Darrell Icenogle, Bob McAndrews. "You forget you’re sitting at a machine."
Dick Farson told me recently that he has grown to prefer communicating with people via computers, rather than face-to-face. It was the kind of statement I wouldn’t think twice about, had it come from anyone else; not today, in the midst of this microchip mania, in these times when it seems like the world has split into two camps: those who already have their home computers, and those yet planning to buy one. Nevertheless, to hear Dick Farson say a thing like this startled me.
Because, you see, if ever anyone once stood for personal, in-the-flesh, human encounters, it was this man. Remember “sensitivity training”? Even if you never participated in a sensitivity group, who could forget those earnest circles of psychic explorers, stripping away their social masks, weeping, raging, hugging? Once, Farson was the crown prince of the sensitivity set. In 1959 he helped to found the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, and soon WBSI became part of the vanguard of the group encounter movement.
And yet here’s Farson today, deprecating the shallowness of most face-to-face conversations. The turnabout goes beyond mere words. After an eleven-year absence, Farson has returned to the helm of WBSI in La Jolla and transformed the social science institute into something which, on the surface, seems very unlike what it was in the Sixties. Today the institute primarily involves top executives from some of the largest multinational corporations who are linked to one another with electronic terminals. How do you go from sensitivity groups to this? Farson says the distance between them isn’t all that far. In a sense it’s where we ’ve all gone, or are going.
Farson says something more. The work WBSI is doing today, he says, isn’t essentially all that different from what it was doing in the Sixties. Indeed there’s even one superficial similarity between the WBSI of then and now. Today when you walk into WBSI’s quarters on Silverado Street, you find the same excitement that veterans of the early WBSI reminisce about. Today, as they did fifteen years ago, people at WBSI betray the glee that comes with learning something really new.
Dick Farson. Farson and Carl Rogers undertook the encounter-group videotaping sessions which later became an Academy Award-winning documentary.
On the other hand, these days it’s a lot harder to see the thing which is sparking the intellectual ferment. For the last year and a half, WBSI’s main project has been running a school. To date, twenty-six pupils have enrolled, paying almost $25,000 each for the two-year program. It’s a highbrow student body, including corporate types such as the general manager of one of Westinghouse’s divisions and a vice president of the Digital Equipment Company. Big corporations haven’t been the only source of students; there’s also the president of Mills College, a Los Angeles city councilman, an assistant secretary of commerce.
One of the things that make the project hard to grasp is that these students and their teachers gather together in La Jolla only for a week every six months. The rest of the time the educators “lecture” and the students “discuss” the material over a network of computers. It’s a form of communication known as “computer teleconferencing,” and WBSI boasts that no one else in the world to date is using teleconferencing to operate a school.
Andrew Kay of Kaypro computers sat on the WBSI board.
Thus, neither the teachers nor the pupils are to be found at the building on Silverado. You see a number of computer terminals on the WBSI staff members’ desks. But you don’t see those staff members hunched over their terminals simultaneously. Just as the teleconferencing medium obviates the need for a group of students to gather in the same place, it also liberates class discussions from having to occur at the same moment in time — since every comment in the written discussions is preserved (in the memory of the central computer that unites the network). Instead, students and staff members and teachers in WBSI’s school tune into the ongoing discussions whenever each individual person feels like it; many of the busy executives join in during the wee hours of the morning.
Other educational programs for top executives do exist; Harvard, MIT, and Stanford offer them, for example. But Farson says virtually all those programs concentrate on honing very specialized skills such as financial analysis, marketing, and other management techniques. In contrast, Farson began WBSI’s school with a radically different premise — namely, that top managers deal with such a broad range of complex issues that they don’t need to be better technocrats. Instead, they need to be smarter human beings, or, put slightly differently, better leaders. Farson’s premise was that instead of training, what best creates leadership is “true” education, which Farson sees including a perspective on history, an appreciation for the social, economic, and technological context in which decisions are made, a concern for fundamental values, and an ability to think in terms of systems. To try to teach these things, Farson and the school staff have corralled not only management consultants, but also a stimulating mix of other world experts: anthropologists, philosophers, futurists, even a climatologist. Those people in turn have directed the computerized “conferences” to such topics as the development of nuclear weapons, the impact of technology on society, nineteenth-century industrialism.
Sitting in the La Valencia Hotel over breakfast one day recently, Farson downplayed the novelty of the school. It’s not as if WBSI invented either teleconferencing or “the notion that executives were getting into trouble because of the narrowly analytical education they were getting from the business schools,” he contends; WBSI’s innovation was simply to combine several concepts. Farson further argues that he never has viewed the creation of the school as any kind of sellout to the service of corporate America. “That’s where the power is,” he states animatedly, adding that he personally has always had a strong interest in the problem of educating executives.
