What Margaret Mead could teach techs

February 25, 2009, 5:17 PM UTC
Anthropologist Genevieve Bell helps Intel understand what people around the world are doing with technology – and what they’ll want to do next. Photo: Intel

While traveling in China, Genevieve Bell figured she’d have no trouble getting a cell phone. With cash, a passport and official documents from her employer, she went to a local shop where phone packages lined the walls, and asked for one.

I don’t have any, the shopkeeper said.

She noted that she could see boxes of them all over the store.

They’re bad phones, he said.

I’m only here three weeks, she confided; it can be a terrible phone. But he still wouldn’t sell her one. “It was like a really bad Monty Python routine,” she recalls.

The problem, it turns out, wasn’t the phones — it was the phone numbers. Numbers carry symbolic significance in China (8 and 3 are good, 7 is awful) — and when this particular shopkeeper had run out of good numbers to match with phones earlier in the day, he stopped selling phones altogether. Come back tomorrow at 9 a.m., he said, and I’ll sell you a phone with a suitable number.

The encounter illustrates how technology and culture blend in new ways in a global society powered by cell phones and PCs. It also serves as an example of why Intel , a company known for employing computer scientists, employs Bell, an anthropologist.

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