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Hardcover | Out of Print | 320 pp. | 5.375 x 8 in | 1 figure, 4 tables | October 2010 | ISBN: 9780262083744
Paperback | $18.95 Short | £14.95 | 320 pp. | 5.375 x 8 in | 1 figure, 4 tables | September 2012 | ISBN: 9780262518147
eBook | $13.95 Short | September 2012 | ISBN: 9780262289894
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Human Expression in the Age of Communications Overload


Our workdays are so filled with emails, instant messaging, and RSS feeds that we complain that there’s not enough time to get our actual work done. At home, we are besieged by telephone calls on landlines and cell phones, the beeps that signal text messages, and work emails on our BlackBerrys. It’s too much, we cry (or type) as we update our Facebook pages, compose a blog post, or check to see what Shaquille O’Neal has to say on Twitter. In Texture, Richard Harper asks why we seek out new ways of communicating even as we complain about communication overload.

Harper describes the mistaken assumptions of developers that “more” is always better and argues that users prefer simpler technologies that allow them to create social bonds. Communication is not just the exchange of information. There is a texture to our communicative practices, manifest in the different means we choose to communicate (quick or slow, permanent or ephemeral).

About the Author

Richard H. R. Harper, currently Principal Researcher in Socio-Digital Systems at Microsoft Research, has explored user-focused technical innovation in academic, corporate, and small company settings. He is the coauthor (with Abigail J. Sellen) of The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press, 2001).

