Bill Buxton’s CHI 2008 Closing Keynote

I’m back from CHI and will be posting notes about it over the coming weeks (I am so not a live-blogger).  There were a number of sessions that I think will be of interest to readers of this blog, starting with Bill Buxton‘s fantastic closing plenary.  He threw out the canned talk he had planned to give and instead improvised along the theme of "Being Human in a Digital Age."

I hope video of the talk gets posted, but until then you should check out Nate Bolt’s rough transcript.  Here are a few points from memory:

  • The level of discourse about technology, and human-computer interfaces in particular, is awful.  He contrasted two articles he and he wife were reading on a plane recently: hers was a review of an art exhibit, his a review of the $100 laptop (OLPC).  Hers was deeply written and considered the exhibit within social, historical, and philosophical contexts — something that’s just naturally a part of art criticism; his talked about technical specs and barely considered the human context of the device.  We don’t have a well-developed practice of "interaction criticism" (a theme that popped up elsewhere at CHI too).  HCI professionals should take time out to write for a public audience.
  • Creativity requires a culture that values it.  This is a theme he has written about earlier in a short article "What if Leopold Didn’t Have a Piano?"  Mozart was a genius, but the culture he was born into valued and supported creativity — if it didn’t he might have grown up instead to be the greatest sausage maker in Salzburg.  Our current emphasis on individuality risks losing these values.
  • There is a lot of choice in how we design and use technology.  Culture can change.
  • Good design is aware of its history.  Jonathan Ives doesn’t just invent things for Apple, he borrows creatively from history (and this is a good thing).  All new technologies percolate for at least 20 years before they become big — Buxton’s "Long Nose of Innovation" theory.
  • Much of Buxton’s HCI work has simply been aimed at getting back to where we were.  In the 1970s he worked at the National Film Board of Canada editing soundtracks using one of the most sophisticated and usable computer systems yet built (two-handed, mouse, chord keyboard, graphical display).  Since then he’s been trying to achieve what its designers had already done back than.  Buxton’s chapter in the book HCI Remixed talks about this: My Vision Isn’t My Vision: Making a Career Out of Getting Back to Where I Started.
  • On fostering creative values in business, he recommends Yvon Chouinard’s (badly titled) book Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman (Chouinard is the founder of Patagonia).

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