Technology and Learning: Celebrating the Connections

Richard Saul Wurman Interview

By Educom Review Staff

Sequence: Volume 32, Number 6
Release Date: November/December 1997

Richard Saul Wurman, author of the acclaimed Information Anxiety and 60 other books, is an architect, graphic designer, cartographer, and creator of the ACCESS Guide travel series. His celebrated "TED" conferences focus on the converging fields of technology, entertainment and design in the service of learning and communications.

Educom Review: Since we'll be asking you about your ideas on education, let's start by talking about your own education. Tell us about the education of Richard Saul Wurman.

WURMAN: When we think back on our own journeys we tend to idealize them in some fashion that perhaps is not realistic, but is really just the memories we would like to have of how we learned. I don't think you learn continuously, I think of moments. Learning is moments - little epiphanies when something is clear to you that wasn't clear before. The task for my own learning experience throughout my life has been to increase these moments, so that in really good days or weeks I connect up some of these moments. The feeling I get when I absolutely understand something, no matter how simple it is, is really warm.

An example I often use when I lecture is, I ask people how large an acre is. They have certainly used the word acre, read the word acre, have heard the word acre, probably within the last month or two of their lives and yet they don't know what it is, and they have let it go past them. They haven't challenged their lack of understanding - for that or so many other things. A few people will say, oh, my uncle's house is on an acre - which doesn't communicate to a general public. And every once in awhile somebody will say it's around 40,000 square feet, which still - even though it's more accurate - doesn't communicate. I then say, "Well an acre is 43,560 square feet," which still doesn't tell you what an acre is, even though it's absolutely accurate. But I will tell you how large an acre is in a way that will make you feel good, and you will never ever forget it. An acre is just slightly smaller than an American football field without the end zone. Now that's something you can't forget. And those moments when you learn something you can't forget, of size, of history, of relationships, a place in a city, a building, the sense of size and scale, shape, people's feelings, what people really think - when you learn it in such a way that it touches something you already understand - when you make those connections, that's a terrific moment - as is the terror of realizing that you don't understand things.

I describe the ability to communicate as being able to understand what it is like not to understand. And in order to pass a piece of information to somebody else I have to understand what it is like not to understand that piece of information.

ER: How do you rate most communicators?

WURMAN: Most people, most so-called great communicators, don't communicate well at all.

ER: Including teachers?

WURMAN: They are often at the bottom of the barrel. And I don't say that just to take a cheap shot. It's that education for most people has been memorization of things they aren't interested in, bulimically put on a piece of paper called a test, and then forgotten. And that is so much a part of our educational experience that I generally don't use the word education. I use the word learning, because education is tied up with a Board of Education, not a Board of Learning. There are exceptions to what I'm saying . . . one, teachers don't understand what it's like not to understand, or they don't put themselves in that position. They have the disease of familiarity - they are so familiar with their subject that they are not sensitive to people not understanding.

And, two, much of what is taught is like a fraternity hazing. When you go through a fraternity hazing, the people who haze you, the fraternity members, do nasty things to you, not because they particularly enjoy it or think it is good, but because it was done to them. And they pass on, as I think many teachers do, something they were not particularly interested in, because you've got to learn it because they had to learn it.

And, three, there's also the idea that education was set into motion 100 years or so ago by a visit by God to Earth saying, "You should learn about isosceles triangles." Almost everything else in our daily lives tries to catch up to the world around us. We view movies differently from the way we did 50 years ago. A hundred years ago there weren't movies. We read differently. We dress differently. We certainly extend our communications efforts, through telephone and television and e-mail. Our attention span has changed. The man-machine relationship has changed. Everything changes at a seemingly increasingly rapid rate, except the list of subjects we are taught in school and how we are taught them. Even our school year is based on people farming corn. They would go to school during the months that were least productive on the farm and let the kids out so they could work on the farm during the summer.

ER: And is technology changing this? Or about to change it?

WURMAN: Everything is changing. I mean, books are technology. Books changed the world. There's hardly a thing more technical than the production of a book. People use the word technology like it's something that happened within the last 10 years. Technology is a continuum.

