Information Anxiety: Towards Understanding

Scenario Journal | Scenario 05: Extraction | Winter 2012

“Communication is equivocal. We are limited by a language where words may mean one thing to one person and quite something else to another. There is no ordained right way to communicate. At least in the absolute sense, it is impossible to share our thoughts with someone else, for they will not be understood in exactly the same way.”

Richard Saul Wurman, “Chapter 4: Language,” in Information Anxiety (note 1)

 

Richard Saul Wurman describes his work as the promotion of understanding. “I am in the understanding business,” he writes. As the founder of TED conferences, his projects and writing examine information, architecture, design, and communication. Coining the term “information architecture” over thirty years ago, Wurman studies the processes behind which we understand, communicate, convey, and use information.

This emphasis towards understanding and the problem of too much information complicating the ability to do good work are key themes underlying  Information Anxiety (1989) and Information Anxiety 2 (2000). The following excerpts look at the problem of too much information, how we create understanding, and the beauty of what may be a lost art form: conversation. How we use information matters and particularly in the work of design: The purpose of technology and good communication is to create possibilities for ideas that, before, you hadn’t imagined or considered.

Information Anxiety: A word in search of a definition (note 2)

The word “information” has always been an ambiguous term, wantonly applied to define a variety of concepts. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word as having its root in the Latin word informare, meaning the action of forming matter, such as stone, wood, leather, etc. It appears to have entered the English language in its present spelling and usage in the sixteenth century. The most common definition is: “the action of informing; formation or molding of the mind or character, training, instruction, teaching; communication of instructive knowledge.”

This definition remained fairly constant until the years immediately following World War II, when it came into vogue to use “information” as a technological term to define anything that was sent over an electric or mechanical channel. “Information” became part of the vocabulary of the science of messages. And, suddenly, the appellation could be applied to something that didn’t necessarily have to inform. This definition was extrapolated to general usage as something told or communicated, whether or not it made sense to the receiver. Now, the freedom engendered by such an amorphous definition has, as you might expect, encouraged it liberal deployment.  It has become the single most important word of our decade, the sustenance of our lives and our work.

Information anxiety has proliferated with the ambiguity of the word “information.” This mantra of our culture has been overused to the point of senselessness, in much the same way that a word repeated over and over will lose meaning. The word inform has been stripped out of the noun information, and the form or structure has disappeared from the verb to inform. Much of what we assume to be information is actually just data or worse.

Raw data can be, but isn’t necessarily, information, and, unless it can be made to inform, it has no inherent value. It must be imbued with form and applied to become meaningful information. Yet, in our information-hungry era, it is often allowed to masquerade as information.

So the great information age is really an explosion of non-information; it is an explosion of data. To deal with the increasing onslaught of data, it is imperative to distinguish between data and information. Information must be that which leads to understanding. Everyone needs a personal measure against which to define the word. What constitutes information to one person may be data to another. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it doesn’t qualify for the appellation.

In their landmark treatise in 1949, The Mathematical Theory of Communication, authors Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver define information as that which reduces uncertainty.

The differences between data and information have become more critical as the world economy moves towards information-dependent economies. Information drives the education field, the media, consulting and service companies, postal services, lawyers, accountants, writers, certain government employees, as well as those in data communications and storage. Many countries already have a majority of their work forces engaged in occupations that are primarily information processing. The move to an information-based society has been so swift that we have yet to come to terms with the implications.

Understanding lags behind production. “The channel, storage, and retrieval capacities of electronic hardware are rapidly growing, such as in the field of laser optics or microcomputers,” said Orrin Klapp in Overload and Boredom: Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society. “… There hasn’t been a corresponding gain in human capacity. Better information processing can speed the flow of data but is of little help in reading the printout, deciding what to do about it, or finding higher meaning. Meaning requires time-consuming thought, and the pace of modern life works against affording us the time to think.”

Information Anxiety 2: Talk is Deep (note 3)

The industrial design critic Ralph Caplan was talking to a woman who was trying to explain something to him. “I know what I want to say, but I just can’t put it into words,” she told him. Puzzled, Caplan asked her, “Can you tell me what form it is in now?

There is still only one method for transmitting thought, for communicating information in a manner that somewhat captures the spirit of the mind: the medium of conversation. Conversation can be a mirror of the mind, a petri dish for ideas. It enables us to communicate our thoughts in a manner that closely models the way they occur in our minds.

Without words, we would be severely handicapped in both shaping our thoughts and communicating them to others. While not the only tool, words elevate communication and lend an unparalleled degree of sophistication to expression.

The implicit and explicit goal of all conversation is understanding. Whether conversations occur between loves, friends, relatives, or business associates, they have as their express goal to get ones’ point across, to make a connection between one’s thoughts and another person—that is, the outside world; conversations are an understanding machine, an imminently satisfying forum for the exchange of information.

A conversation forms a two-way communication link. There is a measure of symmetry between the parties as messages pass to and fro. There is a continual stimulus-response, cyclical action; remarks evoke other remarks, and the behavior of the two individuals becomes concerted, cooperative, and directed toward some goal.

Time and time again, studies have shown that the best communication occurs face to face. We just can’t deny that.  People still fly halfway across the world to meet clients for the first time. In many organizations, 40 to 60 percent of the workday is spent in meetings. Managers need to be talking to their employees, real-time, one-on-one, telling them what is going on in their organization.

The lost art of conversation (note 4)

Alas, too often the human voice is lost, and our communication skills come up short. As Henry Miller once said, “We do not talk—we bludgeon each other with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines, and digests.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the business community. Studies have shown that poor communication is one of the main problems facing businesses today. Executives consistently rate communications among themselves as their main area of difficulty, according to Robert Lefton, president of Psychological Associates Inc. in St. Louis. High on the list of employee’s complaints are lack of communication with management and difficulties getting along with co-workers. If companies can’t communicate among themselves, how can they be talking to clients and customers?

As Malcolm Gladwell writes in The Tipping Point, we use influence to convince our clients and prospects to believe in us. We use the art of persuasion and consistent messaging to build trust with employees and our market.

When we are trying to convey an idea or attitude or product tip, we’re trying to change our audience in some small yet critical respect: We’re trying to infect them, sweep them up in our epidemic, convert them from hostility to acceptance. That can be done through the influence of special kinds of people—people of extraordinary personal connection.

Conversation is a viable, appropriate model for the communications industry, but it is largely untapped. It is a simple-minded principle imbued with extraordinary complexities, nuances, and ephemeral magic.

This is a book about clarification. And the most basic conversation that we have takes into it an enormous complexity, comments about weather, dress, nuances of the visual (someone nodding, blinking eyes, promptings, or lip movement) that show they want clarification or want to interrupt. It’s the best of what we do, the most complex thing we do. It has in it the possibility of great creative activity.

There is nothing else we do better when we do conversation well. There is no other communication device that provides such subtle and instantaneous feedback, nor permits such a range of evaluation and correctibility.

Words are strung together seemingly without hesitation in phenomenally complex sequences and thoughts.  They, in turn, work with each other to form new meaning. By its existence this process allows for the development of new ideas. Ideas are created in conversation. E.M. Forster used to say that to “speak before you think is creation’s motto.” Although spoken language is learned, it becomes natural and seemingly it becomes instinctive. It is our pipeline to understanding. We have more skills to put thoughts together by language than we do visually.

TEDMED & ME

By Paul Kandarian | 04 November 2015

TEDMED and Me, or My Four-Day Piss in Charleston.

I never had a four-day piss before, and not sure I ever will again.

But I did in 2004, thanks to Richard Saul Wurman, with whom I was working on a project at the time, when attending my first-ever Wurman conference, the TEDMED in Charleston, South Carolina.

Richard had told me that learning something new and valuable is like having a piss, feeling that warm envelopment of the new, the sweet embrace of useful information overcoming you, that is not unlike the sensation of taking a leak when you’ve held it a long time. It’s relaxing and energizing all at once, it sweeps over you.

Information. Pissing. Only Richard could make that connection. And in his world of understanding, it makes sense.

Here’s a guy who spent his life making the complex understandable so when he equates learning, and remembering what you’ve learned with a bodily function, I go with it. And that’s precisely the feeling I got at my virginal Wurman conference experience.

The stuff there blew me away. Hugh Herr, who lost both legs in a climbing accident, developed prostheses that allowed him to be a better climber, and was working on fake feet that would “feel” the sand under them as users walked on the beach.

John Donoghue created an implant that he put into a quadriplegic’s brain that allowed him to play video games – by thinking about it.

Gregory Stock talked of the day when couples would mix and match sperm and eggs to engineer the best possible child.

Truly mind-boggling shit. Or in Wurman Speak, like taking a long-awaited piss.

And it happened this way:

 

OCTOBER 10

Richard meets with volunteers in the morning and lords over the set-up process. I walk into the Riviera Theater where TEDMED is and outside are David Wolfgang-Kimball, a volunteer since TED8 and James Home, volunteer since TEDX. They are excited about working on another Wurman effort and speak in near reverential tones not so much about the boss but the experience.

“I kept coming back and they kept giving me more responsibilities,” says Wolfgang-Kimball, a neuroscience lab worker at the University of California in San Francisco, sipping a coffee in the moist, gathering heat of a Charleston Sunday. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I do even as it can be the most frustrating.”

You get a lofty view of people, he says, then have conversations with them and understand they’re just like anyone else. Months later, you see projects come from these companies that sprang out of meeting other people at the conference.

I mention the Wurman allure, and he says “without him, I wouldn’t have done this. I worked at the TED after Richard and I wanted to flee, it was horrible.”

Home, designer of interfaces, websites and applications in San Francisco, says attending these things is one of the most important things he does.

“This is the place to come,” Home says. “It’s where Richard is.”

I ask if it’s like a cult.

“It’s different in that people who come already have their own sense of identity and are here to share ideas and cultures and get out of it what they can get out of it,” says Wolfgang-Kimball, with Home adding “I like how Richard does what interests him and no one else. Being that self-secure is appealing and makes for a more honest, enlightening conference.”

Inside, the theater is cavernous, an ancient, renovated space that is somehow still warm and welcoming. People scurry about setting up the stage and a large conference area behind it where displays are going up. Volunteers haul chairs into Richard’s preferred geometric form, the circle. Richard pulls a couple over himself, then sits to talk, holding court to address his volunteers.

They beam at the guy, some looking scared, perhaps a bit unsure of what to make of the man they’d only heard about. Richard talks softly, telling them he’s lost track of the number of conferences he’s run, maybe 20 in all, adding “By now, I think I’ve gotten it right.”

He speaks of this being the most polished of his conferences, of the Riviera being the perfect room, a room filled with energy. He talks of Steelcase, Philips, Apple, Kodak, IBM and other businesses represented here.

“It’s gonna be great, “ he says, then adding with a disapproving look downward, “if they’d just change the fucking carpet.”

He speaks of the tight shooting script, the number of sessions, the badges, the Pavlovian response attendees have when they hear his purposely pompous Aida march blare over loudspeakers to signify entry. And he also talks about volunteers having fun.

“The spirit of the conference has to do with how good people feel and you have to do with how good people feel,” he says. “It’s as personal as it can be. I’d like you to see as much of the conference as you can, but that’s not a guarantee you’ll see every minute of every day. It’s my intention that you have a great experience; it’s only by you having a great experience and enjoying what you see and hear and do and meeting the people you meet, that everyone feels good in the room.”

Above all, this is his conference, he created and designed it and says, “the buck stops with me. I’m in charge. I’m egomaniacal.”

Conversely, he says with a sincerity not usually found in egomaniacs, “If it’s fucked up and lousy, it’s my fault. I’m not blaming anyone else.”

He takes questions and keeps an eye on construction going on in the background, telling volunteers he hopes they find the conference as curious and interesting and pattern revealing as he does.

“I love these four days,” Richard says. “I’m never more relaxed. Stuff comes in easier here and touches my memory banks and my pattern-making places easier than any other time of year. I love to have you here, I love you sharing it with me. Godspeed and have a good time.”

He wanders off to direct this and that. Later, the place is shaping up, Steelcase workers putting up skeletal structures that will house displays.  I move around, bugging volunteers again, hoping to hear that Richard is the draw. It is not. The conference is the thing.

Mindy Cheng, a young Californian, is washing down stools. This is her first conference. She met Reven Wurman, one of Richard’s children, in New York while visiting a friend, telling him she was in pre-med but unsure she wanted to do the doctor thing. She opted to volunteer at TEDMED to broaden her views.

Gloria Hernandez owns a real estate management company in Los Angeles. Today, she’s polishing glass cases, among other tasks. It’s her first Wurman conference, brought here by a friend and fellow classmate at Wharton, Mark Abramovich.

“Mark was so excited about it and said ‘I thought we were all smart at Wharton, but we’re a bunch of idiots’,” Hernandez laughs. “He said the people here are brilliant, they make it personal and share things you don’t read in articles.”

I also chat with Steelcase’s Kathy Waterman, a bundle of energy supervising her company’s work. I ask if Richard’s tough to work for.

“He’s a great guy,” she smiles. “He’ll leave me a voice mail or email saying ‘Kathy, you’re awesome’, and I never get that. But I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side.”

Ken Eddings is from Apple, overseeing computer setups. He agrees part of the conference’s power comes from its creator, something Eddings calls “the force of Richard. He calls up Steve Jobs and talks him into sponsorships.”

Eddings had a snafu at a previous conference trying to connect a T1 line through AT&T but couldn’t get through because he’d asked what network was being used, was told it was proprietary information and then was hung up on.

“I told Richard, Richard calls the head of AT&T and says ‘I’m a simple soul who doesn’t get this stuff but I have a guy who can help’,” Eddings says. “My pager was ringing before I got off the phone.”

Jakob von Moltke, a 24-year-old New Yorker, heard about the conference from a volunteer friend who said it was life changing, so Moltke decided to find out for himself, volunteering “because of my passion for learning.”