He is disarming; in fact, I find it hard to imagine Farson failing to sound convincing on any subject. I must have heard the word “charisma” applied to him by half a dozen people. Part of that quality must spring from his personal appearance. He’s a big man with the chiseled features of a movie star; though he’s fifty-six, it’s still easy to understand why he has despaired on occasion that his good looks handicap him, make him look too slick. Beyond the physical gifts, he projects other blessings: a candor, a directness, an obvious, broad intelligence which has led him to a wide range of interests over the years.
In fact, the breadth of his interests somewhat diffuses his statement about always having been interested in executive education. At various times over the years, Farson has been a civic activist, the dean of a school of design, a champion of “children’s liberation,” the president of the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. If he were to start a tuna fishing company five years from now and declare that he’d always been interested in ocean resources, it wouldn’t surprise me.
But certainly his interest in educating businessmen goes back almost as far as his degree in psychology. Raised in the L.A. area. Farson in 1955 obtained his doctorate from the University of Chicago, and it was there that he first met Carl Rogers, the towering figure of modem psychology who did much to remove the sacrosanct aura that had built up around the concept of therapy. Rogers and his followers moved away from an emphasis on diagnosis and toward a process of counseling the patient. Rogers also was one of the first people to write about and make sense of the studies of group interactions which other people began in the late 1940s. Farson says Rogers popularized the notion of group therapy (which since has become commonplace) and he also added the notion that the individuals within a therapeutic group have the power to heal themselves without the aid of a professional “healer.”
He filled young Farson with inspiration, and when Farson Anally began practicing in San Diego as a psychotherapist in 1957, he eagerly used the novel, and still relatively unknown, group structure. He also stayed in touch with Rogers and in the spring of 1958 Farson helped to organize a psychological workshop which starred Farson’s mentor as one of the workshop leaders.
Held in Ojai, California, that event produced a fortunate encounter indeed. One of the participants was a retired physicist named Paul Lloyd. Heir to a family that had owned a major stake in the Ventura oil fields, Lloyd had retired to a vast cattle ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, where his interest had turned to psychology. He attended the workshop specifically to meet Rogers, and he came away dazzled by the experience. When Lloyd returned to San Diego, he looked up Farson and began talking to him about underwriting another such workshop. But Farson had another vision for how Lloyd’s largest might be directed. Farson and a young sociologist from San Diego State named Wayman (Bud) Crow had already begun dreaming about setting up a private, nonprofit, interdisciplinary institute dedicated to doing research in the social sciences. Lloyd liked the idea and WBSI was bom in late 1958; within months Lloyd had donated to the fledgling institute 200 prime acres of the Rancho Santa Fe property (which was worth about $1500 per acre).
Despite that bounty, the institute’s first two years brought a trying scramble for outside funding, but a breakthrough finally came in 1961, when the Office of Naval Research awarded WBSI $23,000 to study ‘ ‘the predictability of leadership.” To do this, WBSI organized twenty-seven different groups of San Diegans, with five people per group. Farson says the WBSI staffers told one arbitrarily selected person in each group to try to maximize his or her power over the other members; they told another person in each group to try to minimize his or her influence. Farson says the surprise was how easily the “leaders” thus tapped were able to increase their control over the others even though they weren’t told specifically how to do so, a conclusion which WBSI reported back to the Navy.
For WBSI it was the start of a long series of studies on group dynamics, in particular the question of whether psychological therapy groups needed professional leaders. First WBSI staffers observed leaderless groups from behind one-way mirrors (sending in help if the group members pushed a buzzer). Later WBSI compared groups with and without leaders. Ultimately WBSI personnel set up about a dozen “self-directed” encounter groups in communities all over San Diego. As a model, the leaderless groups could tune in on a Farson-directed group whose turbulent encounters were televised over Channel 10 every Sunday afternoon. Watching the TV group ‘ ‘kind of gave you permission in your group to be angry, to cry, to laugh, to love,” recalls one volunteer who assisted with the experiments. Farson says these community groups generally reported great satisfaction with their group experiences.
At the same time that the group therapy research was increasing, the military establishment continued to throw various projects WBSI’s way, and one of the most memorable led the young institute into another research frontier known as “simulations.” In essence, these were elaborate games played for a specific purpose. In the case of one study funded by the Navy, the purpose was to research the question of what happens to international relations whenever one country gains military invulnerability. To answer that, WBSI designed a series of two-week-long sessions. Each such simulation featured five different “countries” and a “god” from WBSI who directed the action. Four or five Navy recruits constituted each “country” (and only one of the countries was militarily invulnerable). The interactions between these simulated nations took place at the Naval Training Center on Point Loma. “They would write notes to one another and form alliances. Each country would send a representative to a ‘UN.’ They would do economic trading,” recalls Carol Harrington, who today is a practicing psychotherapist in Solana Beach. Back in 1963 she worked as a volunteer staff member; her job was producing the “newspaper” which every few hours delivered emergency bulletins to the global actors.
