Showdown at Information Gap. What do you know? What should you know? INTERVIEW: ORGANIZING EXPERT
LOS ANGELES — THE ``information explosion'' does not exist, says Richard Saul Wurman. What we have here is a massive explosion of non-information. The distinction between mere data and true knowledge is fundamental, says this self-styled guru in the ``morphology'' (form and structure) of information. He has spent his life trying to master the art of turning informational chaos into logical, accessible, understandable forms. Everyone must strive for mastery, he says, or else be stuck trying to live with an ever-widening gap between what he understands and what he thinks he should understand.
The gap results in ``informational anxiety,'' ``the `black hole' that happens when information doesn't tell us what we want or need to know,'' says Wurman, a designer of award-winning city guides, directories, and phone books. One falls prey to it every time one reads without comprehending, sees without perceiving, or listens without hearing.
Torrents of data is one source of ``information anxiety,'' another is not knowing whether certain information exists, where to find it, or how to gain access to it. Mr. Wurman addresses ways to deal with such problems in his recent book ``Information Anxiety.'' (New York: Doubleday, $19.95)
FIRST of all, Wurman advises, relax. Realize that ``a lot of people can't understand the charts, reports, articles that are proliferating today because the people who write them often suffer from the same malaise.'' Writers may be more concerned with style, accuracy, and ``looking good'' than with the reader's understanding.
Learn to admit when you don't understand something, says Wurman. ``Giving yourself permission not to know everything will make you relax, which is the ideal frame of mind to receive new information. You must be comfortable to really listen....''
Eliminate unessential data by charting your intake of information, he says. Identify the material that best satisfies your interests and needs, whether it is news media, books, manuals, even meetings or phone calls.
To comprehend new information - be it financial reports, appliance manuals, or a new recipe - Wurman says one must go through certain processes:
-``You must have some interest in receiving the information;
-``You must uncover the structure or framework by which it is or should be organized;
-You must relate the information to ideas that you already understand;
-You must test the information against those ideas and examine it from different vantage points in order to `possess' it or know it.''
For example: What is an acre? To say that it's 43,560 sq. ft. is an abstraction. To say that it's about the same size as a football field minus the end zones is graspable.
Wurman has drawn from among what are considered the best minds in communications, sociology, and philosophy - from French critic Roland Barthes to Librarian of Congress emeritus Daniel Boorstin, from ``Megatrends'' author John Naisbitt to 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
``He is not a young revolutionary. He is better than that - he is an old hand,'' says Stewart Brand, creator of ``The Whole Earth Catalog.'' ``So the stuff works because it's mature, highly evolved. It's not something that was invented last week and is full of bugs.''
``He is raising issues that people need to know how to cope with by providing a new way of doing things,'' says Vartan Gregorian, president and chief executive officer of the New York Public Library. ``He knows how to separate inflated verbiage from the essential messages we need.''
AT bottom, says Wurman, his book is ``a thinly-veiled indictment of the public educational system. If you trace back, you find fault with how we were taught to learn and continue to learn.
``We were taught to have this kind of gin-rummy memory of requirements that have nothing to do with learning. Interest has to do with learning.''
Throw away superficial notions of what it means to be ``informed,'' says Wurman. Pay less attention to news that has no cultural, economic, or scientific impact on your life. Separate the pertinent from the superfluous; find the appropriate organizing principle for different subjects.
He discovered one of these organizing principles while writing the book, in fact. Information may be infinite, but there are a finite number of ways to organize it, he found: (1) category, (2) time, (3) location, (4) alphabet, and (5) continuum (such as small to large, best to worst).
``I had learned this over 25 years but had never really codified it,'' he says. And recognizing that principle makes the organizing process less intimidating.
A Wurman Sampler
As you learn about something, try to remember what it is like not to know. This will add immeasurably to your ability to explain things to other people.
Being informed means you are pleasantly knowledgeable about the things that interest you. But I find large city societies are compulsive about this Vanity Fair sense of what they should be interested in and know about to appear interesting. It's pervasive. People should be more honest.
Let what you don't know spark your curiosity. Visualize the words ``I don't know'' as a bucket that can now be filled with the water of knowledge.
Every time you come a cross a new idea, try to relate it to something else. Find a connection from the new idea to other ideas.
Think about opposites. When you have a problem, think of one solution, then of its opposite. When you choose a direction, think of what would happen if you went in an opposite direction.
KEEPING UP WITH THE DATA GLUT
Is the ``non-information explosion'' gaining the upper hand? Ask yourself the following questions, Wurman suggests. Do you:
1.Chronically talk about not keeping up with what's going on around you?
2.Feel guilty about an ever-higher stack of periodicals waiting to be read, or an ever-mounting ``in'' box?
3.Nod your head knowingly when someone mentions a book, an artist, or a news story that you actually have never heard of before?
4.Find that you are unable to explain something you thought you understood?
If you recognize yourself, says Wurman, do not fear: Learn to identify what is understandable and what is not - and realize that your inability to understand a piece of information may well be the fault of the ``information,'' and not yours.