In memoriam: Tora K. Bikson

By | February 3, 2013

tkThe 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!

  • Jonathan Grudin

    Hello JD, and Barbara and others —

    Like Irene I just heard this sad news. As a professional colleague I was not as close as everyone else who has commented, but we interacted off and on, most recently on January 16 when I asked her a question and she said she would look into it for me. She is one of those people who occupy such a unique niche in my mind that she will always be there, my memory of her will remain strong.


  • Irene Greif

    JD: I am writing from CSCW 2013 in San Antonio, where many of us are hearing for the first time today of Tora’s passing. Tomorrow, we will have a session for those of us who want to spend some time remembering her, and the conference chair will also take a moment to remember her at the closing session on wednesday. One of my fond memories is CSCW 90 that you mentioned, as well as an early eCSCW that I spent with her. I will write to let you know some of the other memories. I wanted to let you know we’ll be thinking of her (4pm central time).

    Irene Greif

  • Barbara Gutek

    I don’t want to say goodbye to my good friend and colleague, Tora Bikson. She was one of the most alive people I have ever met and it is hard to think of her in any other way. We did so many wonderful things together. I met Tora through Jackie Goodchilds at UCLA, about 1977. After I finished a small consulting project for Xerox in the early 1980s on the effects of an experimental senior-manager work station (a manager’s and secretary’s computers linked together with shared file space), Tora suggested we apply for a grant to study the new area of “office automation,” the use of computers in work groups. Both of us being workaholics at that time, this allowed us to spend time together on a project we enjoyed. JD has already explained how the project was funded and he and Don Mankin provided additional information about the subsequent set of projects that Tora worked on in this area.

    I want to say a few words about my experiences with Tora, who was one of the most ethical, hard-working, and fun-loving persons I have ever known. Memorable to me was a trip we took to Europe in the 1980s to present at a research conference and meet with European colleagues, but also have a fun time in Brussels and Paris. In Brussels, we stayed in a charming but slightly dilapidated hotel where we could throw open the shutters and look down on the activity in the street below. It was also noisy, of course, and the bed sagged so much we each had to hold on to the side to keep from rolling into each other. Since Tora’s parents were atheists and communists, she didn’t know a whole lot about the Catholic Church, the subject of about 95% of the art in the Brussels art museums. It was fun explaining the symbolism present in the paintings because most of the time I was learning from Tora, and it was fun to reciprocate. In Paris, we stayed with friends of Tora’s, an ex-priest and an ex-prostitute, who were visited by someone with whom Tora had gone to graduate school for her first PhD (in philosophy). I still remember that a very rare roast beef was prepared for the visitors, the most delicious beef I had tasted up to that time. We also had dinner at a raclette restaurant, a new experience for me, and poked around various markets. We had a grand time. I’m sure she had a grand time in all of her other work-related travels. I know she traveled to some quite exotic places for work in the past several decades, and I’m sure she made the most of all of her trips. I also have a lot of fond memories of consulting at Rand, in part, because we always ended the day at Chez Jay’s, the funky bar with peanut shells on the floor that Tora loved.

    Besides being fun, Tora was one of the most ethical people I know. For people who think that one cannot be ethical without being religious, Tora is a shining example of just how wrong they are. In 2009, I was invited to give a talk in Dubai and shortly after to give a talk in Saudi Arabia. I had mixed feelings about supporting Saudi Arabia in any way. After I learned that Tora was doing work in the Middle East, I asked her whether she would work in Saudi Arabia. She said “no,” and that was good enough for me. I turned down the invitation.

    Finally, Tora was absolutely brilliant. With her three-inch wedge shoes, blond bangs in her eyes, and twinkle in her smile, she didn’t fit anyone’s stereotype of a genius. But as Cathy Stasz mentioned, Tora also didn’t stereotype others. She always had an optimistic outlook on people and the world in general. Although we didn’t see a lot of each other when I was working and mostly living in Arizona, we got together several times after I retired, most recently with Anne Peplau. We drove to Rand and Tora showed us one of her new favorite places to eat – within walking distance, of course. Despite wearing her platform shoes, Tora could outwalk most people.

