CHI conference concluded

Yesterday, the CHI conference came to a close. The closing plenary was held by Bill Buxton who received the CHI Lifetime Achievement Award this year. It is the highest award by the ACM in this field and recognizes outstanding contributions to CHI. In many ways, Bill Buxton really is an exceptional person with a very wide field of interests, from human-computer-interaction, over music (he holds a Bachelor of Music degree), to mountain and ice climbing and more.

Buxton was recently appointed principal researcher at Microsoft, assumingly to bring some of the inventive force to Microsoft which was exhibited by Apple in the last years. As he put it in his speech “You can imagine the release of the iPhone caused a slight tension at Microsoft” [cited from memory].

In regard to his speech, there were some, in my opinion, weak points such as his observations that inventions often become a success if they reappear in an updated form 20 years after the invention was originally made. This didn’t quite make sense to me and my colleagues as only his example of the computer mouse roughly fit that rule. The other examples, a touch-operated phone (30 years to reoccurrence) and a photo camera built by Kodak in 1930 which came in multiple colors and was compared to the iPod Mini (2004) underlined that this observation most likely consisted primarily of exceptions.

In contrast, what I did like very much about the talk was that he asked the CHI community to much stronger take into account every aspect of the social implications and impacts products of the IT industry have on people around the world. He argued that no technical product could ever be released into a society without exerting a significant influence. One of the examples he gave was that of SMS text messaging [which was intended as a means of remotely configuring mobile phones] which so drastically changed the way of communicating with other people.

While this holistic approach might be easier to realize for someone in his position and with his amount of resources and contacts, I can imagine many researchers and practitioners will have a hard time due to monetary pressure. Nevertheless, I hope his words will be put into action by many in the CHI community, for example, when evaluating contracts with military or security firms.

Paraphrasing one of Bill Buxton’s arguments [again from memory]:
“A technology is not good. Neither is a technology bad. It is what people make out of a technology that makes the difference.”

Update:
The Bolt|Peters has a live transcript of the talk available.

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3 thoughts on “CHI conference concluded

  1. Seems a bit strange commenting on comments on my talk, but since you took the effort to write, I hope you don’t mind my doing so.

    It’s clear from your note that I could have done a better job of expressing some of what I was trying to convey.

    If you are intererested in what I was trying to say around the 20 year incubation of iteas, the general point is made in the following:

    http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/jan2008/id2008012_297369.htm

    But the 20 year number is well documented in two studies from the National Academy of Science that I highly recommend. On is on line. Look at the few pages starting on this one:

    http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10795&page=5

    That one grew from this one:

    http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4948&page=R1

    They show that almost every key technology in telecommunications and information technology took 20 years from invention to becoming mainstream (as defined by becoming a billion dollar industry).

    My comment was that almost any technology that is going to have significant impact in the next 10 years is already 10 years old. Hence, much of innovation has to do with prospecting, mining and goldsmithing rather than “alchemy”, i.e., pure invention.

    Finally, I can’t take credit for the last line that you quote (but I wish that I could!). It is from an historian of technology named Melvyn Kranzberg, and it is the first of his laws. It goes:

    “Technology is not good, it is not bad, but nor is it neutral.”

    Anyhow, I hope this helps. You have a good memory!

    All the best.

  2. Thank you very much for the comment and clarifications, including the references. I appreciate it very much.

    For the future, I will have to figure out a way of following a – in many ways inspiring – talk, take notes and pictures at the same time, as my memory apparently didn’t serve me as well as I had thought.

  3. Pingback: Pandora’s Box « Advancing Usability

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