Harrington says it’s difficult to convey how intensely engrossing the action was. “We’d do it all day long from nine to five, Monday through Friday,” she recalls. “It was very interesting. I loved it!” The simulated worlds became so real that Harrington recalls her reaction one day in November when the group was told President Kennedy had just been assassinated. “My first reaction was they were just trying to mess up our game with false information,” she marvels. Another telling moment came in one session where “Omni,” the invulnerable country, had just annihilated the world. Harrington says after the momentary exhilaration of their conquest, the Omni team members experienced a startling feeling of deflation. “All of a sudden, the reaction was, ‘Gosh, what do we do now?’ And it turned out the only thing they could do was to do just what we [the U.S.] had done after the Second World War, which was to help out the guys they had just beaten. ’Cause otherwise the game couldn’t go on.” The overall conclusion which WBSI reported to the Navy was that when one country possesses military invulnerability, it was less likely to be attacked but more likely to initiate an aggressive action.
The results of that study brought good things for the La Jolla institute, even if they may have boded poorly for world peace. Other simulation grants followed. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had WBSI try to predict what kinds of events escalate or deter war; the civil defense office wanted models to help plan for whatever population might be left after a nuclear conflagration. Later, the militaristic simulations gave way to research on the use of simulations in San Diego County schools as an educational tool.
The institute’s work with the games lent it national stature; only one or two other organizations were trying to use them as education tools at the time. And another event in the early Sixties brought WBSI to the attention of behaviorist intellectuals nationwide. In September of 1963, Carl Rogers moved from the University of Wisconsin to La Jolla to take a position as one of WBSI’s “resident fellows.” Ensconced on the staff, Rogers continued his research and experiments with group therapy. Furthermore, his strong presence significantly altered the institute ’s personality, several of those who were present contend. Added to Far-son’s pre-existing interest in groups, Rogers and the coterie of disciples who soon flocked to him tipped the balance of power at WBSI toward groupism; some argue that the subtle shift in the balance of power which began with Rogers’ arrival ultimately led to the schism which was to rent WBSI five years later.
But if that’s true (and the Rogerians doubtless would debate it), then few of those consequences were evident in the first few years after Rogers ’ arrival. On the contrary, between 1946 and 1967, life at WBSI began bubbling like some aromatic bouillabaise. Enticed in part by Rogers’ presence, several other luminaries (psychologist Abraham Maslow, theologian Paul Tillich, semanticist S. I. Hayakawa, and philosopher Abraham Kaplan), visited the La Jolla institute. During that period, Farson and Rogers undertook the encounter-group videotaping sessions which later became an Academy Award-winning documentary. In early 1967, WBSI won a whopping $250,000 grant to study the effects of the War on Poverty program among San Diego aid recipients, a gigantic undertaking which ballooned the staff up to seventy-five people. Ever present in the background, kindly, gentle Paul Lloyd, the physicist-cum-pop-psych-convert, labored at developing an entirely new branch of mathematically notated logic designed to describe the seeming paradoxes of human relationships.
“New things were always happening there . . . and there was a sense of bettering the world,” recalls one veteran. Once the grant money really began rolling in, “We all felt invincible,” recalls one of the staff psychologists from that time, who adds, “The mood in the country was that the dominant problem which would be facing us was how to spend our leisure time, not how to make a living. People just weren’t that concerned about money.”
After Rogers’ arrival at WBSI, the institute’s own organizational structure soon turned unorthodox, to say the least. Nurtured by the Rogerian group ideology, the WBSI management became almost completely democratized. "We’d sit in a room with thirty to forty people and try to make decisions,” recalls psychologist Garry Shirts, who ran the simulation studies. Shirts says, “Everyone was included: the secretaries, the gardeners. And it took hours and hours and hours. It was like, 'Do you like this letterhead?’ ‘No, I don’t like that letterhead.’ And people cried and you shared your feelings with them and tried to be closer.” Looking back, Shirts still sees some value to the arrangement. When an organization strives for democratic consensus in its decision making, it might take ages to reach any decisions, “but once you reach them, they can be implemented with great speed,” Shirts points out. Other WBSI alumni remember the sessions less kindly.
“They were agonizing, absolutely agonizing,” one administrator says, recalling how the most trivial matters would consume as much time as crucial ones. “We’d lock the doors and ignore the phones, and it just used to drive me crazy. I’d say, ‘But I’ve got to get back to those phones! And I’ve got so much to do.' ” In turn the true believers would reassure her that eventually she would get the point. “But I never understood the group process,” she says. “I never understood why we were doing this.”
