Intel works to make our devices less needy

Intel fellow digs through people's cars to study our relationship with our gadgets

SAN FRANCISCO -- If we think our digital devices are just about data, we're missing the point, an Intel executive said.

Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist and an Intel fellow and Labs director, said it's all gotten personal.

We use our laptops, smartphones and tablets in our negotiations, to meet obligations and, most importantly, we develop relationships with them, according to Bell, who spoke at the Web 2.0 Summit on Monday. That means the tech industry should focus on the relationships people have with their technology, instead of simply focusing on building the next great feature or gadget.

"The biggest shift is that we stand on the precipice of the relationship between people and computing," Bell said. "How do we understand this relationship?"

Bell has found that people have co-dependent relationships with their favorite gadgets. If our devices were people, we'd dump them.

"They're needy. They want to be plugged in. They want passwords. They want us to make decisions," Bell told Computerworld. "They're very nervous Nellies as objects. They need this. They need that. That's the reality of our relationship with devices. We have a lot to do to take care of them. They're so needy. Who would put up with that in another person?"

It's time to make our devices more self-reliant, Bell said. Devices should be doing more for us and we should be doing less to take care of them.

"Let's make the tech less anxious, more robust," Bell said. "It should look after us instead of us looking after it ... For instance, [your device] has your calendar. It knows what meetings you're in when you spend a lot of time surfing the Internet. It could push interesting stories to you when it knows you're in that boring meeting. What would that future look like?"

Bell said it won't take long for our devices to become significantly less needy. She expects that in three to five years our devices will be doing a lot more of the "care giving."

To get a better sense of how people relate to their digital devices, Bell has spent a lot of time digging through other people's cars. This Intel Fellow would love to go through your glove compartment, the pockets in your car doors and especially the trunk to see what it is you take with you when you're commuting to work or visiting friends and family.

Bell, who has a Ph.D in anthropology, said poking through people's cars gives her an idea of what is important to them and how their technology moves through their lives.

"Depending on where you are, people spend half an hour to three hours a day in their vehicles," Bell said. "Here are these things that we spend all this time in so we drag our technology into them. And the cars themselves are zones of technology. There's somewhere between 25 and 40 pieces of discrete silicon in the average car built in the last five years."

So why is an Intel fellow sorting through the forgotten water bottles, tennis balls and lost Bluetooth devices in people's cars?

"It's all about how we get somewhere and how we get things done," said Bell. "What does it take to make sense of how we use our technology and what goes with us. .. If you can imagine that all of our devices move in and out of our cars, what do we need to do with that information?"

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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