Digerati - Chapter 33

Digerati - Chapter 33

Richard Saul Wurman [10.1.96]

Chapter 33


Richard Saul Wurman

THE SCOUT (Stewart Brand): There's a sharp designer and an able business mind behind all that persiflage.

Richard Saul Wurman is the chairman and creative director of the TED conferences. He is also an architect, a cartographer, the creator of the Access Travel Guide Series, and the author and designer of more than sixty books, including Information Architects (1996), Follow the Yellow Brick Road (1991) and Information Anxiety (1989).

The annual TED Conference is a three-day party of leading people in technology (T), entertainment (E), and design (D). Before anyone had begun to raise the issue, Richard Saul "Ricky" Wurman was smart enough to understand that personal isolation and loneliness would be the fallout from the personal computer revolution and its "enhancement" of personal communications. In TED, he created a conference that could always be described by these adjectives: "warm and fuzzy."

Somebody should have warned me. In 1995, Ricky invited me to appear at TED in Monterey, California, on a panel that followed a group of talks. In TED fashion, these talks are presented without follow-up questions or cross-examination. Feels good, warm, and fuzzy. So what if some of the people who get up on stage are full of shit?

My TED career came and went with a single comment, as I turned to one of the speakers who had just given what, in my opinion, was "The Emperor's New Talk." "I have no idea what you're talking about." I said. "You don't either." A hush fell over the auditorium, a pall over the panel. Ricky quickly put an end to the session.

Later Kevin Kelly raced up to me in the lobby. He was the most animated I had seen him in fifteen years. "Wow! You bombed big-time! It was as bad as Madonna handing David Letterman the dead mouse. Everybody hated it. You should have been in the audience." Next Linda Stone: "How could you? How could you do that?" Then Denise Caruso: "John, that was completely unnecessary, especially to such a nice guy." Others were as vehement in their approval. This feedback continued for two days, culminating on the last day, when Tom Reilly exhorted the audience from the podium to denounce me by acclamation. Too bad John Markoff wasn't there to cover it for The New York Times. (The "Sucksters" were. You can read all about it in Suck on the World Wide Web.) By the way, I had a great time. I'll be back.

Some would say Ricky Wurman is an acquired taste. He's an artist in the McLuhanesque vein. He's a sensing device out in front of everyone who sends back signals telling us where we are, and who we are. To make his point, he says, "When I pick up a book, if it's a novel. I know that I have so many more pages to read. I know where I am in the story. When I watch a movie that I know is two hours, I know that no matter what happens in the first five minutes, it's not the end of the movie. It's going to take two hours to go through the plot. I have a sense of where I am. This is not a trivial issue. It gives me a base. It's a centering thing."

In the last few years, he has called himself an "information architect." "That I happen to be an architect," he says, "is only coincidental, because when I use the term information architect, it has nothing to do with architecture, the career I was trained in. An information architect is concerned with the systemic but artful organization of information."

Richard Saul Wurman is "The Impresario."

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): Human beings have a subliminal sense of orientation that makes them feel comfortable. You lose it when you go to a strange city. You don't know if you're landing east, west, south, north of it. You don't know how far it is into the city. You don't know where you are. That lack of orientation makes you feel strange. There is a need for computer information databases that give you this sense of orientation. In a book, in a database, in anything where time and story are involved, this is important. The scrolling of type through a screen doesn't give me that. I never know where I am.

The fundamental task of the information architect is to make information understandable. My passion has always been making the complex clear‹ clarifying, rather than simplifying it, and I have been talking about this for thirty years. Today, with the explosion of data, there is a crying need for this profession. We are going to have to be able to find patterns in data and organize it in ways that are understandable.

I look for the beginning patterns. I get excited when I have one of those epiphanies, where I see a pattern and say, "My God, that's always been there. I vaguely remember seeing it, but today I understand it." I'm a welter of insecurities. I'm insecure about not understanding what the next person does, about not being as smart as the people listening to me, about teaching in schools that I could never get into, about running conferences where everybody is sharper and faster than I am. The only thing that gives me a nibble of happiness and security is that I'm able to come up with ideas that have the words of course attached to them: "Of course, that's the pattern. Of course, that's what's happening." Some of that has to do with the organization of information in my books, and some has to do with the idea of "TEDology"‹the merging of the technology business, the entertainment industry, and the design professions.

