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Being human in the digital age

Silicon Valley is building a world of things digital and human -- and that world needs as many voices, faces and perspectives as we can find.

Genevieve Bell The Anthropologist
Cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell is an expert on the intersection of culture and technology. She is a vice president at Intel Corp. and an Intel Fellow, a position that reflects the highest level of technical achievement within the world's largest chipmaker.
Genevieve Bell
3 min read

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Moore's Law: the logic of Silicon Valley, the observation by Dr. Gordon Moore that ended up predicting the rate of technological change and thus innovation for the next 50 years. Although it is a bold statement of engineering, in some ways it is as much about a promise. After all, it is not a law describing the natural world but a promise of a world that will be better with every passing year.

Every time you send an email, post a photo, flirt long distance or Skype, you are living in the world that Intel co-founder Dr. Moore and his contemporaries built for us. And for 16 of the last 50 years, it has been my privilege to work at Intel.

Dr. Moore's path to Silicon Valley was relatively straightforward, while mine was more circuitous. I left Australia and came to the US for university. With my PhD from Stanford in cultural anthropology, I was heading down the tenure track at Stanford. And then through a chance encounter, I ended up leaving to join Intel.

Although this may seem like an unusual choice, I was compelled by the idea that I could help make a better world if I helped design a digital world in which we could still be human, complete with our complexities, contradictions and mess. And that has been the job -- using insights gleaned from spending time in people's homes and lives to help shape the next generation of technology.

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I was raised by a single mother who was an anthropologist. I grew up on field sites in Aboriginal communities in Australia -- a childhood of no shoes, speaking another language, operating in a different cultural system, hunting and gathering, and frequent absences from school. And it was a childhood of extraordinary opportunity to see the world through the eyes of others.

While my mother was an academic, she was also an activist and firm believer in social justice. She raised me on one simple principle: if you could see a better world, you were morally obligated to help bring it into existence. You shouldn't sit on the sidelines but actively advocate for the world you want to see - one that was better for many and not just you. This notion has shaped my intellectual and personal journey.

Why am I telling you all of this? To illustrate that there is never just one way forward, and that there will always be choices to be made. And some of our choices offer opportunities to do more than just follow our passions and dreams but the chance to also craft and shape a better world.

Between the anthropologist (me) and the chemist (Dr. Moore) you will find a champion for people and an architect of technology. We are two people who seek to make the world a better place through our different choices.

After Intel, Dr. Moore and his wife started a foundation that gives generously to causes from health care to environment stewardship. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich has pushed Intel to ensure our supply chain sources only conflict-free minerals and is personally and publicly advocating for diversity and inclusion in the technology industry. Apple CEO Tim Cook has been public about his concerns around data privacy and gay rights. Del Harvey at Twitter advocates for citizen and consumer trust and security. Megan Smith left a job in the Valley to join the federal government to change the conversation on technology at a policy and regulatory level.

For every public face, there are private acts too -- everyday acts of deciding how the world could unfold: my peers who volunteer their time in after-school science programs to ensure equity of access to underprivileged kids; my academic co-conspirators who are reclaiming the histories of women technologists we may have been forgotten; or my friends who take time out from work to stack the library shelves in Ferguson, Missouri.

The world we are collectively building in Silicon Valley and beyond -- a world of things digital and human -- is a world that needs as many different voices, faces and perspectives as we can find. Perhaps you too are making moral obligations for a better world like this: small or large but persistent, powerful and wonderful -- helping to shape the world today, tomorrow and 50 years from now.

Photo by J.R. Mankoff/AUGUST