Let me just tell you a little story about technology. If you can imagine Michaelangelo at a time before the technology - and it is a technology to have certain tools - of hammer and chisel was invented, he is standing in a space in front of a huge piece of stone, an amazing piece of Carara marble. And he is standing there with his assistant and he looks at the stone and all that he can come up with in his mind, his marvelous mind, is, "my god, that's a big and beautiful piece of Carara marble." Now we cut to a moment after the technology of the hammer and chisel has been invented. And his assistant slaps a hammer in one hand and a chisel in the other. They allow him to think of things he couldn't think of before, because the availability of that technology allows him to look at the marble and scream, "I must let Moses out." His assistant then takes the hammer from one of his hands, knocks him on the head and kills him.

And that's my story of what technology is. Technology allows you to think of things you couldn't think of, it doesn't think of them itself. And it can be used for good or it can be used for evil. Technology is just our tool. We sanctify it - I mean there are conferences of propellerhead people who sit around for three or four days and talk about the technology rather than what the technology allows you to think of. It would be similar to 500 people getting together in 1902 to talk about typewriter keyboards and carbon paper. That would never have happened. But people do sit around and talk about similar things today, about speed and storage and this and that, rather than what it allows you to do.

And my life is really a life of thinking of what things allow you to do. How can things enable you? How can technology? How can conversation? How can chance meetings, how can sitting next to somebody on an airplane have a conversation that you would not have had? How can the meetings that I put on, these TED conferences - how could the meetings I hold on technology, entertainment and design allow you to see opportunities and possibilities that you wouldn't have thought of before? That's really very much part of my learning experience. And it is what I have tried to design my life around - how to see those connections. Now the word "connection" is one certainly I didn't invent relative to creativity. You know Charles Eames built half of his career on the word connections in all of the work he did for IBM, and the exhibits and the books and movies and things of that sort. And James Burke has a career on television based on a book and a series that keeps on coming out called "Connections." So it is a term that has a lot of meaning behind it and a lot of big heads behind it.

ER: Well, speaking of connections, what is the connection that you see between your life as an architect-architect and your life as an "information architect"?

WURMAN: That's a good question. My life as an architect is based on the teachings and the relationship between myself and Lou Kahn. He remains my mentor. My friendship with him and having him as a professor and having him as a boss, I believe allowed me to become myself. He gave me permission to be more of myself. He also instilled in me the ideas of the thoughtful making of place and space and the systemic relationship of parts. And the fact that great architecture has spaces that are served and spaces that are being served. It's the structuring, the kind of artistic, the thoughtful structuring of place in space that is the way I think about ideas, words and the organization of information. I think of Lou Kahn every day. I think of architecture every day. And it's the systemic and meaningful art of architecture, the way a building works, a great plan works, a series of great buildings in a part of a city works - that serve each other - is the way I think about the parts of knowle
dge. To me, I don't see the beginning or the end.

ER: You've also described yourself as an intellectual hedonist. What do you mean by that?

WURMAN: I mean that I am extraordinarily happy at what I do. For example, I get the greatest joy out of a story like the one about the acre. Or seeing patterns. Creativity is often about being able to see patterns. Pattern recognition is a large part of discovery. The fact that I take joy in solving those intellectual problems makes me an intellectual hedonist. The fact that I take joy, and apparently many other people do, in going to my TED meetings - those meetings are like a high that you would have at the most unbelievable vacation. Yet you are merely sitting in a room for 12 hours a day for three days straight, listening to the presentation of ideas. Well it turns out that with the proper interrelationship of conversations and ideas, it is really enjoyable to do this. If you make that experience really enjoyable, and it's an intellectual experience, that's why I accept the moniker of intellectual hedonist.

ER: Is there a way that the TED experience could be extended? For example, could it be extended to higher education?

WURMAN: It can be extended to learning, period, and it will be and already is starting. This is the most exciting moment of my life. Of course, I hope in five years I'll say that it is then the most exciting moment of my life. But this is a most exciting time for me to observe what's occurring because, without any doubt in my mind, there are forces, creative people, corporate dollars, desire at work to allow more and more individuals to be empowered on their own journey through things that interest them.

