Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.

Aengus Anderson: Well, this con­ver­sa­tion will be like noth­ing you’ve heard before. 

Micah Saul: Yes, that is very true. I almost feel like we don’t need to say much here. 

Anderson: No. I think there are maybe a few words in order.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: The first being… Well, do you want to do his bio, and then I’ll tell peo­ple a lit­tle bit more about the episode and why we’re includ­ing it? 

Saul: Sure. So, today’s con­ver­sa­tion is with Richard Saul Wurman. He is the founder of TED. He is the founder of the e.g. Conference. Most recent­ly he’s the founder of the WWW con­fer­ence. He’s an incred­i­bly pro­lif­ic author, and there’s all sorts of inter­views and con­ver­sa­tions and bios and stuff about him online. He real­ly does­n’t need a whole lot of introduction.

Anderson: But, this con­ver­sa­tion is very dif­fer­ent, and it’s dif­fer­ent because it does­n’t con­nect to oth­er con­ver­sa­tions. I went into this con­ver­sa­tion want­i­ng to talk to Richard about the idea of con­ver­sa­tion itself, because as you can tell from the list of con­fer­ences that he’s orga­nized, he’s brought a lot of peo­ple togeth­er for con­ver­sa­tion. And so, you won’t hear the con­nec­tions to oth­er episodes; there will be implic­it ones. And towards the end as always, we move in to phi­los­o­phy a lot more. But this is real­ly a talk about con­ver­sa­tion. So let’s just begin there.

Richard Saul Wurman: I’ve writ­ten a lot of books. And they’ve been on a lot of dif­fer­ent sub­jects. From med­i­cine to sports to trav­el; a lot on car­tog­ra­phy. They’ve been dri­ven by my inabil­i­ty to under­stand things, by my igno­rance. So, in this book I wrote twen­ty years ago called Information Anxiety, one chap­ter in the book, I decid­ed to write the chap­ter on how infor­ma­tion is orga­nized. And I real­ized that the fun­da­men­tal way that I was taught to orga­nize things had to go…went back to the dit­ty we sang at school, a b c d e f g… We were dom­i­nat­ed, our soci­ety was dom­i­nat­ed, our dic­tio­nar­ies, our the­saurus­es, our ency­clo­pe­dias, our fil­ing cab­i­nets, our Rolodexes were all alpha­bet­i­cal. Everything we did was alphabetical.

And we did­n’t real­ize that there were oth­er ways we could orga­nize things, in a fun­da­men­tal sense. And I thought jeez, there must be thou­sands of ways of orga­niz­ing things. There must be just so many ways. And I sat down, and I could only think of five. And I could­n’t think of a sixth. And I gave speech­es say­ing that I was sur­prised. I mean, the book was out. I called it LATCH: Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, and Hierarchy. And I said if there’s a sixth my next speech will say there’s six. 

After ten years, nobody came up with a sixth. I said okay, I think it’s safe to say there’s not more than ten. That there’s not that many ways, in a fun­da­men­tal sense, of orga­niz­ing things. Recently, there’s been a word that’s crept into our lan­guage called inno­va­tion.” Outside of San Francisco—they called it the inno­va­tion city—there’s inno­va­tion cars that have a back-up cam­era (that’s called inno­va­tion) so you can see who you run over. There’s inno­va­tion every­where. So it’s lost its mean­ing. So, I want­ed to see, are there thou­sands of ways of inno­va­tion? And once again I could only come up with five. And one of those ways was sub­trac­tion. One of the five was sub­trac­tion. And I real­ized that the Bauhaus move­ment was an art move­ment based on subtraction. 

When I cre­at­ed the TED con­fer­ence, I sub­tract­ed out all the things that peo­ple were doing in con­fer­ences. White men in suits, pan­els, lecterns, long speech­es. I took all the pieces that were the alpha­bet of con­fer­ences, the pieces that made up the con­fer­ences, and I sub­tract­ed em.

Well, I did TED in 1984. I did my last one in 2002. And at this moment in my life I was think­ing well, what are oth­er ways that peo­ple can gath­er? What else can I sub­tract? Maybe I did­n’t real­ly do a good enough job. And I real­ized there’s a cou­ple things I could sub­tract. And one of them was time. The eighteen-minute thing was not a big deal. I could sub­tract time com­plete­ly. And I could also sub­tract pre­sen­ta­tions. I could sub­tract some­thing that had been made—and that I was par­ty to—made more elab­o­rate. And they did all those things not as well as they do in ads on tele­vi­sion, or not as well as they did on tele­vi­sion pro­grams, or on films. And it was a con­fer­ence. So going back­wards, what real­ly is a con­fer­ence? What is the essen­tial thing of a gath­er­ing? What are the few things that make us human?

