Members Helping Members - Educating, Informing, Supporting
Even though Red Burns was one of the most influential figures in the tech industry over the past 30 years — most famous for co-founding the groundbreaking Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU, and in a sense, the beginnings of interaction design — it’s not uncommon for technophiles to have never heard her name. Two weeks ago, she passed away. But much more needs to be said about one of the smartest, gutsiest women I ever knew, and about what she thought about education, technology, design … and life.
Red wasn’t particularly interested in IPOs or the latest tech fetish, even though she was always exceptionally proud of her students and their accomplishments. She knew that technology was a means to an end — and that the end was people.
In that simple reframing from technology to empowerment of people, I believe there’s something everyone one of us — whether designer, programmer, entrepreneur, investor, teacher, student, parent, or child — can learn from Red. Especially in a world where we tend to focus on teaching kids to code, debating the flatness of the latest iOS, or discussing the newest and shiniest device still searching for a meaningful application.
Red is known as “the godmother of Silicon Alley” because ITP — a bold exploration into how media could be made interactive and empower communities and individuals — produced graduates such as Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley, as well as Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award winners Sigi Moeslinger (whose firm designed the Metro Card vending machines for the NYC Subway system) and Jake Barton (whose firm designed the interactive exhibits for the 9/11 Museum).
But Red wasn’t that interested in technology per se; she saw it as something you needed to get to the real work: improving people’s lives, making them feel more connected, bringing delight in big and small ways, and empowering them to affect change.
When Red co-founded ITP in 1971, most people were aspiring to get to color TV, but she was dreaming of ways to turn the media ecosystem upside down. Among her many projects was two-way television for and by senior citizens — one of the first Teletext field trials in the United States. She was passionate about turning “consumers” into creators, and her work and philosophies foretold of some of the most successful products of the digital age: YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
“I’m not going to teach you any software programs. Software changes. Technology changes. You are here to learn how to learn.” Those are the first words I recall hearing from Red in my very first class at ITP.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Red created ITP inside NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts rather than the computer science department; she wanted the program to be filled with dreamers, inventors, artists, and change-makers. She questioned the status quo and continued to do so as an educator and industry provocateur.
Today, the program Red co-founded represents the most innovative higher ed laboratory for what design, technology, and art can do when brought together in new and inventive ways. When I attended ITP in the mid 1990s — on the eve of the explosion of the commercial web and the birth of New York’s Silicon Alley tech scene — my class was filled with an unlikely cohort.
Many students, including myself, had little experience with technology. There were teachers, artists, filmmakers, policy experts, lawyers, musicians, and even a sword swallower from the Coney Island sideshow. Red relished finding people from every corner of the globe, and from every background and walk of life you could imagine.
This deep, abiding belief in the importance of diversity in the collaborative process is one of the many values I inherited from Red. When it came to finding students for that next class at ITP, she was less interested in the answers people brought to the table; instead it was all about the questions.
Red could have filled her classes with cookie-cutter 4.0 students with pedigrees from the elite undergraduate institutions of the world, and to be clear, there were some of those. She was famous for saying it was harder to get into ITP than it was to get into medical school. But Red was much more interested in the level of curiosity and passion an individual brought to the ITP community, and she knew there were many different ways to be “smart”.
Imagine what would happen if more schools, companies, and organizations thought this way, and the new kinds of engagement, learning, and invention that might take place.
Red had a strong belief that important concepts were discovered through play. This is a common notion in modern preschool education, but certainly isn’t the norm inside most companies, where efficiency and the bottom line rule the day and new ideas suffocate before they get a chance to catch on. It’s perhaps even less of a norm within most university settings, where supporting professors’ work and bringing prestige to the educational institution itself is paramount, so students often get lost in the mix.
Just one walk down ITP’s halls during a spring or fall student show reveals that it’s like no other educational environment in the world. The shows are more than the average tech “demo days” that tend to attract hungry entrepreneurs, recruiters, and investors. They draw in people from every walk of life — toddlers and grandparents, businessmen and artists, dreamers and doers — and the projects represent a diversity of ideas that open the mind to new possibilities.
I sometimes describe ITP to those not familiar with it as “Kindergarten for grownups”, but also love another description I once heard: “Engineering for poets.” Both of those convey the wonderfully fuzzy space between art and technology where so many new and important ideas are born. In this way, Red and her educational philosophies developed both the right and left sides of the brain by teaching artists to code and engineers to empathize.