By the end of the 1960s, the two threads that had always run through the institute had become so distinct that many people today recall WBSI was almost like two separate institutes. One, dominated by Rogers, revolved around the subjective, highly personal group therapy work, while the other led by Crow was concerned with sociological research projects much broader in scope and much more rigorously scientific in structure. Increasing the native tension between the two was the common perception that the sociologists were bringing in most of the institute’s income, yet the psychologists were spending far more than their share of it.
Also, the inherent personality differences between WBSI’s leaders eventually deepened into real conflict, perhaps exacerbated by the professional differences. Bud Crow’s hard-nosed scientific skepticism had always clashed with the Rogerians’ almost religious faith in group therapy. “Bud Crow was one of the only people who stood up to Carl Rogers,” one former staffer recalls. A different problem surfaced between Crow and Farson; the simple personality differences between two men evolved over the years into subtle but ineluctable sore spots. Farson today calls Crow “a brilliant social psychologist” who always combined tenacity and inventiveness in his solid approaches to research. But Crow lacked Farson’s flamboyant charisma. “I got all the attention,” Farson acknowledges with a mixture of sadness and resignation. “I really did. ... I not only had the title [of “director”] but I had the reputation. I got credit for things that I didn’t deserve credit for.” Farson recalls how when San Diego Magazine did a cover story on WBSI in 1967, it took photographs of the three founders (Farson, Crow, and Paul Lloyd) down at the beach. But when the photographs didn’t turn out, the magazine wanted to use a shot of the handsome Farson alone. “And Bud and Paul just about died,” Farson says. “It was one of those things.”
Farson also says the story of WBSI’s great schism’is “a real Rashomon" — depending on who you talk to, you get a vastly different story. With that caveat, Farson says his memory of the traumatic event comes against the backdrop of revolt which was sweeping through all of American society in 1968. “There was a lot of restlessness in every organization, and we didn’t escape that at the institute. There was a lot of antipathy toward the three of us [Crow, Farson, and Lloyd] who started the institute. It was felt we had a stranglehold on the place.” Today Farson thinks that’s a joke; he says he’s since seen enough of other organizations to know what a real stranglehold is like. Nevertheless Farson says Carl Rogers and his followers used the democratic forums to press the three founders to relinquish their authority to a committee. “I acquiesced,” Farson says, “and I pressured Paul and Bud to do it, too. It’s probably the dumbest thing I ever did in my life. But . . .,” he shrugs, ‘‘I did it.”
Yet the arrangement didn’t last long before Farson knew he detested it. And simultaneous events presented him with a seductive alternative. Warren Avis, the rent-a-car king, had begun coaxing Farson to come to Beverly Hills and start a rival to WBSI in exchange for three times as much money and a piece of the action, and Farson brimmed with confidence that he could repeat his La Jolla success. At the same time, Farson and his wife had become friends with actress Jennifer Jones and had begun socializing with her glittering Hollywood set. “So there was a lot of pull to go,” Farson says. And yet he didn’t want to leave. He claims he never doubted for a moment that at WBSI he had “the best job in the social sciences.”
So he went before the committee of young post-doctoral candidates who had assumed power, and Farson says he told them, ‘‘I’ve got this offer. I’d rather be director of the institute [WBSI], But I want to be director. I don’t want to be a member of some triumvirate that I have to worry about all the time.” He then walked out of the meeting while the group deliberated. “Carl Rogers then came up to talk to me and said, ‘Dick, look, we can’t give that to you. But if you stick around, someday it will come to you.’ Well, that just wasn’t good enough.”
Farson departed in the summer of 1968, leaving WBSI under the direction of Paul Lloyd, who was to oversee one operating group run by Crow, and one run by Rogers. But that plan failed almost immediately. A few months after Farson left, Rogers and his disciples broke away to form their own organization, the Center for Studies of the Person, located in the quarters on Torrey Pines Road that WBSI had occupied in the early 1960s. In the absence of Farson and Rogers, the Bud Crow era of WBSI dawned.
At the time of the split, Crow was in the midst of the giant War on Poverty study, and the additional government grants which he won over the next few years all supported similar projects: sweeping social inquiries broad in scope, activist in tone. Crow wanted his work to change society. One million-dollar grant backed a study to find ways to rehabilitate hard-core criminal offenders; another study examined the lives of elderly downtown residents. One program reportedly elevated the reading scores of minority children to normal for at least two consecutive years.
But by 1976, despite some successful and attention-getting programs, thunderheads once again had begun to appear on WBSI’s horizon: the big grant money was growing increasingly elusive. Although Crow had built the institute back up to a staff of thirty to thirty-five, by 1977 financial pressure forced him to begin a long series of layoffs.
