Blog > Entrevista a Richard Saul Wurman

Entrevista a Richard Saul Wurman


El Co-fundador de los Ted Talks, la gran plataforma de conferencias, habló con nosotros acerca de la importancia de manejar el exceso de información en una entrevista exclusiva para el número 17 «Infoxicación: el horror vacui del siglo XXI».

A continuación se presenta la conversación íntegra con Richard Saul Wurman.

In 1989 I wrote a book called Information Anxiety. And many people at first glance thought that I meant information overload; that we have too much information. Well, we have too much stuff coming in that we think is information. My definition of information begins with the beginning of that word. To inform. To be informed. In other words, to me, if the stuff that appears in the newspaper doesn’t inform me, if I can’t understand it, it’s not information. It’s just so many words.

Another thing that has happened since 1989—mostly in the last 10 years—is so-called big data. There’s a huge amount of data being produced by our various computer systems, by various companies, and they look at this as if it was a very good thing. But nobody’s asking about big understanding; we’ve largely failed to ask whether something is truly understandable.

To me, the standard of whether or not it informs me has to do with my ability to tell somebody else about what I just read. Several times when I’ve given speeches, I’ve brought along that day’s New York Times, which was supposedly the best newspaper in the United States. And then I’d ask somebody in the audience to pick out any story, for me to read aloud and then see if you understand. I’d just ask simple questions. Not esoteric questions. Not difficult questions, of the sort a professor would ask you to in order to prove that you were a deep thinker. Just the most common questions, you know? Like where the story takes place. And what else in the world is like the things in this story, that I could use to compare it to? Basic questions, and invariably the audience member can’t answer them, because it’s not in the story.

Many people are afflicted with a disease I call (using a made-up term from Information Anxiety) the disease of familiarity. They’re so familiar, so knowledgeable about a subject that they can’t explain it.

They assume too much; that you have that same knowledge in your head that they do. They don’t understand what it’s like to not understand. And so in conversation and in their attempts at explaining, they bring you in on the 2nd or 3rd floor and skip over the crucial basics on the ground floor, and even underneath the ground floor: standing underneath something. To literally understand.

Up on the 3rd floor they use numbers and words that you can’t understand, but you nod your head thinking you do. For instance, in our newspapers here in America the word trillion is a number. Congress authorizes a program that spends $1.9 trillion. And people say “oh, that’s good, that’s a lot of money.”

Yes, it’s a lot of money. But they have no concept of how much that is.

Unless somebody explains it to you in a way that you can picture it for yourself and get it—in your stomach—only then will you understand how little you actually understand about what 1 trillion is, and why nobody should use that number without some sort of explanation.

So a trillion: let’s start in the year one (by the way there was never a year zero: the calendar today was created in Europe in the 4th century and unlike the Maya and many other so-called primitive civilizations they didn’t yet have the concept of year zero). Let’s say in year 1, on day 1, you opened a little store. And at the end of day 1, the cash register tape showed that you lost 1 million dollars.

1 million dollars: that’s a number you can somewhat understand. And the concept of 1 day: basic.

Now the story continues. Turns out, you lost 1 million dollars on day 2, too. In fact, business was so bad that by the end of the 1st year, you owed $365 million. And a week later: you owed $366 million.

(For the sake of the story we’ll say that your rich uncle is providing this capital to you interest free.)

At this rate, it wouldn’t be until the year 2538 that your losses would total 1 trillion dollars.

Well, that’s a number you can conceive. Because 365 million seems like a pretty big number, that 1st year. From year 1 up through today, you’ve only lost $737,665 billion.

So we read the reporting on legislation that costs $1.9 trillion to enact, in a front-page story in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.  And the person who writes the story might have as little understanding of this number as you. Or maybe they’ve actually studied economics, and have some expert basis or some comparative way to make sense of what 1 trillion means. My point is, they’re writing for the public. Textbooks in the University are or should be for the public but they’re written by people in a manner that you can’t understand. The big data is just big data.

Most businesses are awash in so-called information that can’t actually be exchanged or used because it’s never been explained. And yet, everybody’s nodding their head, because they want to look like they understand. There’s a lot of fooling of each other about information. We’re seldom (if ever) victims of information overload. In fact, it’s usually more like information underload.

The true source of our anxiety is thinking that we should be able to exchange and use all this data. We’re anxious because we think we should be able to understand all this stuff, and it’s made even worse by incorrectly presuming that the person in the other room understands it more or better than us. We think, therefore we’re anxious, because of our lack of ability to understand most of what’s put in front of us. It’s not information overload, it’s data overload. You can’t call it information if it doesn’t inform.

At most of the lectures I’m asked to give, I don’t take questions afterwards. Because questions come in two varieties: speeches, and bad questions. A lot of people get up during a Q&A and then don’t ask a question—they want to give a speech that makes them seem smart. To impress somebody to maybe some day invite them to give their own speech. But let’s get to the bad question, and note that good questions are more important than answers, by far. So I’m not denigrating the question; important thinkers from Socrates to Einstein to Lou Kahn knew that a good question is worth more than a brilliant answer.