I find Abramovich swabbing glass cases. In the real world, he’s an equity research analyst. This is his second Wurman conference.

“Where else can you find yourself in a place talking with a Nobel laureate like Marvin Minsky about what’s gonna happen in 50 years?” he says. “It’s astonishing, this is the guy who invented artificial intelligence.

“I think I get more value out of it than I put into it,” he says. “I get put up, go to a conference that costs $3,500 and have dinner with people I never would have otherwise.”

Richard walks by, looking over the progress, hands on hips, drinking it in, a near smile on his bearded face. I mention that it looks like he’s making sure things are going as expected.

“I’m an architect, I don’t just stand there,” he shoots back with a smile. “I designed this. I micromanage down to everything, every details, and then people pull it off. There was a speaker case that was just a bit off, so I had someone move it. It doesn’t mean a thing, it didn’t make a fucking bit of difference, but I wanted it that way. Nobody cares, it doesn’t matter. But I care. It matters to me.”

Later, the place is shaping up, looking futuristic. In the middle of the conference room is a spoke work of slate-gray strands with mesh netting to be used for displays, and computer workstations. Richard walks through with Reven and above the music blaring through the newly moved speakers, shouts “It’s beautiful!” and then lauds Waterman for the tables he says look like they were built just for this conference.

On stage he directs where he wants his chair and table, where he’ll sit. He is also concerned about people falling off the back of the stage where the black backdrop hands and wants something put up. And it will be. He also doesn’t want black drapes on the huge speaker stands.

“I don’t like it and want it gone,” he says.

Not long after, it is gone.

And before he leaves for another room to micromanage, he says to no one in particular, “Everyone’s doing a good job.”

 

OCTOBER 11

Reven Wurman meets with lead volunteers and assistants, and says the posters for the conference are in, but they need 30 easels to hold them. He stresses the importance of getting the easels – at all costs.

“Go to the hotel next door, divert a bride’s attention at a wedding reception by saying, ‘Hey, look, the Pope!’ and then steal the easels!” he says.

He seems to be only half kidding.

There are boxes of swag all around, bags of this and that all waiting to be sorted and bundled and handed out to eager attendees, many of them richer than rich. Rich people love free shit. I know because Richard says so.

“I was tossing out t-shirts once and there were millionaires and billionaires fighting over them,” he shrugs.

Downstairs, the AV system is worked on.  Yesterday, Wolfgang-Kimball tells me, everyone got out at 5 p.m., a far cry from other conferences where they work into the wee hours.

"We were waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he says. “Late last night, we saw a Philips truck go by and wondered if that was the other shoe.”

He speaks of the registration crush on the day the conference starts and says tomorrow will be the eye of the storm. He said at TED conferences it is intense and insane but he once got to see Martha Stewart’s driver’s license. So naturally we joke about the state of West Virginia now having her license and he says maybe they should have a TED prison just for her. I go with TED CORREX. He says TED PEN.

I run into Eddings and Richard talking about Steve Jobs.

“He’s a great guy, he never comes to the conferences but give me whatever I want,” Richard says. “I got a call late Saturday night from him in fact, he says ‘Richard, what do you want?’” and then laughs, clearly pleased by the benefits of his self-admitted starfucking.

Body parts are being unpacked, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, the head of which is Adrianne Noe, a speaker here. Richard talks about William Tsiaras doing a film on cataracts, “because I’m getting them and that’s good enough” as the reason.

Richard says there’s also a film by John Perry Barlow, cowboy and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and a long-time abuser of drugs and alcohol. The film’s about his cleansing process at the fabled Canyon Ranch.

Richard also talks about John Donoghue’s brain implant in the quadriplegic.

“It’s all a very expensive way of having conversations,” Richard says. “That’s why I do this shit.”

All around the floor are seeming miles of gray, black, blue and white cables, high-tech spaghetti splayed and strewn, coiled in or curled around corners, destined for purpose.

Richard talks to his AV people, saying “This will be a short meeting. But dwell on it,” and then goes on about how little delays add up to big problems.

Translation: There will be no little delays.

By late day, it’s almost there. All the body parts are up, including a sectioned male with penis, a deformed foot, dried lungs. Posters are up on the new-found easels and the Philips flat screens are beaming information.

At the side of the big stage, Richard sits, rocking slightly side to side, watching the screen. They’d just done a run-through with some minor fuck ups, including the misspelling of David Macaulay’s name. A guy talks to Richard about lighting and says there’s not enough of it, but Richard says the spotlights in back are hitting him in the eyes and wants it taken care of.

I tell him that when the conference starts tomorrow, I’m going to wander around, sit wherever and observe, figuring that since I was here on his dime working for him, I should let him know.

He looks astonished.

“You’re free, white and over 21, right, you can do whatever you want,” he admonishes, rocking in his chair.

From now on, I’m not announcing my intentions, I’m just doing. I’m learning something new already.

 

OCTOBER 12

Conference day. Let the piss begin.

Everything is in place early in the morning before things kick off in the afternoon. Someone shows Richard how to make coffee in one of a zillion coffeemakers Philips has here, a java junkie’s wet dream come true. He’s gracious and later I notice someone’s left a buck near a machine. I wonder if it was Richard.

One the big screen is an exploded artist’s cross-section rendering of a woman’s nether region, with big splashes of spotty color that someone calls “The confetti vagina,” and which Wolfgang-Kimball says is “more like the cannon confetti vagina.”

Honestly, this vagina is huge. One techie says the more upstairs you walk, the more the light seems to focus on said vagina. Another techie says “I get the feeling I should go home.”

I offhandedly ask Richard if the progress so far makes him happy. He clears his throat. He puts his Philips coffeemaker-made coffee down on a Steelcase, potato-chip looking stool. And he launches into a five-minute dissertation on being happy versus being competent.

When will I learn?

“It’s not about being happy, it’s about meeting expectations and if expectations are met, fine, but that’s not happy,” he says. “Happy might come when expectations are exceeded. I’m an architect, that’s my training. I make drawings and I give them to people and they do it. I’m not on my knees, I’m not getting dirty, I’m not plugging anything in and I don’t feel guilty about that. I set up instructions. I’m an instructor and inside are the parameters for competence.”

I shuffle nervously, hoping he’s done. He is not.

“People are happy to be competent, too many people,” he says. “Sorry to rain on your parade, but that’s how I feel.”

Well, it’s not a steady rain, more like a drizzle. I offer that “you’re one helluva planner,” to which he responds “I think no one else does what I do. If they did, I’d have heard about it.”

Then he lifts his coffee to his smiling lips.

“This is better than I expected,” he says, sipping. “This makes me happy.”

What clearly does not is later when I point out there are bunches of Philips cardboard placards next to the coffeemakers marked with their cost - $69.99. I know he’s dead set against advertising at his conferences, so I mention it to him.

“I didn’t know about that,” he says, and then as luck would have it, a Philips guy is walking by. Richard stops him, points out the mistake and says “We cannot have this.”

Soon, all offending dollar amounts have been obliterated by White-Out.

Richard walks around, watching, observing, instructing. You’d think a guy running a conference charging 3,500 bucks a head for roughly 300 heads, around a million bucks total, would be a little nervous before it starts, even a guy who’s done it so many times.

Most people feed off nerves, getting little adrenalin infusions that keep them sharp. Not Richard. Looking more like a curious guy who wandered in off the street rather than the guy running the place, he walks around in a black shirt, scarf, baggy khakis, cap on his head strolling calmly through the lobby as Aida booms to a teeth-chattering level.

It’s 11 a.m., and the conference starts at 3:30 and it’s a ghost town in the lobby. People are coming from New York, planes not landing until noon. Two guys are outside talking, and when Richard ambles out, one fairly bows as he approaches. He then stands, looking down the street, waiting for something.

I talk to Michael Weiner, CEO of Biophan. This is his third TEDMED and he has a dozen of his people coming, lead scientists and engineers, a reward for special people, he says. One of Biophan’s companies, Myotech, is unveiling a new machine that massages the heart from the outside and will save lives, he says.

“I’m happy to be here since the thinkers, not the bean counters, will be here to see it,” he says. “I really like what Richard does. He creates something magical and the best way to describe it is that it’s like Cirque du Soleil for technology.”

Jack Sullivan, two-time volunteer, stands by the stairs. He owns a small engineering company in California and loves the tech stuff here, saying “It’s all in one location, you don’t have to go searching for it. All the candy is in one place.”

We chat about Richard and the people he knows as Richard stands on the balcony, looking down. Just then, TV journalist Forrest Sawyer walks by in black pants and black t-shirt, throws his hands in the air and roars, “My brother!” and gives Richard a big hug. They walk around, Richard showing him the rooms.

It’s 3:10, 20 minutes to show time. There are a lot of people registering now, renewing old acquaintances, making new ones, kisses, hugs, handshakes all around. The party Richard always wanted to throw, which is what he calls his conferences, is about to begin.

Aida blares, Pavlovian responses kick in, people trudge up the stairs en masse. Richard is on stage, nodding, saying hello. When all are settled, he speaks.

“If you’re sitting next to someone you don’t know, introduce yourself. If you do know them, tell them something new, tell them where you have a rash or about the gas pain you had last night,” he says to great laughter.

And turn cell phones off, he admonishes sternly, “As I’ve been known to stop and hiss when I hear a cell phone.”

Throughout the conference, phones do chirp with people uttering a desperate “Shit!” as the struggle to silence them and avoid the hiss.

Richard introduces Jill Sobule, one of his favorite musicians, a delightful waif of a girl who sings “Lucy at the Gym” while he watches, giving a thumb-up as she finishes. She asks him to hold up the words to a song she wrote on the plane ride in, with Macaulay on vocal accompaniment, a song ending with “Love is DNA.” Richard roars with laughter.

It’s all mind candy, one warm piss after another. Macaulay shows some remarkable drawings he’s done on the human body, laid out as if the body were being assembled in a factory.

Richard speaks between presentations, mentioning WSJ – the Wall Street Journal – as a sponsor and that “I have the egomaniacal bent to call myself RSW so I call the Wall Street Journal WSJ.”

He says the WSJ had an ad in yesterday’s paper about this conference, adding “it doesn’t do me any goddam bit of good,” since the conference was a day later.

He introduces Laura Landro, assistant managing editor at the WSJ, who has written about her cancer survival. He speaks about Walt Mossberg and Carl Swisher of the paper, and how he was asked if he’d do TEDMED again after the last one – and said no.

“But they said they’d be partners and as a poor Jewish orphan from Philadelphia, I couldn’t resist the prestige of working with the Wall Street Journal,” he says. “And I’m not an orphan.”

Alexander Tsiaras, president of Anatomical Travelogue, presents a remarkable film showing the architecture of men and women and provides a Velcro-like, stick-in-the-memory-banks explanation of how the body works, with humor, saying the clitoris has twice as many nerve endings as the penis, and that “It’s probably God’s construct because man is lazy.”

Gregory Stock speaks and this adds to the “Eureka!” moment Richard has talked about, that warm spread of new information. This is a genetic guru, author of “Engineering the Human Genome,” and throughout his speech talks about the future of genetic engineering, concocting a selective sperm-and-egg milkshake of sorts to create the perfect child.

Heady stuff and the grist for the ethics mill of future generations. Our grandparents could not envision what we have now, so our grandchildren, when all this comes to pass, will accept it as their norm, he says.

When he puts it that way, it makes sense, it’s a pattern and pattern recognition is what this conference and its creator are all about.

When Richard speaks between presentations, he delights the crowd, which in turn pleases him. He says if enough people want it, they’ll show the presidential debate tomorrow night on the big screen and “laugh in unison” over the antics of those “two lying characters.

He calls for a pee break, and throngs take it. Later, as they file back inside, Richard tosses out TEDMED hats, yelling to the grabby rich people “Don’t blindside or sue anyone, please!”

He introduces John Abele, head of Boston Scientific, who gives a literally hip presentation on, among other things, his hip replacement. Abele shines, telling the crowd about all his various ailments and how he actually loves them because of the gadgets installed in his body due to them.

“I love gadgets,” he says. “And medicine is all about gadgets.”

After Abele speaks, Richard says anyone who hasn’t spoken should tell a story because “story attaches to people. You will not forget a story.”

And he tells one about a “medical oops” of his.

“I had bronchitis years ago, my wife took me to Rhode Island Hospital because I was having trouble breathing. I was out of it and they gave me an EKG. But I wasn’t out of it enough to know that my EKG, when it’s supposed to go up, goes down, so it looks like I’m having a heart attack. So they put a nitro patch on me, which gave me what was close to a heart attack, until my wife – who is not shy – ripped it off and said ‘Get away from him!’ And thus I didn’t have a heart attack and I’m here.

“How many people have a story like that?” he finishes. “We all have oops stories.”

The day ends with “Damaged Care,” Drs. Barry Levy and Brad Ross who are a riot, doing song parodies of health care, not much of it flattering. They rock the place and it’s a great way to end the first day.

That night I sit with a few folks at the Palmetto Room at Charleston Place, drinking, eating and ruminating on the day’s events. I offer that I’m a clean slate eager to be written on and come away mesmerized by the depth of interest presented here. Others who’ve been here nod and smile at the recognition of new knowledge acquired.

I was warned by one veteran attendee that all of it makes it hard to sleep at night.

In my room later, I try to assimilate all I’ve heard, in phone calls and emails to people explaining what this is all about. But I can’t. The guy was right. I can’t sleep, too much mind-racing going on.

It has been exactly as Richard said it would be and nothing like I imagined.

I can’t wait to piss tomorrow.

 

OCTOBER 13

Happy birthday to me, today is my 51st. I think what a great gift it will be to learn this day. You can’t put a price on that kind of present.