Crow sympathizers cite a number of factors which contributed to the decline. During Crow’s tenure, the economy had bogged down into persistent recession. By the last third of the decade, those “Great Society’’-style social welfare monies dried to a trickle. And by the Seventies, thousands of nonprofit research organizations had sprung up to compete with WBSI. Facing those grim realities, Crow and his few remaining assistants tried to develop other private funding sources. “We had drawers and drawers of proposals,” one stalwart from that period says. “But nothing worked.”
To bring in some money, the institute rented out an increasing share of the building on Silverado Street (which Lloyd had purchased), but still WBSI avoided bankruptcy only through continued aid from the ever-generous Lloyd. The crisis did not escape Dick Farson’s attention. After leaving in 1968, Farson’s proposed venture with the rent-a-car entrepreneur never materialized. Instead, Farson had become dean of the school of design at the brand-new California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. From there he had gone on to command the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, and thence to San Francisco’s Saybrook Institute.
Yet in each of those glamorous posts, Farson claims he nonetheless longed to be back in La Jolla. “Two weeks after I left the institute in 1968,1 wished I hadn’t done it.” From time to time he’d put out feelers about returning, and although he’d gotten no encouragement, Farson continued throughout the Seventies to work as chairman of WBSI’s board of directors.
So Farson knew all about WBSI’s money problems. He says he never would have tried to muscle his way back into the organization, though, had it not been for something Crow initiated. Farson says one night in 1979 he had come down to San Diego from the Bay Area for a meeting of WBSI’s board of directors, and was staying at Crow’s house in Rancho Santa Fe. That night the two men sat up late reminiscing. Farson finally made a move to retire for the night, but suddenly Crow announced, “You know, we ’re going to have to figure out some way to get you back.” There’s still a note of delight in Farson’s voice when he recounts his reaction. “I said, ‘Well, Jesus Christ, Bud, that’s big of you.’ Because I knew how hard it was for him to say it to me. I said, ‘Whether anything ever happens, I do appreciate that you said it.’ I went to bed very excited, thinking maybe I was going to be able to return. At the time I thought, ‘We could put the old team back together.’ Because Paul was still alive and I was still chairman. I could come in and be the person to help program development.”
Farson left the next morning without seeing Crow, but he dropped him a note within days. He heard nothing, and began to fear that Crow had had sober second thoughts. When he persisted, he says Crow finally blurted out that if Farson came back, Farson would have to drop his chairmanship and work as an employee. “It just stunned me,” Farson reveals.
Farson says he reacted by resigning himself once and for all never to return to the institute staff. “But I thought, ‘At least I’m going to start acting like a real board chairman.’ ” He wrote a letter suggesting possible new directions for WBSI and a change in some of Crow’s key employees. Instead of responding to the letter, however, Crow simply canceled the upcoming board meeting. "Now, I was chairman of the board,” Farson says. “You don’t do that without checking with the chairman of the board. That made me so angry, I can’t tell you. So I set in motion an effort to re-enter the institute, to force my way back in.” Farson says he realized he had never in his life fought for anything. Yet at the next board meeting he battled to reclaim his institutional baby, and the vote went three-to-two in his favor. (Bud Crow and current chamber of commerce president Lee Grissom voted against; Farson, Andrew Kay of KAYPRO computers, and entrepreneur Raoul Marquis voted in favor.)
This occurred in August of 1979, and Farson says he spent the next few months developing a plan that called for Crow to remain at WBSI as president. “There was no question in my mind that he would stay. I wanted him to stay. I didn’t ever see him moving out.” Nevertheless, at the end of November Crow resigned. Farson claims the resignation was “really an effort to force another confrontation, but this time I had my ducks in order. They [the other board members] were even mad at him for doing that.” (Crow, who has since moved to Wyoming, asserts that his resignation was not an attempt to change what had taken place. He says he asked Farson to resign the chairmanship to avoid any leadership struggle, and that he resigned for precisely the same reason when the board selected Farson to be leader.)
Farson had made it home again. But he was hardly home free. WBSI had no income and no prospects for any. Firing everyone except for a part-time bookkeeper and the one administrator who’d stuck it out through both the Rogers and the Crow eras, Farson scrambled for ideas. He got a contract to produce a one-hour television program on mental health for the state department of mental health. He toyed with the idea of starting a transborder studies center. And then one night he hit upon the idea of the computerized management training school.
Here was a project with the potential not only to free WBSI from the two-bit grant treadmill, but also to launch it once again into virgin research territory. Here, he felt confident, was a project on which it was worth gambling WBSI’s entire existence. And that, essentially, is what Farson has done. In April of 1981, the trustees sold the building on Silverado Street to obtain the seed money for the “School of Management and Strategic Studies.” (Philanthropist Paul Lloyd had by then been overcome with illness; he died that spring.) The sale of the building brought in $1,275,000 (plus an agreement that WBSI would continue to occupy about a quarter of the building as a tenant).
