by AMINA BENHIMA, Swinburne University
A PhD in French Literature and Cultural Studies from Duke University (1988-1994), Maria Bezaitis may appear to have a surprising career as a scientist inside Intel’s Interaction and Experience Lab. But as she says, her vast literary studies exploring modernist literary movements in the context of new technological developments, ultimately led her into such a field of work. Bezaitis felt she had learned about “the changing nature of everyday life” and it was this focus that forged her interesting career.
Of immigrant parents to the USA, Bezaitis mentions that her background possibly contributed to a core tension that created a sense of “always being on the outside or at the margins”. This fluent speaker in French and Greek as well as English drew her academic attention to language and “writing, writing and writing”. Bezaitis came to see language as crucially important to all endeavours. Language for her was the preferred methodology “to work out problems, questions and responses” and as she has repeatedly stated, her driving force is to get “people to understand the notion of change” and to see language as “a means of engagement.” She sums it up in the following words: “I create relationships with the social world in language”.
Bezaitis modestly sees herself as having a “strong sense of optimism and possibility” and she feels these personal characteristics stemmed from her “years and years reading literature and theory”. Engendering from these studies, developed within her “a sense of what is correct and what is not”. Her post academic work at E-Lab is considered by Bezaitis as having the deepest influence on her life to date. It was there where she learned to “think with other people” (designers, partners, clients) and where she gained her vocational confidence “to identify, shape and form ideas that had value for other people”.
Whilst still considering herself foremost as a writer, Bezaitis saw her work at E-Lab as being “the most formative years in my professional life.”
On a personal level, Bezaitis’s fond memories from her work at E-Lab were also tinged by the fact that it was where she met her husband. She speaks with enthusiasm about working “directly with designers, particularly communication designers” as she came to believe that “great communication designers help you to translate ideas into structures that let people act on their ideas”. Now at Intel, she confides that she does miss this earlier work at E-Lab. Co-workers and researchers at E-lab saw Bezaitis’s work as pioneering the use of ethnography and design planning for product and service development.
Bezaitis’s attraction to ethnographical theories and methodologies was seen by her as an extension of her commitment to doing what is “correct”. For her, ethnographic praxis is “about a commitment to everyday life, to deeply understand people in the context of their everyday lives and to shaping that understanding such that we can act in a way that is good for people in the context of their lives”. She was keen to see a development away from business simply working towards “identifying consumer needs”. The importance of a range of fields (sociology, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, linguistics etc.”) was seen by Bezaitis as hugely relevant to industry, government and society. She saw this interdisciplinary approach as producing the “tools” to work with problems.
A stepping stone from E-Lab to Intel was her work at Sapient in the capacity as Vice President of the Corporation. Here Bezaitis co-led the Experience Modelling Group and led the Advanced Research Team. However, it is probably her move to Intel that is the most significant for Bezaitis’s career path to date. With Intel’s charter being, ‘to transform how people experience technology’, Bezaitis’s interests and qualifications would appear to be more than suitable. Her ascribed job description was “to identify topics that may identify new business directions and for technology directions”. She was to help Intel “to consider new ways of thinking about people and markets and different types of business decisions”. When asked what her typical work day looks like, her answers revealed the complex and varied nature of her endeavours; “I can be working with colleagues based in another location on the phone, giving a talk to an internal or external group or doing actual research and writing, writing, writing.” An interesting work day no doubt!
Through her challenging work days at Intel, Bezaitis probably revealed to the world her major academic concerns and preoccupations. These have manifested in her strong ties to EPIC and her professional concerns around “what data is doing to shape the kinds of digital relations that will be possible for us in the future.” It seems that Bezaitis’s original attachment to the power of language and the nature of change lie at the heart of these two standouts in her current work.