Ninety per­cent of our cells are not human cells. We’re made up of things that are list­ed sep­a­rate­ly in Larousse’s book of ani­mal life. So, what makes us human? What we do that’s that’s human? If you just reduce them down like a cook makes a reduc­tion, one of the residues that’s left is always con­ver­sa­tion. What do we do? How do ideas form? What is my fan­ta­sy of Watson and Crick? They had a con­ver­sa­tion and they came up with DNA. So many things in my life have come out of con­ver­sa­tion. Sometimes just hear­ing myself talk, but to some­body else. And sev­er­al of my books I’ve writ­ten by hav­ing a long con­ver­sa­tion with some­body, where they did­n’t real­ly answer back but it was the nod­ding of their head that allowed it to come out, much as we’re doing now. And I real­ized that many of my books, what I was design­ing was how to have a con­ver­sa­tion with the writ­ten page.

So, con­ver­sa­tion has been con­sis­tent­ly a mod­el in my head of being human. For quite a while I’ve spo­ken about how we’re not taught at any time in our life how to ask a ques­tion, and how to talk on the phone. And most peo­ple think they know how to ask a ques­tion, and they know how to talk on the phone. And yet I found that 98% of ques­tions are either bad ques­tions or speech­es. And most phone calls are ter­ri­ble. And yet we have the sense that we don’t have to learn that. And yet there is an art to that. There is a con­struc­tion to that. There is a struc­ture to it. And I am real­ly inter­est­ed in that part of the word ques­tion which is the word quest.” And I’m inter­est­ed in that part of the word infor­ma­tion which is inform.” And I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in the informed quest. And the informed quest is a conversation. 

There is a struc­ture to con­ver­sa­tion. The begin­ning of this last con­fer­ence I did, which was called intel­lec­tu­al jazz,” was the sub­text of the title of it. 

Aengus Anderson: And the title was—

Wurman: WWW. And that was a sub­ject title, because it was all the w” words in our life. The world, wind, water, war. The last one had about ten of them. The last one was called the Waking Dream. But the sub­text was intel­lec­tu­al jazz, because jazz is an impro­vised con­ver­sa­tion of two musi­cians or more. And the begin­ning of the con­fer­ence, the very begin­ning, I said, Welcome to the great leap back­wards.” That what is going to take place in the next two and a half days could have tak­en place twenty-five hun­dred years ago in an amphithe­ater, in Greece. Without ampli­fi­ca­tion. We would­n’t need any A/V. And it has­n’t changed much since then. It just has­n’t changed. And things that don’t change are quite interesting.

I can say fair­ly calm­ly con­ver­sa­tion will be here in a hun­dred years. And two hun­dred years. If there’s life on earth, there’ll be peo­ple talk­ing to each oth­er. No mat­ter how we aug­ment those con­ver­sa­tions, as we have aug­ment­ed it with the tele­phone, we’re going to have con­ver­sa­tion. We’re going to talk to each oth­er. We’re going to express our­selves that way. And con­ver­sa­tion is about ques­tions. Often a con­ver­sa­tion is about ask­ing a ques­tion and get­ting a ques­tion back and ask­ing a ques­tion back and tak­ing things in this kind of braid of ques­tion and answer. Of gen­er­al to more spe­cif­ic to very detailed to some­thing gen­er­al again. And there is a physics to how we talk. And there’s a struc­ture to how we talk. And there’s impor­tance in the silences. [Wurman is qui­et for about five seconds.]

If you leave that silence in when you edit, you’ll see how impor­tant it is. And when I give speech­es, I am pur­pose­ly silent, and there’s an edgi­ness about that. People think­ing well, he’s seventy-seven. Maybe he just does­n’t know what to say next. Or he’s lost his way. Or what did he just say? And you engage in it in a dif­fer­ent way when the per­son comes back. So there’s a cer­tain part of con­ver­sa­tion that’s the­ater. That isn’t rehearsed and edit­ed and rehearsed and edit­ed and audi­tioned for and rehearsed and edit­ed as a TED talk. 

