Richard Harper

Richard Harper
PRINCIPAL RESEARCHER
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Richard Harper is Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge and co-manages the Socio-Digital Systems group. Richard is a sociologist concerned with how to design for 'being human' in an age when human nature is often caricatured or rendered in oversimplifying ways. This is particular so in relation to human communication, where the goals and experiences enabled by new technologies are often badly misconceived by communications companies and scientific observers alike.  His 10th book, Texture: Human expression in the age of communications overload (MIT Press,  awarded the Society of Internet Researcher's 'Book of the Year, 2011)', deals with this in particular. His current research focuses on the social organisation of 'gaze' in video-based messaging (such as provided by Skype), how to attain greater expressive richness in lightweight messaging platforms and the problem of redefining the abstractions used to articulate digital entities ('files' and such like) in cloud-centric computational infrastructures.

Amongst his prior books was the IEEE award winning The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press, 2002), co-authored with Abi Sellen, and Inside the IMF (Academic Press, 1997). In 2011 he published The Connected Home: the future of domestic life (Springer, Dec, 2011). His latest collection, Trust, Computing and Society (2014) seeks to redress the febrile tenor of much of the discussion on trust and computing, and offers instead, it is hoped, a more balanced interdisciplinary view that will foster insightful debate between computer scientists, philosophers, sociologists, and designers, all of whose perspectives are represented in the book.  

He has just finished a monograph (with Dave Randall and Wes Sharrock) called Choice: The science of reason in the 21st Century (Polity Press). This considers what it means to claim that human choice can be predicted, how such claims are used in the engineering of commonplace technologies like search engines, and the relationship between these claims and disciplinary distinctions in the social sciences. It explores the relationship between these distinctions and everyday contexts of choice, with particular concern for the changing landscape of choice in the age of the Internet. 

Essays on some of his work on this and other topics can be found in his blog

His work is not only philosophical and 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. Particular foci have been new forms of messaging, as illustrated by Glancephones and Wayve Devices, and this echoes his current concern with Skype;  exploratory control devices for cloud-based interaction such as the Cloud Mouse which in turn reflects his research on new file types, reflecting social networking social practices (see, for example, his paper, What is a file?).

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, in the Sociology Department 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. In 2011 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He became a Fellow of the IET in 2010. and a member of the CHI Academy in 2014. He lives in Cambridge with his wife and three troublesome but occasionally delightful children.