anxiety about the red button on their remote control. It's this very odd thing: the red button basically pushes them into a paved-wall, garden environment where it's not clear what's going to happen. So people have this really interesting anxiety about the red button, and it came up in every interview we did: "Oh my God, I don't want to push the red button."

I love that quote. To me it symbolizes the whole progression of technology. Decades ago people worried about the guy who had his finger on The Button. But now, technology has democratized all that, so each and every one of us can worry about having our own finger on the button.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:05 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


All these engineers and computer scientists said they were building this ubiquitous-computing feature, and I'd already been in it. I think for me, this narrative about the future had become so kind of, I don't know, adopted, that people had missed the fact that it already happened.I think that part of the reason they missed it was that the ubiquitous computing that has happened in Asia in the past decade took a different form--it didn't come out of industrial research labs and private enterprise, it came out of government and it was back-ended by a vision driven by city-states about notions of citizenship in the future. It had a form that was more interested in civic good than individual rights.

If we could ensure the notion of prioritizing civic good came along with the rest of the ubiquitous computing, I'd be much more comfortable with the idea.
posted by dubold at 2:43 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why would anyone be afraid of the red button? I've never met anyone who had red button anxiety.
posted by knapah at 2:50 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here is this thing that could make the thing that could make the thing out of the stuff.

That is a beautiful thing alright.
posted by Segundus at 2:54 AM on November 29, 2012


Why would anyone be afraid of the red button? I've never met anyone who had red button anxiety.

Yes, it's news to me, but then when you've pressed the red button it takes a while for the walled garden to load and then unload, so it can be kind of irritating.
posted by Summer at 3:07 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why would anyone be afraid of the red button? I've never met anyone who had red button anxiety.

There are levels of anxiety. This is of the kind where "what happens when I do this is a) not predictable, b) a ballache to get back out of, c) takes ages to load and so I am reluctant and avoid it". It's like subconscious interface stress.

See also: drag and drop on Windows,
posted by fightorflight at 3:27 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


The taking ages thing is exactly it, and its weird that she associated the anxiety with the unpredictability of the red button content rather than that. it takes ages to load and ages to quit out of, if it was instant, no one would care.
posted by ham at 3:33 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I liked this - both her answers and the questions that prompted them. But can anybody elaborate on why Seoul is such a hotbed of "ubiquitous computing"?
posted by rongorongo at 3:39 AM on November 29, 2012


Broadband coverage, cost of access, one of the most "internet enabled" societies on the planet?
posted by infini at 3:49 AM on November 29, 2012


Could somebody elaborate on this red button thing? How does it call up a "paved wall, garden environment"?

Our remote (supplied by the weasels at Time Warner) has this thing where if you hit the 1 button and then don't hit another button soon enough, you get sent to the On Demand channel and you're stuck there for about 35 seconds while it sloooooowly loads up ads to show you. And wouldn't you know, on each remote we've had, a few of the number buttons just happen to have a lagging problem... I know this sounds like the worst First World Problem ever, but trust me, if you were getting stuck in On Demand purgatory a few times a night, you'd be bitching about it too.

(It reminds me of a funny line Kevin Pereira had about PDFs. "Those things are like landmines. You hear people around the office, screaming like Darth Vader: NOOOOOOO!")
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:51 AM on November 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


When my co-worker presses the big red button when he fixes a messy bit of code it just plays an annoying recording "THAT WAS EASY".
posted by sammyo at 4:03 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


But windscreen wipers are often controlled by a rotary selector (or "knob" in common usage). An interesting read but far too many vague unsubstantiated assertions (a social scientist you say?), and it needs ruthlessly editing.
posted by epo at 4:17 AM on November 29, 2012


Broadband coverage, cost of access, one of the most "internet enabled" societies on the planet?
OK. But I have always understood the term "ubiquitous computing" to be primarily about the way that devices are used. I can understand that if internet access is cheap and fast then this might influence behaviour. But when Genevieve Bell talks about concepts she has seen mentioned in the context of laboratory research - yet which are already active on the streets of Seoul - what might she be referring to?
posted by rongorongo at 4:24 AM on November 29, 2012


Could somebody elaborate on this red button thing?

When you press the red button you pull up a kind of TV-optimised info page, where you get news, a choice of different channels etc.

It can be quite useful when you have things like the Olympics, because you'll get the latest results and a choice of different sports to watch.

If you press it accidentally though you have to wait for it to load, then wait for it to unload when you want to go back to normal TV.

I thought the red button was going to be a big hit back in the day, but it seems to have been superceded by other kinds of on-demand services (like BBC iPlayer) and stuff like smart TV from Samsung and LG.
posted by Summer at 4:32 AM on November 29, 2012


Could somebody elaborate on this red button thing? How does it call up a "paved wall, garden environment"?

It's a UK thing. Wikipedia has a primer
posted by fightorflight at 4:33 AM on November 29, 2012


Genevieve Bell seems like she has an extremely fascinating life in every interview I read; an old classmate interviewed her for Slate a few months ago.

Quote: Our team wanted to ask: What’s a new way to think about cars? How could we surprise people with them? I decided that the most ridiculous thing we could do was go back to one of my earlier interests: archeology. So we got people to unpack the entire contents of their cars: all 12 compartments, inside the seats, under the seats, the trunk. And then we photographed and catalogued all of it.

