Skip to content Skip to navigation

Professor Clifford I. Nass, expert on human-computer interaction, dies

Clifford Nass (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
Clifford Nass (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Professor Clifford I. Nass, expert on human-computer interaction, dies

Nass, professor of communication and by courtesy education, was 55. His recent research on multitasking attracted national attention.

Clifford I. Nass, a Stanford communication professor known for his research on the way people interact with technology, died Nov. 2 at Stanford Sierra Camp near South Lake Tahoe. He was 55.

Nass had traveled to the remote camp in the Sierra Nevada, located on Fallen Leaf Lake, to enjoy the fall Stanford Faculty and Staff Weekend, a semi-annual event. He collapsed after a hike.

As members of the Stanford community learned of Nass' death, many shared stories of his importance in their lives, both personal and professional.

Professor James Fishkin, chair of the Communication Department said: "The department is devastated by the loss of such a great friend, great researcher and great mentor to our students."

Born and raised in Teaneck, N.J., Nass earned a bachelor's degree cum laude in mathematics in 1981, a master's degree in sociology in 1985 and a doctorate in sociology in 1986 – all from Princeton University. Before attending graduate school, he worked as a computer scientist at Intel Corp.

Nass joined Stanford's faculty in 1986.

He was also a professional magician.

Nass is the co-author of three books: The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships (2010); Wired for Speech:  How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship (2005); and The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places (1996). He also is the author of more than 100 papers on the psychology of technology and statistical methodology.

Studying multitaskers

In recent years, Nass attracted national attention with research challenging the notion that people could "multitask" using digital devices – talking on the phone, watching a YouTube video, checking email.

In 2009, Nass, along with two other Stanford researchers, found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

"They're suckers for irrelevancy," Nass said in an interview with Stanford Report, referring to the multitaskers in the study. "Everything distracts them."

In a 2012 social sciences summit organized by Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Nass warned of the brain-ravaging effects of increasing media consumption.

"Companies now create policies that force their employees to multitask," he said. "It's an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) problem. It's not safe for people's brains."

At TedX Stanford 2013 last May, Nass talked about research that showed tweenage girls who spent endless hours watching videos and multitasking with digital devices tended to be less successful with social and emotional development than their counterparts who spent more time interacting face-to-face with friends, even if they also used a great deal of media.

He concluded his TedX talk saying: "The moral of this story here is really clear: We've got to make face-to-face time sacred, and we have to bring back the saying we used to hear all the time, and now never hear, 'Look at me when I talk to you.'"

Nass was long fascinated by the way people interacted with technology, including computers and navigation systems in cars. His research has been applied to more than 250 media products and services produced by Microsoft, Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Philips, Sony, Time-Warner, Hewlett-Packard, Charles Schwab and Fidelity.

He was the founder and director of the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab at Stanford. The lab focuses on communication in and between cars, social and psychological aspects of mobile and ubiquitous technology, the abilities of people (personalization, emotion, embodiment, adaptation, language and speech), and human-robot interaction.

He also was the director of the REVS Program at Stanford, a new trans-disciplinary field connecting the past, present and future of the automobile.

In addition, he was the co-director of the CARS (Center for Automotive Research at Stanford) Program, whose goal is to create a community of faculty and students from a range of disciplines with leading industry researchers, to radically re-envision the automobile for unprecedented levels of safety, performance, sustainability and enjoyment.

Friends and colleagues remember Nass

Speaking of Nass' work on multitasking, Fishkin said, "Cliff could do many things at the same time. He was the greatest multitasker in the world. Contrary to his own research, it only made him smarter."

Jeremy Bailenson, an associate professor of communication at Stanford, said Nass used to joke that you know a scientific discovery is important when people take it for granted as truth a decade later. He said Nass' early work on social responses to computer technology – how people treat computers as if they were people – was a perfect example.

"When Cliff first published the findings, they were revolutionary and surprising," Bailenson said. "Indeed, Bill Gates championed the work as 'amazing.' Now its impact can be seen so pervasively that we take social relationships with media for granted. Nass has transformed not only the field of communication, but the larger area of social science and engineering as well. His recent work on multitasking – illustrating the many cognitive deficits that are associated with pervasive media use – promises to be paradigm shifting."

Bailenson said Nass spent hundreds of hours over the past decade mentoring him on every academic skill imaginable until Bailenson received tenure.

"Cliff's brilliance was exceeded only by his generosity and warmth," he said. "I will remember Cliff as a person who made any room a happier place."

Sebastian Thrun, a professor of computer science, described Nass as one of his closest friends and collaborators at Stanford. He said Nass made substantial contributions not only in his own field, but also in Thrun's field of engineering.

He said Nass really cared about how people would interact with cars as they became autonomous.

"Cliff particularly cared about the issue of trust – how would you trust that a car would make decisions on your behalf – and worked with me a lot on that issue," he said.

"Cliff was a humanities person, not a scientist, but he had an extraordinary ability to understand how technology should be built to make it really good for people. He was the epitome of a great Stanford professor. He was a leader in his own field, but he also understood how to bring engineering and the humanities together more than anybody else I know."

Thrun said he will miss Nass most as an "amazing" human being.

"He was always extremely positive and extremely creative," Thrun said. "When I had a bad week, I would turn to him and talk, and things would be good again. Cliff was an extremely open-minded, enthusiastic individual who could just take you along with him in his enthusiasm. He could make you believe in a better human race."

Nass is survived by his son, Matt, a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.


Kathleen J. Sullivan is a writer for the Stanford News Service.

Get the Educator

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Back to the Top