Richard Saul Wurman founded and chaired the TED and TEDMED conferences from 1984-2002. They are now the preeminent venues for the exchange of the most progressive and challenging technology, entertainment and design ideas. If you were wondering what Mr. Wurman was up to for the past nine years, he has not been resting on his laurels. Wurman is currently the creator and director of a brand new conference called WWW.WWW, a celebration of improvised conversation, or what he calls “Intellectual Jazz.”According to Wurman there are NO presentations, No Schedule and No Expensive Tickets. “Simply pairings of amazingly interesting individuals prompted by a question, generating a conversation. For 10 to 50 minutes.”
And so it will go – conversations interlaced with threads of improvised music. An astrophysicist & a microbiologist. An actor & a playwright. A jazz musician & a classical one. An energetic exploration of the lost art of conversing.
The 100 most interesting individuals: minds & musicians in improvised discourse: A live performance. A tablet app. A live stream. The most innovative moments, the sparks of ideas, & fundamental truths come from conversations between two individuals.
On 18/20 September 2012 WWW.WWW will make its debut.
The first W stands for World — Water Wealth Women Waste War Wellbeing Wildlife Web Weather Wind Words Wonder Witness Wilderness Work Wunderlust Warming Wit & the Waking Dream. I recently took the opportunity to ask him via email more about this new notion:
Ricky, you are the master of conference innovation. Tell me, though, has TED developed the way you had planned or has it grown beyond your predictions?
I created the very first TED in 1983 and it was held in 1984. And in a great look backwards, I believe that the best conference in the world, between 1980 and 2000, was TED (I chaired my last one in 2002).
Before that, the International Design Conference in Aspen, the IDCA, I have no doubt was the best conference in the world, particularly between 1970 and 1990. I ran it in ’72, the first Federal Design Assembly in ‘73 and the AIA National Conference in ’76. Many of the ideas that I developed in those two conferences became the seedlings of TED.
There’s a bifurcated influence that TED has had: First, I believe it was the first conference to fully embrace a type of eclecticism, removal of introductions, the absence of politicians, no selling from the stage, including charitable asks, the saving of seats, non-exclusiveness, short speeches and intense curation. After TED2, when it was clear that this worked, that people really liked it, it basically gave permission to the literally thousands of conferences in the world. Not only TED, TEDx and PopTech, but thousands of conferences around the world that don’t even trace themselves back to TED but nevertheless, in the ether, have been given the permission to do conferences that have many of those same building blocks. So one part of the growth of TED has been this permission-giving foundation. The TED Conference is today a world-wide phenomenon, particularly Bruno Giussani’s curation of TEDGlobal.
Second, from the very first TED in 1984, and that was a long time ago, I videotaped every speech. I later transferred them to digital tape and their availability and indeed their very existence allowed June Cohen to propose that the archives from each year of TED became this amazing library of intellectual eye candy of ideas extraordinaire available to anybody with a computer around the world. The most important part of that was the ability to time-shift and I’ll get back to that later – how important time-shifting will be, I believe, in the future. And why I believe that now we’re in the 21st century and that your next question will be about the www conference, why time-shifting is very much a part of what I think will be what’s next.
Sounds very spiritual . . .
There is a religious and creative pattern in innovation. The Hindus worshipped Shiva, the god of destruction, among others. But it’s not a negative destruction; it’s a happy destruction so you can begin again. Picasso’s life was based on destroying the ideas and patterns he had developed so he could begin a new tact in his sailboat race through art for the 90 years of his life. He certainly didn’t destroy his work, he certainly, if nothing else, realized their value as it grew. The joke as innovation switches your perception back on itself and the joke, the punch line, is a surprise, is the opposite of expectation, and we laugh. Creating the impossible dream is not tilting at windmills but it has certainly been the pattern that Steve Jobs has used in the growth of Apple.
WWW.WWW Conference is, well, a brilliant idea. Frankly, I’ve become very weary of conferences, but this format and content makes all the sense in the world. How did you conceive this? What struck you and when?
Weary? Well, so am I. And it’s this weariness of conferences, particularly the conferences that have used many of the devices that I created that I’ve become weary of because they have become formalized, rehearsed, over-produced and stiff. The 18-minute talk has become a talk where people want to get on TEDTalks and become one of the ones most watched. It’s become a competitive battle for eyeballs, not for ideas. There was an outdoing of oneself each year. It was a struggle that I had which eventually lead to my selling TED; trying to top myself each year with what I did, more, more, more. So I decided to think of how I could go to that land called Zero, not pick up the pieces of things that I had invented and mashed together, but go backwards to a time before I did TED. Backwards to what I enjoy doing now, which is sitting around having a good conversation with another person.
I’m dictating this note to you but I’d rather be sitting across from you having a cup of coffee. I saw the value in my life and my memories made up of a few, well perhaps more than a few, wonderful conversations when I said something I had never said before, when I heard from somebody an idea they had not previously thought of, when the intimacy of two people talking came closer in the kind of Newtonian calculus kind of way, which approaches zero and approaches the truth – not always exactly the truth, but closer to the truth than other formats and other modalities, other ways of presenting oneself, other presentations, other speechifying. Private conversation with somebody can be quite heady and an aphrodisiac that leads to ideas not to sex. So I’m trying to reinvent that gathering, that fantasy of conversation between extraordinary people, not being interviewed, as I am now, not being introduced, perhaps not even knowing each other, not sitting in controversy, “he said, she said”, but in chatting.
