The world is a lot less interesting today. On Friday, Tora K. Bikson of the RAND Corporation passed away, suddenly and in her office, while doing what she loved and did so well – applying her fine mind and eloquent expression to research problems. For the past more than 32 years, Tora was my closest working intellectual partner and best friend apart from my family members. It’s almost impossible to understand what a loss this is to her family and close friends, as well as to her enormous and highly varied set of colleagues all around the world and in so many different scientific and literary disciplines. She has been a towering presence in my professional and personal life, and she will be missed without reservation.
Tonight I’m not up to a full-scale memorial effort; in coming weeks, I will be writing further about her contributions and about our work together and with other close colleagues – Cathy Stasz, Don Mankin, Barbara Gutek, Lynne Markus, and so many more. I’ll content myself for now with the image of our first meeting back in 1980. I was at the National Science Foundation at the time, and fighting an uphill battle to have the idea taken seriously that computers, particularly the emerging mini- and micro-computers, were going to have major effects on offices and white-collar work generally (I had been told by the senior management of the Foundation that computers might be useful for engineering work, but weren’t likely to have much impact beyond that.) I’d been working for a number of months with my friend Bonnie Johnson, then at the University of Oklahoma, putting together a proposal to study this area under the topic of what we then called “office automation”. It was about ready to go to review, but I was very skeptical of its chances through the process. At this point, the mail dropped on my desk a research proposal from the RAND Corporation, with a certain T’K. Bikson as principal investigator, to study many of the same issues! Having had no interaction at all with the investigators before receiving the proposal, I was not at all sure how we might be able to deal with it. A couple of hours later, having read it through in detail, I was pretty much completely blown away. The clarity and quality of the proposal were stunning, the research both manageable and reasonably priced – and to top it all off, it meshed so beautifully with the work that Bonnie and I had been discussing, it was as though the RAND team had been listening in on us for a year. I went howling down the corridor, for the first time able to believe that we might actually be going to do some great research in an area up to that time almost completely ignored. Meeting Tora in my office for the first time a couple of months later, after several long and enthusiastic phone calls, was as much of a treat as I thought it would be, and bringing her together with Bonnie added further icing. It should be noted that there was still much drama to go before the work was done, but that a story for another time.
Once we got the work under way, and I started going to RAND to meet with the team, there was hardly a month that went by that Tora and I weren’t up to some joint project. My leaving NSF in 1985 for California added a new level of collaboration, through and including our work together on the 1990 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (the third one held, this time in Los Angeles.) That was a great intellectual party, even if ACM wound up being a bit underwhelmed at how I’d handled its finances (another story.) And for several more years, the hits just kept on coming – one of the most productive, as well as enormously fun, periods for both of us.
Well, that will have to do it for now. I can’t deal with this any more tonight. All of Tora’s family, friends, and colleagues will have to deal with this devastating loss in our own ways. There’s so much more to remember and treasure, when my eyes aren’t running quite so much. Rest well, my dear friend…until the Storytelling!