Richard Saul Wurman: ‘I am always terrified’
By Emi Kolawole,
“A long time ago, I got over shyness.”
It can be argued that architect, author and TED conference founder Richard Saul Wurman’s triumph over shyness is a personal victory that millions have benefited from both directly and indirectly. Had he succumbed to the personality trait, we most likely wouldn’t have the thousands of hours of presentations by the world’s leading thinkers, activists, academics and professionals who have attended the TED conferences. And Wurman probably woudn’t have started his latest project: The WWW Conference.
‘The lost art of conversing’
Wurman plans to invite high-profile individuals from around the world to the September 2012 conference. Once there, they will engage in one-on-one conversations in an “energetic exploration of the lost art of conversing.” Asked when, specifically, we lost that art, Wurman pointed to a modern development that everyone loves to hate: elevator music.
“They put music in elevators, and then they put it very loud in restaurants,” he said. “We figured out the market was a certain age group, and we decided that that age group doesn’t talk to each other. So we’d play music, and it makes them feel comfortable at bars. I mean, have you been to a bar and had to scream at somebody next to you? … Isn’t that really dumb?”
What if retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak met in a bar without the loud background music? The WWW Conference may show us, since both men have agreed to participate. Other participants include Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, magician David Blaine (who personally taught Wurman how to hold his breath for extended periods of time), DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Khan Academy’s Salman Khan, and MIT Media Lab Founder Nicholas Negroponte.
Assisting Wurman in this effort will be the conference’s music directors, Yo-Yo-Ma and Herbie Hancock; portraitist Philip Burke, who will serve as the conference portraitist and participant; and SEED Media Group founder and CEO Adam Bly, the conference’s science curator and also a participant.
Altogether, Wurman plans to have 75 participants talk one-on-one for 10 to 50 minutes with a single question launching the discussion.
“There is much more communication right now,” said Wurman when asked about the role social media has played in the ‘lost art,’ “and I’m not talking Facebook or Twitter necessarily, although Facebook, which isn’t something somebody like myself should be doing — that lets me find some people I can send a message to at once.”
“We don’t live in a world where there’s the best way of doing things,” said Wurman. “We live in a world of ‘also.’ You can make a phone call, you can also send an e-mail, you can also tweet somebody, I guess, Facebook somebody — you can do a lot of things.”
So, he added, “whatever we’re doing now isn’t going to be here tomorrow. You shouldn’t spend so much time analyzing Facebook or Twitter or any of these things because they will be old news. They’re not going to be around in a few years. They will be something else. And it won’t be an improved version, necessarily, it will be something really different. It will be the opposite maybe of what we’re doing. But that’s okay. The rapidity of radical change is increasing — it’s interesting. And it will be seamless, effortless and transparent.”
‘Not a better version of TED’
TED was created to focus on three main themes: technology, entertainment and design. WWW, on the other hand, is inspired by words that start with “W.”
“The whole thing is about convergence. What’s the biggest convergence? The world,” said Wurman, when asked why he chose “W” over other letters. “‘W’ is water, it’s warming, it’s wealth, it’s war, it’s the Web. It just seemed like a very rich letter to have words that converge, so, I wanted to put convergence on steroids.”
That’s not the only way in which the two conferences differ. For WWW, Wurman eliminated the straight-to-audience presentations, the strict time limits and the high-priced tickets.
“I’m more and more thinking that when you invent something you have to be much more radical,” he said. “So, with this new conference I just said, okay, let’s do away with presentations, let’s do away with tickets, let’s do away with schedule. You know, let’s have a whole different monetization system and see if I can pull it off. I’m terrified. But it’s not an innovation – it’s not a better version of TED. It’s something that’s 21st century.”
And, while TED offers a steady stream of video content free to the public, Wurman is working to create an entirely new content distribution system for WWW — an application that will allow those who cannot be there in person to watch the event as if they were there.
