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Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review: 33

33: Understanding Change & the Change in Understanding by Richard Saul Wurman
Greenway Communications, 2009
Paperback, 64 pages

According to his web page, Richard Saul Wurman's singular passion in life is "making information understandable." He has tackled this ambitious goal by authoring over 80 books (ACCESS Travel Guides, Understanding Series, etc.), creating web pages, chairing design conferences, and creating the TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design) conferences in 1984. One of the design conferences he chaired was the National AIA Convention in 1976, for which he created an exclusive booklet, What-If, Could Be: An historical fable of the future. In it, the "Commissioner was asked by the people of What-If in the land of Could-Be to fix their city." Thirty-three years later, Wurman pens the sequel, resuming the Commissioner's work after 33 years of exile. The earlier "very limited edition" is reprinted in the sequel's folds. In both of these short books, Wurman captures the simultaneous feelings of doubt and possibility found in creating and changing our environment. This is evident in the names What-If and Could-Be. Ultimately the fable is optimistic, seeing design as widespread and shared, and elevating the importance of understanding over mere knowledge.
My own thoughts on the shifting nature of information are aided by Wurman's broadly applicable and lyrical fable: Sharing of information has supplanted the exclusivity of information, but being able to make sense of the large amount of information available today is of the utmost, particularly when a lot of time can be devoted to just finding something of importance. In other words, the information that we adopt in the service of making things (better) needs to be easily shared, not hoarded out of paranoia or self-serving needs. This trend is apparent in the evolution of the internet, in its ability to share information rapidly and broadly via various means (linking, tagging, search engines, newsfeeds, etc.), but this does not mean that information is necessarily understandable. Just consider Edward Tufte's similar crusade for intelligently visualizing data to realize how important design is in truly understanding information.
But the sharing and design of information just scratches the surface of what Wurman tackles in 33. It is one of the lessons, along with the 32 others, that Wurman's Commissioner shares with the readers and the residents of What-If. Another discusses how to give a good meeting, and one wonders how much more productive we'd be if managers took heed of the Commissioner's advice (say what you need to say in five minutes, any longer is lecturing). So Wurman's fable of 33 lessons 33 years after his first series of lessons can be seen as a step back from the mad rush of change in that time, be it in cities, work, technology, and so on. It is a reflection on what is important, seeing the essences through the noise, calling out the BS that keeps us from understanding each other and making the land of Could-Be a better place.

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