As the day starts, Richard exhorts people to say “Good morning” in unison as they take their seats. They do. He tells them to say it louder. And they do. Mind you, these are CEOs, heads of companies, high-powered types, big shots who daily tell people what to do and here they’re being told to chant “Good morning” louder and louder by a dumpy guy in sweat clothes until it makes him smile.

He introduces singer Baby Jane Dexter, saying he and his wife met her years ago while scouting for the first TEDMED location and loved her. Then if the Philips coffee doesn’t jolt us awake at 8 a.m., Dexter’s booming contralto does as she belts out “Everybody Hurts,” which judging from the late hours kept by some availing themselves of the free booze last night, is true for many.

Scott Menalis, associate professor of media arts and sciences and biological engineering at MIT, gives a rather dry and boring presentation about microfluidities, which is a better way to diagnose disease. Finally at the end, the boring isn’t and what he’s saying becomes understandable: There is a certain item common in millions of homes and offices– the inkjet cartridge - which follows the same microfluid idea.

Another Eureka moment of understanding.

William Tsiaras, professor and chair of ophthalmology at Brown University, talks about cataracts, how they’re found in one of two older Americans, how they’re reversible. He talks about the great painter Monet having cataracts and his work getting blurry and muted and how after he had cataract surgery, saw his earlier stuff and said “It’s shit.” Now that brings it home and so does a graphic cataract surgery film that has the non-medical types in the audience squirming.

Things bog down a bit with Joseph Jacobson, who leads the Molecular Machines group of the Center for Bits and Atoms, a bright kid but my God, is he boring and sluggish. For the first time that’s not wine related, I find myself getting groggy. Richard looks a tad sleepy, too, be he graciously takes it in.

Then Spencer Tunick presents, an artist who has had HBO specials and documents the live nude public figure, not as salacious as it sounds. His work, using HIV-positive people, is electrifying, thousands of nude bodies as living, breathing and hoping sculpture.

Tunick is slightly strange, disarmingly passionate, powerful, shy-seeming and ultra-focused. He shows some phenomenal slides of his work including one using 7,000 nude people in Barcelona and says the hardest part was getting government approval. Which doesn’t always happen. He’s been arrested many times and his stuff is arresting, itself, nude bodies hunched over like eggs or mushrooms, the nude en masse as art.

Then the first Richard-brought-to-tears moment occurs. As he watches Tunick’s presentation, his eyes flow with his laid-bare emotion.

“You know me,” he says unapologetically as Tunick finishes. “I cry. I’m so moved.”

After a break, Richard tells the crowd that some people are lactose intolerant and he’s now declaring himself “empty-seat intolerant,” after seeing too many of them. He also tells us about the Kodak 3D machine downstairs that we all must see that shows in very up-close detail the workings of the body as a diagnostic and operations tool.

“It’s not on the market yet,” he says. “That’s what makes this special, you see things you’ve never seen before.”

He talks of Kary Mullis and David Fischell who will speak, both Japan Prize winners, more rare than Nobels – which they’ve both also won.

“They should lone these people,” Richard says, giving the impression if that technology would become available, he’d run a conference showing it first.

Dean Kamen comes up, inventor and physicist, holder of some 200 U.S. patents, inventor of the first insulin pump, the Segway, the IBOT, a truly remarkable guy who borders on if not falls into the altruist category, having perfected a water-purification device he hopes to see in many Third World countries where the shits from bad water kills people.

“I’m playing this game under protest!” he laughs, joking that Richard wanted him to talk about the water project but that Kamen also wanted to talk about FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – a much-lauded program to motivate youngsters in science that Kamen founded.

Richard nixed the idea, Kamen said, but he sneaks in a FIRST update at the end of his presentation. Richard doesn’t mind a bit.

The height of the presentation is when they drink Richard’s piss. No lie. Kamen’s purification system cleansed it and he talks about the process, showing a very funny video where white-clad workers wheel in Richard’s piss in a biohazard container, then how it’s purified and shipped to Charleston.

Reven Wurman brings out a white bucket with ice and his father unbundles the sample and plunks it inside.

“It’s much better when chilled, “ Kamen cracks, and then he and Richard drink the purified pee, Kamen saying “Drink up,” Richard adding “L’chaim.” Now that’s a connection that sticks.

Robert Fischell, CEO of Angel Medical Systems, co-inventor of the stent, presents and Richard asks about President Clinton’s bypass, Fischell saying it could have been presented with the use of a stent. This prompts cardiologist Dr. Mehmet Oz to dispute it from the audience, so Richard calls him up and Fischell and Oz engage in a rather lively conversation, pro vs. con, interesting stuff that makes for a good, impromptu dynamic.

Fischell also says that his company is making devices that give heart attack victims a few days warning and one that is more immediate, adding that if it goes off “get your ass to the hospital or you’re a dead person.”

The embrace of knowledge continues with Gerald Kleisterlee, head of Philips, talking of companies sharing medical information for the benefit of the consumer, Alexander Tsiaras showing a remarkable birthing film, Adrianne Noe showing some interesting stuff from the Museum of Health and Medicine and having Richard and others coming up to guess what they are, a reliving of one of Richard’s favorite old shows, “What in the World?” One of the things she shows is a rectal cooker. Ouch. But damn interesting.

After a break, Richard thanks volunteers, saying “remarkable…they pay their own airfare, they all must have graduate degrees” and has them walk through for applause, then talks about making connections and taking them home, saying that conversation “if it’s interesting, is as good as it gets.”

And then it gets more interesting. Isadore Rosenfeld is a very funny elderly doctor who slays the crowd, asking Richard if his mic is on and upon being reassured it is, cracks, “Oh God, then I was just in the men’s rom with mine on, too.” He talks about how he got a better physical at the airport than at his doctor’s office, when he was told by security after passing through the scanner, “You better get your prostate checked.”

Rosenfeld reflects on how things have changed in medicine, how when he was five and sick his doctor made a house call and they talked, he showing the boy his stethoscope and explaining things, laying a hand on him and saying “You’ll feel great tomorrow.” That spoke of magic, the old physician says now, and “it became my passion to become a doctor.”

Medical students these days “don’t want to be so much a doctor as they want to get into medicine,” he says, adding his concern is that they don’t have the role models he did. He marvels at the modern era, saying “nothing I learned in medical school is valuable today,” that there were no angiograms, no heart surgery, no cardiac drugs.

“If you had chest pains,” he says, “you took nitro and got some rest.”

It is a wonderful conversation he has with us, not preaching but imparting the knowledge of experience, and it sinks in, it is understandable. He is a man in awe of modern advances, but not health care: “It’s broken, doctors are fixers, not healers. Everyone’s angry, doctors are angry because they’re not being paid enough, patients are angry, no one’s happy despite all these tremendous things.”

After the 2004 presidential election coming next month, Rosenfeld says, health care has to be taken out of the politicians’ hands and made free, there must be tort reform so doctors aren’t crippled by malpractice insurance fees and drugs must be made free or cheaper for patients; a third of his can’t afford them.

There are a lot of doctors in this crowd and they nod their assent as one of their own speaks.

Kevin Helliker, Wall Street Journal bureau chief in Chicago, gives a slow, somber and poignant talk of surviving an aortic aneurysm, saying it’s not something doctors look for but rather find. His was found when he had a scan for a story he was writing. He tells an incredibly compelling story of a 19-year-old man who died from one, whose uncle died from one. When his other son had chest pains and doctors were going to send him home, the father insisted his son stay and get scanned. He got the operation that saved his life.

This is literally life-and-death stuff that has us on the edge of our seats, eager for understanding.

Jeffrey Hawkins speaks, author of “On Intelligence,” a book about the brain’s inner workings. But during his talk, Marvin Minsky gets riled up about what he’s saying and snorts, “This stuff isn’t new so don’t get carried away.”

He asks Hawkins if he’s read a certain book. Hawkins hems and haws and says no, giving Minsky, who knows a lot about intelligence, artificial or not, the upper hand. I, and others, feel badly for Hawkins, a clearly brilliant man, on being scolded by Minsky. But it’s an interesting if not grating addition to an already interesting conference.

Things lighten up by day’s end when Richard takes questions from the audience, and is asked how he knows so many people.

“I don’t play golf, and early in life I did, and do, seek out everyone smarter, quicker and more talented than I am,” he says. “I didn’t want a pick-up team not as good as me.”

He had mentors, he says, which his wife calls “my old farts.” He speaks of his glory days at the Aspen Conference, saying “I don’t know if it was embracing the starfucking thing or just wanting to be around smart people.”

He also allows that TV and TiVo are his life, he loves watching “shows about insects eating other insects,” and when he does, “I’m like a pig in shit.”

Someone asks where he gets his scarves.

“People give me very expensive scarves, and you are welcome to do this,” he says, adding as he fingers his, “It’s a very silly costume.”

Silly indeed. But there’s nothing silly about a man wearing a scarf who can bring a conversation like this one together.

 

OCTOBER 14

This conference can’t get better. But it does.

Hugh Herr speaks about losing his legs in a climbing accident and how in college he’d add an inch to his height every day with prosthetics to see if anyone would notice. It wasn’t until he was nearly seven-feet tall and almost touching the ceiling that they did.

He also speaks of developing a process that will allow amputees to move their feet by thinking about it, and of some day having prosthetic feet that feel the sand on the beach. Ordinarily I’d say this is far-fetched stuff, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I think it will happen. In our lifetime.

Lauren Ward Larsen and George Schreiner talk about preeclampsia, a hypertensive pregnancy issue that globally is the leading cause of maternal and infant death. Larsen had it, she was a mess, suffering kidney and liver failure and bringing her near death. She tells a powerful and touching story that true to form has Richard crying as he watches, along with more than a few audience members.

Schreiner, president of R&D and chief scientific officer at Scios Inc., talks of developing drugs to combat the disease, a skin patch for hypertensive pregnant women. He links it to Kamen’s water-purification machine where those running the machine can test village women for the illness and hand out patches. A remarkable connection, a pattern, which is what TEDMED is all about.

Richard talks about shoes Nike had given him and he is now giving away, playing the crowd, clearly in his element. A guy really named Charlie Brown had won a bike already that he swapped with someone else, prompting Richard to say there should be a ban on swapping and if he’d drawn a name like Charlie Brown, he’d have tossed it. The crowd eats it up.

Mark Liponis, medical director of Canyon Ranch, appears with Barlow, human guinea pig in a project filmed by Alexander Tsiaras. It is a remarkable film on Barlow, who throughout a long and indulgent life did every bad thing he could to himself.

Barlow narrates the film in a gin-soaked, smoky voice, saying he was 52 with the body of an 80-year-old, and for the cleansing at Canyon Ranch was scanned more than most astronauts, giving up a gallon of blood in the process of examination and redemption.

Richard addresses the audience, pleased by the presentation and suggests to those giving meetings that they not be as narrowly focused as they might otherwise be in the quest for a great meeting, saying “I suspect our palate of interests allows us to see connections between things.”

Then he pauses as a cell phone chirps, shooting an icy glare its way, growling “I haven’t gone through a session yet without a cell phone ringing. That might not bother you, but it bothers me - and it’s my party.”

Dr. Oz comes up and there on the table is a bag of guts. Really. Hearts, lungs, kidneys, guts in all their necrotic glory. It makes for a good show. He has Richard put latex gloves on and feel around, showing him good organs and bad organs, feeling a cancerous lung that Richard shrieks at. But he’s also clearly as happy as a pig in shit doing it.

Oz, famous for his TV and news appearances, is a good showman, joking “Did you hear about the doctor who used two fingers for a rectal exam? He wanted a second opinion.”

He is smooth talking, tall, handsome and an exceptionally good spokesman for cardiac care, saying “ the penis is a dipstick,” and that if it’s erect, it shows good overall blood flow in its owner.

The boner barometer, what an appealing theory. And one that hits home.

Sobule sings again, but before she does talks about the amazing things she’s learned here and how she counts the days to any Wurman event like a kid counts the time to Christmas. She connects the experience to doing the New York Times crossword, which is easier on Monday, hard as hell by Thursday and has her feeling “slightly moronic…but I don’t care,” she adds with infectious smile.

After a break, a panel discussion is led by Forrest Sawyer that includes David Lansky, Newt Gingrich, Reed Tuckson and Robert Moroni. This is unusual. Richard hates panels and never has them. I fear the worst – and get the best.

This panel rules, full of brains, balls and ideas. Gingrich rips the healthcare industry and the media for not covering it because “it wasn’t negative,” and saying “No one wants a rental car and our health-care system is a rental car.”

All panelists agree health care is a bipartisan issue, Gingrich saying all sides must work together to ensure sharing information for the benefit of the patient, and if doctors don’t, “they won’t be doctors for long.”

Steve Petranek, editor of Discover magazine, one of Richard’s favorite reads, a bunch of which are here for free, closes out the day by giving out the mag’s annual awards.

“Steve will give them out instead of Mike Eisner,” Richard jokes. “Whom I fired.”

 

OCTOBER 15

You know the feeling when you’ve been away, had a great time that you didn’t want to end but were anxious to get home anyway? Today is like that. It’s the last day of TEDMED and I’m eager to go home and resume real life, but not keen on stopping the warm feeling, that four-day piss, that extravaganza of learning and understanding and interest and connection and story.

But it must happen, and the last day flies in style. On stage, Richard is giving away swag, drawing names, tossing some as he picks and chooses who gets what, basking in the attentive glow of rich people eager for free shit.

Then Sobule sings a song she wrote for him, just for him, “11 Summers,” based on Richard’s observation that he has maybe 11 summers left in his life, summer being a seasonal metaphor for the good life.

She sings softly, gently and Richard cries throughout. On the last line, “11 more summers with all of you,” he is outright blubbering and in all actuality, Sobule’s beautiful words bring tears to a lot of eyes. Mine included.