EPIC , founded in 2005, (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Community) is seen as a major achievement in acknowledging the importance of ethnographic praxis in industry, government and society. Bezaitis is the current President of EPIC and has been involved with the organisation since 2006. To many, EPIC and Bezaitis go hand in hand. EPIC, to Bezaitis, is aimed at building “an organisation for practitioner’s world-wide no matter how or where they are working to advance the value of ethnography”. As President, Bezaitis sees her tasks as moving the board forward, raising money, overseeing activities and programing preparations for its annual conference. She also warmly acknowledged how EPIC has changed over the years where it was “initially with product design and brand consultancies” to its current widened participation to “technology companies participating as sponsors of EPIC and practitioners sharing in the Annual Conference.
Bezaitis is delighted with this expansion in participation with EPIC including university participation and its consequential exposure to new students. She also sees the establishment of ‘www.epicpeople.org’ since June this year as a major milestone as “now people have easy access to the history and legacy that has been produced by EPIC people.” Her concern as President is “to be able to build on the work that other people have already done to move the field forward”. When asked if there is anything that keeps her awake at night though, Bezaitis says she is acutely worried about EPIC becoming “financially sustainable”. She is also concerned that EPIC should develop the capacity to “enable practitioners to interact year round, to develop their expertise and to develop professionally through the content and resources that EPIC can provide.”
To return to the subject of data and human relations in a digital world, Bezaitis’s TED talk on “The Surprising Need for Strangeness” addresses her current academic preoccupation. In many ways it has also come to define her work in the field of ethnographic praxis. For Bezaitis, it is the pressing need for “better ways of understanding closeness and distance between people and the constantly changing nature of our relations intimate and not” that is of paramount importance. She views our social relations as “increasingly mediated by data and that data turns our social relations into digital relations”. She sees the need to maintain real agency in this world of data sharing and that “we only have a small window of time to make that possible”. Does she see her concerns expressed in “The Surprising Need for Strangeness” as running counter to prevailing attitudes about security and the privacy of the individual? Bezaitis acknowledges that it may well be the case but she still sees the concept of ‘Safely Seeking Strangers’ as possibly a new basis for innovation. Intel’s conclusion that “…as peoples’ relationships to the things in their lives change, so do their relations with other people” accords with Bezaitis’s viewpoint.
She urges “that the range of digital relations is extraordinary”. Questions of data security are at Bezaitis’s research threshold. Another thing that keeps her wake at night is… “How to get security researchers to think more flexibly about how they categorise people and how they think about what data needs to do”. This is probably a timely question for all of us in 2014. When asked if she feels her message on the need for strangeness in our digital relations is catching on, she replied in the affirmative. This is her work in progress and she concludes that,
“We need better, more honest and more actionable ways of understanding trust both the very simple ways in which people extend trust and the ways in which trust and distrust or mistrust are so tightly coupled. By that I mean simply that it’s hard in reality to talk about one without talking about the other but the problem is that distrust is always framed in negative light, though there may be other ways to think about when and how and why people distrust something or someone.”
A PhD in a foreign language, a love of writing along with a steadfast preoccupation with language fold together to mold such a successful, interesting yet perhaps surprising career. Bezaitis’s work from E-Lab to Intel and with EPIC reveals a person at the cutting edge of Ethnographic Praxis.
About the Author:
Amina Benhima, is from Austinmer Australia and is a student of Swinburne University’s Post Graduate Design Anthropology Program. She has an Advanced Diploma from Enmore Design Centre and Bachelor Degree from the University of Canberra in Interior Design. She has spent a short time practicing design research in a corporate design firm working with government and commercial clients and is now focussing on indigenous studies within Swinburne’s DA program. Her goal is to move into design work with the Indigenous Community of Australia.
Maria is perhaps the person who was least in need, ever, of influence from me/us (e-lab and after). Her frame on the world was brilliant the day she walked through the door for an interview, I’ve learned as much from her as from anyone I’ve ever worked with. That covers work. She also has impeccable taste in wine, furniture, and clothing, and is a dazzling dinner conversationalist. I’m extraordinarily happy and proud and grateful to have been a colleague of hers for so long.