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BPR Interview: TED Talk Founder Richard Saul Wurman

When Richard Saul Wurman produced the TED Conference, it was the culmination of a decades-long career in “information architecture.” After publishing Information Anxiety, his bestselling guide to the technology age, Wurman won numerous grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and recently a Smithsonian Lifetime Achievement Award. Wurman sat down with Brown Political Review to discuss information anxiety in the iPhone age, his upcoming conference, WWW, and why he thinks President Obama has lost the ability to communicate effectively.

Brown Political Review: Did you ever imagine TED would become this successful? Has it achieved what you wanted it to?

Richard Saul Wurman: Did I ever think that TED would become so successful? I think TED is much bigger, I don’t think it’s more successful. And that question alone really is a whole interview. Basically every other thing you want to ask me has to do with one’s definition of meaning, or success, or interests. Are you talking about the quality, when you say TED, or the actual meaning?

BPR: Well I was hoping to leave the definition up to you. Do you feel it’s successful?

Wurman: My interest in life is to do good work. Each thing has to do with what measures the success of something. Is the success of something that it changes the world? Or is just that it has an effect on the world? Can something be done perfectly even if it’s done in a closet?

BPR: In terms of making things more interesting in your work, what about your upcoming conference, WWW, appeals to you as more interesting?

Wurman: You know, the word innovation has been bandied about; It’s a word of choice now. Innovation to me has only five forms. You can have innovation that occurs by addition: The iPhone is innovation by adding lots of things that Apple didn’t invent. Need is another: people innovate because of need. Then there’s innovation that comes through the observation of the opposite: Radical alternatives as a way of seeing new patterns. Things are discovered when you don’t accept photosynthesis, for instance, and you discover chemosynthesis. Today, we know more life forms derive from chemosynthesis, which wasn’t true when I went to school.

Then there’s subtraction. When I first did TED, I looked around at all the conferences and realized that I could subtract things from them. Much as the Bauhaus was an artistic movement of subtraction, with TED I took away the long lectern speeches, the long introductions, the panels, the men in suits.

Then I realized I could subtract the very idea of a single subject by subtracting presentations, which have gotten on a competitive scale. Conferences have a race when people give presentations to have more, better and more spectacular presentations, because we can.

I could subtract presentations: no screens, and no competition among the presenters. I could also subtract time limits, unlike the 18 minute TED talk, which is sort of funny to me now. I could let people talk as long as it was interesting. I would have them not be interviewed like Charlie Rose, who tries to be smarter than the people he interviews, but just throw out a premise, and two people then start an improvised conversation. They don’t even face the audience, they face each other. And I let them talk as long as it was interesting. Then we pull two more people up.

I get really extraordinary people and I pair them in a way that I think has the chance of exposing some threads that are of particular interest and maybe, hopefully are things I’ve never thought of before. Intellectual jazz. So I might have a top columnist, like David Brooks, who’s conservative, who’s on television a lot on all these panels, on the op-ed page of the New York Times all the time, and I might pair him with Matt Groening, who created the Simpsons. Both are political animals. Both have a political stance and they try to describe, in their own manner, in an entertaining way, in an understandable way, ideas and political thoughts and social positions. And I have them have a conversation.

BPR: Sounds fascinating. I can’t wait to watch it.

Wurman: You’re not going to watch it. The opening of the conference will be Will I Am having a conversation with Yo Yo Ma, not playing any music. It’s a great leap backwards into what humans do as profoundly as anything: conversation. When you read the history of Watson and Crick, really everything that happened to them occurred with the two of them sitting down and having a conversation of mutual discovery, the observation of that famous [double helix] photograph and then constructing the DNA model. Amazing things happen in conversation.

BPR: In an interview last year with Curiosity TV you reflected on your bestseller, Information Anxiety, and gave a litany of examples of the problem even twenty years later. Do you think the explosion of the internet medium has made the problem better or worse?