Rick Satava, a surgeon who works with the armed forces, speaks about the virtual soldier, of having hand-held electronic dog tags that give detailed health information about soldiers. He talks of doing pre-operative planning, practicing remote, virtual surgery that will allow a doctor to warm up before doing the real thing. He shows an absolutely amazing film about a new medical evacuation machine to be used to retrieve wounded soldiers, and by remote control allows doctors to do surgery out of harm’s way.

The machine is in prototype, he says, invoking the name of Steven Spielberg when he says there’s no such thing as science fiction, just scientific eventuality.

John Donoghue speaks, the man who developed the brain implant he shows in a film where a quadriplegic plays a video game by thinking about it. This can’t be real, but it is, there on the screen, real as hell. Scientific eventuality indeed.

Steve Charles, eye doctor, talks about creating surgical devices that reduce the weight of tools used that can tire a surgeon after hours of use, tools that can also preset the force used to lessen the chance of a drill or saw popping through bone into something it’s not supposed to drill or saw.

The conference is winding down in fine fashion.

Then it gets better. Dexter booms out “Forever Young” directly to Richard, and later Quincy Jones ends the day. Richard introduces him, saying that due to a bad knee, Q was in the emergency room last night.

“And he’s still here,” Richard says with unabashed admiration. “Fucking amazing.”

Jones talks about how getting older means seeing how things turn out and that “like all of you here, I’m a junkie for trying to make a difference. I’d give two years of my children’s education to let them travel, not to the Bahamas or Jamaica, but out in the real world.”

Jones doesn’t play but holds the audience as rapt as he could if he were to perform any of his dozens of major motion picture musical scores. He talks of traveling with others into impoverished areas, of trying to make a difference, of meeting Nelson Mandela, of seeing the tragedy of drugs and violence.

He is involved with wearethefuture.org, and shows a film where Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli performed with a young female protégé as both deliver a performance so outright powerful it raises goose bumps on the flesh, brings tears to the eyes and the entire audience to its feet.

And then it is done, over, finished. But never complete. Thoughts, ideas, connections, patterns, understandings germinated here will continue to grow.

“Thank you for being a wonderful audience,” says the teary-eyed Richard in bidding everyone goodbye, and they reward him with a standing O. He shakes hands, hugs, bids farewell to all.

It is over. Until the next one. If there is a next one. With Richard Saul Wurman, you just never know.

 

A WEEK LATER

I realized that I’ve never had a life-changing experience. Some who have attended TED conferences or TEDMEDs have said it changed their lives, so profound was what they’d heard, so powerful the patterns revealed, so poignant the connections made.

TEDMED didn’t change my life. It enhanced it. And that’s not a bad thing

Richard and I talked about TEDMED a week after, what it was, what it meant to him. He said it was “a good meeting.” In understatement there is understanding.

“It was important to me in the meeting not to rely on some of the extravaganza clutches I have had in the past, with $20 million worth of cars, magicians, dancers, and to keep the core referent always to health care,” he said.

“This is not to say that when I drank my purified urine that it wasn’t somehow show biz, but it really wasn’t,” he said. “There was no way to make a point clearer about what he is trying to do and perhaps can do than the indelible memory of that act on stage. And the entertainment as understanding that it represents.”

He spoke of the thanks and praise heaped on him for the conference, and wondered if that’s what he needs.

“I don’t quite know how to deal with that because if those people didn’t come up to me and say nice things, would I then feel badly?” he said. “Have I become so dependent on the compliment and the reassurance that even though intellectually I can say it doesn’t mean anything, is it not what I expect?

“And would I feel as a movie star who hates the paparazzi but if they’re not there, do they underhandedly try to get them there so they can object?” he said.

The conference was a peculiar four days, he said, because for those four days a year he has a persona some have for 365.

“Because so many of the people we see in the press, the People magazine population, have a control, a focus, a visibility for 365 days a year,” he said. “It’s what they want, it’s the measure of their success. And my God, it would be terrible. But it’s so many people’s fantasy life. It’s like the Chinese curse, ‘May you get everything you want’. And then getting hooked on the need for it.”

Gloria Nagy, Richard’s wife, makes no bones about his starfucking, his need to surround himself with the rich, the powerful, the famous, something he defends as his need to be around people smarter than he, accomplished people who represent things he’s interested in.

“She feels I’m hooked on the conference, the phony accolades, the phoniness of all the people who come, she feels I’m really hooked on it, that I need it, or why else am I still doing it?” he said. “I would feel badly if they didn’t stand up at the end and give me a standing O. And this was a conference that except for the last speaker and myself, and Quincy Jones, no one got a standing ovation.

“But it was a conference where not one speaker made the cheap shot of trying to get one,” he said “That says something about the quality of the presenters.”

He seemed to be more thinking aloud than talking to me when he said “It’s undetermined in my mind the value of such a meeting. There were quite a number of stories where people had done projects that came out of my last meeting, or their lives were changed by attending my conference.

“Dean Kamen met quite a few people who helped fund what he was doing and continues to do, at one or another TED,” he said. “Macaulay meeting Hawley and working together on some things. Alexander in his early conferences getting amazing visibility, and so on. It seems to accelerate meetings between people in a setting that allows them to work together. David Berlinsky and Rick Satava, Satava and Tsiaras.”

He paused, thinking, remembering, wondering.

“But it’s a strange thing to come and go,” he continued. “And to have the feeling that some of the conversations you have and things you see should be the way you live your life rather than the focus of four days of your time.

“In the end,” he said, “I wonder, am I contributing anything, am I leaving a mark?”

For what it’s worth, he has. Adopting Richard Saul Wurman’s egotistical need of doing things for himself simply because of what he can get out of it, what he did was very much worth it to me.

Thanks for the four-day piss, Richard. I couldn’t have taken it without you.

The Wurmanizer

www.wired.com | By Gary Wolf | Published 01 February 2000

On the stage of a small auditorium, Nathan Myhrvold falls to his knees. Myhrvold, the billionaire CTO of Microsoft, on his knees. Not a bad tribute, eh? Not bad for a little pisser like Richard Saul Wurman, for a schlepper, for a smelly old man!

Downstairs, in the lobby of the city convention center in Monterey, California, there's a great commotion. The people arriving for TED, the technology, entertainment, and design conference Wurman holds every year, are greeted at the door with dozens of gifts – too many to carry. Later, in the auditorium, Wurman comes onstage with good news: "Free shipping, ladies and gentlemen, to your offices and homes!

"This," says Wurman, waving a piece of paper, "is an overnight-delivery slip. In order to have your bags shipped, you'll have to fill this out. Many of you have never filled out your own delivery slip before, but it is easy, and somebody can explain if you get stuck."

Wurman is a 64-year-old designer who was trained as an architect. He has a closely trimmed white beard, and his eyes, which bug out slightly, gaze at you with genial incredulity, as if he's just caught you in a little fib but is willing to overlook it. The TED conference, which he owns, is arguably the hottest gathering around for media and technology executives. Tickets cost $3,000 and sell out a year in advance. The tenth TED, aka TEDX (styled with a Roman numeral, Wurman says, "because I wanted something a little more pretentious"), is being held February 23 to 26. As his facetious offer to help with airbills at last February's conference suggests, Wurman likes to have fun with the fact that nearly everybody at TED is a big shot.

In the lobby at TED9, an angry man argues with Kimberly Gough, who has worked for Wurman since 1995. The man pushes his picture ID toward her face. "It's an old photo," he snaps. Gough just shakes her head. After a few minutes of lingering in the lobby, the man returns. "I came over to apologize," he says. "You were absolutely right. The picture wasn't me. This conference cost my company a lot of money. Can you give me a badge with my real name on it, and I'll give you my real ID?"

"No," says Gough calmly.

Gough is very important to Wurman. When somebody calls him for tickets he doesn't want to relinquish, he says, "Gee, I'm out of the loop on that – you'll have to talk to Kimberly." Then Gough has a friendly conversation with the person and refuses.

Wurman has lots of acquaintances who think he owes them a favor – understandably so. It would be very expensive to run an event like TED if the presenters – many of whom are prominent executives, scientists, writers, and business consultants – charged their customary fees. Wurman covers their travel and hotel expenses but doesn't pay for their time, even though TED is a for-profit operation that grosses more than $2 million a year.

Wurman also convinces corporate sponsors to foot the bill for most of the incidentals. Almost everything at TED has a corporate patron. There are breaks for IBM jumbo hot dogs and Rockport fruit and coffee. People who sponsor something at TED feel they're entitled to a little consideration, and sometimes they show up without tickets or try to sneak someone in from their firm who didn't register in advance. Wurman rarely gives them satisfaction. "It wouldn't be fair," he says.

Wurman is never short on help. Each year, a dozen volunteers – many of them accomplished professionals – don red T-shirts and move furniture. Others donate money. Penelope Finnie, VP of product development at Ask Jeeves, spoke with Wurman the day after her company went public in 1999. "I love talking to rich people," he told her. Then he asked her to pay for a TEDX cocktail party, and Finnie said yes.

Wurman's manner is so brazen that his friends can't resist joking about it. "Have you heard his famous conversation-starter?" asks Stephan van Dam, a well-known graphic designer in New York. "He says, 'You don't know me, but you owe me.'"

Maybe they do. For 15 years, Wurman has tracked the convergence of media, technology, and business so closely that he can pose half-convincingly as ringmaster of the digital economy. In 1984, at the first TED conference, Apple introduced the Macintosh, Nicholas Negroponte discussed his plans for the new Media Lab at MIT, mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrated how to do wonderful things with fractals, and Sony executive Mickey Schulhof gave away samples of his company's new medium, the compact disc.

Unfortunately, the room wasn't even halfway filled: It was still too soon. The technology people had their own conferences for new stuff, while media and entertainment people didn't understand why they were supposed to care. Wurman and his partners lost money, and the second TED wasn't held until 1990.

But by 1992, when TED3 took place, the world had caught up. The hall was sold out for appearances by Bill Gates, Adobe cofounder John Warnock, information-design guru Edward Tufte, futurist Paul Saffo, and John Sculley, Apple's CEO at the time. Jaron Lanier explained his experiments with virtual reality. MIT AI professor Marvin Minsky, entertainment technologist Bran Ferren, and computer-interface pioneer Alan Kay also presented and, like most speakers, sat in the audience for the rest of the show, mixing it up with the conferees. Conversation between sessions was lively. In the ensuing years, as cross-pollination took off, so did TED's influence and the number of people anxious to get in.

So when Myhrvold falls to his knees at TED9, the longtime TED speaker is having fun with the subservience of powerful people, including himself, to the whims of their host. And with Wurman, there's no distinction between big and little whims. For years, attendees were afraid to book rooms at the nearby Doubletree Hotel; Wurman had feuded with the management, and they didn't want to be persecuted by association.

Wurman's belligerence is well documented. Michael Everitt, who worked in Wurman's design studio for more than a decade, has vivid memories of his boss's talent for imposing his will. "Whoever was in the office was subject to a barrage, often very insulting," he remembers. "Some people were shocked and couldn't handle it. Others took it as a good-natured and very intimate kind of joking. The worse the abuse was, the more they laughed – and the more Richard got his way. My mouth would just hang open sometimes. He would be in the office in a food-stained, mismatched jogging suit, and he'd be joking about the way people looked and about what dumb ideas they had." Everitt laughs. "He was a real pig, and I'm sure he'd say the same thing."

Pretty close: "I don't have proper filters between my brain and my mouth," Wurman admits.

But there are no food stains on Wurman's shirt when he takes the stage in the main auditorium at TED: He wears white cotton trousers, a multicolored Missoni sweater, and a long scarf. There's something medieval about the way he carries on. He is lordly, appetitive, and impulsive. He makes attendees submit to an elaborately ritualized hierarchy. You'll be one of either 500 or so VIPs in the main hall or the 250 also-rans in a nearby "simulcast room," and you'll wear your rank on a color-coded name tag for the duration. (When I arranged to go to TED9, I discovered the lowest rung yet recorded. "You can come," Wurman said, "but you can't sit down.")

Wurman expresses amazement at his apparent power. "I have limited intellectual capability," he says. "I was just clever at the right time." But modesty is one of the more difficult virtues for the founder of TED to pantomime, and even his wife, novelist Gloria Nagy, finds it irritating when he tries. "I've figured out your self-image," she told him once. "You're a little piece of shit at the center of the universe."

TEDgoers often wonder how Wurman came to preside over such an elite group. Most of the presenters are industry old-timers who have built something, invented something, run something, or sold something. What can Wurman take credit for – aside, that is, from his yearly party? Is Wurman's importance merely a convenient fiction that enables four days of California schmoozing?

It drives Wurman crazy that he might be remembered only as a guy who threw a good bash. He recites his list of accomplishments with the fluency of a man long misunderstood. He has written or published more than 60 books. He built his own design studio and publishing company, which he sold for millions of dollars to HarperCollins in 1990. Most important, the host of TED has challenged architects and designers to rethink their professions' boundaries by defining a new discipline – information architecture.

A Wurman coinage, information architecture combines all the design, research, and editorial arts to arrive at intelligent ways of visualizing data. Information architects design interfaces, make statistical maps, produce guidebooks, and develop signage for cities, museums, and airports. People were doing these things long before Wurman, but he synthesized them to create sophisticated new organizational metaphors and systems. "Most designers have done relatively unimportant things – corporate logos, styling, packaging," says Ralph Caplan, a New York-based designer who sits on the advisory board of IDCA, the prestigious International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado. "Ricky moved the field."

But TED has almost completely obscured Wurman's lifelong career as a publisher and designer. Perhaps the trade-off has been worth it to him. TED itself is a triumph of information design. The meticulously tended social dynamic of the conference is the crowning achievement of a talented man – one who realized long ago that the presentation of information can be more important than the information itself.

