Light a path for the better angels
Thank you, Chancellor McLellan, President Florizone, Dean Charlebois, Dr. Hewitt, and Dr. Kilfoil for the invitation to speak today and thank you for the honorary degree.
I’m honored to speak at a university whose motto is: Pray and Work.
It’s pretty close to the one I had as an entrepreneur, which was – Pray It Will Work.
First, my congratulations. Your degree is a big deal. This is your day, not mine.
At worst, a commencement speaker is all that stands between you and lunch. At best, I can give you something to think about as you embark on the next chapter in your life.
What, I wondered, would I have said to a group of graduates living on the edge of a revolution the day writing was invented, or the year after Gutenberg printed the first book, or when radio reached into the homes of millions. What advice would I have given to those about to enter a world no one had ever experienced?
Whether you like it or not, or know it or not, you’re coming of age at just that extraordinary time in human development.
Let me be honest about my bias. I love technology. I’ve spent my life at the center of innovation in Silicon Valley – doing eight startups in 21 years, and the last 15 years in academia teaching others innovation and entrepreneurship. I was present at the creation of the first microprocessors, participated in the PC revolution, built video games, and shipped software on the first Internet browsers. And I’ve watched how, in a blink of an eye, technology went from products used by the very few, to ending up in the pockets of billions, bringing social change and corporate disruption.
But nothing, absolutely nothing, I’ve experienced, will come close to what you’re going to see.
Only a few generations have been granted the role of determining whether a revolution in communication will allow our better angels – or our darker angels – to win. You leave here with incredible opportunity, but also with immense responsibility.
Half the world now owns a smartphone. On an average day, you’ll look at your phone over 200 times. You’ve gone through college interacting with your friends and connecting to the world using Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, Tinder, Pandora, Pinterest, Uber, YouTube and other apps I don’t even know. Living “phone forward” and connecting to the world through this software seems normal – to you.
You communicate, interact and network with each other in a way that’s unique in the history of our species. Faster, with infinitely more data, in shorter bursts, with more connections to more people and places.
We now know that the way we consume information changes our brains. Whether new forms of communication physically change our gray matter, or just cause us to use different parts of it, is still open to debate. But clearly, our brains process information differently depending on the form of communication we’re engaged in.
Your brains have been rewired to process all this Net-based information. Your brains are dealing with the world in a different way than humans ever have.
That kind of profound shift has occurred only six times in the entire 200,000-year history of Homo Sapiens. And you, here today, are the vanguard of the seventh wave.
Each time this happened, the human race made major leaps forward. Your generation, all of you graduating today, are our unintended science experiment. Have we have given you a gift or a curse?
Let’s look at what happened the six other times our brains were rewired.
If you remember from your anthropology class, modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, and with them, spoken language. For the next 195,000 years, we passed information on to one another via stories. You sat by a fire, looked at the stars and listened to a storyteller recount creation myths, hero myths and stories for entertainment, and your imagination was engaged as you filled in the details.
Over thousands of years, these storytellers rewired their own brains into something different from those who were simply listening. Storytellers trained to memorize outrageously long narratives, more than most humans alive today can.
Storytellers had new brains.
After more than 100,000 years of telling stories, something unprecedented happened. A few merchants in the Mideast created writing, at first to keep track of crops.
I think it’s appropriate to remind a university class that some of the oldest written inscriptions were not only about crops, but also the celebration of beer.
With written text, the minds of the readers required a whole new way of processing information. We now had to first learn how to read, and then we had to understand what the words were trying to tell us.
Readers and writers of language had new brains.
The written word also meant that information could now be standardized. Our better angels blossomed.
We could formalize laws, create religious texts, and communicate orders to coordinate activities farther than the spoken word could travel. Written language enabled the creation of large societies and with them, governments.
Our darker angels also found ways to use the written word – to dominate and oppress others.
But in 1440, Gutenberg rocked the world when he invented the printing press.
Until the middle of the 15th century, most people couldn’t read. The mass production of books changed that. Within 50 years, books created an information explosion across Europe – 10’s of thousands of titles, and 10’s of millions of copies of books. Our better angels soared as printed books became the Internet of the Renaissance.
Readers of books now had new brains.
And mass production of printed books fueled a reconfiguration of our society, not just our brains. With the printing press, it only took a couple of months to spread Martin Luther’s 95 Theses over much of northern Europe. The result was the Protestant Reformation, which ushered in a new era of political, intellectual and cultural change.
Our darker angels were frightened by the free and unfettered access to information – and banned books – and burned heretics that challenged church and state dogma.
It took about two centuries from the appearance of the book to the emergence of what we would now call newspapers – mass communication had arrived.
The first weekly newspapers appeared in Italy and Germany, and quickly spread through Europe.
In Canada, the first newspaper ever was right here – the Halifax Gazette.
By the end of the 19th century mass circulation papers had developed the characteristics that your parents would recognize today—headlines, illustrations, entertaining stories – all designed to shortcut critical thinking, and stir passion and emotion to sell newspapers and, of course, advertising.
Now, newspaper readers had a daily or weekly stream of “clickbait” headlines.
Readers of newspapers had new brains.
The next wave was Radio. It gave us instantaneous communication to national audiences. Advertisers immediately figured out how to turn those engaged audiences into consumers. And some governments learned how to turn radio into a weapon of mass deception.
Radio meant that we could now hear the voices of storytellers again. As our brains were newly engaged, our imaginations were required to translate the spoken words into mental pictures.
