My Commencement Speech at SIMS

Yesterday, I was asked to give the commencement address for the UC Berkeley School of Information (often known as SIMS, for its old name, the School of Information Management and Systems).

 

I was happy to see that the three masters projects selected for special awards, ibuyright, a cellphone application for retrieving environmental, social, and health information about products, mycroft, which seems to be a kind of distributed version of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and backchannels, a study of the use of backchannel communication by SIMS students, were all on topics close to the Radar’s heart :-) [Correction: when I wrote this entry, I inadvertently omitted mycroft, and said that homeskim, an improved interface for apartment searching, had won the award. Homeskim received an honorable mention.]

I promised to put the text of my speech on the web, so here it is. I tried to weave together the kind of life advice expected at a graduation with some of my thoughts on Web 2.0 in a summary format suitable not just for the students but also the parents and grandparents attending. I hope it’s not too uneasy a mixture.
 

Thank you very much for having me here to speak to you. I know
that this is an important day in your lives, and I’m honored to be
the one chosen to give you advice as you begin the next stage of
your careers. I hope that you will find that advice useful.

I hope also that I am able to make my comments meaningful to those
who helped get you here — the spouses, parents, grandparents, and
other family members who are so proud of you today. We work in a
profession that can be mysterious to the layman, with a private
language that sets us apart like one of the secret societies depicted
in The Da Vinci Code! I still remember my first exposure to the
computer industry as a humanities graduate. I was an experienced
writer, but knew nothing about technology. I’d agreed to help a
friend of mine, a programmer, to land a contract job writing a
manual. We interviewed two engineers about their project while I
took increasingly desperate notes. It was as if they were speaking
a foreign language! As we walked away, I turned to my friend and
asked “Were they just pulling my leg?” It was hard to believe that
this jargon-filled dialog was actually meaningful. It was an
inauspicious start to my career.

There are three lessons that I took away from that moment. The
first was to be fearless in what you attempt. The job I eventually
mastered was an enormous stretch for me. The second lesson was
that a difficulty is often an opportunity in disguise. I built my
company by bridging the information gap that I first encountered
that day. The third lesson was the importance of serendipity in
your life choices. I never imagined that I’d build a career as a
technical writer, publisher, and entrepreneur. My training was in
Greek and Latin Classics! Agreeing to help out my friend proved
to be a turning point in my life.

In my remarks today, I hope to elaborate on this idea of turning
points. Not only are you at a turning point in your lives, we are
at a turning point in the technology industry, and perhaps even in
the history of the world. Most of you probably know that I’ve been
evangelizing an idea that I call Web 2.0, the idea that the internet
is on the verge of replacing the personal computer as the dominant
computing platform.

And as you know, platform shifts are times of enormous disruption
and enormous opportunity.

New companies succeed because they envision the world anew, not as
a logical continuation of what went before. Microsoft became the
dominant company of the personal computer age with an aggressive
vision of computers in every household, while industry titans of
the previous era derided the personal computer as a toy, and wondered
why anyone would need one.

The same is true today. Our expectations and our familiarity with
what has gone before blind us to what is coming.

So let’s step back for a moment, and ask ourselves what is different
about the computing world we are now entering.

The internet as platform. What does that mean?

Let me make it concrete by asking those of you in the audience how
many of you use the Linux operating system. Now how many of you
use Google?

Did you realize that Google is built on top of Linux? Did you even
need to know what operating system Google’s computers are running?

That’s the internet paradigm shift. The “computer” is no longer
the device that you have on your desk. It’s the seamless integration
— well, maybe there are still a few seams showing! — the seamless
integration of local computing devices (not just PCs but also
handheld devices, all the way down to the phones that I hope you
turned off during this ceremony) with vast server farms out on the
net.

Some observers claim that Google is now running on as many as a
million Linux servers. At the very least, it is running on hundreds
of thousands. When you consider that the application Google delivers
is instant access to documents and services available from, by last
count, more than 81 million independent web servers, we’re starting
to understand how true it is, as Sun Microsystems co-founder John
Gage famously said back in 1984, that “the network is the computer.”
It took over 20 years for the rest of the industry to realize that
vision, but we’re finally there.

Internet pundit Clay Shirky memorably summarized the shift to network
computing with a story about Thomas Watson Jr., the head of IBM
during the birth of the mainframe. Watson famously remarked that
he saw no need for more than 5 computers worldwide. Clay noted,
“We now know that Thomas Watson was wrong.” We all laughed as we
thought of the hundreds of millions of personal computers sold
today. But then Clay socked us with the punch line: “He overstated
the number by four.”

The internet as platform is the sum of all connected computers and
devices. True internet applications can be thought of as “software
above the level of a single device,” applications that run not on
any individual computer but on the network that connects them.
Ultimately, the network ties together all those devices into a
single vast computer.

