Kristen Nygaard: A Remembrance

I would like to share some personal reminiscences regarding my friend and mentor Kristen. I will leave considerations of Kristen's scientific legacy to other occasions. I don't think of myself as a "full member of the family," i.e. of the computer science community and the Norwegian political groups with whom Kristen has been mostly closely associated during his life.

Still, I think I can give a voice to those like me, who are perhaps somewhat marginal to that family, but on whom Kristen has had a deep and long lasting impact as a mentor, a leader, a supporter during difficult times, or simply, but perhaps above all, as a friend.

Quite often Kristen liked to recollect the first time we met, of all places at an EEC (not yet EU, sorry) summer course in Stratford, UK, sometimes in 1977. Twenty five years ago I was a young researcher interested in the social impacts of informatics and meeting Kristen gave me immediate exposure to the early trade unions projects in Norway and the idea of data avtaler. Since then, Kristen has had multiple opportunities to interfere with my life and career, from rescuing me from the Italian academic mafia to writing the preface to my latest book just a few months ago, and forcefully suggesting - that is, imposing - a change at the last minute to the very title of the book, while ignoring the fury of the well established, conservative and slow moving Oxford University Press.

Kristen has performed all these interventions in those ways many of his friends and colleagues like to remember: action-oriented; ruthlessly grabbing at the jugular of injustice; generous in acute, verging on sarcastic, critique; pushing and perhaps slightly manipulating people and circumstances, of course always with savoir faire, flair and wit.

I think then it is no use to share here the war stories of General Kristen; his culinary art (I remember, in particular, his "fettucine Alfredo a la Nygaard"); the fights with Dijkstra and Langefors; etc. We all know and like to remember Kristen as a hero in these episodes. Perhaps he created such a persona because he wants to be remembered in this mighty, idiosyncratic and somewhat funny way.

Still, benefiting from my marginal position, I can enjoy the possibility of distancing, if ever for a moment, from such a persona, while reflecting on what Kristen has meant to me, precisely beyond the striking appearances. In doing so, I am left with a quite different set of things and moments to remember and hold tightly onto.

To begin with, a deep sense of aesthetics, as the driving force of the young Kristen, student of astronomy, and later of applied mathematics. But also a delicate friend, sometimes during the conversation bordering on shyness. And, an enjoyable connoisseur of countries, wines, people all over the world, with a special leaning for Italy. A very attentive listener of music, but above all of people. In closer exchanges, a master of the unsaid communicated with a gaze.

I would have plenty of episodes to report over the past twenty five years to support this different image of Kristen, the one that at the end of the day lies the closest to me, but let me mention just a minor one from last year summer trip, which Kristen organized for me and for an Italian friend from Naples. It was a taste of Norway, from Jotunheimen to the Fjords, with Kristen as guide and chauffeur in Johanna's new Subaru.

It was a splendid trip, which included some transgressive episodes we Italians love, such as driving at crazy speed all along the fjord to catch the last ferry . . . On our way back to Oslo we were passing through Troll country. Kristen felt as his utmost duty of hospitality in that moment to convince the two shrewd Machiavellian friends that Trolls exist, and dwell just there behind the trees of the dark forest we were passing by, or below the stones. So, he gave voice to them, as you can imagine a powerful and rancorous voice. I guess Kristen told, or better interpreted, Troll stories for at least a couple of hours putting me and my friend to sleep. We woke up in Oslo, Kristen having brilliantly completed the tour he had so intelligently planned for our knowledge and pleasure, and left us with an extremely kind, almost formal, smiling greeting. I still remember him in that very mode: light, gentle, and deeply caring.

- Claudio Ciborra, Aug 20. 2002
  Professor of Information Systems
  London School of Economics
  Universita' IULM
  University of Oslo