Episode 39: Richard Saul Wurman
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.
Mr. Wurman IS the tango, both partners, and the music, too, no doubt. This vanity in itself is argument for something greater than solipsism and hedonism. Setting aside our initial recoil at such a Vegas-sized ego, we must acknowledge the creative power and industry of such self-absorption and be grateful he turned his attention to ideas.
Interesting. Helped me put my finger on what’s always bothered me about Richard Saul Wurman, which is that combination of “Vegas-sized ego” and “try to nail jello to a wall” depth of relativism. The stance that “eh, well, stuff just IS, you know…” is not wise. It is not sophisticated. It is stultifying, a cop-out, and it drains all the color out of life.
While I AM a moral relativist, I think the term is used sloppily. When people hear it, they think it means Wurman’s detached throwing of hands in the air, and a sense of “anything goes,” or the tired and false conservative critique of the liberal mindset as “if it feels good, do it.” It doesn’t mean those things. It means you define your morality relative TO something, rather than pretending there exist knowable moral rules, the way there are rules to baseball.
I think the reality is, any moral rule that is constructed that way is arbitrary, and only useful inasmuch as it causes a game to go in a way you like. There is no other reason for such a rule than that.
If there is any real foundation for morality, I am of what I think is the increasingly popular school of thought that it is ultimately based on empathy. Witness the Sotomayor confirmation hearings for the battle lines on that premise.
But morality must be based on empathy. An empathy based morality is actually much more demanding to live by, requiring much more creativity and presence to life than any absolute schema. And it necessarily raises questions about human nature which we pretend to have resolved in ways that are now fortunately being questioned (think of the current trend in economics to dethrone “homo economicus” from his central role in policy and business thinking).
And I think your project here is important because it is ultimately motivated by empathy- you, like many of us, see some very rough sledding coming down the pike at us, and you are looking for ways we can grapple with that- acknowledge the unacknowledged but crucial realities that are shaping our future, and greet them head on.
I disagree with you that this conversation is not taking place in the wider world. It is, in earnest. You can have this conversation with your neighborhood Puerto Rican corner store owner, with artists, business leaders… Occupy was nothing if not a demand that we start having this conversation as a society.
Granted, our mainstream media is designed to aggressively keep as many heads in the sand as possible. I think that is failing radically. I am hard pressed these days to find too many people who take the “news” seriously as any kind of reliable representation of Goings On In the World That You Need To Know About.
This conversation is well under way. I am tremendously glad you guys have put this project together; it’s one I feel we are all a part of, and am actually looking for ways to be more fully engaged in moving it forward myself. When I found this, I was amazed at how many disparate people you had pulled together who I had already put on MY radar as important to follow, but thought I was alone or near-alone in keying on. And you have introduced me to many others I am hugely glad to be aware of.
It also bothers me that Mr. Wurman emphasizes how “statistically insignificant” efforts like this must be. That sounds very authoritative and scientific and rational, but it’s an unexamined, hand-wavy assumption that I think falls apart very quickly when you begin to try and build a model of how ideas travel, and how they lead to real action and results.
I think that while the exact impact of projects like this is unmeasurable, it doesn’t take too many of the right particles bumping into each other before the effect becomes incredibly significant not just relative to the resources invested to create it, but in “the grand scheme of things.”
Thanks very much, and let’s talk soon. There are agendas to be linked in powerful ways.