Listeners to radio had new brains.
It wasn’t more than 30 years from widespread radio that television came onto the scene. TV was something different than just radio with voices.
Our better angels shined a light into homes and battlefields across the world. It changed for the better how we viewed race, gender and class.
But our darker angels dimmed our imaginations. We could gaze all evening and disengage our brains.
Viewers of television had new – and slightly diminished – brains.
For decades, the phrase “As seen on TV” sold as many products as it obliterated much critical thinking.
Not only did this work for commercial products, but it also extended to politicians. A handsome, young, telegenic politician could capture a country.
And that brings us to today.
I don’t have to explain the Internet to you. You live it, you’re immersed in it. But let me take a minute to contrast it with the world I grew up in. I spent my first seventeen years in a city where there were just three major TV channels, three major newspapers, and no Internet. If I wanted to look something up, I had to go to library. If I wanted to connect with a friend, I used a hardwired phone at a desk at home, or paid for each call by physically putting money into a phone in a booth. And that was in New York City. The rest of the world had much, much less.
The Net is like we invented writing, the printing press, radio, TV and the Internet in the same decade. That’s the world you’re graduating into – immersed in social media, with infinite facts and continuous news.
The seventh wave in communication and brain rewiring has arrived. You think and process things differently from how your parents, grandparents and any other humans who have ever lived.
When each of the other six waves initially arrived, the early adopters were the more agile outliers. But ultimately, governments and companies figured out how to master the new technology and individuals lost, as the power of the state, and power of profit, controlled the new media. The same is true for the Internet.
Today, China, Russia, North Korea and other countries have locked their citizens behind a great firewall. They control what their citizens can see and access. Yet at the same time, Facebook, Google, Twitter and the rest of social media capture more personal information on you than any government security agency — except their goal is to profit from your presence.
So, What Does This Mean For You?
You’ve been in a university where information distribution in your classroom was not a democracy. There were voices of expertise and authority, you had certified data providers called professors. You didn’t vote on whether you believed what you were taught; in fact, you were graded on how well you understood it.
But you’re entering a world where you won’t have such certainty. Let me give you an example of the challenges you are going to face in a 24/7 Internet world on a personal level, as a citizen, and in your career.
You deal in streams of short-form information – 140 characters, pictures and messages that disappear. The question for you is: how will you deal with issues that are more complex than soundbites, and require deep dives?
Every generation has had to deal with “fake news” – deliberate misinformation spread by storytelling, books, newspaper, radio and TV. It had different names in the past — “yellow journalism,” propaganda, misinformation.
But unlike in previous generations, fake news today is like a social disease – you catch it from your “friends.”
And the feeling of validity that comes from hearing something from someone you know makes social media much more powerful than what you see on TV or read in a newspaper.
In your generation, Facebook is one of the leading sources of fake news. And that’s a shame, since Facebook is not a news source, it doesn’t originate news, it’s just a distributor of news – one designed to get you to spend time on their site, click on their ads and gather your personal information.
Today, AP and Bloomberg already have bots that write sports stories and earnings reports. Soon machines will make the news by optimizing stories for clicks. Before long computers will create fake videos – and we won’t be able to tell the difference between what was created by a human and what’s computer generated.
What kind of skills will you need to operate in a world of real and fake manufactured data coming from friends? Will you vote for people who value facts or manufacture them?
Will you let darker angels win as you add fire to the flame, or will you seek out and spread real news?
We’ve become digital junkies.
Information consumption and engagement with social media means these platforms have become your emotional drug dealers. “Likes” and thumbs up and posting on social media are addictive, at times like a chemical dependency. They provide immediate rewards after each interaction. They prey on the “fear of missing out” – of the moment or event. Your sense of identity and your values are now validated by a crowd.
Research shows that talking about your own views generates more emotional rewards than listening to conflicting ones. This becomes a self-reinforcing system as you seek out sources of information and other people that support your world view. It creates a polarized world.
Addiction is one of our perpetual dark angels. You need a purpose-driven life to survive in a world where social media is monetizing both your emotions and your time spent looking at ads.
Finally, the Net has the power to pull us apart as well as bring us together
Each wave in the last 200,000 years – storytelling, writing, books, newspapers, radio, TV and the Net – started with the optimistic view that if we could communicate faster and more efficiently it would bring out the better angels of our nature. We could be more cohesive, we could be smarter, we could learn new things that would help us make the world a better place. All these things happened, and yet…
At each step forward, our darker angels found a way to use these tools, too.
In spite of that, today the human race is in a better place than in any time in human history. Each advancement in our capabilities to communicate gave us the ability to reject a world dominated by violence and ignorance for a world where knowledge and cooperation drove civilization forward.
Most revolutions are not obvious when they happen. When the first scribe wrote on a tablet, no one said, “This is the day everything changes.” When the first Bible came off Gutenberg’s press, no one said, “There will be billions of these.”
I do not believe that any of you would exchange places with any other generation.
But the question is whether you’ll tell your children that this decade was the beginning of a new dark age, or whether it was the time of something new and wonderful. When it was the time the Internet and social media allowed us to work faster and more collaboratively. When scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs were integrated into the fabric of society faster than they had ever been before. And when how businesses operated changed forever.
Now graduates of 2017, as you turn back to your phones, light a path for the better angels. The world is counting on you.
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Read more Steve Blank posts at www.steveblank.com.