ER: As contrasted with what?

WURMAN: Sitting in a classroom being taught about isosceles triangles. Sitting in a classroom and being told to memorize something you are not interested in and put it down on a piece of paper, and forget it. I think there are vast parallel systems of learning that are beginning to emerge.

ER: You say parallel, but could those new systems be included within the current academic structure?

WURMAN: Most of them not, just because of the imbedded nature of the academic structure. You know, I taught at universities for a number of years and was the dean of a school, etc., and the old joke about institutes of higher learning is that the reason there's so much backbiting, arguments, and other nasty things going on in faculty meetings is that there's so little at stake. I think the means of rewards in higher education, the union setup and tenure and the curriculum in the lower educational facilities make it impossible to do anything but develop a better version of what doesn't work. And a better version of what doesn't work still doesn't work - it's just a better version of it.
And what I think there will be - separate from the ingrained educational system - for awhile, is alternative ways of learning for which there will be money available and people gravitating so that there can then be the revolution that needs to happen in the inbred system. I think it's really revolutionary what's going to happen. I think it's going to be a bigger revolution than what happened in the delivery of health care. All of it will not be for the good. But it will be major changes. Twenty years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago you could not have predicted how much the delivery of health care would have changed. And I think today it is very difficult to predict in the next five years how much the delivery of learning is going to change. But, boy, is it going to change. It's going to catch a lot of people by surprise. I'm utterly convinced of it.

And there's not a single solution, see. The fact is that we think in terms of what would be the single best way to do it. There isn't a best way; there are best ways. And there are going to be many ways people are empowered on their journey to things that interest them. And some are going to be in school, some are going to be partly in school, some are going to be maybe in shopping centers, some are going to be in video games. They are going to be in conversation. They are going to be in museums. They are going to be in conferences. They are going to be walking through the park.

ER: What would you do if by some stroke of magic - or bad luck - you found yourself today as the president of a college or university, and you couldn't get out?

WURMAN: Ha! You just cut off my way to the door. That's not a job I want. No, because the president of a college or university - depending on which college or university - is mostly involved in fund-raising. That's the nature of the highest position of leadership in our educational community. But, you understand, I believe in leadership and if the top job goes to fund-raising, then the top job is not about learning. And therefore at the top you don't get that leadership. Consider Gerstner at IBM - what he did for IBM was to change that company. The person in the top job should have the ability to make changes, yet the top person at a university has no ability to make changes, because supposedly his "best and brightest" can't be fired anyway. I mean the tenure system is an unreal system. You can talk about all the pieces that make up a university and they have nothing to do with learning. If you look at three months of the New York Times and look at stories that have to do with the educational system in New York, they happen only in three subject areas: number one is teacher salaries and the unions; number two is crime in the schools; and number three is SAT scores. None of them have to do, I would contend, with fundamental learning. We have a president of the United States who, when his knee gets hurt, turns over the big annou
ncement for his educational initiative to his vice president, who then says they are going to put six or seven billion dollars into bricks and mortar, not into learning. We've got a vice president who thinks the answer to everything is to put computers in the schools.

ER: And you don't?

WURMAN: That's not the answer. The answer is what you do on the computer. It's not putting computers in the schools only to learn the same things that you've learned before. The fundamental issue is what is it, not how to do it. What, not how - and it's not bricks and mortar and it's not computers. Do I think the availability of computers in schools is fine? Sure. But not to learn - I'm going to use the same example about isosceles triangles. I'm not down on the isosceles triangle; I just picked that as an image.

ER: Well, since you won't take the presidency of a college or university, we'll give you another job. We'll make you Superintendent of Schools in New York City. What would you do?

WURMAN: Ha!. Oh my gosh. Well, you see, I do believe most of these are impossible jobs. The job that would be more interesting would be to be in charge of the design and content of all the video games in the United States. You know, more money was spent on video games last year than was spent on the movies. That's an amazing thing when you realize that video games by and large go in the hands of young people.

ER: Are you optimistic, pessimistic or both about that?