The applications that succeed on that new computer platform are
those that understand deeply what it means to be network applications.
It’s as simple as this: the secret of success in the networked era
is to create or leverage network effects. It sounds tautological,
but in that tautology is a great deal of wisdom.

When we first began thinking about Web 2.0, we asked ourselves what
distinguished the companies that survived the dotcom bust from those
that failed. And we came up with the surprising observation that
in one way or another, each of them was good at harnessing user
contributions, applying some of the same insights to consumer
applications that leading edge software developers have applied to
open source software projects like Linux.

Consider Google: their breakthrough in search, the famous PageRank
algorithm, was the result of realizing that you could get better
search results by studying the links that people make to documents,
rather than just studying the content of the documents themselves.
Every time one web site makes a link to another, that’s a contribution
to Google, one small step in making the search engine smarter.

Consider EBay: it’s a marketplace of buyers and sellers, with EBay
simply acting as an intermediary. More than 800,000 people now
make a living full or part time via eBay, and millions buy goods
from each other in the world’s largest swap meet. Pierre Omidyar,
the founder, likes to point out that it’s fundamental to eBay’s
succes that has a positive social effect, not only creating new
economic opportunities for individuals, but helping teach complete
strangers to trust one another.

How about Amazon? They have the same product data as all of their
competitors, but their tireless effort to get the users to annotate
that data — more than ten million user reviews, and countless other
forms of user generated content — have made them the most authoritative
product catalog in the world.

Or consider recent successes like Flickr, the photo sharing service
recently acquired by Yahoo! They became the fastest growing photo
service because they harnessed the power of sharing. While previous
internet photo sharing services focused on sharing photos with
friends and family, Flickr made the default behavior to share with
the world.

YouTube, the video sharing site, and MySpace, the social networking
site, have similar dynamics. The users not only provide the content,
they provide the marketing. These sites have become hugely popular
without spending a nickel on advertising, because they rely on word
of mouth.

Now consider the alternative — dot-bombs like the infamous pets.com.
They treated the customer as a dumb consumer, and the web merely
as a broadcast medium, with millions of dollars of Superbowl
advertising substituting for customer enthusiasm.

But even more important than their enthusiasm, the users of successful
internet applications supply their intelligence. A true Web 2.0
application is one that gets better the more people use it. Google
gets smarter every time someone makes a link on the web. Google
gets smarter every time someone makes a search. It gets smarter
every time someone clicks on an ad. And it immediately acts on
that information to improve the experience for everyone else.

It’s for this reason that I argue that the real heart of Web 2.0
is harnessing collective intelligence.

And it’s for that same reason that I argue that Web 2.0 represents
not just a turning point for the computer industry but for the world
as a whole.

The internet represents one of the key factors in what Thomas
Friedman calls the flattening of the world. By creating universal
access to knowledge, by providing opportunities for remote collaboration
and commerce, the internet is accelerating the evolution of the
global economy and global culture.

While it may seem far fetched, you can begin to see signs of what
the flower children of the sixties called “global consciousness.”
We just didn’t realize that it was going to be mediated by technology!

Let me give you a couple of concrete examples.

First, we’ve all read the scare stories about bird flu, and how
once it crosses over into humans, we could be facing a global
pandemic. The key to controlling the spread of such a disease will
be early detection and isolation of cases. And it turns out that
governments are very bad at reporting this information. However,
a Canadian project called GPHIN, the Global Public Health Intelligence
Network, has played an amazing role in building an internet-based
early warning system — kind of a Google for disease outbreaks —
that monitors news wires, web sites, and other sources of user-generated
news to identify the possibility of disease outbreaks. Larry
Brilliant, the new head of Google.org, the non-profit arm of Google,
who earlier in his career was deeply involved in the eradication
of smallpox, is now working to expand on this effort, to build a
system called INSTEDD, the International Networked System for Total
Early Disease Detection. Bottom up. Networked. Cooperative.

That’s an example of how collective intelligence can be used to
build much more than just a nifty consumer application! The world
of Web 2.0 *can* be one in which we share our knowledge and insights,
filter the news for each other, find out obscure facts, and make
each other smarter and more responsive. We can instrument the world
so it becomes somethng like a giant, responsive organism. Extrapolate
out along the trend line of Web 2.0 and add in automated data
collection from your phone, your GPS, from RFID and embedded sensors,
and imagine the information applications that will be built on that
database!

Second, consider what online journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor calls
“We the Media.” In the old days, a small group of publications
decided what was news, and what was not. Not any more. We saw a
great example of this just a few weeks ago. Comic Steven Colbert
of the Comedy Channel hit show The Colbert Report was the invited
speaker at the White House Press Corps dinner. He was expected to
roast the president and the White House press corps, but apparently,
the heat was higher than expected. There was little or no mention
of his speech in the mainstream press coverage of the event. But
by the middle of the following week, after the video of Colbert’s
speech had been viewed more than 20 million times on YouTube, and
was the talk of the blogosphere, mainstream media picked up the
story.