    Tora, I sure do miss you!

    Barbara Gutek

  • Don Mankin

    JD, like you I have been thinking of the same era, 80-81, and the same project at Rand, but from the other side, as a member of TK’s team (it was always TK’s team!). I had known TK for a few years through mutual friends, but since I lived in Houston (ugh!), then Maryland, I didn’t know her well, only seeing her ocassionally on my summer time escapes to Venice.

    I was desperately trying to find an excuse to come back to LA and looking for a place to hang my quasi-academic hat. I don’t remember whether it was her idea or mine, but TK was able to arrange a visiting, non paying appointment at Rand — basically office space and the legitimacy that went along with telling people that I was “a visiting fellow at Rand” (or something equally impressive).

    My plan was to hang out in Venice and, like the living cliche I was at the time, write screenplays. TK had other plans. For some unknown reason (maybe I had fooled her into thinking I was smart) she wanted me to work with her and Barbara Gutek on a research proposal to NSF. JD, that is where you entered my life as well.

    That project led to one of the most productive and intellectually stimulating periods of my life. For the next 15 or so years we worked together on two research projects, wrote several articles and a book together, and I met many new colleagues and friends through her, including JD, Cathy Stasz, Lynne Markus and many others.

    One of my favorite memories of that time were the many site visits we made together. As we walked into the meeting room with a bunch of mostly male executives, all eyes would turn to TK. Then they would turn to me, assuming that I was the leader…until TK started to talk, demonstrating that she was not only the most attractive person in the room, she was also the smartest.

    Thank you TK for making my life more interesting and fulfilling. I didn’t realize until now how much I miss our meetings and lunches at Chez Jay’s and our celebrations of whatever successes we could use as an excuse for a drink or two somewhere as lively and fun as you.

  • Paula Alkaitis

    I met Tora more than 30 years ago. We had just moved to Venice. Karra became friends with my daughter Trish and Tora and I became friends also. Tora as gregarious as always was sure to invite us to her fabulous parties introduced us to her friends and we were together a lot. Tuesday nights was our night out. We usually went to West H’wood bar hopping, I use to live in that area so we always met old friends of mine, we had a blast. She worked in Holland in the Hague while my husband and I were there also. It only took her one trip to know her shoemaker, her dry cleaner, actually they missed her and were always glad to see her when she came back the next year. “You know” she told me, “they actually know my name and I’ve only went there once a year ago.” Yeah that was Tora, always a smile everybody was somebody to her, an example of someone who embodied the ideals of a new era. I feel a great loss as I talk to her all the time. I know she will be there for us when we go over we’ll have lots to talk about and have a good laugh about this crazy venture here on this planet.

  • Stephanie Waxman

    Anyone who spent two minutes with Kay (as I knew her) understood instantly what a great mind she had. But not everyone got the chance to experience her heart. Many years ago she and I were casual friends, sharing a love of running on the beach at low tide. Just prior to one of these afternoon runs, I received some devastating news. Intent on keeping to our plan, but unable to contain my raw state, I arrived at Kay’s in tears. She took me in her arms, put on the tea kettle, brought me a box of Kleenex and listened while I spilled out my sad tale. I cherish that sweet memory.

  • Cathy Stasz

    Hi JD. You prompted me to think about my first meeting with Tora. I can’t recall exactly what year it was, about 1984ish? I was working on a research project and the PI sent me to her to get info about human subjects. When actually I met Tora I was a bit taken aback. I had seen her around the Corp many times… but with her (then) curly long blonde hair and somewhat bohemian way of dress I had assumed that she was in RAND’s art department! I remember her laughing when I told her that. Unlike me, Tora never judged a book by its cover. She accepted everyone as they are. I loved her for that, and so much more.

  • Karra Bikson

    Thank you, JD. We are in shock.