WURMAN: I'm amazingly optimistic. You know, the meeting I'm having in New York is about this optimism. It's about the fact that America's next great business is the business of learning - not the business of education but the business of learning. And there is example after example of how people actually learn. We've learned an awful lot about dinosaurs from Steven Spielberg. In fact, dinosaur experts have learned through Steven Spielberg. The creative talent in the United States does not go to the Harvard Business School. The talent goes into the media, the entertainment, or the techno-entertainment industry - the information technology and the entertainment industries combined. That's where the most amazing reservoir of ripe, creative, exciting people who are challenging the box every day of their lives. Some of the stuff they produce is terrible and will continue to be that. But, as you know, in the Renaissance - we talk about the architecture of the Renaissance - every buildin
g wasn't great. There were a lot of bad and mediocre buildings, too. But there were some great moments. And there're going to be great moments of learning that occur in the next half decade. I think remarkably great moments. That's what I'm trying to celebrate in the TED meeting in September. It's going to be a celebration of legitimizing this as a great American business. And it's not aimed at the educational community because I don't think the educational community can change. I think it's on a path that can't change right now. I think it would have to come in other ways, from outside of the box.

ER: Even though many, many - ?

WURMAN: Oh, I think there're many great teachers but the system will not let them change within the system. I think there have to be some more revolutions happen. The preteen generation - kids that are 13 and under - know they are not learning what they should be learning. The kids at university level know that they have to do what they are doing in order to get a job, but they know they are not learning what they should learn in the way they should learn. Look at how the field of law has changed. Look at the way the teaching of law should be changing because of the ability to do a much better search through things than you can through your mind. But the teaching of law still rewards people who memorize the torts. There have to be some more radical departures from that. I mean when was the last time you did a very big long division problem? You know, it's okay to use a calculator if you spend the rest of your time thinking about other things, seeing patterns.

ER: Let's talk about design, and particularly Web design.

WURMAN: This whole interview is going to make me sound like a real contrarian. The metaphor that most people have used, because people are always trying to get the bragging rights on being smart - the metaphor used in screen design is the airplane cockpit. So that so much of Web design is so many buttons and bells and whistles to make you feel that the person who built it is smart and that the person who is giving you this information has an endless way of searching, and there're so many things you can do, and you're getting your money's worth - which is just the opposite of the way I think it should be done. You should not have thousands of bells and whistles. I don't think that's the way. I'm confused - whenever I look in an airplane cockpit when the door is open, I always get a sinking feeling: how can anybody make a decision there?! That's not the way I think people make decisions. I think design should be based on the way you have a conversation, which allows you to go up in one direction at a time. It doesn't show you 1,000 choices at any one second, but shows you the logical next few ways of taking this journey, and gives you comfort, not confusion.
And so I think there are fundamental things. We should be throwing out vertical scrolling, and replacing it with metaphors like the turning of the pages of a book. Turning the pages of a book - and knowing the size, the length of a book - are important ideas. I mean, time is really quite an interesting notion, one of the more amazing things we live with. When you watch a television program or go to a movie, you know how long it is and you have a sense when you are watching it at what point you are in the story - you know how much time till the conclusion. It's not an infinite amount of time. In story-telling that's a very useful device. An infinite vertical scroll, where you never know where you are and can't find out where you've ever been, is not comforting.

ER: You wouldn't think of that as the "Arabian Nights" technique?

WURMAN: The learning journey is infinite, and you should be able to make connections to things you never even thought of. That is really the role of the future teacher, who will emerge as a guide to the celebration of connections between things. Some day soon I am going to turn on my television set, and it is going to say: "There was a terrific program on something we know you were interested in and you missed it, but we recorded it for you. And later on today there's something that you've never expressed an interest in but we think you might find interesting. Here's a three-minute summary of it. If you are interested in either recording it or turning on your set so you can watch it, push a button after you've seen this." There are going to be smart ways of finding stuff that makes your life better. There's going to be smart television, which is going to be a smart computer, which is going to be a smart search mechanism and a search engine. And these things are happening. Bill Gross and some of his IdeaLabs companies are building amazing new search mechanisms, search engines, and there's an incredible company called Perspecta, also on the West Coast, as well as a group called Firefly.