I don’t know why we should use those same modal­i­ties for build­ing a con­fer­ence, and not embrace in the con­fer­ence the live the­ater of a con­fer­ence, and the flow of non-rehearsed action. And so that’s what I was try­ing to do there, and try­ing to under­stand what that art was and what that struc­ture was. What was ter­ri­fy­ing and what was com­fort­able about it. And would it work? And would you nat­u­ral­ly turn to the audi­ence, even though it was two couch­es fac­ing each oth­er and the audi­ence here? Was the inter­est in the oth­er per­son and what they were going to say back to you more inter­est­ing than pleas­ing the audi­ence? And to a man, it was more inter­est­ing to talk to anoth­er per­son than turn to the audi­ence. And to a man, or a per­son, or a woman, to the con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist, it was more impor­tant to get back and forth in that tan­go than to say, I just fin­ished a new book.” 

Anderson: It seems like there’s so much ener­gy that actu­al­ly goes into a good con­ver­sa­tion that if you are look­ing out there, you can’t be all here. Like, right now I have to be all here to fol­low what you’re say­ing, you know.

Wurman: Well, you’re lis­ten­ing. And you have to learn how to lis­ten. And I do lis­ten to what peo­ple say. And I lis­ten to them using words that are not real words any­more. No wor­ries, they say. Well, that’s not cor­rect. Many things like that have crept into our lan­guage, very quick­ly. Then they’ll stay. They’ll get intense. then they’ll die off and anoth­er one will come in. Each one is equal­ly annoying. 

And my gram­mar’s not par­tic­u­lar­ly good, and my vocab­u­lary is decent but not won­der­ful. And I’m not well-read. And I can’t read a hard book. So it’s not a snob­bish kind of intel­lect that’s say­ing this. It’s just, it’s just…not appro­pri­ate not to lis­ten or speak well. And that’s not taught any­more. Two ears, one mouth. You should lis­ten twice as well as you talk. And you should see in your mind what you’re hear­ing in your ears.

Anderson: We’re talk­ing about things that we don’t learn to do regard­ing conversation.

Wurman: Questioning.

Anderson: Questioning.

Wurman: Telephone calls. Silence. Pace. Time. Things that are fun­da­men­tal, the alpha­bet of our human inter­ac­tion, we are nev­er— There’s not even the briefest les­son in that by our par­ents or our so-called teachers.

Anderson: What do we lose by not hav­ing those lessons?

Wurman: Elegance. Ideas. The abil­i­ty to inno­vate. Creativity. All the stuff we like, we lose. Particularly when you see that the peo­ple who do all the things we admire, do ask good ques­tions, do lis­ten very well, do have good con­ver­sa­tions, do all those things. That they have self-learned those, or seen the impor­tance of them.

I extend words to encom­pass more things. And I don’t think of con­ver­sa­tion being you and I talk­ing. The same way I don’t think of a map being just car­to­graph­ic. There’s a mar­velous one in particular—a film of a Picasso paint­ing a paint­ing. It’s an amaz­ing doc­u­men­tary, it just shows him paint­ing a paint­ing. Stays with him. He paints and he rubs out, he paints over. And at least thir­ty or forty times, it’s a mas­ter­piece. And he just push­es and takes the stuff away and…changes it. And you say, No no no no, don’t…no. It’s too beau­ti­ful.” And he’s hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with this— I mean, that’s a man hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a paint­ing. He’s hav­ing con­ver­sa­tion with col­ors, with images, with form, with sto­ries, with emo­tions. With vio­lence. With calm­ness, with beau­ty, with sex. I mean, with all kinds of things. He’s hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with the flat sur­face of some­thing that isn’t talk­ing back, but it is talk­ing back to him. And chang­ing its mind. And telling him what to do next. And he’s see­ing his fail­ure and cor­rect­ing it. And his fail­ure in cor­rect­ing. He’s going in this dance.

I was asked on stage about two years ago (because I was par­tic­u­lar­ly out­ra­geous that day at giv­ing a speech) and some­body was sup­posed to inter­view me and I did­n’t want to be inter­viewed, and I was just going off. And he said you know, Well, who do you think you are?” He was get­ting fed up with me. And I let the silence take over. And I said, I’m a dance. [long pause] I’m the tan­go. [pause] A tan­go is vio­lent, and sex­u­al. It is filled with rules. And anti-rules. And it has two part­ners.” Well, it has part­ners. And the part­ners are love and hate. They’re ter­ror and con­fi­dence. They’re igno­rance and under­stand­ing. They’re com­plex­i­ty, and they’re clar­i­ty. And at every moment, I am both part­ners. And that is who I am. I am that dance. And my life is that dance. The bifur­ca­tion, the ying-yang, of par­al­lel, oppos­ing forces in bal­ance. And that’s what I aim for. I’m always ter­ri­fied, I’m always confident.

