Q+A – Red Burns

You can keep Wall Street. You can keep your IPOs and your dot-com meltdowns. Red Burns has found the recession-proof commodity: human creativity. As chair of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, she gives her 240 students from 35 countries one simple mission: “Do whatever you want.” It’s a far cry from most edicts in the high-tech industry, making the program—which Burns founded in 1979—more popular than ever. But what about that pesky dot-com bust? “The dot-com companies were like a blip,” Burns says. “All this technology will find its way into mainline businesses. It’s not going to go away.”

With the economic downturn, are you seeing increased anxiety among your students?

Sure. But we try very hard to get them to drop that. We’re not really training people to go to dot-com companies. We’re training people to try and understand the form. The blow-up for a lot of the dot-com companies is what threw everybody into thinking all kinds of things that aren’t necessarily so.

Have you always focused on the human and creative sides of technology?

Totally.

Are you finding that students coming to your program still share that view, or are they more pragmatic?

I think there’s always a little bit of pragmatism. After all, it’s expensive to go to graduate school. But we try very hard to select students who we think will make a contribution. I often say to students coming in that it isn’t what we do for you, it’s what you do for the program. We just provide an environment.

Do hard economic times stifle creativity?

No, they don’t. Very often when the economy is bad, people go to school.

Has the economy dried up any of your funding?

We’re totally tuition-driven, but we get a lot of support from companies like Intel and Microsoft. We sometimes get equipment or research funds from them. Companies are very pleased to support us without requesting a particular deliverable. If you’re experimenting, you don’t know what you’re going to get at the end.

Are those companies’ downturns affecting their willingness to give support?

I haven’t seen it yet. That’s always possible.

How hard is it to stay current, given the rate of change in technology?

We keep current, but we’re not like a school of continuing education. We have a particular focus on exploring what we call physical computing. Physical computing is a class that uses computer chips to build things in which the input device is not a mouse. It’s light or movement or sound or sensors. People create things. Ubiquitous and imbedded computing is here. We have chips in cars; we have chips in microwave ovens; we have chips everywhere. More and more there will be devices that carry these small chips. We encourage people to think about what value they can bring to somebody, as opposed to making something because it has a lot of colors or goes fast. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s just stuff.

How hard is that to accomplish with the rate of change increasing all the time?

Our philosophy hasn’t changed. Our philosophy was to try to understand the field, develop applications that resonate with human experience and demystify technology. Those things still apply.

With your emphasis on the human side of technology, is it disheartening to see technology used in place of true creativity? I’m thinking of music in particular, where technology is often used to make singers out of people who can’t sing.

People really understand that it’s a different kind of music. It doesn’t take away from those people who really can sing. The point is we’re getting more choice. It isn’t that one thing replaces something else. It’s that you have more choice. I find that things that don’t bring any value don’t last.

Do you have a plan for the future?

No, because it’s not like I know what the future is. My goal is to maintain the experimentation. We have students who come out of computer programming, and we have students who are sculptors. We have musicians, composers, writers, psychologists. This fall we’ve accepted a young woman who is a pediatrician and has decided she’d like to understand how she can use technology in her practice. We’ve had shrinks, industrial designers, electrical engineers, architects and painters in the program. We’ve had architects who have a really incredible spatial sense. The program is based on diversity. The whole place is a cauldron of different ideas, different cultures, different disciplines. People work collaboratively, and it’s wonderful to see what emerges.

What’s your biggest challenge in working with students? I would imagine it would be breaking down their preconceptions of what can and can’t be done.

That’s really our biggest job, to break down those preconceptions. Exactly right. And the way you do that isn’t by saying “Break down your preconceptions.” It’s by offering opportunities to people to play with the other side of their brains.

Have you seen any increase or decrease in applicants with the recent dot-com crash?

We have many, many, many hundreds more than we can accept, so we’re in fine shape. We’re not this month’s flavor. I think what happened is the economy took a shot with this incredible pumping up of these dot-com companies. What people failed to realize is that the dot-com companies may have had to shrink themselves down and in some instances disappear, but the technology is still there. This will be embedded in other areas, other businesses, other ways. I think it grew too fast. I think people were too greedy. I think it really was an incredible lesson. And I hope we’ve all learned something from it.


Mark Brown covers music, media and technology for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.

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