I use the word chat more and more in my answers to letters: “I’d like to have a chat with you rather than call you on the phone” because somehow it does represent more, is closer to that informality of the truth, of the lack of pretension that I value more and that I remember more. I remember conversations with Lou Kahn, with Charlie Eames, with Francis Crick, Richard Feynman, with extraordinary people. I remember those conversations more than I remember their speeches. They weren’t as structured, they were more personal, and they were unscheduled. I remember them more than their work. So www is a conference of conversations and about the art of conversation that allows the opportunity to create a thread, knitting with other threads, a sock, a hat, a sweater, a suit, threads sometimes thick, sometimes thin as silk, but as they cross over each other, at their junction develop unique thoughts sometimes new thoughts, sometimes new maps.
What determines your choice of participants?
I’m going to select the participants as I select anything in my life: by the recognition that selection is not a science. There is no prescribed way to do it. It’s more like casting a movie – you do the best you can. And if one actor is not available, you get another. You just do as well as you can. And you think about the theater that is represented by that combination being more than the addition of the two individuals. It’s a series of visceral decisions. Sometimes it’s by balance, having women represented, young people, old people, people in the sciences, people in entertainment, sometimes it’s people who are friends more than acquaintances, sometimes it’s because people lead me to think of who’s sitting next to them would intrigue me by what chemistry develops between them. But it’s not a science. I chose the speakers at TED over the 20 years I was involved with that meeting in not a rigorous way, but I hope an artful way. But the real art is not whom I choose as speakers but how I pair them and in what sequence they come. And now at the TED, TEDMED or eg conferences, the three conferences I created that you know of, I spent much more time on the sequencing of the presentations than whom I chose to present. That was the time consuming effort, more than the logistics of food, hotels and planes combined. The sequencing is the theater of the conference.
You have a long list of directors, hosts, chairs, etc. But you are the ringmaster. How long has this taken for you to organize?
You’ve asked me how long it takes to organize this and I thought ‘well would it seem good if I said 10 years or would it be better to say oh I did this in a week’? I would really rather tell you that I did it in a week. It will end up being 18 months or the philosophical answer: my whole life. You choose. Is it hard work? Do I work on it hard? No. Do I think about it all the time? Yes. But it’s not work, it’s a real joy to put together the puzzle. It’s an intellectual crossword puzzle. You don’t put together a puzzle of many pieces on a table together for work, you do it because you want to solve that particular game. This is not work. It might be work for the people who help me but it’s not work for me. I guess there’s nothing I would choose to do more because if there was something I wanted to do more I would do it. Because I don’t have to do this. This is not a mission I’m answering to because I was asked to do this. And I think that’s terribly important. I’m doing this because it’s so interesting to see what it will feel like to go through the terror of public improvisation at a level I have not improvised before. I have had improvisation at TED and I was always on the stage and I pulled people off the stage and I changed the program as it was going on, but not at the level I’m proposing now, which is total. This is improvisation in timing, in sequencing, in calling people out of the audience who didn’t know they would be on at that time. I guess the term that I’ve come up with is ‘intellectual jazz’, although you can research it and maybe somebody has come up with it before, as an exciting construct. And whether it’s 18 months or 18 days 18 years to put it together, all I’m trying to do is do it well – trying to do good work.
I was struck by how low-key is your first announcement, at least graphically, is this an intentional strategy or will you visually strike up the band soon?
I am so pleased you asked me that question and noticed how low key the first announcement was. Wow! You’re the first person who has mentioned it to me. And it is absolutely my intention to make the logo, the website, the filming of this as low key and as seemingly under-produced as possible. When I say under-produced I don’t mean inelegant. Let me say elegantly under-produced. Minimalistically under-produced. That is not to say I won’t have the best people, the best music, the most beautiful furniture specially designed by Steelcase, an incredible installation of glass by Dale Chihuly, Philip Burke as conference portraitist, and an extraordinary conference photographer. This could not be accomplished without the critical input of Jon Kamen and Bobby Greenberg or the musical curation of Yo-Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock. The filming will be done by the best around and the design of the app will, I hope, engender a whole new modality. Perhaps more about the new modality later or in a later interview as it is key to the whole ensemble. But the sense of it will not be glitzy or over-produced, it will be the quality of the people, the work and the construct that I would like to show. And yes it’s a specific effort I’ve made to tone down any seduction.
Obviously, one of America’s few successful industries is entertainment. And you saw that when you began TED. Where does this fit in to our cultural progress? In other words, what do you want to see as a result?
In the beginning of TED the ‘E’ stood for entertainment. Many people thought it stood for education and people would describe the conference as the ‘Technology, Education and Design’ conference, and I said, ‘no no no it’s Entertainment!’ It’s the entertainment industry that allows for design and for technology to work, that allows us to understand. The subtext was always the convergence of the technology business, entertainment industry and design profession in the service of learning and communication. Education was not in there but learning was. I personally distrust, dislike the word education. That there even exists a board of education instead of a board of learning outrages me. But I love the word learning and the conferences are about learning. Learning is from the bottom up, education is from the top down. I do not mean entertainment in the comedic sense, although I love jokes, or the sit-com sense of entertainment, but entertaining never the less. Because entertainment in its highest form is information in its highest form, they are both the art of technology and design, so I hope it is the art of understanding that takes place here is the art that I think is implicit in information architecture. The gathering or the conference itself is a form of media, the same as theater or TV. So the basis of the design of www is the design of a new form of conversational media and an app with an entirely new modality – more later.
For more about the conference read details here.