Remarks by keynote speaker Tom Wheeler - 2018 Commencement

A. Sue Weisler

It is wonderful to be here today with the Class of 2018, your families and friends.

Graduates, this is your day – and you earned it.

I urge you, however, not to forget the lesson of the frog who found himself atop the fence post: he looked around from that perch and realized he couldn’t have gotten there by himself.

Your diploma is the recognition of individual achievement, enabled by a vast support infrastructure of family, friends, and a world-class educational institution.

What a privilege to receive an honorary degree from this great institution!

There is, of course, a big difference between your degrees and mine. You worked years for yours, whereas I’m up here working for about 12 minutes.

Yes, that’s right; you’ve only got about 12 minutes between now and what you really came for.

Abraham Lincoln used to tell the story of a preacher noted for his long sermons. When he was asked why his orations were so interminable, the preacher explained that once he got going he was just too lazy to stop. Well, you weren’t lazy in your effort to obtain these diplomas; I will try and reciprocate in kind.

You are about to be the proud graduates of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

What is special about this institution is the way in which it blends technology and enlightenment.

You graduate into a world that needs what you have learned about humanity as much as what you’ve learned about technology.

You will have ample opportunity to put your hard-won insights and skills to work.

I hope you will harness them, not just for the sake of technology per se, but also for the purpose of helping our society deal with the effects of that technology.

That means a team effort.

Whether you graduate with a business, media, arts, liberal arts, or engineering degree, you share a common challenge to humanize the technology-driven changes of our society.

For the last 40 years of my professional life, I have been involved with new technology. Now, that’s a long time, and some of the “new” technology I was involved with, you would consider down-right Neanderthal.

But after hanging out with new technology over all those years, I’ve reached the conclusion that it is not the primary technology that is transformative.

It is the secondary effects that shake up the world.

Technology is…well, it’s technology.

But the effects of how that technology is applied – driven by decisions made by humans – end up shaping human experience and lives.

It is the human response to new technology that now challenges us all.

I’m not making light of the effort that goes into developing new technology or new applications, but it is easier to hack something together than to deal with the consequences of that hack.

Innovating in a dorm room, a lab, or a garage is an isolated activity that answers the question, “Hey, do you think we can (fill in the blank)?”

Even when it is a team effort, it is an isolated activity, separated from the effects of its unleashing.

But when the innovation gets out and begins affecting the patterns of people’s lives, the isolated innovation becomes a collective challenge.

I remember one of our country’s great innovators sitting in my office at the FCC observing that “Policy is more difficult than physics.”

The laws of physics lend themselves to the isolation of innovation; dealing with the results of that innovation, however, requires finding commonality amid a diversity of interests. 

The 21st century is not the first time new technology has challenged society to respond. Much of what made America great is how we have collectively dealt with the previous iterations of technology-induced change.

As important as understanding technology itself is the understanding of the history of technological revolutions, and how each has challenged its era to discover ways to humanize the technology.

I chuckle when people lament, “Oh, we’ve never seen such technology-driven change before!”

They clearly have forgotten the mid-19th century when new technology landed a one-two punch on the roots of human behavior.

First, the steam locomotive vanquished geography as the controlling factor of human existence.

One historian described it as “the completest change in human experience since the nomadic tribes became rooted in one spot to grow grain and raise cattle.” It was the death of distance as a defining force.

Then, immediately on the heels of the death of distance, came the end of time as the telegraph made the delivery of information instantaneous. Seemingly overnight, technology changed the patterns of life that had existed since the beginning of human civilization.

Not to make this into a history class, but let’s quickly remember what happened as a result of these two technologies.

An economy of artisans was destroyed by mass production; the self-sufficient agrarian life yielded to the interdependency of factory workers crowded into new urban production centers where they toiled six days a week for 10 hours a day; and in those urban areas, disease, crime and corruption ran rampant.

And we think we have change? We think we have challenges?

What made America great was that we collectively dealt with the effects of the new technologies to develop a new set of social and economic expectations based on a new set of rules and institutions.

It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t smooth, and it did not happen overnight; but indeed, it happened.

We have now evolved from the industrial era created by the railroad and telegraph into the information era…and we need a new set of rules.

That is the challenge you inherit today.

And because you are graduating from an institution that blends technology and enlightenment, you are better equipped than most to lead in developing those new rules.

The education you received at this institution – whether in technology, business, or the liberal arts – gives you a leg up on most of your fellow citizens who struggle to understand the effects of new technology and the new economy. It positions you to use your inherent goodness and your sense of fair play to attack the new challenges that work against such qualities.

I am frequently asked how much government officials understand about technology.

My answer is, “About the same as those they represent.”

We are fortunate to have great minds working in the public interest on technology-based issues, but we have a representative government.

Ask the person on the street what an API is, and you’ll get the same response you’d get from their representatives.

You, however, are a digital generation, and your skills and understanding have been burnished by this institution.

You don’t have to come up to speed on how things work.

That frees you to be able to focus on what happens as a result of that technology and what is best for the common good of our nation. You walk out of here today with a responsibility greater than most, Class of 2018 graduates, because your education has integrated technology and the humanities.

The world needs people with an instinct to question; an interrogation that is anchored in an understanding of the human dynamic and stimulated by unbound imagination. We need citizens who want to deal with behavior, not just write code or a new business plan.

Society calls out for innovators who see technology not in terms of controlling markets, but of expanding human potential.

In that regard, I have always been impressed by what RIT has done to put the intersection of technology and humanity into practice. Your National Technical Institute for the Deaf, for example, is a powerful case study of how technology can be used to improve the human condition. 

Here is a simple truth: It would be downright reckless if we did not use this moment of amazing new technological breakthroughs to attack issues that have challenged humans since the beginning of time. You are doing this at NTID.

But we must also attack the issues created by the new technologies themselves.

The last couple of decades of frenzied innovation have produced unimaginable new capabilities, accompanied by unanticipated new problems.

It is time we start focusing a little less on the former and more on the latter. The belief that “technology will solve it if you’ll just stay out of the way” is proving to be unfounded.

Mark Twain described the late 19th century era of technological change as the Gilded Age. It was a period in which new technology transformed the economy and created industrial barons.

It was also an experience that ultimately led to society creating institutions and rules to deal with the effects of industrialization – rules that successfully guided us through the 20th century. 

We live in a new Gilded Age.

Technology has transformed the economy again, this time creating information barons. In the process, it has destroyed or dismantled the rules and institutions developed to deal with the last technological revolution.

New technology has restructured our economy and society; it is time to revisit the institutions and rules that protect the commonweal of our society.

It is time for us to look beyond using technology to create without consideration of the consequences.

It is time to rebuild a society and economy torn asunder by technology.

It is time to once again re-establish the interrelationship between technology and human values.

That, my friends, is all you have to do!

But, oh, what an opportunity!

You have been well-prepared to take on these challenges. What a privilege to be the ones tasked with dealing with these complex, technology-based, but very human problems.

Grasp that challenge. Make it your own.

Godspeed to you!