Conversation has that bifur­ca­tion. Because a ques­tion and an answer is a bifur­ca­tion. Part of con­ver­sa­tion is this nod­ding, is the engage­ment, is the mudra that we all accept as part of mak­ing con­tact with anoth­er human being. The human­ism of it.

Conversation also can be destruc­tive. In the ear­li­est stage of con­ver­sa­tion about an idea, about almost any­thing, it can be absolute­ly destroyed in the blink of an eye if it does­n’t breathe like a good red wine and have that time to sit and have no response. So con­ver­sa­tion isn’t always about response. It’s about respect. It’s a fine-tuned thing. It’s music.

Anderson: The oth­er type of con­ver­sa­tion that we haven’t talked about yet is the idea of the big society-wide con­ver­sa­tion. Historical moments where it seems like a whole pop­u­lace has been awake and talk­ing to each oth­er about new ideas. Is that some­thing dif­fer­ent, because it does­n’t have the imme­di­ate back and forth of a conversation?

Wurman: I can agree or dis­agree with you that it has hap­pened or will hap­pen or does hap­pen or can hap­pen and we should make it hap­pen. I’m not inter­est­ed in it. I am not inter­est­ed what­so­ev­er in my audi­ence. If I think about, Well, here’s the peo­ple who have signed up for my con­fer­ence. Who do I think they would like to have me invite to speak?” then I change my speak­ing list. I’m not going to change my speak­ing list. I am just going to try to do good work of some­thing that inter­ests me, which is the only thing I under­stand, any­way. I real­ly don’t under­stand what inter­ests you. I can’t pos­si­bly know what’s going on in your head now. No way. And I cer­tain­ly don’t know what’s going on in the audi­ence’s head.

I am aware that what I’ve done in the past in var­i­ous books and in var­i­ous media and in con­fer­ences, I can see that it has an effect on events, and effect on peo­ple. But I haven’t tried to have that effect. I know it will have that effect if I do good work. I believe it’ll have that effect, but I don’t know what that effect will be. And I don’t have a mis­sion. I am not doing ideas that mat­ter. I can’t judge what mat­ters. I can only judge what’s interesting. 

My goal for my life is to have inter­est­ing days. It’s not any more that. I don’t have a great reli­gious pas­sion. Just to have inter­est­ing days. I have a def­i­n­i­tion of learn­ing, which sounds glib but it is rock sol­id. And that is learn­ing is remem­ber­ing what you’re inter­est­ed in. The word inter­est” is in that def­i­n­i­tion. Interesting days is my goal for life. It’s all the same thing. I nev­er use the word edu­ca­tion, which is from the top down. Always use the word inter­est.” Guides, con­nec­tions, con­ver­gence, and mem­o­ry. Without remem­ber­ing any­thing, with­out your mem­o­ry, you haven’t learned any­thing and you’re real­ly not human. You don’t exist. So, I know how un-PC that makes me, but I don’t believe in PC.

Anderson: Is the con­fer­ence, then, a way to cre­ate an inter­est­ing day for you?

Wurman: Yep. And to do good work.

Anderson: What’s the good work? I can under­stand the inter­est­ing day.

Wurman: I don’t mean good in a reli­gious sense. I mean I had a prob­lem to solve. There’s my belief in con­ver­sa­tion and peo­ple’s reac­tion to one anoth­er. Does the design of that, the stag­ing of it, the pair­ing of peo­ple, the premis­es. Was I up enough on the work of the small par­ti­cle physi­cist and the biol­o­gist and the poet? Was I up enough to think of a premise and keep them on point, and that I was a con­science enough for them to get their game up? That I knew enough about design that the stage would work? That I knew enough about music that the music would work? That I knew enough about food to design every piece of food they had at break­fast, break, lunch, break, and din­ner? Each thing is part of doing good work. It’s a design. 

Now, I don’t tell the audi­ence any of that, because I don’t care. I care.

Anderson: The good work, then, is solv­ing [crosstalk] a problem

Wurman: A prob­lem. That’s right.

Anderson: And the prob­lem is…

Wurman: The problem. 

Anderson: The prob­lem is the bor­ing day?

Wurman: No, the prob­lem is invent­ing a modal­i­ty of how peo­ple con­verse and learn, and how I learn from them, and sur­round­ing myself with peo­ple smarter than myself. And see­ing threads and pat­terns, expect­ed and unex­pect­ed, and hope­ful­ly some­times bet­ter than anticipated. 

Anderson: Is shar­ing that expe­ri­ence part of?

Wurman: I know that hap­pens. It’s not the dri­ving force.

Anderson: Why do a con­fer­ence and not a din­ner party?