Every time I hear some stupid comment from Governor Rick Scott about anthropology, I just smile.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:10 AM on November 29, 2012


All I know is that when you are watching BBC shows in America you will hear something like, "If you want to hear more about Kew Garden's history of trees, hit the Red Button now," and I know I have no Red Button because I am an illegal viewer.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:12 AM on November 29, 2012


(It reminds me of a funny line Kevin Pereira had about PDFs. "Those things are like landmines. You hear people around the office, screaming like Darth Vader: NOOOOOOO!")

And yet Flash is so well designed...
posted by fairmettle at 5:14 AM on November 29, 2012


The matrimonial classified section of The Times of India was a huge win when it went online, because, as the Indians I did fieldwork with explained to me: "Listen, Genevieve, getting a husband is a database problem."

Clearly she's hanging out with too many engineers.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:16 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Exactly what happens when you press the red button depends on the channel you are watching, the content which has been set up to appear at a particular (often narrow) time slot on that channel and the speed at which the content is accessible on your TV (which depends on a chain of hidden variables). There is also a reasonable chance that the button may do nothing on your particular TV, that your controller may have more than one red button on it and that you can't tell which button is the right one because you are colourblind or because it is dark.

Occasionally pressing the red button will actually lead to something interesting. For example access to the "making of" segments of a BBC nature programme. But perhaps 8 times out of 10 you will be taken away from whatever you wanted to watch into some confusing and unresponsive twilight zone.
posted by rongorongo at 5:52 AM on November 29, 2012


...a paved-wall, garden environment where it's not clear what's going to happen...

I wish megacorporations, and their pet designers, would really listen to this clause. When you control every variable of a user's experience, you actually make it harder for them to use. We have mechanisms for dealing with the messy real world (e.g. alternate strategies, etc) and when those mechanisms get jammed, we get unhappy.
posted by DU at 6:20 AM on November 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


%s/technology/marketing/
posted by deathpanels at 7:08 AM on November 29, 2012


On Demand purgatory

I just noticed the other day that Comcast's xfinity on demand commercials leave out that half the screen is taken up by a video/commercial of an noxious entertainment pseudo tvshow infomercial playing at 1.5 the volume of your normal tv settings.

Somehow the version of XoD on the commercial is the one I actually want where the entire screen is for navigating the show menu.

Funny thing that.
posted by srboisvert at 8:35 AM on November 29, 2012


I don't even know what a 'Red Button' is, but I'd probably be afraid of it.
I liked her contrasting the east/west difference in how people view robots. Could it come just from science fiction? Or different views of the role of the individual (including robots) vs. society?
posted by MtDewd at 10:02 AM on November 29, 2012


That link to Slate talks about how some of her work was unpacking everything in cars and talking with people about what's in their cars, and this is taking me down a rabbit hole of FASCINATING. It's all about how stuff you carry in the car facilitates your many mobile lives and what implications that has for mobile computing technology. Here's a short article from Smithsonian (PDF):
"The presence of all manner
of creature comforts – movies, music, tissues, scent,
spiritual protections, food, and candy – reminds us that
we spend significant time in cars, engaged in all manner of
activities beyond strictly getting from point A to point B.
Cars are also – quite clearly, as judged by their material
debris – a rich interaction space: we spend time sitting together
with close family members, friends, and other social
acquaintances. Beyond their function as a social space,
cars appear to operate as a staging point for activities –
recreation, exercise, work, recycling – and also as a form
of extended storage – golf clubs, loyalty cards, donations,
and umbrellas. Viewed this way, the contents (and
indeed all the other cars we have excavated too) point to
the ways in which cars serve as important sites of human
activity and cultural practice, and as such warrant further
attention."
Here is a 20-minute talk that was really very interesting, has some of the car-stuff pictures. What lives are YOUR cars and mobile devices facilitating?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:54 AM on November 29, 2012


From the video:
1) Cars facilitate many mobile lives.
2) Cars are "Third Places."
3) Cars keep us socially safe (by letting us carry material to protect ourselves from SOCIAL emergencies, like cash-gift envelopes in Singapore in case your gift is too small at a wedding and alcohol bottles to give as hostess gifts in Australia so you don't turn up empty-handed).
4) Cars have ghosts (of people who have ridden in them before).
5) Cars hold our secrets (you go there to cry, you have secret stashes of stuff, you eat your bad guilt food in the car where nobody can see you, you make awkward phone calls).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:01 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would also love to more fully understand what is meant by the "ubiquitous computing" currently happening in Asia. Is it really just a reference to cheap broadband?
posted by FeralHat at 12:22 AM on November 30, 2012


In Data Centers you'll have big red button next to the exits that you push to shut off all of the power in the room.....you know, for emergencies like fires or water leaks. At my 1st job during my introductory walk through it was hammered into me. Eventually, someone hit it by mistake because they thought it opened the door (yes, there are big signs). At some point I worked in Europe in a building with lots of access controlled doors. You swiped your badge to unlock the a door and get in a room. You pressed a BIG RED BUTTON to unlock the door and leave. It could be that the button was labeled with in a language that I didn't know but it was a very conscious effort to hit those buttons and it never ever became instinctual.
posted by Spumante at 5:01 AM on November 30, 2012


Spumante, that's great observation and description. I'm keeping in mind how much the article would have snipped from her answers and keeping in mind this isn't in her own words.
posted by infini at 12:35 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


you will be taken away from whatever you wanted to watch into some confusing and unresponsive twilight zone

Or, as we used to call it in the 90s, Channel 5.
posted by Grangousier at 3:23 AM on December 1, 2012


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