Table of Contents

  • Texture
  • Texture
  • Human Expression in the Age of Communications Overload
  • Richard H. R. Harper
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • © 2010
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • For information about special quantity discounts, please email special
  • This book was set in Engravers Gothic and Bembo by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Harper, Richard, 1960–
  • Texture : human expression in the age of communications overload / Richard H. R. Harper.
  •  p. cm.
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-08374-4 (hardcover : alk. paper)
  • 1. Communication—Technological innovations—Social aspects.  2. Communication—Social aspects. 3. Personal communication service systems—Social aspects. I. Title.
  • HM1166.H37 2010
  • 303.48'33—dc22
  • 2010003176
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 The Communications Paradox
  • 3 Absence to Presence
  • 4 Paradoxical Delights
  • 5 Something to Tell
  • 6 The Seams That Bind
  • 7 The Texture of an Expressive Future
  • Index
  • Acknowledgments
  • Three people helped enormously in the writing of this book. All three I have had the pleasure of meeting through work—Lynne Hamill, at the Digital World Research Centre in Surrey; Dave Randall, at Lancaster University; and Rod Watson, at Manchester University. Each offered rather different kinds of assistance: Lynne insisted on the facts, Dave insisted that I get it right, and Rod made me read properly and more comprehensively. Even so, they would all deny any responsibility for the book—and quite rightly. If they had had their way, it would have been better. Alas, what is here is the best I could do. Nevertheless, it is for them.
  • All books derive from the tender tolerance of friends and colleagues for the vain obsession of the author. This book is no exception. As its author, my debts are varied and great. Beyond those to whom it is dedicated, a special thanks go to Leopoldina Fortunati and Ronald Rice for their extensive and detailed comments on the manuscript that led to major improvements; to Gary Marsden and Matt Jones for more general comments; to James Katz, for introducing me to John Durham Peters’s
  • Speaking into the Air
  • (Chicago, 1999) and Ernest Becker’s
  • The Birth and Death of Meaning
  • (Glencoe, 1962), both of which altered my thinking on the topic of the book. Others provided various bits and pieces that were invaluable. Phil Fawcett, for example, provided data about Microsoft email volumes; Paul Dourish, information about some early applications used in Xerox EuroPARC; and Dave Kirk, some grumpy comments about the definition of
  • ergonomics
  • .
  • Some of the materials presented in the book were derived from research studies that I conducted with colleagues. Of these, the most important debt is owed to three people: Alex Taylor, who worked with me on studies of mobile phones (discussed in chapter 4), Stuart Taylor, who built the Glancephones (discussed in chapter 5), and Phil Gosset, who has for many years worked with me on various aspects of the social shaping of mobile telephony. His influence shows itself throughout the book. Other work that has suffused the book has entailed collaborations with Sian Lindley, Tim Regan, Shahram Izadi, Laurel Swann, Simon Rubens, Mark Rouncefield, Wes Sharrock, and Jane Vincent.
  • Beyond this, there is also a debt of gratitude due to all my colleagues at Socio-Digital Systems (SDS) at Microsoft Research, Cambridge. They have had to put up with me being an absent member while the scribbling for this book was done. Of those not previously mentioned, I would like to note Richard Banks especially and, outside of SDS, many colleagues and friends in the lab. Thanks all.
  • Lastly, I must share my gratitude to my closest colleague of all—Abi Sellen. She hasn’t helped in the writing of this book, and I made a special effort not to turn to her for help because she helped in the writing of many other books in the past. But without Abi and her constant presence, the world I inhabit would be much smaller—indeed, would lack what makes it worth being in.
  • Sections of chapter 1 appear in “Absence to Presence: A Vision of the Communicating Human in Computer-Mediated Communications Technology Research,” in J. Höflich, G. F. Kircher, C. Linke, and I. Schlote, eds.,
  • Mobile Communication and the Change of Everyday Life
  • (41–57) (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2010). Sections of chapter 3 appear in “From Tele
  • Presence
  • to Human
  • Absence
  • : The Pragmatic Construction of the Human in Communications Systems Research,” in
  • Twenty-third Annual Conference of the British HCI Group (HCI 2009)
  • (London: British Computer Society, 2009), copyright the author. Parts of chapter 4 appear in A. Taylor and R. Harper, “The Gift of the Gab: A Design-Oriented Sociology of Young People’s Use of Mobiles,”
  • CSCW: An International Journal
  • (2003): 267–296, copyright Elsevier. Parts of chapter 3 appear in “Are Mobiles Good for Society?,” in K. Nyiri, ed.,
  • Mobile Democracy: Essays on Society, Self and Politics
  • (185–214) (Vienna: Passagen Verlag, 2003), permission from Professor Nyiri. Parts of chapter 5 appear in “Glancephone: An Exploration of Human Expression,”
  • Eleventh International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services (Mobile HCI 2009)
  • (New York: ACM Press, 2009), copyright the authors. Much of the evidence in chapter 5 derives from a study by my colleagues published as A. Sellen, A. S. Taylor, J. Kaye, B. Brown, and S. Izadi, “Supporting Family Awareness with the Whereabouts Clock,” in P. Markopoulos, B. de Ruyter, and W. Mackay, eds.,
  • Awareness Systems: Advances in Theory, Method and Design
  • (225–242) (London: Springer-Verlag, 2007).
  • Texture


“Harper guides us through an engaging narrative, captivating us with vignettes of studies in communication behaviour and concept technologies such as the Whereabouts Clocks that show the locations of your family members ... This is a fascinating book: an easy, enjoyable read that is refreshingly backed by an academic rigour that is so often missing from sociology studies on this subject. It’s a must read for all those looking to the future of communications.”—Focus
“Throughout, the book throws up the kind of nuanced observations that seem at first surprising and then just right: text-messaging is, at some deep level, a form of ‘gift exchange,’ and ‘social networking’ is as much for keeping the world at large out as it is for inviting new people in. Post that on your Facebook.”—The Guardian


“A profound and searching inquiry into our thinking about communication. Harper's historical anchoring and nuanced interpretations add new insights into how the messages we send and receive make us who we are.”
James E. Katz, Professor and Chair, Department of Communication, Rutgers University
“What an amazing, fascinating book. It is so rare to come across a book that offers such new and important insights, and is highly readable.”
William Webb, Head of Research and Development and Senior Technologist, Ofcom


Winner of the inaugural AoIR Book Award presented by the Association of Internet Researchers.