Talking phones: a cultural analysis of an information and communication technology

  Genevieve Bell, Intel Research.

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University January 30, 2004

In June of 2002, Malaysian newsstands carried the latest issue of "Mobile Stuff" -- a magazine geared toward Malaysia'' growing population of mobile phone subscribers. On the cover, two young Malay men in clothing that suggests more LA hood and less KL suburbs, hold out their mobile phones to the camera beneath the banner headline "Real Men Use SMS." Six months later, billboards in Shanghai carried the image of a woman's shapely calves and ankles, bound with black patent leather ankle straps; positioned beneath one strap is her mobile phone. Beyond their utility as a technology of information exchange, mobile phones it appears have inserted themselves into the cultural fabric of societies across the world. Using comparative cases from Asia, this talk explores how mobile phones, and their various accoutrements, have become key symbolic markers of identities. I argue that mobile phones, rather than facilitating an idealized universal communication, actually contribute to the re-inscription of local particularity and cultural difference as dimensions of a larger political economy of value. Making sense of the different ways that cell phones are articulating with daily life provides an important perspective on the ways in which cultural patterns affect technology use.

Genevieve Bell is a Senior Researcher within Intel Corporation's Intel Research. She is currently running a 2 year research project focused on gaining a better understanding of the daily life of Asia's urban middle classes, with an emphasis on the role of new information and communication technologies. To date, she has conducted fieldwork in India, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, China and South Korea. Since joining Intel in 1998, Bell has conducted ethnographic research in a variety of consumer spaces, including malls, retail districts, and museums, as well as within a range of different American households. Bell has also conducted significant research beyond the US, including a five-country, strategically situated, ethnographic study of European domestic spaces. Prior to joining Intel, Bell taught anthropology and Native American Studies at Stanford University. Bell received her BA/MA in anthropology from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She earned a PhD in cultural anthropology from Stanford University in 1998.


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