Robert Fulford's column about Richard Saul Wurman

(The National Post, February 26, 2000)

Monterey, Calif.

The question period, a time for audiences to demand further explanations from speakers and sometimes expound their own views at length, plays a prominent part in all conferences -- all conferences except TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). At TED conferences, including TEDX in Monterey this week and TEDCity in Toronto in June, question periods are banned.

The reason for this radical unorthodoxy is a 64-year-old architect named Richard Saul Wurman, the more or less benevolent dictator who owns TED and directs every aspect of it, pulling the strings behind the scenes for months in advance and then, from the beginning of the conference to the end, dominating the stage with his large pear-shaped presence.

Wurman acknowledges that if he asked the 900 people attending TEDX to vote on this issue, they would probably favour question periods. That's why he doesn't take a vote. He thinks question periods are boring and slow things down. And besides, "This is not a democracy. It's a party, that I run." Wurman is committed to serving the people but not to enduring every damnfool idea the people wish to enunciate.

Bluntness, the core of his charm, isn't always appreciated. A few years ago, Fortune praised his "shrewd, self-indulgent, childlike genius," and the ambivalence in that phrase was typical: Just about everyone who writes or talks about Wurman has something to say for him and something to say against him. When he considers that fact in perspective he acknowledges that it's appropriate and even flattering; but, like most people who are blunt, he can be easily wounded.

Wired, the fan magazine of digital communications, was conceived at a TED conference, but at the moment it's not among Wurman's favourite journals. Gary Wolf's 11-page profile, "Wurmanizer," in the February issue, pictured him as belligerent, egomaniacal and addicted to insulting behaviour.

It also called him "a smelly old man" and made everything worse by implying that this was more or less the way he liked to present himself.

In the last few weeks Wurman has expressed his anger about that piece so often that veiled references to it by various speakers made Wired one of the accidental themes of TEDX. On Thursday afternoon, a juggler on stage with Wurman (jugglers being among the diversions that appear sometimes at TEDX) got close enough to smell him and announced, without explanation, "It's true." By then, the conference was going so well that Wurman had calmed down and was able to find that line funny.


But no one at TEDX could disagree entirely with the more serious critical views in Wired. Wurman is clever, wonderfully imaginative and astonishingly well connected to the swiftly changing milieu of the new media. But there are times when it seems that the conference could do with just a little less of him.

Every morning the meetings begin with the overture to Aida pouring from the loudspeakers, followed by Wurman's appearance, at 8 a.m. sharp and his immediate announcement that he intends to start on time no matter who hasn't yet occupied his or her seat.

For the rest of the day, Wurmanistic self-expression, sometimes sentimental and sometimes fierce, will play as large a part in the proceedings as any of the ostensible subjects at hand. And Wurman will demonstrate once more that he's a walking collection of contradictions. On the one hand, he announces the dress code as "casual-casual," and waddles around the stage in yellow sweatshirt, khakis and running shoes. On the other, he can't keep from exuding self-importance and a profound need for control. Sometimes, introducing a speaker, he gives the impression that the most important thing that ever happened to this particular eminence was being introduced by Richard Saul Wurman. He sometimes hugs his guests like a giddy talk show host, or mumbles into their ears as he leads them on-stage, like David Letterman. Speakers are free to speak on whatever they want, but if they run too long (and Wurman, on the spot, decides what is too long) he gets them off by walking toward them across the platform at a deliberate pace; in a twinkling, the speaker delivers a quick wind-up sentence, thanks the audience and vanishes. At an orientation meeting before TEDX began, Wurman told several hundred of us (including 40 Japanese politicians, businessmen and designers, who received this somewhat inscrutable information through the translator accompanying them): "Some speeches will be good, some bad. The bad speeches will not be long."

On Thursday afternoon Norman Lear managed to out-Wurman Wurman. He halted what was building toward a painfully fulsome introduction by suddenly kissing Wurman smack on the lips. Wurman tried to start up again, and Lear began blowing in his ear. Rendered speechless, Wurman surrendered the stage.

And then Lear, having been told to speak on what he was feeling passionate about, told us at considerable length that his mother never understood or appreciated him. In his 70s, the self-described oldest person in attendance, Lear wanted to share with us the pain of a life lived in the shadow of an overly demanding mother. After his huge success with All in the Family and other programs, he called her to announce that he had been chosen as one of the first seven inductees (along with Edward R. Murrow, Milton Berle, etc.) in the television hall of fame. His mother's response: "Listen, if that's what they want to do, who am I to say anything?" Everyone sighed in sympathy. Veterans of TED conferences were not at all surprised to hear this melancholy personal memoir mixed in with techno-talk about how (as one speaker put it) "in the 21st century, most of the thinking will be done by computers."