Wurman's gregarious and insistent style is a family legacy. His father, Morris Louis Wurman, was an executive at Bayuk Cigars and a respected man in Philadelphia's Jewish business circles. He was abrupt and gruff, but also generous and sophisticated. He was a macher, a player. He knew his way around Havana, how to get the best room in a hotel, the best table at a restaurant. His son wanted to be a painter, but this struck Wurman senior as insufficiently professional, so he arranged for aptitude tests. The results suggested three career paths: architect, archaeologist, or hairdresser. Ricky, as he's known to longtime friends, chose architecture.

In the '50s and '60s, Philadelphia architecture meant Louis Kahn – absent-minded, impecunious, visionary Kahn. In 1959, when Wurman graduated, Kahn was establishing himself as one of the major American architects of the 20th century. He put up celebrated buildings around the world, including the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. All the best students at the University of Pennsylvania's architecture school worked in Kahn's studio. They ate with him, drank with him, and loaned him money. Most of all, they listened. Kahn designed by talking and would enthrall his students with musings like, "The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building."

During Wurman's first year in the studio, Kahn sent him to London with sketches for a barge. It was to be anchored in the Thames and used as a setting for musical concerts funded by H. J. Heinz, the ketchup king. When Wurman arrived, he went for a pint with the naval architects supervising the construction and showed them Kahn's rough sketches.

"But where are the working drawings?" they asked. There was an awkward pause. Wurman suddenly realized what Kahn had sent him to England to do. Creating all the drawings and mastering the construction details would take months. He had little money, little experience, and a wife and newborn waiting for him in Philadelphia. For days, Kahn refused to take his phone calls. When Wurman finally got through, Kahn told him, "Well, come home, then, if you can't do the work." Instead, Wurman stayed for six months, bluffing and bullying until the barge was done. At the opening concert, Wurman sat next to the American ambassador in the grandstand. He was 25 years old.

"Lou was demonic and adored," Wurman remembers, smiling. "He didn't obey the rules because it didn't occur to him that there were rules."

In 1963, Wurman started his own firm with two Penn graduates, John Murphy and Alan Levy. The partnership lasted 13 years, but the going was rough. Murphy Levy Wurman did small design jobs in downtown Philadelphia – signs and banners and the lobby of a bank, buildings for some of Morris Wurman's business acquaintances – but big commissions were scarce. Levy remembers talking once to Ed Bacon, head of Philadelphia's city planning department, when they ran into each other on a commuter train. "I'd help you guys," Bacon said, "if it weren't for your partner." Wurman had problems with clients, and they with him. "Ricky always said you have to force your ideas on people because people don't have any ideas," Murphy recalls.

The highlight of Wurman's architectural career was an ambitious plan for the redevelopment of Penn's Landing, a run-down parcel along the waterfront. There was an international competition for the job, and Wurman and his partners brought a single page, laminated like a menu, to a meeting with city officials. "You don't need to see our work," Levy recalls Wurman proclaiming. "The role of this one-page document is to say, 'You don't know what you want. We will work with you to help you figure it out.'" The outrageous pitch won the firm the job; the partners produced an elegant plan of giant circular developments that included a boat basin, a sculpture garden, and a shop-lined waterfront.

Maybe if the economy hadn't tanked in 1973, Penn's Landing would have been completed, attracting other large commissions. But a building falloff in Philadelphia shut it down. The pressures of the recession and Wurman's temperament frayed the partnership: In 1976, it dissolved. In a way, but only in a way, Murphy says he still misses Wurman. "Ricky was a neurotic egomaniac," Murphy says, "but he loved to laugh. He was not a jerk." Murphy pauses for a moment, thinking back. "He was an asshole, but he was not a jerk."

As a sideline to his work at the firm, Wurman published books and taught architecture at several universities. His first book, Cities: Comparisons of Form and Scale, originally published in 1963, was a thin, octavo paperback produced during a short teaching gig at North Carolina State University at Raleigh. Wurman directed his design students to make plasticine models of 50 cities. The results were delightful: Shown on a common scale, the cities appeared as discrete objects, molded to the landscape and radically divergent in form.

Over the next decade, Wurman's fascination with comparative information introduced him to problems that neither architects nor graphic designers were trained to solve. He produced other books of comparisons, the most ambitious of which was a geographical tome, Urban Atlas: 20 American Cities. Wurman's idea was to display demographic, economic, and sociological data in a standardized form. How is wealth distributed? How many churches are there? What sorts of jobs exist? He enlisted architecture students at Washington University in St. Louis to painstakingly cut and paste hundreds of thousands of little circles onto maps, creating elaborate overlays.

Wurman's method of representing a flood of statistics using basic graphical elements anticipated today's computerized data-visualization techniques. The only problem was that, in the late '60s, geographers and urban planners didn't have desktop computers – or classrooms of students to hand-layer their maps. "Urban Atlas was the tree falling in the forest," says Wurman. "Back then, there was nobody to hear it."

By the time Wurman's architecture firm closed, he had two sons and was separated from his first wife, Dorothy. With no company, no secure job, and a split-up family, he continued to teach at sporadic academic jobs. Residing briefly in a Venice, California, flophouse, he even considered opening a restaurant.

Between teaching assignments in the late '70s and early '80s, Wurman had plenty of time to explore LA, a city that baffled him. Where were its borders, its neighborhoods, its reasonably priced delis? Slowly, Wurman puzzled out an answer. What LA was missing, he concluded, was him. Working with a team of young associates, Wurman produced his first guidebook, LA Access. Self-published, it was arranged by location rather than category, using a color scheme to identify restaurants, hotels, and points of interest. The book was a popular success, and, thanks to a subsequent cash infusion from Frank Stanton, former head of CBS, Wurman's fledgling Access Press grew into a multimillion-dollar enterprise that would publish dozens of other Access guides.

The books earned Wurman a reputation for transforming complicated and often dull information into user-friendly "machines for understanding," as he called them. In 1986, he got a plum job that gave him lasting influence on the new-media industry: He redesigned Pacific Bell's Yellow Pages.

To get the task done, Wurman set up a studio, The Understanding Business (TUB), in a big corner office in San Francisco's SoMa district and hired a team of designers, many of whom have since become well known in interactive media. The Pacific Bell project was a preview of the interface tasks that obsess design firms today: icons, nested hierarchies, cross-references, deep databases. Wurman's contribution was not his hands-on work so much as his metawork: He redefined the problems his designers were trying to solve. "All of Richard's work seems obvious now," says Nathan Shedroff, who worked with Wurman at TUB before cofounding vivid studios. "But, of course, once you do something great in this business, that's how it's seen."

In 1989, Wurman produced Information Anxiety, a book-length manifesto on information design. In 1996 he came out with Information Architects, an oversize, full-color anthology that highlights the work of 27 designers, along with his own contributions.

Despite these and other accomplishments, Wurman remains a remarkably marginal figure in the design world. He is critical of mainstream designers and yet bitter that he doesn't receive their applause; as with his architectural and academic pursuits, Wurman's capacity for self-indulgence has dogged his design endeavors. After more than two decades of publicly haranguing his fellow board members, he failed to gain reelection to IDCA's board, and he has fallen out with the major professional organization of designers, the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Angry that he wasn't invited to speak at a recent AIGA conference, Wurman banned the group's executive director, Rick Grefé, and one of the conference organizers, Chee Pearlman, editor in chief of I.D. Magazine, from this year's TED.

Wurman knows this behavior makes him seem childish, and he doesn't mind a bit. "Call me childish!" he says. "Childish is good. Picasso was childish. Chagall was childish. It's the twinkle in the eye! I predicted for 40 years that information architecture would become one of the most important jobs for graphic designers. They hate that I saw it coming. They think I rub their noses in it.

"Plus," he happily continues, "my pool is bigger than their pools."

Wurman's pool is 90 feet long and shaped like a half-moon. It's a semicircle of blue water that meets a semicircle of neatly trimmed hedge to form a giant zero in the backyard of his 7-acre Newport, Rhode Island, estate – a lush layout known as the Orchard. If Wurman is an outsider, the Orchard is his redoubt, headquarters for TED, and the command center from which he can control a handful of independent design and publishing projects.

On my visit there, I'm buzzed through the entry gate, then travel over an endless gravel driveway before climbing the steps between two tall, spiraling lampposts of patina-green metal and ringing the doorbell. A housekeeper directs me to Wurman: Dressed in sweatshirt, shorts, and baseball cap, he's playing computer solitaire in his office. The TED staff, housed three floors up, pesters him with a steady stream of phone calls.

Wurman takes me outside for a tour of his spread. He has scattered a dozen metal buoys across the lawns to add a sense of intrigue. He directed his gardeners to build mounds in the grass that look like the pointed breasts of female totems. There's a spiral rose garden with 350 bushes, a secret garden of high hedges, and a perennials garden. There's a circular inline-skating park (Wurman doesn't skate) and a circular putting green (Wurman doesn't putt, either – he just like circles).

Back inside the house, a marble staircase sweeps down to the entry hall; not far away, a 4-foot-long, gold-colored alligator stands guard. On the walls are etchings by Picasso, Bacon, Klee. Across the entry hall from Wurman's office is the room where Nagy, his wife, writes. "We are basic, simple people," she tells me. "We don't have a yacht. We have a nice house in a state where real estate isn't expensive." Wurman and Nagy rarely have anyone but family and staff at the house. "It's about freedom," Nagy explains. "Richard's greatest fear is losing the ability to say 'Fuck you.'"

As the afternoon wanes, Wurman, sitting with me on the back patio, looks across the pool and expounds upon the subtleties of his landscape design. You are near water, he says, which is relaxing. When you turn the fountains on, they make a soft splash that allows for private conversations. Every granite tile surrounding the pool was cut by hand to ensure the proper curve. It's very soothing to sit out on the porch, drink cosmopolitans from plastic martini glasses, and watch the breeze sway the branches of a 60-foot beech.

"Hey, Tim! Hey!" Wurman yells at a young man across the grounds.

"Yes, Mr. Wurman?"

"Two things!" Wurman bellows. "What is the switch for the secret fountain?"

The young man calls out some numbers and letters. There are so many switches controlling the Orchard's machinery that it's hard for Wurman to keep them straight.

"And the second thing! That spotlight – it's aimed wrong. It should shine right up the ass of that bronze fawn – straight in!"

"OK, Mr. Wurman."

He leans back and smiles.

The next day, I watch him work. TEDX is already coming together in typical Wurman fashion. Each TED features a giveaway teddy bear; for TEDX, Wurman is negotiating for a special, light-furred millennium bear that will be unmistakably modeled after him. (Fights over the limited supply of bears are another TED element that verges on satire. The plan is to have enough bears to go around, but a few avaricious executives always manage to make off with two or three, leaving some of their fellow millionaires bereft.)

Upstairs, Kimberly Gough is already untangling registration problems, and another employee, David Sume, is clipping stacks of magazines and making endless revisions to early drafts of the program. Sume, amiable and easily distracted, is utterly dedicated to TED. He worked at a Seattle copy shop when he first heard about the conference, and he traveled to Monterey on his own dime to volunteer. He came back for another TED, made himself indispensable, and eventually moved into a remodeled carriage house at the Orchard. Sume does a lot of the heavy labor, tracking down potential speakers, negotiating with their staffs, and briefing Wurman on their requests.

Michele Corbeil, Wurman's personal assistant, controls the phone traffic. A Rhode Island native, Corbeil has a studied calm that contrasts starkly with Wurman's unrestrained exuberance. When Wurman buzzes her on the intercom to bring down some documents, Corbeil appears in the doorway with the apprehensive expression of a zookeeper passing dinner to a well-fed but unpredictable lion.

Months before TED convenes, Wurman begins peppering conferees with emails that offer a constantly updated schedule. Wurman has his team comb the media for mentions of the speakers, which he passes on to everybody who has signed up. "A number of TEDsters were included in recent lists in magazines," says a typical Wurman missive.

Wurman's small staff, while smart and competent, is also young: It's hard to believe he creates TED with such spare administration. When I ask Wurman why he has no disciples, why there are no trained and ambitious designers helping him out, he sighs. "Nobody comes here for me," he says. "No graduate student ever asks to work with me. Nobody calls me for a job."

After a few more hours in the office, it occurs to me that Wurman wouldn't know what to do with disciples if he had them. He makes (and unmakes) decisions instantly, without asking for advice or explaining his thinking. While I watch, he takes a call from Nigel Holmes, a designer whose work was featured in Information Architects and who is collaborating with Wurman on a new design anthology, the title of which Wurman has decided to graphically modify from Understanding USA to Understanding – with the letters U, S, and A in boldface.

"Did you see the new title?" Wurman asks. "What do you think?"

"I have mixed feelings about it," answers Holmes.

"Oh, fuck you," says Wurman, brightly. "I don't want to hear your goddamn criticism."

"Well, don't ask me, then."

"Have a nice day," says Wurman, and changes the subject.

In business matters, as in creative ones, Wurman works with partners but doesn't actively collaborate with them.

He actually had a partner in the early days of TED; not surprisingly, the arrangement caused misery on both sides. The partner was Harry Marks, a retired TV executive who was an important early adopter of computer graphics. In 1983, Marks wanted to move to Pebble Beach, California, but was afraid he'd be bored there. A friend suggested the idea for TED. Marks then asked Ricky Wurman, whom he'd met in LA, to join him in the venture.

Marks knew that Wurman had previously chaired the IDCA, organizing a popular meeting in 1972 called the Invisible City. After that, he had orchestrated half a dozen other successful events, including a series in Monterey on California architects that was held three years in a row.

Wurman agreed to sign on. For seed money, Wurman went back to CBS's Frank Stanton. Stanton, Wurman, and Marks put up $10,000 each. Since none of the partners wanted to take responsibility for a flop, they agreed that if they didn't reach their target for advance registrations by December 1983, they'd call the meeting off.

