[GENEVIEVE BELL [Intel Labs Director, Interaction and Experience Research]

BEFORE INTEL / I HAve been at Intel for nearly 13 years. Before that, I was a professor of anthropology at Stanford University. I was the child of an anthropologist— I grew up on my mother’s field sites in Central and Northern Australia in the 1970’s and 1980’s, so I spent most of my youth in Aboriginal communities living a very feral childhood. For the most part, I had no shoes on, I didn’t go to school, I was out hunting and gathering with Aboriginal people. It was a very unusual childhood and I think, when I went to university, anthropology was a kind of comforting thing for me— leaving Australia for the states. so it’s what I stuck with. I never expected to work in the industry, ever. In some ways it still surprises me that it’s my job...

THE WORLD IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT IT WAS / I REMEMBER a moment in Ipoh in 2002, probably March or April. I had been in Malaysia and Singapore at that point for nearly two months. It’s a part of the world that I had spent time in— I know a little bit about those cultures— and it had been an extraordinarily rich fieldwork trip up until then.

so, we were in Ipoh and I was with a family and the mother had decided she was going to take me on her errands for the day, which was great. we were running around town getting stuff done— we’d had this mad breakfast with lots of coffee which was excellent— so we were just off running her errands and as we did we went into a shop full of things that you use for religious purposes, like a spirit shop, which included a bunch of products you use in traditional Chinese cultures and the like. It was full of things you use to tend the graves of your ancestors and that you use in the Qingming, which is a festival that happens once a year where you tend the shrine of your ancestors and burn paper objects. The idea is that the fire transforms the paper things into real things at the hands of your ancestors.

Historically, this was a really big deal. I mean, in mainland China before the revolution, people made these amazing piles of paper stuff outside of their homes and burnt it and it was all about demonstrating how much you cared about your relatives. These incredible objects you burnt to take care of them, paper money, paper clothing, houses, food… there used to be a guy in Shanghai in the 1930’s who specialised in making full-sized paper Rolls Royce’s and Bentley’s— people would burn all this stuff.

These days, and at that point when i was there 10 years ago, those stores were also full of paper technology— televisions, mobile phones in particular, fans, rice cookers, that sort of stuff. I picked up a box in the store and it had a paper mobile phone, a Nikia not a Nokia, which was great, and it had a paper wallet, credit card, and lipstick fully designed for a woman.

My friend said ‘oh, I bought one of those for my mother when we were at Qingming’ and I was sort of looking at this thing and looking at her and I knew just enough about this ceremony to know what it was for. I looked at her and I was like ‘ok, so you bought her a paper mobile phone’ and she was like ‘yeah, yeah’. I asked her, ‘who is she calling on this phone’, and she didn’t know what I meant. I said, ‘well is she calling you’ and she said, ‘don’t be ridiculous, she’s dead. she’s calling her sister who is also deceased’. I was like, ‘ok…’ and she said, ‘yeah, yeah, we upgraded her phone because she had a much shittier one last year, this is a better phone’.

I’m standing in this shop in this tiny town realising that this thing that I had always conceived of as a technology had crossed into being absolutely syMBolic. It was understood as being an object that had enough meaning in a paper representation to be burnt into a pile of ashes that would make it real in an ultimate world. In this world the woman’s ancestors were alive and making telephone calls— mobile phone calls at that. And the logic of upgrading a mobile phone once a year because the technology was better was absolutely as salient as it was in the world of the living.

This was a huge moment for me in which I realised that if you didn’t pay attention to the fact that technology wasn’t just technical, it was syMBolic, and that it operated in these incredible other realms, you were missing the point. I went back to a whole bunch of my notes, because I had been in Asia for almost a year, and I realised that there was all this stuff that people were doing at the intersection of technology and spiritual practice that I’d missed because I wasn’t looking for it, I wasn’t thinking about it.

People had been telling me all along but I just hadn’t noticed. It ran the gamut from using the internet for arranging marriages, doing astrological charts for arranged marriages, using the internet for making devotions to your temple gods— just incredible stuff that was in my notes but I hadn’t registered. I had taken notes and people had told me and I had written it down but I had somehow not seen it as a thing. For me, there was this amazing moment of thinking, ‘oh my god, of course, technology is in the service of religious and spiritual practices and is in the service of the syMBolic’. Until I had been standing there with this paper phone in my hand with the woman telling me she was going to go and set fire to it, I don’t think it had been quite real enough for me as it was at that particular moment...]


images [pages 108-115] DUSTIN EDWARD ARNOLD & NICHOLAS ALAN COPE, [117 to 125] AIGA OZOLINA / concept MONIKA BIELSKYTE. production SOME/THINGS AGENCY. interviews conducted AND EDITED by SOME/THINGS MAGAZINE EDITORIAL TEAM. project co-ordinated by mikael moreau.