Remembering Gary Marsden

“All of Computer Science is a subset of Human-Computer Interaction.” — Gary Marsden

I was deeply shocked by Gary Marsden’s unexpected passing during his prime. It is a huge loss for his family, his students, the University of Cape Town, and the broader ICT4D community. Gary and I crossed paths so many times throughout our professional lives. If I knew that ICTD 2013 would be the last time that many of us would get to see him, I would have put the conference on my travel plans. At this point, I deeply regret not being able to attend ICTD 2013 and meeting him for the last time.

It seemed like yesterday when I last met Gary, which was during the CHI 2013 conference in Paris. Gary, Melissa Densmore (whom I’m excited to learn is joining the UCT faculty now that they have lost Gary) and I were sitting at a cafe at the conference convention center. Having recently recruited Gary to the advisory board for the ACM SIGCHI special interest group on Human-Computer Interaction for International Development which several of us founded, Melissa and I were picking Gary’s brains on how we could take HCI4D to the next level. At the same time, Gary asked if I might be willing to step up and be a subcommittee chair for CHI 2014’s papers committee. I never fail to be amazed at the breadth and depth of his perspectives, and his generosity.

I still vividly remember my first meeting with Gary, which was when I was a PhD candidate at Berkeley. We were seated at the same table close to the door, at the first HCI4D workshop at CHI 2007 in San Jose. Gary had blazed a trail with his research in ICT4D, and was the winner of the SIGCHI Social Impact Award at CHI 2007 (which was incidentally CHI’s 25th anniversary, hence the significance). I went up to him during a break to introduce myself, and to tell him how thrilled I was that he had received this award. Gary brushed aside the compliment in his usual self-deprecating manner. I bet he could never have imagined that as one of the earliest ICT4D researcher, and his putting ICT4D on the “world map” at CHI through his award, he inspired a generation of younger researchers, including myself, who were passionate about technology for improving lives among the most disadvantaged but couldn’t quite see what the future of our field would look like. Gary’s successes (and persistence in the face of numerous failures) kept me going when what we were doing was neither mainstream, understood nor recognized at CHI.

I remember another meeting that I had with Gary two years later in 2009. It was the workshop at my alma mater Berkeley that ignited the series of ACM DEV symposiums. (At that time, I had graduated not too long ago from Berkeley and started a tenure-track professor position at Carnegie Mellon.) Gary made an insightful statement at the workshop that I continue to remember today: “All of Computer Science is a subset of Human-Computer Interaction.” This was just one of the several examples of how Gary possessed the imagination to see things in a different light, to provide a fresh perspective on the so-called conventional wisdom in and about HCI. When a student subsequently asked me if HCI is a subset of Computer Science, i.e. would it be accurate to say that only the subset of computer scientists who should focus on the human aspects of technology are the HCI folks, I shared Gary’s wisdom with him.

Gary’s wisdom will continue to live in our hearts and minds.

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