There is much to be learned from Red’s teaching philosophies — really, a way of thinking. Not just for programs looking to replicate the magic of ITP, but for companies and other organizations and individuals, too. There’s a certain shorthand of understanding that takes place whenever ITP alums encounter each other, as I have during my time working at Google and Facebook. We may not know exactly what background or hard skills each brings to the table, but we know we are likely dealing with an open, curious spirit; a great collaborator; and someone who is human-centered in the way he or she approaches problem solving.
A fellow ITP alumna, Christene Selleck, recently published her notes on how Red welcomed students to ITP in the opening session of her famous first-year Applications class. Red offered her hopes for what they would learn during their two magical years, and more importantly, what she wanted for them throughout their working and personal lives. Reading this list takes me back and propels me forward.
Red didn’t care where you were from, what you had studied in the past, or what your prior accolades were; she wanted to know, what would you do next? She was a new kind of mentor: incredibly demanding and nurturing. I — and many others — am still striving to live up to the exceptionally high expectations Red had of us.
Red cannot be replaced, but her impact can continue to spread. Share this list with your teacher, your boss, your child, and most of all, yourself.
That there is a difference between the mundane and the inspired.
That the biggest danger is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.
That any human organization must inevitably juggle internal contradictions — the imperatives of efficiency and the countervailing human trade-offs.
That the inherent preferences in organizations are efficiency, clarity, certainty, and perfection.
That human beings are ambiguous, uncertain, and imperfect.
That how you balance and integrate these contradictory characteristics is difficult.
That imagination, not calculation, is the “difference” that makes the difference.
That there is constant juggling between the inherent contradictions of a management imperative of efficiency and the human reality of ambiguity and uncertainty.
That you are a new kind of professional — comfortable with analytical and creative modes of learning.
That there is a knowledge shift from static knowledge to a dynamic searching paradigm.
That creativity is not the game preserve of artists, but an intrinsic feature of all human activity.
That in any creative endeavor you will be discomfited and that is part of learning.
That there is a difference between long term success and short term flash.
That there is a complex connection between social and technological trends. It is virtually impossible to unravel except by hindsight.
That you ask yourself what you want and then you work backwards.
In order to problem solve and observe, you ought to know how to: analyze, probe, question, hypothesize, synthesize, select, measure, communicate, imagine, initiate, reason, create.
That organizations are really systems of cooperative activities and their coordination requires something intangible and personal that is largely a matter of relationships.
That you combine that edgy mixture of self-confidence and doubt.
That you have enough self-confidence to try new things.
That you have enough self doubt to question.
That you think of technology as a verb, not a noun; it is subtle but important difference.
That you remember the issues are usually not technical.
That you create opportunities to improvise.
That you provoke it. That you expect it.
That you make visible what, without you, might never have been seen.
That you communicate emotion.
That you create images that might take a writer ten pages to write.
That you observe, imagine and create.
That you look for the question, not the solution.
That you are not seduced by speed and power.
That you don’t see the world as a market, but rather a place that people live in — you are designing for people, not machines.
That you have a stake in magic and mystery and art.
That sometimes we fall back on Rousseau and separate mind from body.
That you understand the value of pictures, words, and critical thinking.
That poetry drives you, not hardware.
That you are willing to risk, make mistakes, and learn from failure.
That you develop a practice founded in critical reflection.
That you build a bridge between theory and practice.
That you embrace the unexpected.
That you value serendipity.
That you reinvent and re-imagine.
That you listen. That you ask questions. That you speculate and experiment.
That you play. That you are spontaneous. That you collaborate.
That you welcome students from other parts of the world and understand we don’t live in a monolithic world.
That each day is magic for you.
That you turn your thinking upside down.
That you make whole pieces out of disparate parts.
That you find what makes the difference.
That your curiosity knows no bounds.
That you understand what looks easy is hard.
That you imagine and re-imagine.
That you develop a moral compass.
That you welcome loners, cellists, and poets.
That you are flexible. That you are open.
That you can laugh at yourself. That you are kind.
That you consider why natural phenomena seduce us.
That you engage and have a wonderful time.
That this will be two years for you to expand — take advantage of it.
Appolinaire said: — Come to the edge, — It’s too high, — Come to the edge, — We might fall, — Come to the edge, — And he pushed them and they flew.