Wurman: Information Anxiety doesn’t seem dated if you read it now. Even with all the change that has occurred, the basic premise, then as now, is that we never had an information explosion, but an explosion of non-information. If you go online and put up Richard Wurman, depending on the day, you get 400,000+ citations. That represents plus or minus about forty thousand pages of junk big data. Now it’s big data, not big information, because the root of the word of information is the word inform. And unless something really informs you, I don’t call it information. So I don’t think there’s an information explosion. There’s an explosion of stuff in every page of the newspaper that we can’t understand. I just got a big award, the lifetime achievement award in design from the Smithsonian.

BPR: Wow, congratulations!

Wurman: Yeah, it’s a big deal. I was in Washington two weeks ago and I had lunch with Michelle Obama. We sat next to each other and I was telling her, “I think if you have anything to report to your husband about this lunch, you should tell him that I suggest that he have a new cabinet addition called the Secretary of Understanding. Because I don’t understand Obamacare, I don’t understand the budget, I don’t understand anything that comes out of the press secretary, I don’t understand anything that I’m reading in the newspaper about politics. I simply cannot understand it. And I don’t want to embarrass you, Mrs. Obama, but I don’t think you can explain it to me either.” And that’s the fact.

So we think because something’s in the front page of the newspaper, then we should be able to understand it. Then we feel anxiety because we can’t understand what we think is information. I just think it’s the wrong definition: There’s more of this non-information, what we call big data. What the fuck is big data? It’s numbers, numbers just big for the sake of being big.

And I’ll give you the explanation, our attempt to understand the figure “trillion.” A million dollars is a good bit of money: If you lost a million dollars every single day of the year, you would have lost $365 million, right? And if you lost that money every year for centuries, from the year one until today, you would still have to lose a million dollars every day until 2738 to lose a trillion dollars. And in today’s newspaper and tomorrow’s and the day after, someplace the word one trillion will be there and we will nod, thinking we understand what we’re reading. That’s the anxiety. Because in our soul we know we don’t understand what it means. Because we can’t explain it to another person.

So then we shouldn’t be using it so flippantly in conversation and on the front page of newspapers and with the national debt and everything else, unless we reduce it to an understanding of what it means to a single individual.

BPR: The New Yorker made this point, that TED does seem to operate above politics. We almost never hear a TED talk advocate that the president sign this bill or petition Congress to do this. Did you intend for TED to sidestep politics, and is that because of the risk of alienating audiences, or is it something else?

Wurman: Well let me get to that last little statement you made and then go backwards from that. I never did, and certainly do not now, care about my audience. When you take a camera into a riot, you change the riot. If I think about who I’m going to have talk and what they’re going to talk about because of what the audience might like, then my conference is changed. If I think about the audience, it changes who I choose.

So the audience is not anywhere in my formula for how I choose speakers, themes, conversations, or what people are going to talk about. I have no political agenda, I have my own curiosity, that’s all it’s about. I never had a politician speak. I had Bill Bradley when he was Senator but I said he couldn’t speak about politics, only about basketball. And I never had any CEO speak, except the head of Adobe, but he didn’t talk about Adobe, he talked about his collection of first edition scientific books. If you’re a CEO, legally, according to the SEC, you can’t tell the truth to an audience. And if you’re a politician, we know that they are wired to say what appeals to different audiences at different times. And that’s not a pejorative against politicians, that’s just what the nature of the beast is. But I went a step further than what they do today because I wouldn’t let people from the stage appeal to doing good or selling a charity, which are the politics of the do-gooder.

BPR: Do you think politics has lost credibility as a medium for implementing the solutions posed at TED?

Wurman: Let’s take TED out of the formula. Let’s just say politics has lost its ability to persuade. Is there a politician or a political speech that anyone has given that you can point to, that you think is credible?

BPR: Well, some people think that the president was elected in 2008 almost primarily because of his incredible rhetorical and persuasive ability.

