Interview: Richard Saul Wurman

By | Oct 04, 2013

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Architect and designer Richard Saul Wurman is best known for creating TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, the immensely popular series of global conferences aimed at sharing innovative ideas in the fields of technology, entertainment and design. In 2002, after 18 years, he sold TED, which has since expanded into multiple conferences, events, fellowships and prizes, and of course, the now ubiquitous TED Talk.

Working out of the French country-style mansion he shares with his wife, novelist Gloria Nagy, in Newport, Rhode Island, Wurman has continued to launch new projects and conferences in the same inventive and rebellious spirit as TED. In 2012, he organized his first WWW Conference, which featured improvised conversations between pairs of prominent but unusually matched thinkers with curious minds. Next up will be the 555 Conference, for which he plans to select five cities around the world to host a one-day gathering of five experts sharing five predictions of future patterns in areas such as health, energy, food, urban development and entertainment. Wurman’s other projects for knowledge sharing include the Geeks and Geezers Summit—which invites dialogue across generations, the Urban Observatory—a new way of organizing and presenting live data about cities—and FEDMED, a conference that explores the relationship between federal governments and healthcare. Throughout an eclectic career that has ranged from creating the ACCESS city travel guides to a stint as a college dean, Wurman has stood out as a pioneer who makes complex information easily understandable, through what he calls “information architecture,” the science of organizing the massive amount of data in the modern world. He has written and designed more than 83 books, including 33: Understanding Change and Change in Understanding, Understanding Healthcare and Information Architects. The 78-year-old talks with Moment about his Jewish upbringing, the origins of TED, his latest ventures, intellectual jazz, the God of understanding and much more.

What was your Jewish background growing up?

My grandparents on my mother’s side were kosher butchers in Reading, Pennsylvania. Very simple people from the old country. My grandfather never learned to read English, even though he lived in America for 60 years. We lived in Philly, 15 miles away, and we went to Reading every other weekend.

Where in “the old country” did he come from?

Some shtetl around Kiev. All those things are sort of mysteries. This may be urban legend and family rumor, but my grandmother’s father was head of the town and mayorish. Very steeped in Orthodox tradition.

How have you been influenced by your Jewish background?

I went to Hebrew school and got bar mitzvahed and never went back. Judaism influenced me an enormous amount—not religion, but culture. I feel very Jewish in my humor and culturally Jewish, even though I live in a town that isn’t friendly to Jews in many ways.

You wrote somewhere that God is information.

For most people everything is information. To me information makes use of half of the word information, which is “inform.” I believe in the “inform” part of the information. Screen shot 2013-10-01 at 6.03.52 PM

So what do you imagine God to be?

I don’t believe in an understanding God, I believe in the God of understanding. We become human when we understand things. Whatever we choose, from insects to the sky, whatever we profoundly understand, that’s where the spirit lies. I think religions are a perversion of understanding; they might lead to belief but not understanding.

So is understanding a more modern goal than belief?

I don’t think modern or ancient…I’ll paraphrase from Leviticus: What will be has always been. That’s what I believe in.

Has Talmudic thinking and questioning influenced your work?

I feel the spirit of the structure of the design of some of my books, which include questions in the marginalia, to be in the Talmudic tradition. It is this structure that shows my deep belief in the question, and Louis Kahn, my mentor, said that a good question is better than a brilliant answer. I believe so deeply in the quest, which makes up most of the word question, that I normally do not take questions or have a question and answer period at the end of my speeches. The reason is that most questions are either bad questions or speeches.

You are credited with coining the term Information Architect in 1976. What does it mean?

It’s my passion about understanding. I’ve had five lives. I was trained in architecture but I’ve had a life in archeology, writing guidebooks, medical books, running conferences and a life in information theory. These are all separate, parallel and sometimes intertwined lives. Every one of those lives is part and parcel of the foundation of being understood. I have to make information understandable.

Richard_Saul_Wurman_by_Melissa_Mahoney2Can you tell me how you went from architect to information architect?

