What the tech business hasn't yet grasped about human nature

Genevieve Bell, Intel's in-house anthropologist, sees constants in our behavior that could mean big bucks for businesses that find a way to capitalize on them.

Genevieve Bell, Intel's anthropologist, speaking at Mobile World Congress.
Genevieve Bell, Intel's anthropologist, speaking at Mobile World Congress. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA -- It's pretty clear from Facebook's ascent that businesses nowadays understand our need to connect with friends and family is a big deal.

But what about our need to be bored, to be surprised, and to get away from it all?

Those are among the parts of human nature that could be a big deal for businesses that figure out how to tap into those traits with today's technology, according to Genevieve Bell, Intel's in-house anthropologist.

"In this digital world, the story we're telling about the future is a story driven by what the technology wants and not what we as humans need," Bell said at the WIPjam developer event during the massive Mobile World Congress show here. "We want mystery, we want boredom, a lot of us in this room want to be dangerous and bad and be forgiven about it later. We want to be human, not digital."

The more things change
Technology is reshaping human existence rapidly, but Bell said some things aren't changing about us.

For example, we use the objects in our lives to express our values; we share secrets with others; we tell lies; we are deeply connected to our family and friends; we want to belong to something bigger than ourselves.

Technology just offers new ways to tap into those old trends. For millennia we've picked our clothes as a statement about ourselves, but now we do the same with mobile phones and wearable computing devices. We have new ways to lie -- online dating profiles and text messages saying we've almost arrived. Where we've joined religions or fought for a country in the past, we're now also organize Arab Spring online.

Connecting to people is at the core of our lives. "If you can tap into this one, you can always succeed," she said. It's no coincidence that the things we chat about on Facebook today are the things we talked about on telephones a century ago and that the idea that convinced Facebook Chief Executive to pay $19 billion for WhatsApp was that 331 million people each day use it for their communications.

Genevieve Bell, Intel's anthropologist, argues that there are aspects of human behavior that don't change with the onset of new technology, but instead adapt to it, and aspects that are being changed by technology.
Genevieve Bell, Intel's anthropologist, argues that there are aspects of human behavior that don't change with the onset of new technology, but instead adapt to it, and aspects that are being changed by technology. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Wearable weirdness
Wearable computing also will fit in with human nature, once the new technology settles down. "human beings really care about stuff and what stuff says about us," she said. "At the moment we're in the early days, and we're worried about what the technology will do, not what it says about us."

Well, actually, some already are worried about that, as evidenced by the term "Glasshole" to designate somebody wearing Google Glass in public. Bell takes the long view here.

"We make sense of technologies over time," she said. "If you look at the history of wearable technology, what's really striking about some of the anxieties osmoe of those early tech produced. The first time people wore glasses, there was anxiety -- with glass that's convex and concave, what does it mean that that person can see me differently than everybody else can?

Where tech is changing us
But not everything about is us constant. Technology is changing some of our behaviors and preferences, she said.

Here's a big one: how the world sees us.

"We are more concerned about our reputations than we have ever been," Bell said. Much more of what we do goes on our permanent record and is shared globally, publicly.

"In a post-Snowden, post-NSA world, it is hard not to imagine that humans aren't anxious about data -- the data generated by us, about us, for us -- and where all that goes," Bell said.

And that means a business opportunity. "This space is really ripe for innovation," she added.

Surprise me
Technology doesn't really tap into the pleasurable feeling of surprise. Algorithms on eBay, Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon are geared to recommend purchases based on what our own earlier behavior or that of people like us, but that's not all we need, Bell said.

"We really like the familiar -- until we're done with it. Housewives of New York, housewives of New Jersey, housewives of Dallas, housewives of Orange County, housewives of Atlanta -- enough already. Then Game of Thrones comes along," Bell said.

Genevieve Bell, Intel's anthropologist, speaking at Mobile World Congress.
Genevieve Bell, Intel's anthropologist, speaking at Mobile World Congress. Stephen Shankland/CNET

"We don't have a lot of algorithms that work out how people are about to become bored and how to deliver something surprising to them that won't freak them out," she said. "The first person who gets there wins."

Another area where technology and human nature aren't in balance is the simple idea of downtime.

"We need to be bored. You need to be bored to reset your brain. But we have things in pockets that say, 'Pay attention to me now!' Every device works best when it's constantly connected to the network to power, to the Internet, but we function best when we're disconnected," she said. Weekends, the Sabbath, Ramadan -- "We need moments when we're not constantly connected so we can reflect."

It's not a message you'd expect to associate with a tech company like Intel, but Bell is clear to emphasize these tensions between human nature and technology can be turned into businesses. Maybe Intel's next investment will be in one of those meditation apps.

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About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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