And that's what happened – sort of. They failed to reach the target, which was extremely disappointing, especially to Wurman, who had become fixated on the TEDconcept. The poster was designed and speakers were invited – Mandelbrot, Negroponte, Megatrends author John Naisbitt. The new Macintosh would be there. But people didn't register. Wurman didn't want to cancel the meeting, but he'd made an agreement with his friend and with his publishing patron and therefore felt he had a personal obligation. Still, Wurman couldn't let go of TED: He held the conference anyway. His partners reluctantly showed up.

"Frank was furious," Wurman recalls. "He never trusted me again. And Harry wouldn't talk to me, either."

Wurman admits he's ashamed he broke his word. "I was not to be trusted," he says. "I'm not trying to make excuses. But they also disliked me, I think, because I had this, this courage to do it! And it should have been done!"

It's hard not to feel sorry for Wurman's partners. He didn't respect their interests – their legitimate concerns – then he rubbed salt in their wounds by eventually succeeding. Surprisingly, they still came back. Well, not Stanton, who was a stickler for principle. But Wurman has a history of patching things up with ex-friends. "He knows people's weaknesses, and he reminds them of it," says Joel Katz, a designer who has worked frequently with Wurman (though they once didn't speak for a year). "My weakness was that I was afraid to work for him again. He used to tease me about it several times a year. He'd say, 'You don't want to work with me because my ideas are better than yours.'"

In 1989, Marks called Wurman and said that people from the first TED conference were pestering him to do another one. The Pacific Bell project was going full tilt, so Wurman hit up the phone company for $80,000 to fund the second TED. The conference drew a full house, and Marks and Wurman even made a little money. "Let's do it again," Wurman said to Marks.

But TED2 proved to Marks – once more – that he didn't like working with his friend, who insisted on getting everything for free, asking everybody for favors, and shaming people into donating their services, even as paid registrations mounted. "The math was easy to figure out," Marks says. "There were millions floating around. I was always asking, 'How can you get away with that?' Richard would tell me, 'I just look at them with my baby blues.'"

Marks wanted out so badly he sold his half of the revived TED to his partner for a dollar. This seemed unfair, even to Wurman, and the next year he offered Marks his 50 percent ownership back. Marks refused; he didn't want to be involved. "He uses people in a way I can't deal with," says Marks. "I couldn't face them."

Wurman, however, was thrilled with TED, which quickly displaced Access Press as his major interest. Yet when he sold Access and The Understanding Business to HarperCollins in 1990, he thought he would stay closely involved. Instead he was soon asked to resign: His new partners, he says, felt that his mind was on other things. By this point, he was almost able to agree; today he can even acknowledge that he's never been particularly successful in any cooperative enterprise he didn't control.

Planning for TED starts more than a year in advance and reaches its peak about a minute before Wurman takes the stage. On location at TED9, Kimberly Gough stiff-arms begging friends and strangers while Michele Corbeil helps Wurman find his sweater, tracks down the supplies that never arrived, negotiates with the conference-center staff, and oversees the control room's endlessly ringing phones. David Sume makes last-minute changes to the program, which looks like a film script broken down into half-minutes. Wurman, meanwhile, heartily greets the many friends who come to him for a preconference blessing.

I watch as Wurman works the crowd, occasionally grabbing a moment to discuss some of his side businesses. He huddles with Jay Chiat, the founder of TBWA/Chiat/Day, to chat about a secret project, then shares his idea for a new line of health guides with Horace Deets, executive director of AARP. Elsewhere in the lobby, similar reunions are taking place – some demonstrative and emotional, others polite and wary. (Old friends meet at TED, but old enemies do, too.) As the program begins, there's a rush for seats in the main auditorium, while the second-class citizens trudge into the surrounding simulcast rooms. After warm-up acts by Firesign Theatre and jazz singer Hazel Miller, the man himself – offering no welcome speech, no formal remarks – takes the mike to tell the audience how they must behave at TED.

There's something liberating about TED conferences, even when the host is childish. Especially then. "People are so much more open and approachable at TED," says Sunny Bates, an executive recruiter who has been coming since 1995. "I think they say to themselves, 'If Richard can act like that and pull it off, what do I have to be afraid of?'"

At every TED, Wurman is teased mercilessly all weekend long. Some of the gibes are about his weight or his egotism, but most are about his lust for patronage. Often, when Wurman turns his back, the conferees' good-natured facade disappears, and they marvel at what they see as his avarice and shamelessness.

Wurman has always fiddled with TED's format, but some elements remain constant. The list of presenters includes architects like Frank Gehry and Richard Rogers, tech-business big shots like Steve Case and John Doerr, and scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and George Dyson. Wurman admires showbiz types, so people like Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones are invited to perform or mingle. A core group of TED supporters presents year after year: Nicholas Negroponte and John Warnock have spoken at almost every meeting. Wurman enjoys animals and often invites trainers or scientists to bring the creatures they work with or study.

There's even a kind of predictability to the surprises – someone who isn't a designer, entertainer, or techie will show up and fascinate the audience with a refreshing point of view. Peter Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac, gave a charmingly awkward talk at TED9 about the psychology of people who fall in love in chat rooms, and Jane Goodall explained how the lack of educational and economic opportunities in Africa has led to the destruction of the continent's primate habitats.

Inevitably, many of the sessions fall flat. The casual style and lack of a fixed theme tempt some presenters, especially first-timers, to improvise and meander – never a good idea when tickets cost $3,000. Other presentations are well delivered but opaque. Wurman used to allow questions, but not anymore. "I know the audience wants that confrontation, but I refuse to give it to them," he says. "Why should I waste people's time just to satisfy a few egos?"

Speakers do get something in return for donating their services: Wurman looks out for them, aware that his audience includes a number of dyed-in-the-wool troublemakers. In 1996, literary agent John Brockman opened a midday Q&A by telling presenter Larry Keeley, a business consultant, "I loved the charts and graphs, but I have no idea what you're talking about, and Iwonder if you do." (Brockman blithely concluded his attack on Keeley by saying, "I still want to represent your book.") Now Wurman keeps such interactions to a minimum, preferring instead to push the confrontations and disagreements out of the auditorium and into the spacious lobby.

At the first TED, presentations ran as long as 90 minutes; these days, Wurman will move as many as six speakers on and off the stage in that time. He seems to be seeking the maximum program speed, and many speakers find themselves cut off before they finish. (Wurman stands closer and closer to them as their time runs out.)

Wurman explicitly forbids speakers to pitch their companies or products from the stage, which clearly distinguishes TED from most industry conferences. TED doesn't promise deals, but rather serendipitous, cross-discipline networking. The chance to introduce themselves to an eclectic mix of highly placed executives is what attracts many of the speakers and induces them to waive their fees.

"Unlike most conferences," says Keeley, who normally charges $10,000 to $15,000 a speech, "the star attraction is the audience. Getting a speaker's fee is trivial, compared with the opportunity." Keeley sold his company, the Doblin Group, to Perot Systems after appearing at TED in 1996. He has returned regularly, and he marvels at the intensity of the schmoozing. "Before the conference starts," he says, "I get 20 to 25 emails from people trying to arrange specific 5- to 10-minute breaks."

Wurman loves to hear about every deal that was in some way influenced by a contact made at TED. His staff can reel off a long list: Stewart Brand's meet-up with Nicholas Negroponte led to his best-selling book The Media Lab. After showing off his robotic insects, Robert Full, a UC Berkeley professor, received generous funding to continue his research. Animatrix founder Marney Morris found a publishing partner for her educational software. Steve Case asked TED speaker Billy Graham to officiate at his wedding. Wired also has TEDian roots: In 1992, at TED3, Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, the magazine's founders, reestablished an old friendship with designers John Plunkett and Barbara Kuhr, who became Wired's creative directors. (Wurman's condensed version of the story: "Wired came out of TED!") Wurman has a feeling of intimate genealogical entanglement with many of the successful new ventures sparked at TED. He's disappointed, though, that his facilitation has never been acknowledged with offers of equity or lucrative positions on corporate boards.

"I wonder what it is about me or my personality," he muses. "I don't understand it. I mean, all my friends are on the boards of directors of things."

TEDX was supposed to be the last one. Wurman understands the dramatic appeal of a swift millennial termination, and the numerology – TEDX in 2000 – was auspicious for a big send-off. A few years ago, when Wurman discussed the prospect of selling TED to BPI Communications, the rumored price was $16 million. The sale foundered during negotiations over the exact nature of Wurman's continued involvement. Absent a sale, Wurman is anxious about TED. He doesn't want it to fade away, but if he can't sell it – and he doesn't want to sacrifice its accumulated worth – he has to keep running it.

Paradoxically, this has made him want to build TED up, and he's negotiated with partners to launch a medical TED, a Canadian TED, an automotive TED. Neither of the two TEDMEDs, held in 1995 and 1998, sold out, TEDCity is on track for June 2000 in Toronto, and Wurman stopped automotive TED in its early stages because he wasn't happy with his partner. He says he's trying to "build a brand" to make a sale more plausible.

If TED is to expand, it will have to grow beyond the boundaries its founder's controlling style imposes. But there's always the danger that too much self-restraint by Wurman could diminish TED's unique appeal. If Wurman is unclonable – and ex-partners from coast to coast pray that he is – then TED itself can't be duplicated. Wurman passionately disagrees. "That's a fundamental misperception," he says. "There can't be a Disney when Walt Disney dies? Come on! Things go on – they just change."

With TEDX, Wurman is returning to his longtime campaign on behalf of information architecture – and he's using his platform to present his newest book. Understanding, an anthology of work by 12 of his favorite colleagues – including Nigel Holmes and Ramana Rao – most of whom will present at the conference, attempts to clarify America's social issues through the intelligent presentation of data. (See Infoporn, page 80.) Sequences of maps and graphs show how the government uses its budget, how income is distributed, and where health resources go, among other topics.

The rest of the conference will offer a classic mix of techies, big shots, and entertainers, including Steve Case, Jim Clark, Jeff Bezos, Qwest's Joseph Nacchio, Sun's Bill Joy, Schwab's Dawn Lepore, pundit Arianna Huffington, and BET's Robert Johnson. Danny Hillis will show the first working prototype of his millennium clock. Outside the center, as in years past, GM will let attendees get behind the wheels of its concept cars.

Wurman has by now decreed that there also will be a TED in 2001. He intends to continue celebrating the new century with a program called Was and Will. The operative idea is that many of the speakers will be over 70 years old or under 30. If Wurman manages to recruit four days of plausible presenters who are at the very beginning or end of their careers, he'll at least be introducing a new cast of characters to TED.

As for 2002, things remain undecided. Ticket sales have never been brisker. Last year, before the conference was over, Wurman announced that all tickets for TEDX were gone. But popularity entails contradictions. The early sellout didn't please many regulars in the audience, who complain that the TED crowd is changing. The conference used to be invigoratingly esoteric, full of new ideas that were all the more appealing because they were far-fetched. For 15 years, the meeting bridged wide gaps between professions and industries. These gaps have narrowed, and scores of bankers and ecommerce-marketing execs now prowl the lobby. "TED has peaked," says an attendee who has been coming since 1990. "It's been taken over by vice presidents of marketing."

This is a frequently encountered sentiment among TED old-timers. Success has put the conference in competition with its own past, when a feeling of spirited opposition to the status quo made it more fun and unusual. A few TEDs ago, John Brockman began hosting an annual Millionaires' Dinner in honor of his acquaintances at the conference whose net worth exceeded seven figures. But rising equity values prompted Brockman to rename his party the Billionaires' Dinner. Last year Case, Bezos, and Nathan Myhrvold joined such comparatively impoverished multimillionaires as Barnes & Noble's Steve Riggio, EarthLink's Sky Dayton, and Marimba's Kim Polese. The dinner party was a microcosm of a newly dominant sector of American business.

Disappointment, under these circumstances, is inevitable. The gemütlichkeit of the early TEDs, the atmosphere of nerdy fellowship, was based partially on the hope that intelligent people with good technical ideas could make the world better. There were always powerful pecuniary motives, but the tension between business ambitions and nonconformist, utopian dreaming gave Wurman's meeting an energy that couldn't be found elsewhere. Fifteen years down the road, the thrill of taking a chance on a new industry has been replaced by the simple enjoyment of success. These days, there's less risk-taking at TED, but there's more caviar and better vodka.

At dinner one evening in Monterey, while Wurman dissects a fillet of sole with a fork and his right thumb, I ask if he experiences a letdown when TED is over. After all, changes notwithstanding, the gathering remains a simulation of the better world he and his prescient companions set out to create. It has many of the trappings of conventional power, but it's more intelligent, more eccentric, more interesting, more spontaneous. Commerce, while embraced, is also mocked, and corporate self-interest plays temporary second fiddle to people with ideas. Nowhere, of course, are sponsors treated as badly as at TED, where $100,000 one year can get you a rejection at the door the next. And only at TED, in an atmosphere of make-believe, will Microsoft executives get on their knees.

So isn't it a little sad for Wurman when TED ends? When the stage is dismantled? When the conferees step outside, clear their heads, and go home?

"People always ask that," says Wurman, with great irritation. "The reason they ask is that they don't want me to be happy. In our puritanical culture, you're supposed to suffer for your fun. But I'm not going to say I'm depressed, just because it would really satisfy people if I did." He stabs the air with his thumb, which glistens with fish juice. "I refuse to suffer!"

The Conversation - 39 - Richard Saul Wurman

www.findtheconversation.com | By Aengus Anderson | 9 January 2013

Richard Saul Wurman is a designer, architect, author of over 80 books, and founder of several conferences including TED, WWW, and EG. Presently, he is working on Prophesy2025, a conference about the near future.

Richard caught our attention because he is both an architect and connoisseur of conversation. Because of this, we spoke entirely about conversation itself: its forms, rituals, and value. We also spoke about broader conversation and the hypothesis underlying this project.

This episode is very different from its predecessors. It does not contain a prescriptive vision of the future, definitions of the broader good, or an exploration of a new phenomenon. It also lacks explicit connections to other interviewees, though you will hear implicit connections and think about Lawrence Torcello more than once.