It took Farson more than a year from the time of its conception to organize the school. Today it works roughly like this: Every new student receives a computer terminal (included in the $24,800 cost of the two-year program) and when he leaves one of the week-long biannual meetings in La Jolla, the student can set up that terminal in either his home or office. In practice, the WBSI staff has found that most participants seem to prefer the home. After all, if someone’s terminal is in his home and he feels like conversing at three in the morning, there’s nothing to stop him from typing out the commands needed to connect him to the New Jersey computer uniting the school network.
Every comment made by anyone (students, teachers, or staff) in any of the “class discussions” is stored, in sequence, within that New Jersey computer. Of course, new comments are added daily; they can be added at any minute of any hour. Whenever anyone feels like rejoining a given discussion, he calls up on his terminal’s screen the last comments he read, then he reads through any new comments, then he adds any new thoughts of his own. Each of the discussions is led by a teacher and has a very specific topic. For example, last fall UCSD professor Herbert York led the school through a three-week discussion of the development of the Soviet-American arms race. The discussion that just ended in June (led by another authority) examined the nature of productivity and looked at the causes for its decline within the United States. These discussions fit within the broader subject matter of each of the four six-monthlong segments (such as “Technological Progress and People”) that constitute the entire program.
Although it’s easy to state the general topics of the school discussions, it’s very difficult to convey more precisely what the WBSI students and teachers say. Even though WBSI possesses a written transcript of each one of the discussions, the transcripts are far too convoluted for a brief excerpt to make any sense. “They’re like long, thoughtful conversations,” says one of the staff members. “You talk and talk and every once in a while someone says something that really grabs you and turns your head around. ”
Given the difficulties of explaining the mechanics of the school’s operation, WBSI’s sales pitch instead emphasizes the “message” of the school (i.e., developing leadership) more than it does the teleconferencing medium. Reading the brochures, one does not hear any frivolous whisper to play with a wondrous new toy. Yes, yes, we use the new technology, the brochures state — but for pragmatic reasons. The brochures argue that teleconferencing allows WBSI’s program to avoid a hidden pitfall of on-campus programs. When an executive goes to Harvard, for example, and receives a concentrated dose of intellectual stimulation from one of the school’s programs for businessmen, he’s also apt to feel emotionally let down upon his return to the less rarefied world of everyday corporate life. Moreover, WBSI contends that big corporations in reality don’t send their very best people to existing on-campus training programs, simply because they can't spare them. In contrast, the electronic school permits those indispensable people — the ones who most need stimulation — to enjoy the benefits of the program without ever leaving their jobs.
To date, that approach has enjoyed only mixed success. The school has twenty-six pupils at the moment, and a new “semester” is about to begin July 16. Twenty to twenty-five new students are expected to attend. Bob McAndrews, the man whom Farson hired to run the school, says twenty-four additional enrollees would finally enable the school to cover its operating expenses. Still, even fifty students is only about half of what WBSI hoped to have by now; as a result, the school hasn’t yet earned back its development money.
On the other hand, the enrollment figures are not the only indication of how Farson’s gamble is faring. A far more encouraging sign is the fact that not one of the twenty-six executives who have signed up has dropped out of the program. McAndrews can press a few buttons on his keyboard and tell exactly how much of all the lectures and discussion each individual student has read, and thus he knows that although many of the twenty-six have participated unremittingly (some fanatically), he also knows that a few of their number have stopped tuning in at all. WBSI fully expected these individuals also to stop paying the costly tuition — and yet to date they ’ve each heartily insisted that they want to continue their enrollment. “This is a genuine surprise,” says another of the school’s administrators. He says, “What I’ve come to realize is that the school represents to them exactly what we’d hoped it would: access to power.” They feel even if they haven’t fulfilled the potential, they still have the power to talk to lots of people like Stewart Brand and Herman Kahn and Kai Lee.
Brand (the Whole Earth Catalog publisher) and futurist Kahn and environmentalist Lee are among those who’ve accepted teaching assignments at WBSI’s school in the last year and a half. Virtually all the school’s teachers, in fact, have boasted extraordinary credentials. And yet that faculty has been recruited with ‘‘amazing ease,” according to McAndrews. (The monetary rewards are far from overwhelming. Each instructor receives about $4500 for his six-month term, plus operating expenses for the computer equipment he is loaned.) He says only a handful of the people he has sought have turned him down: Robert McNamara, Volvo chief executive officer Pehr Gyllenhammar, Saburo Okita (one of the men credited with Japan’s reindustralization after the Second Wold War). McAndrews is confident that, before long, the school will win such superstars. They’ll sign up to teach at this upstart school in San Diego because they won’t be able to resist learning about this new medium.