Wurman: Well, for the eigh­teen years I ran TED, I start­ed by say­ing, Welcome to my din­ner par­ty I always want­ed to have but could­n’t.” It is a din­ner party.

Anderson: So the con­fer­ence is then part of the problem-solving in that it’s almost like we can’t have that din­ner par­ty with­out the con­fer­ence as the justification?

Wurman: Well, because of just the numer­ics involved. The costs, the num­bers of peo­ple, all those things. But it is a din­ner par­ty, is the is the paradigm.

Anderson: This has been amaz­ing. And I… Your can­dor takes me off guard as an inter­vie­wee, which I real­ly am enjoying.

Wurman: I don’t under­stand what you’re saying.

Anderson: I’m think­ing… So, when I was rehears­ing our con­ver­sa­tion in advance, try­ing to think of things that I would want to ask and things that I would want to pur­sue, I was­n’t expect­ing that you would just say, No, I’m real­ly just curi­ous basi­cal­ly in hear­ing these thoughts and hav­ing an inter­est­ing day,” and that the rest of it…who cares?

Wurman: You want­ed me to have a mission.

Anderson: Well, I think every­one does have some kind of a mission.

Wurman: Oh, you expect­ed me to have a mission.

Anderson: I did­n’t know what kind of mis­sion you would have. And of course, I mean I guess you do have a mis­sion, if an inter­est­ing day is a mis­sion, right? And that’s…

Wurman: Assuaging my curios­i­ty, see­ing connections. 

Anderson: Part of what I think I’m try­ing to do with this project is mov­ing towards an answer that I think does­n’t exist.

Wurman: Probably. Right, yeah.

Anderson: And I…can say that com­fort­ably. It does­n’t exist

Wurman: Yeah. Doesn’t exist.

Anderson: But the ques­tion is one of, what is a bet­ter future? And part of the assump­tion, of course, is that the present could be improved upon. 

Wurman: It also assumes that I care about a bet­ter future.

Anderson: Right. And that’s what’s so inter­est­ing. Because every­one— I think you’re the first per­son I’ve spo­ken to in this project who would be will­ing to say that.

Wurman: Yeah. That it would enter my mind.

Anderson: It makes me think— You know, we were talk­ing about the pre­cise def­i­n­i­tions of words. It makes me think hedo­nism,” in like, the Greek definition.

Wurman: Oh, you can think of hedo­nism. You can think of indul­gence. Self-centered [crosstalk]

Anderson: Yeah, and I guess—

Wurman: You can think of all those words that are the ugly words of our society.

Anderson: Well, I don’t think of hedo­nism as an ugly word per se.

Wurman: But it is thought of as an ugly word, and I under­stand that. And indul­gences, and you know. All those things. I under­stand that. I under­stand the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of my position. 

Anderson: So, you’re fine with things as they are.

Wurman: No. I’m fine with think­ing up my next idea. 

Anderson: With that position—

Wurman: I’m absolute­ly not— I’m com­plete­ly dis­sat­is­fied with what is, because I’m always try­ing to think of what’s next as an idea for myself. But not in the glob­al sense of mak­ing a bet­ter world.

Anderson: Right. [crosstalk] So, how do you get from is to ought?

Wurman: There’s no such thing. There isn’t such thing as a bet­ter world, it’s just the world. 

Anderson: Because all of those are [crosstalk] ulti­mate­ly subjective

Wurman: It not… Well, there’s not going to be a bet­ter world. There’s just going to be a dif­fer­ent world. It’s always been it’s going to be a dif­fer­ent world. That’s what we have until per­haps some­day there won’t be a world. It’s just going to be a dif­fer­ent world, and some­times it’ll be Attila the Hun killing peo­ple. And some­times it’ll be some­thing else.

Anderson: Is that a great relief? [crosstalk] Was that a point that you sort of had to get to? 

Wurman: It just is.

Anderson: I mean, [crosstalk] it seems like to some extent, once you accept that, that’s got to be freeing.

Wurman: No, it just is. I’ve accept­ed it for an awful long time. I mean, I can’t remem­ber not accept­ing the fact of it, because it seems any­thing else is sil­ly. I mean, it’s absolute­ly silly.

Anderson: So, there’s no…good?

Wurman: Yeah. I think there’s some good and there’s evil. There’s ter­ri­bly evil things. I mean, you don’t think as a Jew I don’t under­stand evil and the life, my life­time that lived through a par­tic­u­lar­ly evil time that affect­ed my fam­i­lies. Of course I know there’s evil. And I know there’s some peo­ple that play the cel­lo well.