Blogs and user generated media don’t always get it right, but they
show how in the new world of the internet, knowledge rushes through
new channels, and the network of ordinary users sharing their
interests shapes the news.

But there are dark sides to the internet and Web 2.0. Email can
be used to connect people, but it is now burdened with spam. Web
sites offer unprecedented access to information, but they can also
provide criminals with new opportunities to prey on unsuspecting
users, via scams, phishing, and other tricks. Viral marketing can
be used to spread rumors as well as truth. The wisdom of crowds
can too easily become the madness of crowds.

But when I think about the dark side of Web 2.0, I am less concerned
with criminal activity or even collective stupidity — after all,
those exist with or without the internet, and as science fiction
writer Cory Doctorow once remarked, “every complex ecosystem has
its parasites.” Instead, I think about some of the contradictions
that are intrinsic to the internet as platform.

Let me outline a few of these issues.

First, privacy. Collective intelligence requires the storage of
enormous amounts of data. And while this data can be used to deliver
innovative applications, it can also be used to invade our privacy.
The recent news disclosures about phone records being turned over
to the NSA is one example. Yahoo’s recent disclosure of the identity
of a Chinese dissident to Chinese authorities is another.

The internet has enormous power to increase our freedom. It also
has enormous power to limit our freedom, to track our every move
and monitor our every conversation. We must make sure that we don’t
trade off freedom for convenience or security. Dave Farber, one
of the fathers of the Internet, is fond of repeating the words of
Ben Franklin: “Those who give up essential liberty to purchase a
little temporary safety deserve neither, and will lose both.”

Second, concentration of power. While it’s easy to see the user
empowerment and democratization implicit in web 2.0, it’s also easy
to overlook the enormous power that is being accrued by those who’ve
successfully become the repository for our collective intelligence.
Who owns that data? Is it ours, or does it belong to the vendor?

If history is any guide, the democratization promised by Web 2.0
will eventually be succeeded by new monopolies, just as the
democratization promised by the personal computer led to an industry
dominated by only a few companies. Those companies will have
enormous power over our lives — and may use it for good or ill.
Already we’re seeing companies claiming that Google has the ability
to make or break their business by how it adjusts its search rankings.
That’s just a small taste of what is to come as new power brokers
rule the information pathways that will shape our future world.

As a result, I urge you to think hard about the consequences of new
technology. Don’t just take for granted that technology will bring
us a better world. We must engage strenuously with the future,
thinking through the dark side of each opportunity, and working to
maximize the good that we create while minimizing the harm.

Third, greed. Web 2.0 has ignited a new feeding frenzy among venture
capitalists and entrepreneurs. It’s perhaps too early to call it
a bubble, but once again, enormous fortunes are being created by
people with little more than a bright idea and an instinct for how
to harness the power of new technology. You are among those who
have a place at the starting gate of the new race for wealth.

And I want to take this opportunity to caution you.

Some of you may end up working at highflying companies. Some of
you may succeed, and some of you may fail. I want to remind you
that financial success is not the only goal or the only measure of
success. It’s easy to get caught up in the heady buzz of making
money. You should regard money as fuel for what you really want
to do, not as a goal in and of itself. Money is like gas in the
car — you need to pay attention or you’ll end up on the side of
the road — but a well-lived life is not a tour of gas stations!

Whatever you do, think about what you really value. If you’re an
entrepreneur, the time you spend thinking about your values will
help you build a better company. If you’re going to work for someone
else, the time you spend understanding your values will help you
find the right kind of company or institution to work for, and when
you find it, to do a better job.

Don’t be afraid to think big. Business author Jim Collins says
that great companies have “big hairy audacious goals.” Google’s
motto, “access to all the world’s information” is an example of
such a goal. I like to think that my own company’s mission, “changing
the world by sharing the knowledge of innovators,” is also such a
goal.

Don’t be afraid to fail. There’s a wonderful poem by Rainer Maria
Rilke that talks about the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with
an angel, being defeated, but coming away stronger from the fight.
It ends with an exhortation that goes something like this: “What
we fight with is so small, and when we win, it makes us small. What
we want is to be defeated, decisively, by successively greater
things.”

Don’t be afraid, in the end, to live whatever life you choose to
the fullest, with the measure of your success being that you leave
the world a slightly better place for your passage through it.

Thank you very much.

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  • Simply great !!!

  • Tim, thanks for sharing that. I don’t suppose there was an audio (or video?) recording of your talk?

  • Tim,

    Thanks so much for your wonderful speech at our commencement ceremony and for mentioning our Master’s projects on your blog. As a result, iBuyRight, my team’s project, is receiving lots of welcome inquiries. Thanks again.