Hotseat: Intel Futurist Genevieve Bell

Intel's resident futurist on the iPhone of the '40s and why it's weird to thank your computer.

Genevieve Bell has a team of 100 people at Intel who do strange things. They spent a year photographing messy car interiors all over the world. They developed a robot that runs apps the same way a phone does. As a vice president in charge of "Corporate Sensing & Insights" at Intel, Bell is the Portland area's most famous futurist—a Stanford-trained social scientist who believes the best way to understand the future is to "think exquisitely and critically about the present." We caught up with her before her appearance at Think & Drink this week.

WW: What do futurists do?

Genevieve Bell: I describe myself as a full time anthropologist and a part time futurist. My background was in Native American Ethnohistory and feminist theory. Not the kind of thing that trains you well for work in the tech field. How do you think about the future? I think you have to think exquisitely and critically about the present. 

My research methods are in some ways remarkably similar to my work as a graduate student and an early professor. I still believe in the virtues of fieldwork—spending time with people in the places they make meaning in their lives, trying to get a sense of what makes people tick from the inside out. I believe strongly in the notion that there are things to learn from history. I'm not one of those people who believes that the world is a continuously revolving blank slate. When we think about self-driving cars—that conversation is as old as cars themselves. It's not like that conversation sprang fully formed out of 2007.


What kind of fieldwork do you do?

We've looked at some of the camps that have sprung up in Silicon Valley to help them disconnect [from technology]. We have fieldwork looking at how people think about powering their devices, people chasing electrical outlets at airports. 

Most recently I've been working on the early history of industrial design—the machine age from the 1880s to the 1940s. What were the new technologies of the day that were made palatable for consumers by giving them a designed aspect? I'm thinking about the design of early wireless radios and telephones, and the technologies of light and refrigeration.

So, early versions of Steve Jobs?

What's fascinating is that the relationship between Steve Jobs and [Apple designer Jonathan] Ive has many historic precursors. Charles and Ray Eames worked with Watson at IBM in the '40s on a top-to-bottom model, from their logo to their interior design to their vision videos. I was thinking, "Wow, who knew?" We think about Eames from the Eames chair, but they were doing all sorts of other work.

Henry Dreyfuss—an industrial designer in the '30s, '40s and '50s—was in close collaboration with Bell Labs to create the Princess phone. The early ads for the Princess phone are infinitely worth Googling: "It's little, it's lovely, it lights." It doesn't tell you anything that it does. They're like iPhone ads before Apple.

What's a typical week for you?

Like many people in many companies all over the world, I have a lot of meetings. They run the gamut from meetings about "What will the world look like in 2025?" to "We need to do this PowerPoint presentation." I spend most of my spare time in a book. My mother will tell you that my second or third sentence was me running around the house yelling, "A book, a book, a book, a book, read me now!"

E-book or paper?

All formats. I still think there's nothing more evocative than the smell of a book. I'm not quite the sort of person who'd wander into bookstores and sniff books, but I could see that happening. But I was also one of the earliest adopters in my entire extended network of the Kindle.

What has surprised you the most in your research?

At the moment it's a personal one, not a research one. I got Amazon Echo, their [voice-operated] personal assistant object. It was a passive object until you talked to it and then it was surprisingly interactive. This always-on, always listening aspect was intellectually fascinating. 

But the moment i found myself actually thanking a computational object…. It was a timer—the timer went off, and I asked Alexa to stop the timer. The timer stopped and I said, “Thanks!” Then I went out of the house thinking, “Oh my God, I’m a complete idiot.” And then I did it again a half-hour later. 

I speculated for years about the moment when we moved from human-computer interaction to human computer relationships. Certainly it's in some of the ways we talk about our mobile devices and the way we don't like to have them out of our hands—we sleep with them. But there's something very different about thanking an object. I would never thank my refrigerator for functioning, although it's something we should be thankful for.

So why did you thank the Echo?

I suspect it's partly the voice. It has a human-sounding voice. The lack of latency—it's immediate. There's something about the multitalented facet of the object. I wonder if speaking out loud is part of it—that it's verbalized. I would like to imagine it's because I was raised to be polite.

What have you discovered that people don't want their computers to ever do?

Kind of classic pain points. Intel is working on some of them already. Why does this battery not get me through a full day? Intel has worried for a long time about power. We're working on wireless charging. People worry about security and passwords. We have initiatives on how to use biometrics and cameras to facilitate that. 

We talk about the internet of things and connective devices, finessing how those interact with humans. We had some lovely work with consumers responding to smart objects that knew things about them, that were then talking to other people. They would inevitably say things like, "That device seems to be gossiping about me." It was always a really interesting choice of language.

Do you hang out with Shingy? The AOL Internet prophet?

No, sadly. I don't get to spend any time with Ray Kurzweil either. A few other futurists I do get together with periodically—Marina Gorbis is one of my favorites down at the Institute for the Future. Two others who work at Intel, Brian David Johnson and Steve Brown. Mark Pesce in Sydney is a fave, as is Mike Walsh. There are a bunch of us around. 

GO: Genevieve Bell will appear in conversation with Oregon Humanities director Adam Davis at Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St., 719-6055,, on Wednesday, Sept. 23. 7 pm. $10. Under 18 permitted with legal guardian.

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