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Why Communicate?

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When new communication technologies are invented, what is the idea that lies behind them? Something to do with what the human will do with them: the idea that the technology will make them, the ‘user’, more efficient, for example? Or are the reasons behind these technologies to do with the engineering of them, something that makes them cheaper to build, as an alternative example?

In this talk I want to present a sketch of some of the reasons why new communications technologies are invented (and include reference to some developed over the years here in Cambridge) and suggest that most often it is an idea about human need that generates them, not engineering. I then ask what tends to happen to these technologies when they get introduced and ask whether they do, in fact, satisfy the human need in question (such as making people more efficient). I will show that there is little evidence that communications technologies do this, certainly not very often. Indeed, I will go on to show that there is little evidence that the introduction of new channels in recent years has led to any improvement in communicative efficiency at home, in work, in private or public affairs, one of the claims often made for them. The oft-heard complaint that we are all suffering from communications overload seems to grow worse despite these new technologies. Given this, I will then ask why people seem so keen to adopt these same new communications technologies. It cannot be that the technologies do ‘what they say on the can’. So why?

About the Speaker

Richard Harper is Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge and co-manages the Socio-Digital Systems group.

Richard is concerned with how to design for ‘being human’ in an age when human-as-machine type metaphors, deriving from Turing and others, tend to dominate thinking in the area. Trained as a sociologist and with a strong passion for ordinary language philosophy, he has published over 120 papers and recently published his 10th book, Texture: Human expression in the age of communication overload (MIT Press).

Amongst his prior books is the IEEE award winning The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press,2002), co-authored with Abi Sellen. He is currently working on an edited collection entitled At Home with Smart Technologies: the future of domestic life (Springer, due Summer 2011).

His work is not only theoretical or sociological, but also includes the design of real and functioning systems, for work and for home settings, for mobile devices and for social networking sites. Numerous patents have derived from his work.

Prior to joining MSR , Richard helped lead various technology innovation and knowledge transfer companies, while in 2000 he was appointed the UK’s first Professor of Socio-Digital Systems, at the University of Surrey, England. It was here he also set up the Digital World Research Centre. Prior to this he was a researcher at Xerox PARC ’s fifth lab, EuroPARC, in Cambridge. He completed his Phd at Manchester in 1989.

This talk is part of the Arcadia Project Seminars series.

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