Anderson: Well said. You know, when we’re talk­ing about this, how do you— You know, you can say this is evil,” and I’ll agree. But is that some­thing we don’t even need to wor­ry about get­ting to intel­lec­tu­al­ly? Is it just [crosstalk] you know it when you see it?

Wurman: No no no no no. I don’t care. You’re ask­ing me a ques­tion that would be some Talmudic posi­tion that I have about what peo­ple should do. And I don’t have that posi­tion. You’re try­ing to put it into a… You should do this, or should­n’t do this, or this is a way of doing things, or shall we do this, or we ought to do this.” I don’t even think about that. Would, should, could, must does­n’t enter into my vocabulary.

Anderson: Is there any­thing you’d want to ask me before we wrap up?

Wurman: Why are you doing this?

Anderson: I think because I am wor­ried about the future. I am—

Wurman: And do you think this is going to have an effect on it?

Anderson: This ties into…

Wurman: I mean, just numer­i­cal­ly it can’t. It can’t [crosstalk] affect enough 

Anderson: Right. Totally. I agree with you—

Wurman: Statistically, it’s meaningless.

Anderson: —com­plete­ly.

Wurman: The num­ber num­ber of peo­ple you will reach is sta­tis­ti­cal­ly negligible.

Anderson: And, if I reached every­one it might be neg­li­gi­ble, anyway.

Wurman: So, I don’t think about that. I don’t think about… People, when I did TED… Ten thou­sand peo­ple next to, at that time, two hun­dred and fifty mil­lion peo­ple or two hun­dred and eighty mil­lion peo­ple, is a sta­tis­ti­cal error. I mean, it’s just…it’s a round­ing— It does­n’t mean any­thing. It just does­n’t mean any­thing. So, this is not a world move­ment. It’s is now, with TEDx’s and things. And the TED talks. But it was­n’t. I nev­er meant it to be.

Anderson: And I think even now, does it mean anything?

Wurman: Well, I think it has an effect on things. I don’t think it’s a good con­fer­ence. But I think the TED talks, even in their stilt­ed, rehearsed man­ner, have an effect because they bring cer­tain ideas to peo­ple who nev­er would be out of their lit­tle box. So, the net effect I think is quite positive.

But the eigh­teen years I was doing it, it was sta­tis­ti­cal­ly noth­ing. Yet, those thou­sand, ten thou­sand peo­ple, viral­ly, prob­a­bly, had an effect on a hun­dred mil­lion peo­ple. And I do believe it did, because there were things annou—Google was first announced, and the first Macs were shown there. And some­thing called Oak was announced there that changed to Java. And Photoshop and the Segway. And so forth and so on. It’s inter­est­ing to see the future first.

Anderson: And yet it’s about see­ing and not delib­er­ate­ly changing. 

Wurman: Well, not— But I know it will have a change.

Anderson: I think part of this project, it’s over­com­ing irony. Statistically, this project does not mat­ter. And I still intel­lec­tu­al­ly know that. And I think—

Wurman: But see, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly it does­n’t mat­ter. Unless you believe that the sta­tis­tic of one is more impor­tant than the sta­tis­tic of many. 

Anderson: And this may be the sta­tis­tic of two. Myself and my co-host, and maybe a cou­ple of peo­ple who are com­ing along for the right.

Wurman: And that’s good enough.

Anderson: And I think that’s part of it. But the oth­er part of it is just say­ing, Maybe it does­n’t mat­ter. Let’s try.” and kind of embrace the naïvety of it.

Wurman: No, I think you’re doing it because you want to do it.

Aengus Anderson: Well, yes. We are doing it because we want to. In fact, we’re hav­ing a lot of fun doing this project.

Micah Saul: Yeah. We would­n’t be doing this if it was­n’t some­thing that we thought was going to be just…entertaining to us. Which is sort of what he’s say­ing through­out the whole piece. But there’s more to it than, isn’t there? I mean, really—

Anderson: Oh, there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that. And I think that’s real­ly the big ten­sion in his con­ver­sa­tion. It’s that on one hand you have to acknowl­edge that of course you’re moti­vat­ed by doing things that you like. Selfishness is always going to be part of what’s dri­ving us. But, is that a rea­son to dis­miss hope for mak­ing any­thing else bet­ter? Or to set aside the pos­si­bil­i­ty that that’s even out there? I mean, I think a big part of this project is deal­ing with the after­shocks of post­mod­ern phi­los­o­phy, in a way. And I know that sounds kind of absurd, but let’s see if we can actu­al­ly build a case for this. Because I see this project as a response to irony. Does that float with you?

