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.
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: 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.
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.
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?
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.
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 1st, 2012.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.