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that inventions often become a success if they reappear in an updated form 20 years after the invention was originally made.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.”
The Bolt|Peters has a live transcript of the talk available.