I was asked to give the commencement talk at my old high school this year. I wrote it out ahead of time, so figured I’d share it here –
Shady Side Academy Commencement Speech – 5 June 2009
Good morning, Shady Side, and a hearty congratulations to the class of 2009!
It’s fantastic to be back on campus. I confess that when I was a student here I had good days, bad days, and, well, surreal days. I began at David Mancosh’s Middle School, where a scrappy production of Lord of the Flies enjoyed a daily run for over two decades. My first mistake was to be a skinny nerd with the name ZITTRAIN. I compounded the error by wearing my school backpack over both shoulders. I was alerted to my lack of fashion sense when someone drop kicked it from behind while I was wearing it. It sailed about six inches off the ground, taking me with it like a parachute in an updraft, and I landed with it upside down across my stomach.
From then on I carried my pack slung over my right shoulder and staggered into classes like Latin. We were given quizzes nearly every day, tasked with translating insanely convoluted sentences. We’d then visit the teacher’s desk one by one to look over his shoulder as he graded our respective quizzes, a dot on each clause as he parsed the sentences, and an angry red circle around mistakes. What happened if you managed to get through with only dots? A 99 out of 100. (There were numerical grading scales back then. Today I understand you have feel-good grades ranging from W00T to EPIC FAIL.) Anyway, no one earned 100 in this teacher’s class. 99 was the best you could do. I think the intended lesson was that no one can ever be perfect. The Latin phrase is Personam Loserum No Matter Whatum.
I’ve since drawn a larger lesson: throughout life you will encounter people in positions of authority over you whom you believe to be lunatics. How you handle these situations will in part determine how happy you can be. Sometimes you can fight it; sometimes you can persuade the other person of your view; sometimes you just have to live with it; and sometimes it turns out that you’re the lunatic. Feeling powerless over something you care about is one of the toughest situations to encounter, and such situations don’t lessen in adulthood. I remember being surprised in my twenties to discover that adults are basically just like you, only older. As of today, even as you begin the odd cycle of school life and trade in your senior status to become a frosh again, you’re part of the general club of humanity that enjoys certain freedoms while still having to reconcile to limits.
Of course, don’t underestimate the freedom half. Once you’re out from under your parents’ watchful eyes (and I assume even the boarders among you had some form of authority not far away here), you realize that in college or whatever your next stage of life is that you can do whatever you want. By this I don’t mean that you can have anything you want. Rather, you are about to become as free as one can be to make your own decisions without immediate contradiction or discipline from a parent, teacher, or boss. There were many things I loved about college, and among the best was the realization I could have Lucky Charms whenever I felt like it: breakfast, lunch, dinner, midnight snack. That’s and, not or. (You can substitute your own forbidden vice here.) It was like being thrust suddenly into the universe of a Charlie Brown television special, where adults make only the rarest of appearances, and when they do, they blat like foghorns for about ten seconds and then promptly leave.
Well, we can learn something from Charlie Brown, namely the constraint that accompanies seeming freedom. Wikipedia calls him “the great American un-success story.” Despite the absence of adults Charlie Brown remains an existentialist speck, buffeted by forces from an absurd world beyond his control. He reacts to what befalls him rather than seizing the initiative. It’s like the life of a dog: the dog accepts whatever he sees without needing to understand it. People enter and leave the field of vision. Cars drive. Elevator doors close and ten seconds later they open on a new landscape. Life is random, and what we remember of it is quirky.
For example, there was one particularly colorful sixth grade math teacher – perhaps he’s here today – who was mild mannered but for one cardinal (or is it ordinal?) offense. He’d pose a problem and the called-upon student would timidly offer something like: “Six oh four?” Silence. The bad kind. Then: “Ohhh-EW-uh?! OHHHHHH?? OH IS A LETTER! ZERO IS A NUMBER!” with a pound on the blackboard enough to raise chalk dust on the other side of the wall in dear old Mr. McMillan’s English class.
I remember the rule about zero and OH and nothing else from that entire year of mathematics. Little things like this, whether remembered or not, are the dark matter of our universe: invisible but dominating. They comprise the bulk of who and what we are. People weave in and out of your life every day, usually entirely forgettably, and you in theirs. The attendant working the register at Target. The server at the local restaurant. The cell phone addict who sits next to you on a flight. Most of life is a stitching together of these moments of seeming insignificance, of shopping and eating and waiting and being annoyed, a vast expanse of mental prairie that connects the clusters and spires of the life milestone set pieces that we think make us distinct. In today’s words, life is largely Twitter, and I wonder if any of us will remember more than 140 characters from, say, this speech.