For it’s this — the computer teleconferencing — that lies at the heart of what has Farson and the institute so amazed. Despite the nonchalance with which the school’s catalogue describes the computerized educational network, it isn’t the content that has captured the staff’s imaginations. It’s the form. They’re surprised by it. They ’re dazzled. They ’re frustrated by how hard it is to explain what it’s like to communicate to other people in this manner, and how it’s different from any existing form of human communication.
They say it’s sort of like reading and writing letters — and yet not merely an electronic correspondence course. Even ignoring the fact that exchanges can occur instantaneously (rather than wending their way through the mail), there’s also this: while normal correspondence courses involve a written dialogue between one student and one teacher, in the educational teleconference it’s as if each student’s written assignments could be simultaneously flashed to a group of other students. Which in turn means that the students’ comments could then spark further comments. Which in turn leads to a blurring of the line between teachers and students.
In fact, that’s part of the great challenge for the teachers who are working with WBSI’s school. When you sit at one of computer terminals and you plug in to one of the conferences and you watch the written comments scroll before you, ‘‘you can’t quite tell who’s the teacher and who’s not,” McAndrews points out. Further blurring the identities has been the (unexpected) adoption of pen names and “anonymous” entries by both the students and teachers, and then “everything gets stripped away,” McAndrews says. “You can say things to Herman Kahn that you could never say in any other situation probably, unless you lived in his home. . . . And you can get more playful than you could in a face-to-face situation. If the teacher was up in front of the classroom, there are certain mores that inhibit people.”
Over the network, a far more uninhibited group dynamic has developed. McAndrews says one particular student unfailingly deflates any hint of pomposity. “He’ll say [write], ‘Come off it.’ That sort of thing. Like everyone, he’s braver on-line than he is in the seminars.” McAndrews adds that the new medium itself “forces teachers to reflect upon their teaching style, which they may not have had to do before. . . . Here, maybe nobody shows up one night when they ’re giving their main lecture. They get frightened. Or they put a question out and nobody responds to the question for two days. What do they do? How do they get them engaged? They struggle like fury. It is so provocative to watch these first-rate thinkers unfold before your very eyes. They get stripped down in terms of their presumptions. It’s just great!”
The medium strips away more than just professional presumptions. The WBSI staff testifies that, in a teleconference, ideas suddenly become much more important than personal demeanor. Suddenly, what counts is not whether you’re male or female, black or white, a clerk or a chief executive officer, but rather what you have to say. At the same time, it’s not a “cold” form of communication, asserts Darrell Icenogle, the school’s director of educational resources.
Icenogle mentions one student/ executive who turned to his terminal and confided in the other school participants when his daughter became critically ill with a heart ailment. “He was home a lot with her so he was spending a lot of time on his terminal. We saw it all unfold. He asked for prayers from any of us who might feel like offering them,” Icenogle says. When the daughter died, the man movingly communicated his grief. “It's incredibly emotional and ego-involving,” Icenogle insists. “You put something out on the system and you check back in two hours to see if someone’s read it. You forget you’re sitting at a machine. You envision there's a space out there you’re communicating through.” Icenogle says the medium also tends to temper emotional responses with a greater reflectiveness. “There’ll be times when I’ll read a comment and I won’t believe somebody actually said something so stupid. So I’ll sit down and write two pages of an angry reply. But before I can get it into the system I’ll see that someone else has already responded in a way which throws me totally. So I’ll go back and reread the original comment and get a whole new interpretation of it. You see, every comment stays there. It’s an artifact.”
Dick Farson says what the new medium does is to change significantly the social psychology of the communication. He mentions one telephone conversation he had with one of the teachers, a communications analyst named Alex Bavelas. Farson says Bavelas finally remarked on how strange it was to be conversing over the phone after having spent so much time “talking” on the network. Bavelas added that he didn’t like the phone conversation as well.
Farson says when he asked Bavelas to explain why he felt that way, Bavelas said, “First of all, I can never get you on the phone. You’re never there. I try twenty times and I finally get you once. And when I finally get you, I don’t know who’s in the room with you. I don’t know what you’d rather be doing than talking to me. I don’t know what’s on your desk that requires your attention then. Even though you’re hospitable and friendly, I don’t know whether I really have you or not. I don’t know, in other words, how much I’m imposing on you. I never feel like I’m imposing when I send you a message on-line.
“And then,” Bavelas continued, ‘ ‘on the telephone I have to go through sort of amenities, little games, small talk. And then I usually wind up not saying everything I really want to say. Sometimes when I’ve said it, it isn’t quite what I meant to say, but I can’t take it back. I can’t edit what I’m saying . Sometimes I’m sorry for what I’ve said, and I can’t take that back either."