More than half of the word question consists of quest. Information: inform. Question: quest. Many questions lack this notion of quest. To me, they’re insulting. So I’ll go through three or four examples of bad questions. Insulting questions. Say you’re at a conference and you’re out in the lobby, and somebody comes up and they say “how is everything going?” How is that.. you really can’t answer that question. How is everything? What does everything mean? Is it about my health? My work? My feelings today? It’s a stupid question. They follow that up with “Keeping busy?”

It’s even worse when people begin their remarks by saying “to be perfectly honest” or asking themselves “if I’m being honest..” Does that mean most of what they’ve said up until now was false? There’s no truth there. It’s insulting. Or somebody says “Mr. Wurman, can I ask you a question?” You know, just ask the question. You don’t get permission to do what you’ve already done.

Now, you might think this is some kind of cute game I’m playing but this actually affects your whole life, because conversation is a great part of your life. And if you don’t try to think of what the structure of a conversation is, and the structure of a word, and the meaning of words, and you fill it up with just junk, you have a junk life.

I value conversation, and that basic part of how we begin to talk to each other, and how we began to visualize, and how it affects our memories. In the beginning, before words, we had a series of grunts, and then those grunts became subtle, and could mean differently when they were loud or high pitched or low pitched. And then eventually the ordering of the grunts could come to mean many things about locations, and categories, and hierarchies. Could form rhythms, to help us remember.

Why is it important to help your memory? Because learning is remembering what you’re interested in. It’s a definition I’ve used for 30, 40 years, and if anybody can find fault with it I will stop saying it. Our entire schooling and educational system is based on memorization: you’re asked a question, and you’re to give back what you’ve memorized about a subject that you might not be interested in and that you will forget.

If you pursue something you’re interested in, you don’t forget it. Every subject connects to every other subject. I don’t care what course of study you’re in; if you’re interested in something (let’s say you’re interested in cars), you can be guided by somebody who maybe doesn’t even know they’re a teacher, by somebody who can show you the connection between your interest in cars and the physics of speed and movement, the chemistry of what makes the car move, electricity, the generation of electricity, the chemical make-up of batteries, and the engineering of road systems. And how wide the road is, and how that’s related to the distance between the wheels of an automobile (which is 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart). Isn’t that interesting?

How far apart are the wheels of a train? 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart.  Nobody ever changed it or thought to change it: they just kept on going the way it had always been done. They didn’t think of what would be appropriate to do in their particular context. As far back as on the Ostia Antica in Rome, the ruts in the road are 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart. Because that’s the standard specification for a Roman war chairot. And now you’ll never forget what I just told you because it’s interesting, correct? You’re not gonna forget it.

Now in America, we use the the American system but you know, we have a measurement for area called an acre. You’ve heard that. And so they make you memorize in school, how big an acre is. When you have to memorize it the number is 43,560 square feet. Very few people remember that.

Every junior high school and high school in America has a football field—for American football—and consequently we all know what a football field looks like, irrespective of whether or not you play sports or are interested in sports. And American schools tend to be built on properties that are at least large enough to accommodate a football field.

So if, instead of a number to memorize, I give you the picture of a football field, and tell you that an acre is a football field without end zones, you get it. Instantly. Not exactly, but instantly. And permanently. Being exact isn’t always the issue. Understanding is the issue and now you understand about what an acre is. Unless you need to know exactly because you’re paying for it by the square foot or something. Or you’re surveying. But people just throw around this word acre.

I’m dissecting how we understand. Digging for the foundations of our communication one with another, or with ourselves, of how we read and what we understand from what we read. And that gets skipped over and our educational system. I doubt you’ve had a teacher talk to you the way I’m talking to you about learning.

I don’t know your culture, so I have to keep on saying in America, because it might not be relevant for you. But in America we think that the schools are given to us by God, that they’ve always been here. And the Little Red Schoolhouse, the basic brick schoolhouse of 150 years ago, all we have now is a bigger version that.  And “more” is not a rubric.  More isn’t better, it’s just more.

Nobody teaches opposites and opposites are a fundamental means of discovery in science, chemistry, medicine, architecture; it is the most direct method for thinking of radical alternatives. That’s what an opposite is, right? Now, listen to your favorite comedian tell a joke. Why do you laugh? And when do you laugh? You laugh when he tells you the last line, the punch line. What is a punch line? It’s the opposite of expectation. And you laugh.

Opposites are not trivial. The things that we think don’t mean very much are fundamental to how we actually learn: they form the sinews and muscles of learning. That becomes fun. You become fun, and you become a curious human. I am more in touch with my ignorance than you are in touch with your ignorance, and this makes me smarter and more powerful. Just the opposite of what you would think.

And I’m sure you’ve heard what you think is just a throwaway line, you only really learn by failing. You’ve heard it being said to people to encourage them when they fail. But it’s not a matter of encouragement: it’s just the truth. What doesn’t work is the interesting part of life. Curiosity is only exposed by things you don’t know. It’s by finding out why it doesn’t work that you actually have a breakthrough and get to something that works better.

For most everything, you have to flip on its side to have an interesting life. I don’t like to fail, but I embrace it. I don’t like to be terrified, but I know that comfort is not my friend. And after I do something that’s good, if it’s pretty good people say “when are you going to do the next one like that?”

Never. I’m going to do something else.

Why would I do something I already know how to do? If I did a book, or conference, and it turned out well, why would I do it again?

Oh, to do something else. To begin again.


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