The set pieces are the graduations, weddings, funerals, and I suppose statistically speaking for at least one or two of us, the indictments. Those milestones may seem more salient, because by definition they happen rarely and summon more of our attention. Moreover, we aren’t prepared for how to handle them by our own experience; the closest guides we have, oddly enough, are the ways in which they are worked into our popular culture to make it seem less like dull prairie. That’s why there are no bathrooms on the starship Enterprise. Compare how many crises and killings and funerals and first kisses and indictments you’ve seen on TV instead.
The fact is that we can become prisoner both to our regular life scripts, the somnambulant routines we fall into in the day-by-day, and to the melodrama we inherit from Hollywood writers to cover the notable pieces. What Shady Side gave me on the day-by-day was an appreciation of the obtuse, the angular, the colorful byplay that gave me more to remember and that challenged me to establish my own identity when so little seemed within my own control. And what it gave me on the bigger picture was a chance to cultivate a passion, and to see that the world wasn’t just me and those who crossed my field of vision. It was us, a bunch of people trying to make sense of things, whether teacher or student, loser or bully. And these labels aren’t doled out, one to a person. Instead they are fluid roles that each of us take on at one time or another.
To escape the backpack kickers I retreated further into nerd-dom. I was lucky enough to be given time on a school TRS-80 personal computer during free periods. Near the computer was a looseleaf notebook with a series of tutorials about programming. I don’t know where it came from, but it walked me through learning basic computer science. The text was both comprehensive and witty – it anticipated my questions just as I had them. Only when I entered the Senior School did I meet the author of that book – someone who teaches philosophy here as well as computer science, one of so many teachers whose care and patience with students has been transcendent.
My nerdiness took a turn for the social as PCs became networked. I participated in local bulletin board systems and later on CompuServe, a proprietary pay-by-the-hour service with user forums on various topics. Six weeks later my parents got the first charge from CompuServe on their credit card. I had to tell my online friends that I couldn’t afford it anymore – I hadn’t admitted I was only 13 – and I was offered free time in exchange for becoming a “sysop,” a system operator who would help people find answers to their questions, and mediate disputes. Thus I came to explore how online communities could govern themselves even as the basic social structures of high school eluded me.
We have such examples today, magnified that much more by the reach of the Internet, as many of you know and as your parents fear. The underlying fabric of the Internet itself depends on a sense of community. For Internet routing to work – for data to get from point A to point Z – it passes through any number of intermediate locations, each of which moves it one step closer to its destination. How does each location know in which direction to pass a packet of information? There’s a map, not maintained by some central authority, but generated on the fly by each participating way station. It’s as if each of you were alone on a mountaintop, and could only see those who were one peak away. To build the map, you start saying what you see to others nearby: you say to the person on your right, “Here’s what I see to my left.” And you tell the person on your left what you see to your right. They can then tell those near them what they’ve heard from you, and vice versa. Lather, rinse, repeat, and you have the makings of a distributed map, based on gossip. One day the government of Pakistan sought to filter out YouTube from its citizens. It told its Internet Service Providers to block access to YouTube. One small ISP carried out the order by sending a small lie to its subscribers and neighbors: it announced that it was in fact YouTube. Its subscribers’ packets were then drawn there like a magnet, where the ISP could throw them away, since the point was to block YouTube.
But it didn’t stop there. Within a few minutes word had ricocheted around the Internet that YouTube had moved, and if you were here in Pittsburgh trying to reach YouTube, your packets were going to Pakistan and not coming back – and there was nothing that YouTube, one of the most popular Web sites in the world, and its owner Google, the most powerful company in the world, were particularly privileged to do about it. So how was the problem solved? It’s as if the Bat Signal went up, and the call was answered by NANOG, the North American Network Operators Group, an informal mailing list of nerds, some of whom work for various ISPs. NANOG members diagnosed the issue and promulgated a fix. It’s as if your house were to catch on fire. The bad news is that there’s no fire department. The good news is that some of your neighbors promptly come over with garden hoses and put the fire out, expecting neither payment nor recognition for their help. It’s an extremely powerful civic defense system, powered in large part by goodwill. Though I wonder how vulnerable the Internet could be during a major Star Trek convention, when NANOG members are otherwise occupied and no one is minding the store.