With these sort of realizations striking them daily, it didn’t take long before the WBSI staff began bubbling over with other teleconference-based projects. At first that worried Farson. He says he fretted about becoming a “victim” of the new technology, about it being “the tail that wagged the dog.” And then he says yet another insight occurred to him: the realization that the technology had led WBSI back to “precisely what the institute was about in the first place.”
Simulation expert Garry Shirts concurs. “I think Dick Farson is one of the few people from the Sixties who has found a way to apply in the Eighties what he was doing twenty years ago.” He says the questions WBSI is now asking about the teleconferees are the same ones it was asking about the sensitivity explorers: How do you get a group to interact? To share ideas? To be creative? Farson elaborates, “We were technology-driven then [in the early days of the institute]. Then the new tool was the encounter group.” Today, he says, it’s computers instead of encounter groups which are changing the way we interact. And Farson believes that the things which truly transform society are not mere machines but those things (mechanical or otherwise) which change the way we relate to one another.
He says with the advent of electronic communication networks, business organizations will function differently. “Say you’re an executive, and I go to you and ask who you want to work with to construct a five-year plan.” Under the old way of doing things, “you would pretty much be limited to people in the executive suite.” But if, through teleconferencing, you could work with anyone in the world, “pretty soon you would say, ‘Yeah, well actually, if I could have anybody I guess there’s Elliott Jackson. He’s in London. And there’s a consultant in Princeton and one at UCLA. And there’s two or three of our big customers. I’d like to have their input. And then there’s some vendors.’ You see how it goes. Pretty soon you’re seeing a network of people. It’s a large network, bigger than the span of control you would have thought possible.”
Farson therefore predicts that “the office of the future is not going to be like what we have now. . . . The office of the future will be the linking of minds.” Those linkages also will be forged outside the workplace, he believes. “If you just lost a child, for example, you may not have anybody in your neighborhood or even in your town who’s quite gone through that. But there’s somebody somewhere in the state who has, and probably quite a number of them.”
Of course all such predictions rest on the premise that computer teleconferencing isn’t just a toy, a novelty on the verge of becoming a fad. Isn’t it possible, I asked Farson, that you’re dabbling with the CB of the Eighties? “There’s a part of me that wonders that too,” he replied. But he claims by now he’s fairly convinced that it is not. “It is not the Hula Hoop. The honeymoon phase for me is over. I’m no longer impressed with my ability to reach Venezuela with my computer. I now quite unconsciously use it, automatically, to talk over things that are really important to me with people. And I use it in preference to other modes.”
He offered this example. The night before, he had flown home from out of town, and about midnight he’d checked his computer terminal only to find a message from Alex Bavelas saying he wanted to “engage in a private discourse” with Farson about redesigning the school to attract more students. “Now, I suppose there are times when I would have thought, ‘I’ve just gotta get together with Alex. I’ll have to fly up to Vancouver. Or I’ll have to get him down here. Or maybe we should set up a conference call or something like that.” Now, however, Farson says, “Those seem to be less desirable ways of proceeding than my actually knowing that over the next few weeks we can have this kind of give-and-take over the machine. He and I have now gotten to the point where we say very much what we mean on this thing. I mean we use it. And we ’ve worked out a pretty good relationship on it. It seems a perfectly natural thing for me to do.”
That’s when Farson made the comment about computers being an improvement over face-to-face communication for some situations. He acknowledged that it almost sounded strange to his own ears. “If there was ever anybody who was interested in the unfolding of the humanity of a person, in increasing the dimensionality of people, it’s been me. I mean, that’s what everything I was doing was all about. Christ, I was the president of Esalen! And I was simply amazed to discover that this [computerized communication] would be so deeply personal, and so far more opening of dimensions of humans which don’t ordinarily get expressed.”
Farson isn’t disparaging person-to-person talk completely. In fact he believes the face-to-face meetings among the school’s staff and students every six months in La Jolla are a crucial element in making everyone feel comfortable about going home and communicating over the network. He says it’s simply that he’s only now come to realize how much of face-to-face talk is thoughtless. Plus, so many distractions complicate any such interchange: not just physical surroundings, but all the other subtle undercurrents, too — social, emotional, sociological — which course through any encounter between humans in the flesh. “So much goes on — but most of it is noise,’’ Farson maintains, noise which is “in one sense enriching, but in another sense reduces the chance for us to say really what it is that we mean. . . . We forget how limiting personal conversations are compared to the richness of a letter. Nineteenth-century letter writing was not less rich than what we have now. It was far richer.’’ That’s what the computer networks will take us to, he believes, to that and more. And for the moment, he thinks he and his team at WBSI have a temporary monopoly on knowing what it’s going to be like along the way.