“Is there anything better than actually seeing it being live — and seeing somebody talk at a meeting?” asked Wurman. “The app that I have the dream of — the waking dream, which is the last ‘W’ on my list — my waking dream is that the app is a new modality so you can talk to it, so you can mention a place that somebody’s talking about, or you can transcribe it.”
“You can have your own journey through the gathering without being at the gathering and just hearing what’s being said,” continued Wurman, clearly excited about the potential. “It can be illustrated with medical illustrations, with any kind of thing. You can fly through this information, and it’s a new modality. It’s not like TED talks are – an archive of somebody’s speech.”
Wurman has a digital advertising powerhouse working with him to realize his vision. Bob Greenberg, chairman, CEO and global chief creative officer of the award-winning ad firm R/GA, has agreed to serve as the “platform design and technology” leader for the conference.
Wurman on innovation
When it comes to “innovation,” Wurman maintains that the word is losing its meaning. “I just find that I think innovation was a terrific word a little while ago. But its value is in face-cream ads: ‘An innovative way to soften your skin,’” said Wurman. “It’s become ubiquitous for something fresh, and so it loses meaning after a while.”
Rather than “innovation,” Wurman’s preferred word continues to be “opposite.”
“I use opposite because I find that when I approach a problem I try to think of the opposite of the way it’s being done. I don’t try to think of a better version. I don’t think I was put on earth to think of better versions. That’s like polishing the silver. I think I’m here to think of something to destroy what I’ve thought up or what other people have thought up, begin again and see if I can find new patterns,” said Wurman. “Pattern recognition, I think, is the act of a creative person.”
‘Learn to listen’
As students begin their classes this fall — some for the first time — they are inundated with information. But Wurman believes information overload can be overcome with the right mindset.
“To me, Google and the Web is like being a pig in [expletive],” he said when asked how students can navigate the incredible amount of information at their fingertips. “You can find things, you can pursue things that your curiosity and your interest drive you to. I mean, my life would have been enriched measurably had I had the ability to track my interests faster, quicker, more readily to see the .. tree-like patterns,” he said.
“If you’re interested in it and the things are in an understandable format, you don’t go into overload. ... I don’t think there’s an overload of information. I think there’s an overload of non-information.”
“So, just embrace your curiosity,” Wurman said. “You’re rewarded in school for answering a question. You should be rewarded for asking a question — that’s the ‘opposite’ thing,” said Wurman, referring back to his preference for the word “opposite” over “innovation.”
“You have two ears and one mouth and you should use it that way. You should learn to listen.”
‘I’m always terrified’
In a 2004 interview with software designer and blogger Dirk Knemeyer, Wurman said that he was “astonished that my doing what I want to do every day hasn’t inspired more people to do the same.” Eight years later, with U.S. unemployment sitting persistently at more than nine percent, Wurman offered some advice for those looking to follow their passion.
“For most of my life, I felt terrible guilt for never having put in a day’s work and that everybody else was working and that I really have a scam going. And maybe I do, but I’ve learned to live with the scam, and the scam is: I’m really interested in things and that my personality, perhaps, is so abrasive, that nobody will ask me to do anything,” said Wurman. “Well, if you’re left with nobody asking you to do anything, then you have to think of things yourself. Then you have no boss, and you do what you want to do.”
But going your own way, like anything else, doesn’t come without some consequences, and Wurman highlights one of the most fundamental: Fear.
“I am always terrified. Life is really quite terrifying for me. But I can’t imagine a life without terror. So, to me, that’s what living is. Living is taking risks, of trying to work out things – doing books or projects or conferences or being with people who are smarter than you or you don’t understand. And you don’t understand that book that you’re going to write about a subject. That you are really at risk – at absolute risk of humiliation all the time,” he said. “And, Maybe that’s not attractive, and maybe that’s why other people don’t do it. I find it rather pleasant because I get to learn things at my own choosing.”