Saul: Oh, absolute­ly. I mean, when we first were for­mu­lat­ing the ideas, before the project even launched, that was some­thing that we kind of strug­gled with for a while. That the seem­ing­ly naïve idea that this could actu­al­ly mat­ter. That’s a theme we’ve seen through­out the project as a whole. People try­ing to effect change and strug­gling with the seem­ing­ly naïve idea that what they do could actu­al­ly mat­ter in the scope of his­to­ry. Or even in the scope of soci­ety. In any of these mas­sive sys­tems. And the peo­ple that I find most com­pelling are the ones that say, Yes. That is per­haps a lit­tle naïve. But we’re going to do it anyway.”

Anderson: And to jump back into the post­mod­ern phi­los­o­phy thing, for us… Well, in the English-speaking world like, in the 70s and 80s, we get this kind of explo­sion of post­mod­ern phi­los­o­phy, where we start decon­struct­ing things, right? And some­times that’s real­ly good, like when you’re talk­ing about race and you can say, Wow, look at the way a soci­ety made up this fake con­cept.” Like, a total­ly fake con­cept, and it flies as real. That’s an amaz­ing use of that sort of philosophy. 

But when you take it further—and there’s a slip­pery slope with this, right? Once you start pulling every­thing apart, you get to this point where you’re like, Well, basi­cal­ly every­thing that every­one is lob­by­ing for is sub­jec­tive. There is no good or bad.” And that’s kind of what Richard says at one point. But he also says, but clear­ly the Holocaust was evil. And I mean, the Holocaust is the exam­ple that any­one who’s been in an argu­ment about moral rel­a­tivism, that always comes up. Like, Well, if you’re a moral rel­a­tivist, is the Holocaust okay?” And of course every­one says no. So how do you square those things?

This is the cri­sis that Torcello was talk­ing about ear­li­er, and Francis Whitehead is deal­ing with this. How do we acknowl­edge our own flaws and our own bias­es and our sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, and then still go for­ward? And like you, I have so much respect for the peo­ple in this project who’ve grap­pled with that prob­lem but have also said, You know what? We’re not just gonna slip into solip­sism. We’re not just going to go oh well, I’m just going for my own plea­sure because every­thing else is rel­a­tive.” I like the peo­ple who say, Okay. That’s nice. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s wrong in the world. Viscerally I feel it. Intellectually I know it. And I’m going to try to do some­thing, even though I may not be ful­ly right, and the odds are against me.”

Saul: Now might be a good point to bring up the idea again that we used a lot, and we were actu­al­ly using incor­rect­ly more often than not. If we were record­ing this episode a few months ago, one of us by now would have already said the word Ragnarök.”

Anderson: [laughs] And what’s good is that you just did.

Saul: Well, okay. Fair enough. But just to clear things up, the rea­son we aren’t say­ing that this is yet anoth­er instance of that Ragnarök is because they’re slight­ly dif­fer­ent. Ragnarök is fac­ing cer­tain fail­ure, you fight on the side of good any­way. This is fac­ing the ease with which you could, as you say, descend into solip­sism, not doing that. You’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly fac­ing fail­ure, you’re facing…

Anderson: You’re fac­ing a world in which you just feel that every­one is self­ish, and all things are rel­a­tive. And there’s a cer­tain unknow­able, Hobbesian qual­i­ty that I think emerges from that. And if I was to take that one step fur­ther, I’d say you’re fac­ing a kind of despair that you for­ti­fy your­self against through com­plete hedonism. 

Saul: Or irony.

Anderson: Or irony. But either way, a type of detach­ment from any responsibility.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: For mak­ing… For try­ing to make the world bet­ter. I mean, you’ve writ­ten off the whole notion of better.

Saul: Which is some­thing that we very much did not want to do with this project. This project is in our own small way, our attempt at fight­ing back against that.

Anderson: And I think what’s inter­est­ing is you know, the bar to entry for inter­vie­wees in this project is we’ve been look­ing for peo­ple who are try­ing fun­da­men­tal­ly new ideas. And gen­er­al­ly, peo­ple who are doing that are doing that because they believe that the world can be made better.

Saul: Something that I think is sur­pris­ing to me (and this may just be my own naïvety about the way the world works) is the fact that there are peo­ple that act and do things and cre­ate in the world, that don’t look at it that way.

Anderson: And it’s inter­est­ing that the very struc­ture of our project has sort of fil­tered them out. But they’re a very impor­tant voice. And I think that’s the real val­ue of Richard’s con­ver­sa­tion here. It’s the reminder that here’s a thinker who’s done amaz­ing things. And his work, as we talked about briefly, it has had an influ­ence. And it’s one that he does­n’t care about. But it has. And yet he approach­es it so dif­fer­ent­ly than some­one like…I don’t know, Wes Jackson approach­es his work.