In this regard, the next three to five years are going to be an important time for business. In the past, it was possible to get along by doing a much better version of what you were doing previously. In the future, you're going to die on the vine if you do only a better version of what you're already doing. It will be increasingly important to explore alternatives, parallel ways of buying and selling ideas, services, products, et cetera, in brief transactions.

When I talk about transactions, the image that comes into people's minds is high-tech transactions on the tube. They think about the future of transactions in a single-dimensional way: the Net, the computer, AOL or some service. It's more complex than that. The image I have in my mind is the barbell that the strong man lifted, the old-fashioned kind with a big round iron ball on either end. In 1984, John Naisbitt talked about high-tech/high-touch and the polarization of these two movements. He gave me reason to feel that my tech conference would always be successful, because the more that people didn't have to come because of high-tech developments in teleconferencing and email, the more they would come. That polarization would make them want to come even more.

Something else is happening that is even more interesting. The fuzzy, warm, high-touch ways of selling are going to be created by high technology. Your ability to get a pair of custom-made pants from Levis, which is a fuzzy, warm thing, is brought to you by the people who bring you technology. It's the kiss of those two balls that will result in the successful selling of services and goods in the next three to five years. What does that mean to the Internet, and how does it affect using your computer or being online? There's no certainty about how you're going to get information. It hasn't happened yet, but we're at the cusp of it happening.

For five years, I've been upset about the fundamental direction in which all interface design has gone. It started with infoclutter and the metaphor of an airplane cockpit. With so many choices on the screen, so many more things than you could possibly use, you can't look at all of them, so you always feel guilty. There's so much stuff that you can't see where you are. I want to figure out how to do an interface that gives you a sense of orientation, provides you with the right amount of information, and allows you to find out what you want to find out without having to push lots of buttons. Solving that interface issue will radically change the material we can be comfortable with on the screen.

I am against the idea of customized newspapers that cut out the serendipity of life. The one moment of serendipity you have on a regular basis is the newspaper, where you can see things you don't look for. God almighty, that's terrific! Serendipity is the open stacks in the library, where you discover a book you didn't go there for. These experiences expand your life, rather than narrow it. They seem like soft and fuzzy things, but they are the basis of how you design, the basis of interface, the basis of conference giving. They're the basis of purchasing and buying. They're the basis of understanding. My search is to find the little things that help you, little things like pagination in a book, which seem so obvious once they've been done. The best comment someone could say about something I invented would be "We always had that, didn't we? That's the way it was always done."

I am a bit of a voyeur and I like to observe people coming together in different ways. I am fascinated by the metaphor of a good dinner party. Your respect for and confidence in the host or hostess gives you the desire to make a connection with the person sitting to your left or your right, even though you don't know who they are. Everyone at the party has been invited for a just reason, and there is value in exploring the potential epiphanies that can come from engaging in conversation. There's nothing that human beings do much better than conversation. In fact, my definition of a good marriage is when you'd rather have dinner with your wife than with your wife and another couple. The best reason for companionship is the extraordinary conversation. Marriage is the celebration of conversation.

When we design communication systems, we try to streamline them and take away some of the richness. We edit books so they don't sound like somebody talking. We do these things in the name of good taste and good style, in the name of seeming smart and seeming clear, but I am constantly on a quest for a Holy Grail that allows me, in real time, in print, and electronically, to engage in a wonderful conversation with another human being. That element of excitement that happens in the privacy of a conversation with another human being needs to come into the experience you have when you're sitting in front of a computer. If we can do that, you will be able to find your personal path. We need a computer that can nod‹a nod of response, acknowledgment, and understanding.

THE CATALYST (Linda Stone): Ricky Wurman throws the greatest party. How can you not want to go to Ricky's party once a year? Ricky puts people together and he puts events together. He is at once whiny and obnoxious and endearing. He has made so many contributions over the years, as an architect and a designer, in what he's done with books and what he's done with conferences.

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): Richard Saul Wurman is the guy I'd never met before in my life who had me on stage and gave me a big schmoozy hug in front of six hundred people, making me feel entirely creepy. Then after he gave the other speakers little gift bags, he didn't give me one, so I'm still pissed.

THE IDEALIST (Denise Caruso): Richard Saul Wurman is Richard Saul Wurman. In spades.

THE CYBERANALYST (Sherry Turkle): Richard Wurman shows you how to look at things a little differently, and then, after trying it his way, you usually can't imagine how you did things any other way. Richard's design sensibility has changed the way I hold meetings, plan my travel, and light my office.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.