Friday, February 21, 2014

Richard Saul Wurman vs. Edward R. Tufte?

Photo1 by Rebecca Rex. Photo 2 by Aaron Fulkerson (Creative Commons license)
First, a little bit of name-dropping, if you allow me: I've just come back from lunch with Richard Saul Wurman, the guy who invented the TED conferences (and ran them until 2002,) and the term "information architect," among other zillion things. We never had the opportunity to meet in person before, although he phoned me —out of the blue— when my book was published. That was both flattering and humbling. After all, I've been reading his books since I was in college, and I cited him extensively in the first chapter of The Functional Art. This is the quote that opens that chapter; it comes from Information Anxiety 2:
My expertise has always been my ignorance, my admission and acceptance of not knowing.... When you can admit that you don’t know, you are more likely to ask the questions that will enable you to learn.
During lunch, Richard shared this bizarre WSJ article, published three days ago. This is its central claim:
If Wurman is The Beatles, defining a genre for years to come, Tufte is the Rolling Stones, riffing on the same themes, but in a way that shirks—rather than invites—comparison to his colleague.  Tom Wolfe famously summarized the contrast between the two bands when he wrote, “The Beatles want to hold your hand, but the Stones want to burn down your town.”  It’s a contrast that fits Wurman and Tufte just as well.
That's one of the oddest analogies I've ever read. Richard may indeed be The Beatles, but he's also the Rolling Stones, as he can be abrasive when he disagrees with something. And he has riffed "on the same themes" for the past decades, as well. But something he's not is close-minded or conservative. He's not a prophet, either, always predicting what the future will be with the goal of shaping it and pushing his own agenda. He's not a teacher, but an engaged interlocutor. Go back to the first quote above. It's accurate. Richard's open to listen and learn from anybody who's able to spark his curiosity.* He has a Socratic personality: He'll challenge you and even overwhelm you with blunt and honest questions and comments but, in the process, he'll be prompting you to sharpen your thinking. He won't force-feed you his own aesthetic biases and opinions, trying to pass them as universal rules while ignoring evidence that could contradict them.

Tufte, on the other hand —well, as much as I respect him, Tufte is more Plato than Socrates. Read the previous paragraph again. Rock, indeed. Rolling, perhaps not so much.

*I'm not writing this based on just a single conversation over lunch, of course. Being a journalist, I've done my homework and asked other people that know him well —and who don't necessarily like him much.