Saul: Right. We threw out an inter­view fair­ly ear­ly on in the project, with a very post­mod­ern artist. Because it didn’t…it did­n’t fit with the project. 

Anderson: In the exact same way that actu­al­ly this con­ver­sa­tion does­n’t real­ly fit with­in the project. Because it’s not a con­ver­sa­tion about the future.

Saul: And in addi­tion, one of the themes there is that it’s point­less to think about the future. And it’s point­less to try and change the future, because…

Anderson: One out­come isn’t sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter than the oth­er. I mean, maybe it’s bet­ter for you.

Saul: But what I think is inter­est­ing is that now we’ve cho­sen to bring this con­ver­sa­tion in, where pre­vi­ous­ly we didn’t.

Anderson: Yeah, and we talked about that at the time of record­ing that pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tion. Was it worth bring­ing a con­ver­sa­tion into the project basi­cal­ly to just demon­strate what The Conversation, with the cap­i­tals, that we talk about, what The Conversation isn’t, right? To define some­thing by its antithesis. 

Which is fas­ci­nat­ing, right? Because here’s a con­ver­sa­tion about the art of con­ver­sa­tion. Here’s a con­ver­sa­tion with some­one who’s arranged more con­ver­sa­tions than we’ll ever arrange in our life, and they’ve had more influ­ence than prob­a­bly any­thing we’ll ever do. And yet as being a par­tic­i­pant of a zeit­geist, or in terms of striv­ing for some­thing, not deliberately.

Saul: This actu­al­ly makes me want to go back and talk about our cen­tral the­sis again. If The Conversation (cap­i­tals) does exist and has exist­ed in the past, we’ve had dis­cus­sion about how that con­ver­sa­tion starts, and who it’s between. Wurman’s com­plete dis­missal of The Conversation sug­gests a real­ly inter­est­ing gen­e­sis of The Conversation, right?

Anderson: You mean that it’s more emergent.

Saul: Exactly. You know, here we are try­ing to maybe in some small way cre­ate The Conversation. And over on the oth­er side, you’ve got Richard Saul Wurman who is just…creating it…and not real­ly want­i­ng to.

Anderson: And prob­a­bly ulti­mate­ly hav­ing a mas­sive­ly greater effect than any­thing we could ever hope to do. So there is some­thing sort of delight­ful about that.

Saul: Yes. So, I’ve got a ques­tion for you.

Anderson: Alright. Throw it out.

Saul: Here we are. We are now…forty episodes in? Almost?

Anderson: Yeah.

Saul: Is the con­ver­sa­tion hap­pen­ing today?

Anderson: And you’re ask­ing me that, huh?

Saul: I’m ask­ing you that.

Anderson: After all that talk about sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. Well, giv­en that you actu­al­ly real­ly did just put me on the spot and there’s noth­ing rehearsed about this at all, I would say my gut says no. And I’ll tell you why. I don’t, I think I’ve recon­cep­tu­al­ized The Conversation a lit­tle bit since we start­ed. I think there is a lot of foundation-building that goes on that is actu­al­ly part of The Conversation. Maybe that’s hap­pen­ing today. I think the foundation-building is going on. But I am inter­est­ed in those moments where stuff speeds up a lot. When peo­ple open their minds enough to start using those ele­ments to actu­al­ly put some­thing down on the foun­da­tion. It’s when there is wide­spread change. And I feel like there’s none of that now. And I feel that we could wake up tomor­row and there could be a stock mar­ket crash, and peo­ple could be hav­ing The Conversation. Or it might not hap­pen for a long time. But I cer­tain­ly don’t think it’s hap­pen­ing now.

Saul: I think that’s why we’re doing this project. That’s my answer to Richard Saul Wurman. Because it’s not hap­pen­ing now. And if in some small way, if you can give some­body some new idea that maybe they need to talk to some­body over here, then this project has done its job. 

Anderson: But as he said, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly this project does­n’t matter.

Saul: Sure.

Anderson: And maybe it’s just ego on our part, but I think we’re bet­ting that he’s wrong.

Saul: And we hope you, our lis­ten­ers, also are bet­ting he’s wrong. Or at least are hav­ing as much fun going along for the ride as we are. And let us know what you think on the web site, because we actu­al­ly care what you have to say. And we want you involved in The Conversation as well.

Anderson: That was Richard Saul Wurman, record­ed in his home in Newport, Rhode Island on November 1st2012.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.