Live & Learn: Bill Buxton

On life, technology and ice climbing.

My expertise isn't in technology. I'm very literate about some technologies, but the technology I'm most literate about is the human: how they live, how they learn, think, problem solve.

Melvin Kranzberg's first of six laws states technology is not good, technology is not bad, but nor is it neutral. My view is to say, without informed design and informed decision-making, it's more likely to be bad than good.

When I went up to the National Research Council, I had a colour display, I had two-handed input, I had a sound system—essentially I had a modern music workstation at my fingertips. It just happened to be the size of eight refrigerators. But I was using a mouse two years before Xerox PARC got theirs.

NRC taught me that computers can be used for the most amazing of human creative endeavours. And that you can design computers in a way that even a long-haired hippie, motorcycle-driving bum like me could immediately start using productively.

The reason I went to Alias is I wanted to get some experience. It's my equivalent to an MBA. But, secondly, I wanted to demonstrate that a small-to-medium-sized company in Canada could benefit from doing pure research in-house.

I have far more freedom to do pure, non-commercial research working at Microsoft than I did working at the University of Toronto.

There is no technology that's going to affect us in the next 10 years that isn't already 10 years old. What we need to be thinking about now at universities are things that are going to mature in 20 years, not in five years, not in two years.

It takes 20 years for a new idea to become a billion-dollar industry. The notion that we're going to invest in an idea and five years later we're going to have some big company is bullshit.

Canadian scientists and designers are about to get their proverbial butts kicked by India and China, as are the Americans and the Europeans. While we're sharpening our bucksaws, people over there are making chainsaws.

Ice climbing is one of the best metaphors for understanding how to manage risk. Microsoft should pay all my ice climbing expenses, because it's so fundamental to my research. I just haven't convinced them of that yet.

I'm just a little obsessive. I'm extremely disciplined about things I care about. When it comes to my library of books or things that I'm working on when I'm writing, I'll make a chartered accountant look sloppy.

In the next five years or so, I believe it will be as cheap, per square foot, to put up a high-resolution display with the same number of pixels per inch as your laptop screen as it is to put up a whiteboard today.

In about five or maybe seven years, you will be deemed a sociopath if you have the Sunday edition of The New York Times in your hands instead of in electronic form, simply because of the trees that are going into making that.

I've never seen a Star Trek movie. I've read a couple of science fiction books, and I've seen one or two science fiction movies.

I just finished reading Alexander Mackenzie's journals, and I'm reading Simon Fraser's journals now, and I can't imagine any fiction that's more fantastic or that's got more adventure. I wouldn't believe these stories if I didn't know they were true.

If you ask my wife, my kids, they'll say, “Bill, you just can't accept responsibility for anything you do,” and my career is based on that. If I have trouble with a machine, it's not my fault. It's the fault of the technology, which includes the design.

The things I'm working on now, if I can pull them off, will fulfil all of my ambitions that I had in the '60s, when I was trying to change the world in a positive way.

For anybody that's good at anything, the primary question is, “What are they neglecting to be able to find the time to do that?” It's not because they're smarter. It's because they're ignoring all the stuff that most people spend their time on. It might be TV, and it might be paperwork.

My focus usually comes at the expense of something else I should be doing. I'm pretty disciplined about physical fitness; I'm really undisciplined about doing regular things like booking dentist appointments, going to the doctor and filing expense claims.

Some of our worst habits are things that are the foundation for our success. We learn, in some sense, to turn bugs into features.

Overall, my profession in computer science is this whole interface of human-machine interaction: how do you design things where the technology disappears, and make it amplify the human capability.

I absolutely would not be doing what I'm doing today if I hadn't gone to the National Research Council. And I'm not alone in that, which is a really important thing. If the country invests in things that really make no sense at the time, but someone is just curious and passionate about it, you never know what you're going to get out of it.

When I left Alias, there was a high level of frustration-I was exasperated. I didn't want to leave, but I felt I had to. I needed some time. If your marriage falls apart, you better take a year before you start dating again, right? For me, actually sitting and writing a book, and trying to research it, was my way of trying to understand what things I could have done better, but, also, what did I actually believe?

I have spent my life not making money, but making ideas, and, therefore, it was clear to me I couldn't afford to retire.

When I'm happy with technology, and I'm not frustrated and I'm not yelling and screaming at it, I'll probably be ready to retire.

I still see myself riding a motorcycle. I still think I'm 18.

My wife doesn't ice climb, but for every time I play golf with her, I can go climbing, because I hate golf.

Someday I'll go heliskiing just because getting that much vert and that much powder in one day is worth the noise and expense. But it hasn't happened yet.

I have reached a level of seniority in my field where, on the one hand, I can work anywhere in the world. But, actually, there aren't that many places where I could really work.

Bill Gates has to struggle to get his ideas accepted in Microsoft. And that's as it should be, because a big company should not be mercurial. And I understand that. I think my background now-from Alias and everything else-has prepared me to know how to navigate that. Without being foolishly naive, I'm in the best position I could be in to try and actually bring some of my ideas to fruition.

I don't take anything for granted about technology. It can help provide a flex to help us get somewhere, but without the accompanying design of the social part of things, technology is just nothing. What's the point of a violin if you have no orchestra?

I'm a benevolent proponent of Einstein's rule that play is the most important part of research. These issues of technology and society are far too important to take seriously. If you're not playing around with them, you're never going to find the right answer, because you'll be too constrained. You're going to be like a 20-year-old playing in the playoffs for the first time-you're going to freeze.

Because I can order anything I want and I already have a basement full of gadgets that are obsolete, I have a rule: if I buy anything, no matter how bad it is, I have to use it for three months. When I have a bad situation, I understand exactly what someone's going through with our products when they're having a bad time, too.

William (Bill) Buxton


Born March 10, 1949, in Edmonton

Principal researcher at Microsoft Research


Takes part in digital music experiments at National Research Council as a music undergrad at Queen's University.


Studies and teaches at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, Netherlands, and begins touring as an avant-garde musician.


Starts researching the field of human-computer interaction as a computer science professor at the University of Toronto.


Becomes chief scientist of 3-D graphics software maker Alias-Wavefront, which is later acquired by Silicon Graphics in 1995.


Joins Microsoft Research after a three-year break to write Sketching User Experiences, which was published in April 2007.