Wurman: That’s correct. Currently, do you know of anyone giving a speech where you are persuaded about understanding politics? I can’t think of an exception. And yes I agree, he did get elected because we thought that we would make things clearer and persuade us. But it turns out that that didn’t happen.

BPR:  So you’re disappointed by the president’s performance?

Wurman: I’m not anti-Obama, but look at any single policy of any single issue, whether it’s economics, whether it’s the Middle East, war and peace, health care, name the various subjects, and explain any one of them to me. His entire administration suffers the “trillion” problem.

BPR: Can you tell us about your new project, “19, 20, 21?”

Wurman: The major part of that is developing a whole new platform to find out more about people. Imagining WWW, we have these two people in a conversation. What if I want to find out more about C.K. Williams, who is a poet, or about Frank Gehry, the architect? What will happen if I put that the whole conference on a server and photographed them? You double-click on one of the people’s names, say, Williams. You don’t see four hundred thousand citations. You can see, however, the covers of all his books and you can purchase them on the spot. You can see baby pictures of him, of his house in Princeton, of his friends and wife and learn other things about his life. You can also look at hundreds of pages of his poetry with his handwriting all over, as he sketched out, repositioned and edited his poetry. You can see his process. You can see outtakes of interviews that never make it to youtube, never make it anywhere. You get a personal trip with lots of links to other places. You see things you never see at a presentation, or on YouTube, or anywhere else.

That creative platform is only about finding out about people, but eventually it will become a platform for finding information about health and similar issues. It’s far more than just organizing this conference. I try to be involved with other things as well and see where it takes me. The next meeting I do is a five-week long conference. It takes place every Monday for 5 weeks and in a different city around the world. Instead of having improvised conversations however, it involves very long, formal and rich presentations which consists of 5 presentations about 5 prophecies for every meeting. The project is called Prophecy 2025. What breakthroughs possibly can happen? It encompasses the scientific, medical, things about cities; and it’s upbeat, constructive, and not gloomy or religious. Two of the 5 presentations will be from the region, in which the one-day conference takes place. So the project is not USA centric.

The third project is a subset of the 19, 20, 21 idea. There are no two cities in the world who collect their information in a similar way; in effect, they have a border around them besides the political boundaries. Every land-use map is with different designations for whether it’s for residential, econo-residential, commercial or industrial. They are all different. You can’t compare the patterns of one place or another, or monetary, or crime, or anything else like that. The largest invention of mankind is urbanism, where half of people now live and more than 70% will live in the next 30 years. And yet we can’t talk to each other and make use of any successes or failures.

BPR: What advice do you have for those who want to take your mantel of improving information after you are gone? Are you hopeful about our generation’s ability to do that?

Wurman: Of course I am hopeful. Everybody who speaks at my conferences and virtually everybody I meet is smarter than I am. Children are smarter than we are. I remember how excited I was that I had my own fax machine and it allowed me to do my first TED conference. I put it together, except for a few trips to Japan, and I did it all with a fax machine. This was before the Internet. And I thought: “Oh, what a miracle to have a fax machine!” I haven’t sent a fax in probably a year or two. The fax machine is a thing of the past, but it seemed indispensable at the time. I see the same glint in the eyes of the people today when they talk about Twitter and email. I love email! I think it’s wonderful. I recognize that all the things that I can possibly think of will be done better and completely differently in a short period of time. Nothing is marketed to 77-year-old people. I am not part of the world. The market targets those between 18 and 35. We are ready to deal with everything that you think is going to be much better and quicker.

At the heart of this is the difference between education and learning. And I say that because you are calling from Brown, and all the groups including TED are always talking about education and how to change the educational system. I consider education an enterprise from the top-down. And I think changing the form from the bottom up comes from curiosity, and it doesn’t come from faculty and it doesn’t come from administration, and it doesn’t come through textbooks. It comes from increasing the value, the desirability of having not a successful life, in term of getting ahead, going to college or other things, but having an interesting life. And I would trace money to have an interesting life. Luckily, I have both.

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