Bill Gross, an entrepreneur, came to TED in 1996 and went away thinking about a kind of company-incubator, a hands-on version of venture capitalism. He came back on Thursday to explain how the firm he's since created, idealab!, has brought forth a dozen or so new firms. He worked with the obvious but elusive idea that you succeed by helping people avoid doing something they hate. He hates visiting car dealers. So he created a company that sells automobiles on the Internet and delivers them to the buyer's door. It works like, but profitably.

Bill Joy, the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, stepped forward to report that he was thinking about why people hate computers. He's a digital optimist, he's delighted that computer power is swiftly growing cheaper, and he believes computer control of the physical environment will make the 21st century an era of plenty for the whole world. But at the same time he's trying to figure out why computers routinely contain so many flaws that many who use them live in fear of crashing. It was consoling to some of us when he reported that after he installed in his own house a magnificent (and of course heavily computer-dependent) sound system, he discovered that when certain buttons were pushed, nothing happened -- and still doesn't.

He has no idea what's wrong. His system, beautifully designed in its parts, doesn't work as a whole. As he has learned, software, as it becomes more complex, also becomes less reliable. You cannot predict (that is, even Bill Joy cannot predict, the way a series of machines will act when they are networked. In the world of "pervasive computing," which we are now (everyone seems to agree) just entering, we face the possibility that our devices will drive us crazy with frustration. Joy reported that some Silicon Valley companies offer million-dollar bonuses to engineers who turn in glitch-free work.

That's precisely the sort of problem that animates and angers Wurman, the impresario who mounts this peculiar intellectual variety show. He's been trying for several decades to ameliorate the frustrations we all feel in trying to understand the world and operate our small part of it. He trained as a architect under the legendary Louis Kahn in Philadelphia and worked as a partner in an architectural practice for 13 years. But he began moving away from buildings into imagery when he made a few discoveries about the human race. He noticed things most of us don't like to admit -- that we can't read maps, that diagrams baffle us and that we often find guide books impenetrable. We are less informed than we would like to be, because writers, designers and publishers don't know to explain things to us.

This perception led Wurman to edit and publish the widely popular Access guide books, which deployed aggressive typography and imaginative graphics to make the understanding of a city, like San Francisco or New York, far easier than it had ever been before. Those books were widely imitated, to the benefit of travellers just about everywhere, and Wurman acquired a tidy fortune when he sold the business to HarperCollins.

You could make a good argument for the proposition that Wurman should be commissioned to redesign large parts of the world. For instance, if he were put in charge of producing every computer manual everywhere, planetary levels of anxiety would fall measurably. Next, I would order him to redesign, country by country, all road and street signs.

That sort of assignment being unavailable at the moment, he has spent much of his time writing about the principles of understanding. He gave his theories a name, "information architecture," which means using design and editorial techniques to make data visual and comprehensible. He preached his gospel in books like Information Anxiety, a bestseller in 1990.

To give human shape to his ideas, he started TED in 1984, as a continuing seminar on the connections and patterns emerging in the different but related worlds of new media and design. TED faltered for a few years because the world didn't quickly grasp his vision, but the project settled down as a solid annual success in 1992. He's had spinoffs dealing with health and one overseas venture in Kobe, Japan -- a success he likely won't repeat because he found it so hard.

TED's secret, he explains, is to gather "enriched minds in a highly charged energy state" and then "bombard this critical mass with high-intensity information."

Some of the assembled digital stars, members of the generation of engineers and entrepreneurs that brought the 14-hour day to the middle class, seem to regard his creation as Camp Wurman, a holiday as much as a part of their careers. That plays into Wurman's intentions and supports his own way of thinking and acting. Like many architects and designers, he remains something of a painter or poet: however wealthy he may be, you sense that he would be doing something like this whether he got paid or not. His project is a success to the extent that the hard-driving, stock-watching, assets-counting aristocracy of Silicon Valley come away from their brief festival with a fresh and possibly joyful awareness that the best work is probably also in some way an extended hobby.

You may also want to read Robert Fulford's column about TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design).
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