As you know, the idea of the guidebook is one of the things that has interested me for quite sometime, and the metaphor of a guidebook, a guidebook that allows you to discover things that you would not have seen before. When you look at the pattern of one of my ACCESS Guides, you'll find that instead of organizing things by category, the primary organization is by geography, by location. So you can discover what's nearby wherever you are. The only truism about travel is where am I and what's around me. And how to find things. In the case of an electronic search you can find categories, you can search through that easily. In Information Anxiety I said there were only five ways of organizing information, and by and large in the first years we only learn one, which is the alphabet. And yet every time we embark on a journey we ought to try to figure out what's the best way in to that particular mindset and curiosity and interest at the moment, and we should go down the list of five wa
ys to see how to organize that journey. And yet that fundamental discipline is not taught in any school in the United States. One can only organize things by location, by the alphabet, by time, by category and by hierarchy. Now that's fundamental to grammar school. It's not taught. So the distance that you would have to leap in the existing educational system to arrive at a place that is fundamental is enormous.

ER: It's not possible?

WURMAN: Well, it's not probable to move the megawidth needed based on the motivation of teachers, unions, crime, the obsession with SAT scores, teachers' salaries, etc. That's not to say there are not some absolutely extraordinary teachers in the United States. It's just that there aren't extraordinary teachers statistically. There are not enough to make it a statistic. The AARP has 34 million members. I'm sure there are five million of those members - and that's conservative - that are extraordinary people who are unemployed, retired, who could have conversations with the young people in this country on a daily basis that would be so helpful to both parties involved, people who are waiting to be wanted. Waiting to be wanted. Think of a department in a city - the Department of Waiting To Be Wanted - that's dedicated to old buildings and old people, that helps us build a better life. That's not possible in our system today.
In 1976 I wrote a fable as the keynote fable for the AIA conference and the fable was "What If Could Be," the historical fable of the future. And the city was called What If and the land was called Could Be. And the main character - the Commissioner of Curiosity and Imagination - was given the power to do whatever he wanted for that year. He looked around and chose to do the opposite of what was happening, in order to see the meaning of institutions and the meaning of law. So he changed the laws of copyright to the right to copy. He established only one new department, the Department of Waiting To Be Wanted. He changed the IQ test to the SOH test, the sense of humor test. And the people who didn't pass that test couldn't even laugh about it. And the whole book is filled with such opposites. You know that he would have been ridden out of town or tarred and feathered. Because the many things he thought up worked. He thought of all the times people wait and he created a new group ca
lled Wait Watchers so people who are waiting could learn and watch things while they waited - waited in line for a movie, waited for a subway, waited in a Chinese restaurant. Well, that's another long story, and it forms too long a digression.

ER: Let's go back to something you said earlier. A little while ago you mentioned that most of the buildings in the Renaissance were not that hot.

WURMAN: That's right. Most of anything at any time in history was not that hot. Civilization certainly does not save every good thing. But if it's really good, it has a better chance of being saved. Slightly better. Slightly better. So that writing and poetry and paintings, things that tend to get the acceptance of "being good" have a better chance of surviving.

ER: Does an architect cringe as he walks down a typical town or city and say, "Oh, this is just terrible"?

WURMAN: I took a walk with Lou Kahn around Philadelphia one day, and I was muttering about how ugly some of the buildings were. I was young. Lou called many buildings that I thought were terrible, he called them "transitional architecture." They were going from bad to worse. And in conversation with him I realized that what he allowed himself was only to criticize those things that aspire to excellence. One's energies shouldn't be used for criticism unless they aspire for excellence.

ER: Well, let's go back to the Web. As far as one can tell, most Web designers are not following your guidance.

WURMAN: That's the way it would be.

ER: Would you then be in despair that they are doing this all wrong?

WURMAN: No. Most things are done wrong. Most things and people do not aspire for excellence. Most movies do not try to be really good. Most buildings are not done to be really good.

ER: And that doesn't depress you?

WURMAN: No. That's the way society is. The reason people come to my conferences is that I choose the few things that do aspire for excellence.

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