Speaking of scifi, consider another example of community governance: the case of Star Wars kid. He took a school video camera borrowed for a class project, put it on a tripod, and demoed some light saber moves using a golf ball retriever. His friends discovered the video and place it online, where it became one of the biggest viral hits of all time. He wanted none of this – in fact, he was utterly mortified by it. No matter; mash-ups and derivatives were made from the original video, including Matrix and Lord of the Rings versions, and he became a laughingstock at school.
A modicum of compassion and respect turned up in an unlikely place. Wikipedia naturally has an article on Star Wars kid. Each article on Wikipedia has a corresponding discussion page, and debate raged about whether to include his name in the account of his humiliation. The Wikipedians argued earnestly and then decided by vote – not unanimous – to leave the name out, and to this day the Wikipedia entry omits it. They’ve since had to address questions like the weight of precedent, so those who disagree with the decision know how soon the issue can be reopened, and how to achieve enforcement – namely by tapping the efforts of even those Wikipedians who disagree with the outcome, but respect the system that produced it. They help keep the project going through challenges small and large. Indeed, at all times Wikipedia is about 45 minutes from utter destruction, such as from spammers who would like to turn every single article into an ad for a Rolex watch. There’s just a thin geeky line of unpaid volunteers who care to save it that keeps it functioning. Again: the Bat Signal goes up, and well-meaning, reasonable people answer it, usually not wearing spandex. It’s been fascinating to watch Wikipedia fashion and institute a form of law, in the best sense of law as an enterprise emanating from people trying to get along and be fair, understanding that they will not always agree.
My view is that Wikipedia and projects like it belong at the heart of a high school and college education. Instead of turning to a handful of approved sources and paraphrasing them to write a ten-page U.S. History paper that will be viewed and graded only by the teacher – who looks at a stack of papers and anticipates the same bad movie, twenty times – you can be asked to demonstrate a sustained and original contribution to a Wikipedia article on an important topic, having to contend with conflicting sources and others’ arguments, learning to discern and then defend truth amidst chaos – and to refine your own view in light of what you discover. There are few things as devastatingly disarming to others as admitting when you’re wrong.
For the world you are entering – really the one you’ve been in all along – is one swimming in received wisdom, accepted uncritically. Too easily we farm out the hard work of knowing whether our society is on a sustainable path to policymakers, experts, or the media. It’s like: Katie Couric will tell us if there’s anything genuinely worth worrying about. But these channels of authority are overwhelmed, dysfunctional, and in some cases outright corrupt.
What will reinforce them, or even take their place, is something you can help build, with tools that even ten years ago were unknown. The key is to move from the reactive, desultory world of Charlie Brown to one in which you appreciate that you are generally at least as empowered as the next person, and to realize the ethical dimension that accompanies the day-by-day as well as the landmark events in life. As my best friend at Shady Side put it, reflecting on what he knows now that he and I had missed in high school, one of the best ways to evaluate your success is the effect you have on a room of people – family or strangers – when you enter. Does it become brighter or darker? That’s something you can choose, even though too often it’s just a script followed without much thought. Enterprises like Wikipedia urge us to ask the same question in our virtual lives, knowing how often they touch real ones.
We are at a time of great uncertainty. The economy is in the tank, after most talking heads told us things were fine. We’re told that global warming will wreak havoc on our planet, and we are the cause. Things went right from “too early to tell” to “too late to do anything about it.” The best among us are afraid of being found out for the frauds we suspect we are, because part of leadership is to exude a confidence and stability that isn’t always truly felt. (The worst among us are Bernie Madoff, who’s just a fraud.)
But you are at a time of great promise. In your immediate future you’ll literally be handed a catalog of humankind’s knowledge and asked to select four or five subjects to study for months at a time. And you’ll have an amazing amount of free time; Shady Side is far more rigorous than college. You can use it to find and pursue your passions, and to greet with joy and mischief new friends and relationships. (On the mischief front, I confess that Jon Beckerman and I were responsible for running the flag lampooning the headmaster up the flagpole and cutting the halyard. It flew for a week, until a bucket truck that said “Bob’s Erections” on the side came to take it down. We also were the ones who dropped a bean down the drain of each of those tiny sinks in the science lab tables. About a week later the stalks came up, and we tied a sign to each faucet that said DO NOT DISTURB – EXPERIMENT IN PROGRESS.)
As you forge and savor the interpersonal connections that make all the difference between simulating a successful life and living one, you’ll be ready to improve the world in the only way that it really ever happens: to answer a Bat Signal that calls to you. I hope without needing spandex.
Congratulations, good luck, and see you on Facebook!