Given these differences, you may wonder why Micah and I chose to include Richard’s interview in a project about society-wide conversations and the future. We have two reasons. First, Richard has thought about the details of conversation more than most of us and he provides a useful lens to examine our interviewees and the roles that Micah and I play in The Conversation (apologies for going meta). Second, while broader conversations may exist, Richard has no interest in creating or guiding them. He seeks interesting days for himself and is, generally speaking, a relativist.

We think relativism is an important idea to address.

Relativism questions the very concept of good and critiques the efforts of every participant in this series, regardless of their agendas. It also challenges The Conversation as a project and presses us to explain why we cling to our naive belief that there is something greater than solipsism and hedonism. This is a good challenge. This is why we’re posting Richard’s conversation.

The God of Understanding

www.momentmag.com | By Nadine Epstein | September/October 2013 Issue

Architect and designer Richard Saul Wurman is best known for creating TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, the immensely popular series of global conferences aimed at sharing innovative ideas in the fields of technology, entertainment and design. In 2002, after 18 years, he sold TED, which has since expanded into multiple conferences, events, fellowships and prizes, and of course, the now ubiquitous TED Talk.

Working out of the French country-style mansion he shares with his wife, novelist Gloria Nagy, in Newport, Rhode Island, Wurman has continued to launch new projects and conferences in the same inventive and rebellious spirit as TED. In 2012, he organized his first WWW Conference, which featured improvised conversations between pairs of prominent but unusually matched thinkers with curious minds. Next up will be the 555 Conference, for which he plans to select five cities around the world to host a one-day gathering of five experts sharing five predictions of future patterns in areas such as health, energy, food, urban development and entertainment. Wurman’s other projects for knowledge sharing include the Geeks and Geezers Summit—which invites dialogue across generations, the Urban Observatory—a new way of organizing and presenting live data about cities—and FEDMED, a conference that explores the relationship between federal governments and healthcare. Throughout an eclectic career that has ranged from creating the ACCESS city travel guides to a stint as a college dean, Wurman has stood out as a pioneer who makes complex information easily understandable, through what he calls “information architecture,” the science of organizing the massive amount of data in the modern world. He has written and designed more than 83 books, including 33: Understanding Change and Change in Understanding, Understanding Healthcare and Information Architects. The 78-year-old talks with Moment about his Jewish upbringing, the origins of TED, his latest ventures, intellectual jazz, the God of understanding and much more.

What was your Jewish background growing up?

My grandparents on my mother’s side were kosher butchers in Reading, Pennsylvania. Very simple people from the old country. My grandfather never learned to read English, even though he lived in America for 60 years. We lived in Philly, 15 miles away, and we went to Reading every other weekend.

Where in “the old country” did he come from?

Some shtetl around Kiev. All those things are sort of mysteries. This may be urban legend and family rumor, but my grandmother’s father was head of the town and mayorish. Very steeped in Orthodox tradition.

How have you been influenced by your Jewish background?

I went to Hebrew school and got bar mitzvahed and never went back. Judaism influenced me an enormous amount—not religion, but culture. I feel very Jewish in my humor and culturally Jewish, even though I live in a town that isn’t friendly to Jews in many ways.

You wrote somewhere that God is information.

For most people everything is information. To me information makes use of half of the word information, which is “inform.” I believe in the “inform” part of the information. 

So what do you imagine God to be?

I don’t believe in an understanding God, I believe in the God of understanding. We become human when we understand things. Whatever we choose, from insects to the sky, whatever we profoundly understand, that’s where the spirit lies. I think religions are a perversion of understanding; they might lead to belief but not understanding.

So is understanding a more modern goal than belief?

I don’t think modern or ancient…I’ll paraphrase from Leviticus: What will be has always been. That’s what I believe in.

Has Talmudic thinking and questioning influenced your work?

I feel the spirit of the structure of the design of some of my books, which include questions in the marginalia, to be in the Talmudic tradition. It is this structure that shows my deep belief in the question, and Louis Kahn, my mentor, said that a good question is better than a brilliant answer. I believe so deeply in the quest, which makes up most of the word question, that I normally do not take questions or have a question and answer period at the end of my speeches. The reason is that most questions are either bad questions or speeches.

You are credited with coining the term Information Architect in 1976. What does it mean?

It’s my passion about understanding. I’ve had five lives. I was trained in architecture but I’ve had a life in archeology, writing guidebooks, medical books, running conferences and a life in information theory. These are all separate, parallel and sometimes intertwined lives. Every one of those lives is part and parcel of the foundation of being understood. I have to make information understandable.

Can you tell me how you went from architect to information architect?

Everything I do is Johnny-one-note. I try to assuage my curiosity and fill the void with things that interest me. Whether I design furniture for my house, garden or swimming pool, or design a house or a book, or write about understanding; whether it’s health care, raising a child or dogs, it’s all the same thing.

How did TED come about?

I wanted to be around people who were smarter than me. I didn’t want to listen to white guys in suits on panels. I wasn’t interested in politicians and CEOs or having somebody read a speech. I wanted to get rid of the lectern, stay away from golf courses, not let people dress up because I don’t own a suit. I just wanted to go to a gathering that was interesting to me, particularly about technology, design and entertainment, and other people seemed to like it.

What do you think of what TED has become today?

I think what Chris Anderson has done with TED is remarkable… It’s different, and they have every right to do that. TED is no longer improvised. And the whole basis was you couldn’t sell anything on stage, but now they sell charities and missions. Nothing has to be pure, it can change. They change the rules of golf, tennis and baseball, things with big rulebooks. That’s the way it is.

You’ve gone on to produce new kinds of conferences such as the WWW Conference.

I created pairings of interesting individuals—such as an astrophysicist and a small particle physicsist who, by the way, spoke different languages; and magician David Blaine and movie director/choreographer Julie Taymor. I paired the creator of The Simpsons Matt Groening and New York Times columnist David Brooks. It was improvised conversation. They didn’t know what they were going to speak about. I had them in front of me and threw out a premise to each pairing, and they responded with conversation. I call this “intellectual jazz.”

What is the state of the art of conversation today, and where is it going?

At the opening of my last WWW conference, I greeted the audience by saying “Welcome to the Great Leap Backwards. What will take place in the next three days could have taken place 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece when Aristotle, Socrates and Plato—whoever was talking to each other at that time—were having a chat in a small amphitheater without Powerpoint or AV, and it would have been damned interesting.”

I see you are also working on a new conference called 555. How will this one work?

It will be in five different cities and have five speakers in each city on five consecutive Mondays. Each of the five will give a prediction of the next five years based on their narrow band of expertise. Then I will collect all 25 speakers in New York City and I will pair them, and they will have improvised conversations critiquing the previous 25 predictions. It will be WWW2. I don’t know how it’s going to work. For me, it’s a discovery, and it’s terrifying. I never know what’s going to happen. But it wouldn’t interest me if I knew. Why would you do something you already know how to do? It’s boring.

It seems like 555 couldn’t be more different than intellectual jazz.

555 is not improvised in the same way. I don’t think there’s a best way of doing anything.

Why are you doing this?

I’m trying to think of new models for how people gather. I just want to have some interesting things happen out of conferences.

So how do you organize information?

I have many personal theories on ways of organizing information. I believe, and it has been accepted, that there are only five ways of organizing information. I use the acronym LATCH: Location, alphabet, time, category and hierarchy. And I believe there are only five ways that one can innovate. I use the acronym ANOSE because I humorously scratch my nose when I think of a new idea. ANOSE stands for addition, need, opposites, subtraction and epiphany. Additionally there are only five categories for the display of cartographic information. This gets into a more esoteric proof of a new cartography that I won’t get into now but it is what my Urban Observatory is based on.

What is the Urban Observatory? 

Recently, after a 42-year hiatus since I first wrote the theory, I created in partnership with Esri—the largest maker of cartography software in the world—an exhibit and a web application, which develops the theory of comparative cartography. The demo shows 16 cities with 16 layers of information that you can compare. There are only five fundamental categories of land use through which you can show an infinite number of characteristics. But that’s for another conversation.

What’s the difference between data and information?

There’s an explosion of data but not an explosion of information. Many people think all written words and numbers are information, but if they don’t inform—if you do not understand them—they are data, not information. Data is the alphabet, a word with meaning is information. People should not feel anxiety because they can’t understand what they are reading; They should blame it on the authors.

What’s the next big thing in information theory?

Recently conversation has been focused upon the catch phrase “big data” as the next big thing in communication. I think that is nonsense. The next big thing is understanding. “Big data” is data with zeros after it. It’s a number, it’s not understanding. Big understanding is not big data. You only understand something relative to something you already understand. Understanding is what it is all about.

Richard Saul Wurman: “My world is a lattice”

www.the-talks.com | By Emma Robertson | 22 October 2014

Mr. Wurman, as the founder of the TED conferences, the predecessor of the TED Talks, do you ever get stage fright?

I have absolutely no fear of being on stage or of being in front of people. In fact, it’s my comfort zone. My stress levels – as measured by Carnegie Institute in a special straight jacket they have that measures your tension, sweat, muscle twitching, all those things – go down when I’m on stage talking. They were surprised. I thought it was delightful. But I do know that I go to a very comfortable place. It’s a very relaxing time for me to be up there.

Were you always like that?

When I first started to speak, I was terrible. I was humiliated time after time. I gave terrible speeches for four or five years in my late twenties and early thirties. I was terribly ambitious when I was younger – I have no ambition now – and I knew that ambition had to be assuaged by being able to speak in public. I kept on doing it until I somehow passed through a hole. I know how zen it sounds. I’m not zen at all; I’m a schlepper. But I still choose to do projects that I really don’t know how to do. They’re past the edge of what I’m doing. I’m doing a major book now which has been an impossible project, or at least semi-impossible, and it might not get done before I die.

I guess you like being out of your comfort zone.

Well if you do something and it turns out really well, why would you do it again? I realized a little while ago that if you do something, and you keep on doing it better and better and better, that is almost embarrassing. I did a conference a year and a half ago, the WWW Conference, and it was the best conference, by far, that I’ve ever done. It was terrific. But what people asked when it was over was when was I going to do it again? (Laughs) What a funny question. Why would I do it again? It worked so well. I mean, I did it, why do another one? Why wouldn’t you choose something else to do?

Is that why you didn’t want to continue running TED yourself?

Yeah. I did it too long. I kept making it better and better every year instead of doing something else. I realize that that was a weakness. I’m weak! I was more ambitious then and I was coveting the success of it and the fact that I was this little jerk from Philly and I had this big life. I’m not the brightest star around, and I devised in a circumspect way – without star-fucking – how to be in the present and have conversations with remarkable people. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had an interesting life. I met Lou Kahn when I was an architectural student, which lead to meeting Jonas Salk, which lead to meeting Francis Crick. Do you know who these people are?

Francis Crick, but not the others.

Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine to cure polio and the Salk Institute is one of Kahn’s great buildings. In my life, everything connects. Lou introduced me to Jonas, who was the most famous person in the world for a few years, like Muhammad Ali was. He was more Brad Pitt than Brad Pitt. I worked with Bob Redford for a little bit, and you could not walk down the street in New York with him. Crowds everywhere. And Jonas would have been the same way then. And you don’t even know who he is now! That’s amazing. Jonas introduced me to Francis Crick, he discovered DNA with James Watson. And on and on! My world is a lattice of having conversations with people in the most disparate fields to find patterns between them. In that sense, not what TED is now, but what TED was for the 18 years I ran it. I’m sort of “TED.” I’m the convergence of things.

After having so many conversations what’s an example of a bad question?

Something like, “So what made you start TED?”

And a good question?

I was having a chat with Juan Enríquez, a respected acquaintance of mine, in a public forum and something came up about the idea of the simplest question. When you step on an ant and the ant dies, you say, “It’s dead, it’s no longer here.” And even a four or five year old can say, “What’s death? What’s life?” It’s a simple question but it’s very complex.

“I am terribly fascinated with things that I don’t understand.”

What is your biggest fear?

I guess, you know, humiliation. I make some effort to avoid humiliation. But I can’t. If you decide that you want to try to do things that you don’t want to do, things that even your close associates and friends say won’t work, you’re at the edge of being humiliated at different times. And that’s very uncomfortable. But when I have that choice, I almost always do it anyway. I am terribly fascinated with things that I don’t understand. That’s my passion.

Do you think that your hunger for knowledge will ever be satiated?

Sure. I’m almost 80! That’s very soon. Death will do that.

Steve Jobs once said that you can only connect the dots in your life looking backwards and “you have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma” – that the dots will somehow connect in your future. What's your philosophy?

I’ve made some huge mistakes. And they emotionally hurt me, these mistakes, but as I look at the path they put me on, those paths seem, in retrospect, more interesting than the path I was headed on – had I not made those mistakes and been more successful. I certainly didn’t want to go through the emotional rollercoaster that I went through. I was a failure, left destitute at 45, I was thought of as a mascot, I was never taken seriously, never very skilled… But I know it’s lead to something. I’ve had a number of young people write to me and ask, “What is your secret to success?” and I have a standard response that my secretary writes back, which is, “Mr. Wurman thinks that the answer to your question is, ‘Have an interesting life.’ And he would like to let you know that today has been pretty interesting.”

 

555 Conference: TED creator Richard Saul Wurman discusses his latest gathering

www.time.com | By Emi Kolawole | Published 30 July 2013

Author and TED conference founder Richard Saul Wurman has a new plan for a conference. It’s called the 555 Conference, and it’s slated to he held in 2014.

