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Last Updated: Friday, 10 October, 2003, 07:50 GMT 08:50 UK
Asia plays with hi-tech visions
Alfred Hermida
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

Technology is often seen in the West as a way of making our lives more efficient or as a way of having fun.

Mobile in Malaysia (Image: Genevieve Bell)
Mobile phones are everywhere in Asia
But researchers have found big cultural differences between East and West when it comes to what people actually do with their computers and mobiles phones.

In many Asian countries, technology has become a tool for learning, religion and politics, says Intel ethnographer Genevieve Bell.

She has spent the past two years travelling in Asia, looking at how people are adapting technology to suit their own needs and priorities.

"We see all kinds of local reinventions of technology," says Dr Bell, "whether it is people in China using their mobile phones to get the lunar calendar or people using the digital version of the Times of India newspaper matrimonial section to find a spouse."

She says this kind of research is important in helping technology companies tap into social trends and influence the kind of products they offer.

Mobile lessons

To get an insight into what people are doing with technology, she has visited 80 homes in 16 cities in countries as diverse as India, Malaysia, South Korea and China.

In many of these places, the mobile phone has emerged as the predominant form of new technology. China alone has more than 200 million mobile phone subscribers.

Genevieve Bell
These devices are really up for grabs and what people are going to do with them is very different and very unexpected
Genevieve Bell, Intel researcher
In Malaysia, about a third of the population of 24 million has a mobile and the percentage is even higher in countries like South Korea.

"We can learn lessons from why the mobile phone has been successful in Asia," Dr Bell told BBC News Online.

"It is relatively robust, relatively small, you don't need a desk, you don't need to be a in particular place.

"And you don't have to be literate to use them or speak English. These are all constraints when it comes to operating a computer," she explains.

Spiritual life

More importantly, mobile technology has been adapted to reflect the cultural priorities of each nation, such as their religious faith.

In Malaysia you can now get mobiles that come with a built-in directional finder to help Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca.

Mobile phone magazines (Image: Genevieve Bell)
In China there are dozens of magazines about mobiles
"This is a wonderful way of imagining technology doing something unexpected," says Dr Bell, "so rather than being a tool for work it becomes a tool for someone's religious devotion."

"Suddenly this device that I use to keep in touch with my family and friends became a way of keeping in touch with your inner spiritual life and your God."

Dr Bell is due to complete her research for the chip maker Intel at the end of the year.

But her initial findings suggest that we have only just started to scratch at the surface of what we can do with new technology.

"These devices are really up for grabs and what people are going to do with them is very different and very unexpected," she says.

Images courtesy of Genevieve Bell

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