Commencement Speech at Bryant and Stratton College

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I spoke Wednesday at Bryant and Stratton College’s in-world graduation for its online students, which I thought was a great Second Life moment.    So rewarding to see Second Life starting to be really useful for education.   I did the new thing of actually writing some thoughts down as a speech and then reading it – I have never done that before.  So I’m sure I probably sounded a bit wooden to the students listening, but I wanted to really give some deeper thoughts on the event.   Anyhow, here is what I said:

“I heard it said recently that engineering students entering college today will learn computer languages which will be outmoded and no longer be in use by the time they graduate.  This is a remarkable suggestion: because as an engineering student graduating fairly recently, in 1992, I learned languages which served me well and in fact some 10 years later formed the basic building blocks of this digital place where we stand today for your graduation.  But as both a futurist thinker and in my own experiences at my own company, I couldn’t agree more:  In the past 4 or 5 years I have seen the rise of whole new computing architectures unlike anything that existed when I was in school.  New technology platforms rise up and are built upon, rapidly obscuring the lower layers like sediment.  We don’t build software for computers anymore, instead we build Facebook and IPhone apps.  And those whole platforms didn’t even exist when Second Life launched in 2003.

It is this building of one thing on another that makes technology so exciting and terrifying.  Each advance creates tools or a platform that is used to make the next advance possible, and at least twice as fast as the one before.  Whether you are talking about computers, or batteries, or cell phones, or bioscience, we are now in the knee of the curve – the place where this acceleration suddenly becomes noticeable.  The crazy thing though, is what happens next.  The curve goes from rapid growth to an almost vertical climb toward infinity.  The company that took 2 years to start in the 1990’s takes a month today, and you can imagine a place like Second Life reducing that to 2 days.  The IPhone that we marvel at today – well in less than 10 years time that same amount of technology will fit inside one of your cells.  What will the world look like with changes of that magnitude?  Honestly I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does either.

But fighting or ignoring these technology changes is like standing in the water at the beach and letting the waves hit you… can you remember doing that as a kid?  If you were strong, you could brace yourself and stay standing as the smaller waves crashed by you and the sand slid away under your toes.  But we live now in a time when each set of waves is twice as high as the one before, and to resist these larger waves, to pretend that they aren’t there or that you can stand against them quickly becomes hopeless.  Our hope and future lies instead in letting go of the bottom, surrendering ourselves and our pasts, and letting these waves carry us where they may, working instead to catch our breaths and try and figure out where we are going.  This isn’t an easy thing.  It is frightening.  In whatever world that is to come, we won’t yet know our own value or where we stand.  How we will make money is uncertain. Our friends, lovers, and co-workers won’t be the neighbors we grew up with, but instead will be people from all over the world, people our parent’s probably would never have even seen or met.

This college, and many of you as students, are from the United States, a country which at this very moment faces a serious economic crisis.  It seems unbelievable but possible that the US dollar could soon lose it’s status as the reserve currency – the gold standard – for the rest of the world.  The banks and industrial giants that drove so much historical growth in the US economy are declaring bankrupcy.  So much change after decades of constancy!  But does this mean that as the most recent children of the US educational system that you have already become as outmoded as the computer languages I mentioned earlier?  It does not.

By standing here at a formal graduation ceremony in the midst of a strange new virtual world, you are the embodiment of what I believe is the greatest and most unique part of the American Spirit – the willingness to take great risks:  to learn, to change, and to accept uncertainty.  This same spirit is what made at least some of your parents delighted and not dismayed to learn that you were going to be part of a virtual graduation.  I have traveled the world, and nowhere but here in America have I seen this persistent willingness to do new things and take chances.   You could be ridiculed for graduating as avatars, for wearing digital caps and gowns, but you are unafraid and in fact excited, or at the very least, amused.  This spirit, the one that made you willing to stand here today, will make you winners in the times to come.  As technology makes the future less and less certain, erasing the borders between countries, and rewriting the economic landscape, you can and will prevail if you strive to be as changeable and adaptable as your avatars.  Don’t trust the specific things you have learned, because they will change faster around you than you can imagine.  Trust instead that you have learned how to learn, and that by taking chances and letting go, you can ride the waves that are coming.  Graduating here today, in Second Life, is good evidence that you can.”

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