Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Science blinded by culture

I'm fascinated by the work of cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell. I spoke with her back in '98 or '99, when she first came to Intel and I contributed occasional articles to the Detroit News science section.

No story came out of our interview at the time, but I remember how our conversation helped open my eyes to an element of technology and innovation that too many people in the science world neglect or negate: the role of culture. Not just the role popular culture plays in the adoption and acceptance of technology -- and I've pounded the keyboard bloody trying to get that point across on this blog and in Small Times columns -- but also ethnic, religious or national culture.

I'm very pleased to see the subject being approached in a thoughtful way by The New York Times in today's profile of Bell. Here's an excerpt that nanotech-watchers might be interested in. It's on the idea of pervasive, or ubiquitous, computing:

    Such insights challenged Intel's vision of a world of "smart homes" and a chip-driven lifestyle, Dr. Bell said, which assumes that users are secular. In those visions, there's no point at which residents stop to pray, visit a church, or have a moment of internal reflection. All this prompted her to ask David Tanenhaus (sic), Intel's vice president of research: "What if our vision of ubiquitous computing is so secular, so profoundly embedded in a set of Western discourses, that we've created a vision of the world that shuts out a percentage of people in a way we can't really even begin to articulate?" More here

This is a point I develop further in my next Small Times Magazine column, due out in a few weeks. As nanotechnologists leave the artificial light of the lab behind, they'd better rub their eyes and take a close look at the culture around them before they decide what it is the public should or should not accept.

If you're interested in nanoculture, the University of South Carolina has held some some fascinating-sounding events. Looks like I missed "The Evolution of Nanotechnology in Science Fiction" and a roundtable on "The Drexler-Smalley Debate on Nanotechnology." Last October, they had a talk on "Anticipating Public Reactions to Nanotechnology." Sounds great. Can't wait to see what they have planned for this year. Too bad I'm up here in Michigan. Like a great bunny once said, "Why do they have to put the South so far south?" More here.

Related Posts
Writers who know what I meme
Difficult to be dispassionate

Related Small Times columns
Somewhere between scientist and consumer, the message is lost
Welcome to Nano Reality TV, where the show is mistaken for truth


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