Everything I do is Johnny-one-note. I try to assuage my curiosity and fill the void with things that interest me. Whether I design furniture for my house, garden or swimming pool, or design a house or a book, or write about understanding; whether it’s health care, raising a child or dogs, it’s all the same thing.

How did TED come about?

I wanted to be around people who were smarter than me. I didn’t want to listen to white guys in suits on panels. I wasn’t interested in politicians and CEOs or having somebody read a speech. I wanted to get rid of the lectern, stay away from golf courses, not let people dress up because I don’t own a suit. I just wanted to go to a gathering that was interesting to me, particularly about technology, design and entertainment, and other people seemed to like it.

What do you think of what TED has become today?

I think what Chris Anderson has done with TED is remarkable… It’s different, and they have every right to do that. TED is no longer improvised. And the whole basis was you couldn’t sell anything on stage, but now they sell charities and missions. Nothing has to be pure, it can change. They change the rules of golf, tennis and baseball, things with big rulebooks. That’s the way it is.

You’ve gone on to produce new kinds of conferences such as the WWW Conference.

I created pairings of interesting individuals—such as an astrophysicist and a small particle physicsist who, by the way, spoke different languages; and magician David Blaine and movie director/choreographer Julie Taymor. I paired the creator of The Simpsons Matt Groening and New York Times columnist David Brooks. It was improvised conversation. They didn’t know what they were going to speak about. I had them in front of me and threw out a premise to each pairing, and they responded with conversation. I call this “intellectual jazz.”

What is the state of the art of conversation today, and where is it going?

At the opening of my last WWW conference, I greeted the audience by saying “Welcome to the Great Leap Backwards. What will take place in the next three days could have taken place 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece when Aristotle, Socrates and Plato—whoever was talking to each other at that time—were having a chat in a small amphitheater without Powerpoint or AV, and it would have been damned interesting.”

I see you are also working on a new conference called 555. How will this one work?

It will be in five different cities and have five speakers in each city on five consecutive Mondays. Each of the five will give a prediction of the next five years based on their narrow band of expertise. Then I will collect all 25 speakers in New York City and I will pair them, and they will have improvised conversations critiquing the previous 25 predictions. It will be WWW2. I don’t know how it’s going to work. For me, it’s a discovery, and it’s terrifying. I never know what’s going to happen. But it wouldn’t interest me if I knew. Why would you do something you already know how to do? It’s boring.

It seems like 555 couldn’t be more different than intellectual jazz.

555 is not improvised in the same way. I don’t think there’s a best way of doing anything.

Why are you doing this?

I’m trying to think of new models for how people gather. I just want to have some interesting things happen out of conferences.

So how do you organize information?

I have many personal theories on ways of organizing information. I believe, and it has been accepted, that there are only five ways of organizing information. I use the acronym LATCH: Location, alphabet, time, category and hierarchy. And I believe there are only five ways that one can innovate. I use the acronym ANOSE because I humorously scratch my nose when I think of a new idea. ANOSE stands for addition, need, opposites, subtraction and epiphany. Additionally there are only five categories for the display of cartographic information. This gets into a more esoteric proof of a new cartography that I won’t get into now but it is what my Urban Observatory is based on.

What is the Urban Observatory? 

Recently, after a 42-year hiatus since I first wrote the theory, I created in partnership with Esri—the largest maker of cartography software in the world—an exhibit and a web application, which develops the theory of comparative cartography. The demo shows 16 cities with 16 layers of information that you can compare. There are only five fundamental categories of land use through which you can show an infinite number of characteristics. But that’s for another conversation.

What’s the difference between data and information?

There’s an explosion of data but not an explosion of information. Many people think all written words and numbers are information, but if they don’t inform—if you do not understand them—they are data, not information. Data is the alphabet, a word with meaning is information. People should not feel anxiety because they can’t understand what they are reading; They should blame it on the authors.

What’s the next big thing in information theory?

Recently conversation has been focused upon the catch phrase “big data” as the next big thing in communication. I think that is nonsense. The next big thing is understanding. “Big data” is data with zeros after it. It’s a number, it’s not understanding. Big understanding is not big data. You only understand something relative to something you already understand. Understanding is what it is all about.

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