Clifford Nass, 1958-2013

A much-loved professor renowned for his work on multitasking and the impact of technology on our lives has died

November 21, 2013

Clifford Nass was born in Teaneck, New Jersey on 3 April 1958. He studied mathematics as an undergraduate at Princeton University, graduating in 1981. After carrying out research for leading companies such as IBM and Intel, he became fascinated by the way humans interacted with computers and so switched to sociology for an MA and PhD, also at Princeton. Shortly after completing his doctorate in 1986, he became professor of communication (latterly the Thomas M. Storke professor) at Stanford University. He was also director of Stanford’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.

His in-depth research in this area fed into Professor Nass’ three highly influential co-authored books: The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places (1996), Wired for Speech: How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship (2005) and The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships (2010).

These explored the striking ways in which human beings respond emotionally to computers – feeling genuine pleasure, for example, if they are praised by an automatic mechanised voice. But although people tend to be “polite” to computers, Professor Nass and his colleagues argued that spending our lives largely online (and soon likely to be travelling around in self-driving cars) has a significant negative impact on our powers of concentration and our capacity for empathetic engagement with other people.

Equally significant, and contentious, was their work showing that we are just not very good at multitasking.

One celebrated 2009 joint paper, for example, noted that “in an ever-more saturated media environment, media multitasking – a person’s consumption of more than one item or stream of content at the same time – is becoming an increasingly prevalent phenomenon, especially among the young”. Yet far from it being a positive or even neutral trend, the researchers presented “surprising” evidence that “heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set”.

Alongside his research on these broad themes, Professor Nass continued to work as a consultant on many IT projects, including the development of Microsoft Bob, designed to help people find their way around Windows.

He died of a heart attack on 2 November and is survived by his son Matthew and partner Barbara Pugliese.

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