The conference would be held in five different cities worldwide. Each city would host a one-day gathering of five “exceptional global experts.” The gatherings would be held on five consecutive Mondays. Wurman, who plans to attend all five days, would choose three of the experts and call on the host city to provide him with a list of 10 nominees, from which he would pick two. Each of the 25 total experts would be called on to make “narrowly constructed, focused & superbly communicated, constructed predictions for the next 10 years.” The Monday conference would be followed on Tuesday by a smaller, closed gathering with the attendees and special guests. The goal, said Wurman, is to make a truly global conference.

The predictions would address 11 different topic areas, including energy, space and travel, food, water, urban development, entertainment and sports, and computers, visual display and transmission. Wurman said he released the details of the conference on his Web site about a week ago, but made no formal announcement about the conference. The documentation publicly available, so far, is little more than a Web page and a two-page handout.

“I just try to struggle through scamming everybody to do something once a year — one big project,” said Wurman during a phone call Tuesday. “I’m trying to reinvent what gatherings are.”

Wurman, an architect and graphic designer, launched the Urban Observatory installation this month during the ESI International User Conference. He hosted the WWW conference in September 2012 — a series of improvised conversations over three days.

“It was the most amazing conference I ever ran … and ever went to,” he said of the gathering. That’s no minor assessment considering the massive popularity of TED, which Wurman first convened in 1984 and worked on until 2002.

A total of 180 people were in attendance at WWW, said Wurman, including world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, musician and producer Quincy Jones, recording artist Will.i.am and Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry among other notable attendees. The event was hosted by ESRI President Jack Dangermond at the company’s conference center in Redlands, Calif.

“I was terrified,” said Wurman of the lead-up to the WWW Conference, “I wasn’t sure it was going to work at all. And then it worked better than I thought. So  that was a surprise. But it was scary.”

Videos of the WWW conference were made available on Fora.TV this week, but an iOS app featuring additional multimedia elements around the conversations held there will also be made available Aug. 15. These would include Pulitzer Prize-winning poet CK Williams’s hand-edited drafts as well as other more intimate materials, according to a release. The app will include 18 hours of what Wurman says is “astonishing” video of the conversations.

 

Now, for the 555 Conference, Wurman said he was attracted to the concept of “finding the future first” — what he sees as the tagline for the conference. Each of the 25 speakers would give roughly an hour-long, highly structured talk. They would also be given access to a leading information architect, video designer and app maker. On top of that, they would also get Wurman’s help in orchestrating their talk. Each speech, said Wurman, would ultimately be “a piece of theater.”

 

Audience invitations would be extended by the host city, not by Wurman or his team.

“If the city wanted to have a thousand people free, fine. If they want to have a thousand people and charge them ten thousand dollars each, fine. They can keep all of that. All I wanted was the media that came out of the conference,” he said. “I don’t care about the audience.”

But Wurman said he would want some funds from the host city to put on the event, since the city would benefit from the public relations, being cast as a city that’s “looking at innovation” and associated with the “finding the future first” tagline.

Wurman has five rules of innovation, which go by the acronym “A NOSE”: addition, need, opposite, subtraction, epiphany. The WWW conference was about subtraction — where Wurman stripped away the traditional conference structure. When asked which rule the 555 Conference abided by, Wurman said he didn’t have a good answer, but saw it as incorporating both epiphany and opposite, since it was a new idea for an event that, unlike a traditional conference, could be held regardless of the number of tickets sold.

At the end of the five weeks, all 25 speakers would be brought together in New York City for a WWW2 conference where they would be placed in pairs or groups of three and called on, as with the first WWW conference, to engage in an improvised conversation — or “intellectual jazz.” The conversation would be a critique of the predictions, and provide an opportunity to discuss what the world should do to prepare.

“I think everybody every day is going to wait for the new prediction. Because these are going to be by eminent people,” said Wurman. He hasn’t reached out to anyone yet regarding distribution, he says, but hopes to turn the conversations  into a television show, magazine articles, a book or perhaps even distribute them via a streaming video platform such as Netflix.

“This is all based in the art of the possible,” he said during the call. In other words, the specifics are subject to change.

He is collaborating with noted events producer Richard Attias, whose credentials include the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative. are Also listed as advisers are: ESRI’s Dangermond; ocean explorer Dave Gallo; physician, author and USC professor David Agus; X Prize Foundation founder and chairman Peter Diamandis; Harpervision president and founder Greg Harper; @radical.media founder Jon Kamen; and video translations and captions company Dotsub founder and chairman Michael Smolens.

Wurman said he would probably start reaching out to cities this fall.

The Founder Of TED Shares What It Takes To Build The World's Most Popular Conference

He created a conference that sells out before the speakers are announced. Here’s how Richard Saul Wurman did it.

www.fastcompany.com | By Michael Grothaus | Published 17 May 2016

I’ve had two phone conversations with Richard Saul Wurman, the 81 year-old founder of the massively popular TED conference, and both have left me feeling woefully under-accomplished as an individual. If Dos Equis is ever looking for a new “Most Interesting Man in the World” they need look no further than Wurman.

By his mid-20s Wurman had accomplished more than most men twice his age. In 1958 when he was just 23, he took part in expeditions exploring and mapping the ruins and rainforests of Tikal, Guatemala. A year later he earned both his bachelors and masters degrees in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was awarded the Arthur Spayed Brooks Gold Medal. The next year he was off to London where he worked under the renowned architect Louis I. Kahn and helped design the largest barge to travel up the Thames River for Jack Heinz, the owner of the H. J. Heinz company. That barge hosted the orchestral music of the Wind Symphony Orchestra.

In his 30s Wurman was teaching at Cambridge and by his 40s he had begun writing and publishing the first of 90 books on topics ranging from architecture to travel to the nature of understanding. All that doesn’t even include the numerous honorary doctorates and awards he’s won over the years, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Smithsonian.

But perhaps his most defining accomplishment, or at least the one he will be remembered most for, happened in 1984 when Wurman was just 49.

“1984 was a wonderful year. There was the first Macintosh, USA Today had just come out, Benoit Mandelbrot announced about a year before (and he was the first in the public eye about) fractal geometry,” says Wurman. “The first CD came out. It was jointly invented by Sony and Phillips, and nobody had a CD player, and that exploded in the world. That was just 1984.”

“I observed in ’84 that there was a convergence going on out there that the people who were within it didn’t understand. They were in it and couldn’t see it. That was [between] the technology business, the entertainment industry, and the design professions,” Wurman says, explaining where the TED acronym came from. “They just didn’t see that they were one group…they didn’t realize they were growing together.”

Since then TED has become the most well-known and talked about conference on the planet, expanding to other disciplines, and becoming a status symbol and badge of achievement for experts who’ve given talks there. But not everything that TED has become pleases Wurman. He sold the rights to the main conference in 2002 and since then some say it’s become elitist and pretentious. Still Wurman himself hasn’t lost faith in the power of gatherings, as he prefers to call them, to spread ideas. Indeed, he’s gone on to create other conferences including WWW.

If you’re thinking of starting a conference, Wurman says there’s no right way to do it, but here’s what worked for him.

1. Only Do It Because You “Have” To

When I ask Wurman what the single most important thing is when pulling off a good conference he gave me a most unexpected analogy. “In the middle of the night, almost every night, I get up because I have to pee. I go wander around the bedroom to find the bathroom, I pee, and I go back to sleep. I get up because I have to do something,” he says. “You only do a conference because you have to.”

Wurman says that if he started building a conference because he wanted to make money from it or because someone asked him to do it, he probably couldn’t have pulled TED off—or had any kind of desire to do so. TED was born from an overwhelming need to fulfill his personal curiosity about the convergence of disciplines he noticed in 1984. Because of that, he was able to give it his all—with an attention to detail only those who are truly passionate about their idea could provide.

“I picked out every bit of food that was served at every meal. I designed the badges, and they were unique badges. I chose the furniture and had it made by Steelcase for me. I called the people who I wanted to maybe sponsor a meal. I designed the stage, I picked all the speakers,” Wurman says of the first TED conference. “Most of all, I worked as much on doing the ordering of people, and what order they came over four or five days. Who follows who, and who was before who. Like an editor would for a film, I spent a lot of time on editing what I thought was this arc. A lot of time—an inordinate amount of time. I chose all the music. It was my fucking party. If it didn’t work, it was me that screwed up.”

When I mention that his attention to detail reminded me of Steve Jobs’s legendary, almost obsessive, oversight of Apple’s products, Wurman says that unknown to most people the Apple cofounder actually attended the first TED in 1984. “He came to the first one, but he wouldn’t come on stage,” Wurman says. “He brought the first three Macs that anybody could ever see. It was right after the Super Bowl, and that one ad. People could play with the first three Macs for the first time ever, in 1984.”

You’re not going to get that type of interest from people in your conference if it’s not obvious you’re truly passionate about it.

“I do the conference I want to go to,” says Wurman. “In our society, that’s thought of as being non-PC, a pompous arrogant asshole. But it isn’t. It’s actually just a thoughtful way of doing things.”

2. Get Rid Of The Normal

The next thing Wurman did when founding TED was to go contrary to the norms of conferences. Back in the 80s—and even today—Wurman says the norm is that most conferences have a very similar format.

“The sponsors and the speakers were cordoned off in the first two rows, so it was them and us. There was always a separation of castes there. Everybody wore a coat and tie. There was a lectern, and you stood, man or woman, behind the lectern because it protected your groin, and therefore, you felt less vulnerable,” says Wurman. “You read a speech, and you gave PowerPoint slides later on. You were given an introduction, and the more important you were, the longer the introduction. That was the model, and it still is the model for most gatherings. It’s utter boredom.”

And when you are bored, Wurman says, you do not learn. “My definition of learning is remembering what you’re interested in. You cannot fault that phrase. It’s the fundamental definition of learning.” So Wurman got rid of the lectern so speakers didn’t have anywhere to put notes down. That forced them to think off the cuff and have a conversation with the audience organically instead of reading a prepared speech. It also kept the talks shorter, which kept people more interested. And if Wurman did sense that the talk was going on too long, he did something about it.

“I was on the stage 100% of the time. I sat over on the side,” Wurman says. “When a speech was boring, or it went too long, I would get up and very quietly walk over and stand behind the person. They felt me there and they realized they had to come to an end.”

Wurman’s setup and tactics could make his speakers feel vulnerable, but that was the point. Vulnerability causes us to lets our guards down. With our defenses lowered we’re more honest and believable. “What do we you want from a speaker? We want to believe them,” he says.

Eschewing the norms and formats of the traditional conferences didn’t only get the best talks about of the speakers, it kept the audiences clamoring for more, Wurman says. “The doors did not open until about three minutes before each session. People lined up around the lobby. Everybody wanted to rush in, and unlike any other gathering there was a gestalt there that had people running and wanting to sit in the front rows. Most every talk, people go to the back. They want to be able to walk out and not disturb people. [With the format of my speaker’s talks] people knew they weren’t going to do that, so it was jammed.”

3. Please Yourself When Choosing Speakers

Unlike most conference organizers, who agonize over which speakers their attendees might want to hear from, Wurman, quite frankly, wasn’t worried about pleasing his audience because to do so, he says, you would need to know what another human being is thinking–and that, he notes, is impossible.

“You never know what another human being is thinking. That is an arrogance beyond arrogance,” he says. “Once you realize that you don’t know what somebody else is thinking, why bother trying to please them? Why not just do good work and please yourself?”

And that’s how he chooses his speakers for his audience: They’re solely a person Wurman wants to hear from.

“Once or twice you do that, and you realize that the audience generally likes it; once you try not to have an effect on people–but you historically know that you have had an effect–you just let go of that and do good work,” he says, and has the proof to back up that his concept works. Within a few years his conferences began to sell out—a year in advance. “I would give a conference, and then on the last day, I said ‘You can now register [for the next one],’ and it sold out. I sold 1,000 seats, and had their money for a year. They didn’t know who the speakers were going to be.”

4. It Doesn’t Have To Be Big To Have A Big Impact

When most think of conferences they think of the massive events like TED or Apple’s WWDC or Google’s I/O that draw thousands of attendees. But despite Wurman’s various conferences drawing thousands each year over the decades, he doesn’t believe that a conference has to be massive to be successful, or even to help change the world.

Case in point: Last April, Wurman held a small conference he dubbed “The Event.” It consisted of him, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, architect Frank Gehry, RadicalMedia owner Jon Kamen, and urban designer and theorist Moshe Safdie. The Event wasn’t publicized or announced and only had 20 attendees, most of whom were people Wurman had met on the street that day. The five men sat around in a circle in front of the small audience and for 90 minutes shared some wine and sugared pecans and had a conversation about the notions of envy, admiration, and terror. Though the gathering was filmed by five cameras, the footage has never been released.

“There’s a conference in its smallest form,” Wurman says. “A semi-formalized dinner party, without dinner. Just a little chat among friends that came in, because they could, from around the world.”

“The goal wasn’t a sponsorship. There was no money involved. The people went there themselves, then they left. There was nothing written about it, it wasn’t reviewed, and there’s never been a story about it.”

But a small conference could still have a far-reaching effect, Wurman believes. After all, he points out, the thousand people that attended his first TED conferences, though larger than 25 people at The Event, were still relatively insignificant in the larger scheme of things. “One thousand people are just an accountant error. It doesn’t mean anything. The thousand people that came to TED were statistically meaningless against the 300 million people in America.”

Yet look what spawned from that original gathering of only a thousand people in a world of 7 billion: Wurman’s TED conference has gone on for over 30 years and spread ideas to millions of viewers who, combined, have watched TED talks over a billion times. And who knows how, in turn, those viewers will act on those ideas to the benefit of the world? Who knows what one of the 20 people who attended the Event might do based on the ideas discussed at the dinner party without dinner? Which of the ideas discussed might they share with others that could ultimately result in some new product or solution or theory?

“You don’t have to sell a million books to have an effect, or to make something clear, or to work out clarity in life,” Wurman says. “Small groups, if they’re the right small groups, and they’re filtered down naturally to people who tell other people, that’s quite enough. Viral communications is really quite interesting.”