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A Berkeley Commencement Speech, Some Years Ago…

By - May 25, 2013

Last week LinkedIn asked me to post a commencement speech, if I had given one, as part of a series they were doing. Turns out, I’ve given two, but the one they wanted was at Berkeley, my alma mater. If you want to read the one I gave at my high school, I’d be happy to post it (I think it’s better), but since I already have the Berkeley one at the ready, here it is. I want it to be on my own site as well, just for the record.

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Back in 2005, as Web 2.0 was taking off, I was honored to be asked to give the commencement address at UC Berkeley’s School of Information Management, or SIMS. It was a perfect day, and the ceremony was outside at the base of the Campanile, which is Berkeley’s proudest monument. As a double Cal graduate, and three-generation legacy, this was a crowning moment for me. Below are some excerpts, edited for clarity given the time that has lapsed since.

I have a feeling that I was chosen to make these brief remarks because I deeply believe in the following statement: The field you’ve chosen is the most important and interesting line of inquiry to be found at this great University, and one of the most important new schools to emerge since the rise of computer science in the middle of last century.

Of course, it’s also misunderstood, miscategorized, and poorly defined, but that’s to be expected. Just 10 years ago, “information management” was still a fancy way of saying “librarian.” While librarians knew better, many others had not caught on to this basic truth: the most valuable resource in our culture is knowledge, and as SIMS graduates, you are not simply becoming knowledge workers, you are becoming builders of knowledge refineries—the architects who drive how knowledge itself is created.

SIMS suffers from something of a definition problem, doesn’t it? Is it computer science, anthropology, or journalism? Is it library science, architecture, design? Of course, this is the same problem that plagues the Internet—what exactly is it, anyway? It seems there is no area in our culture that is not touched, changed, even swallowed by the Internet. It’s both medium and message, mass and personal, social and solitary. Like SIMS, the Internet is a study in interdisciplinary mechanics.

At various times, the world has declared the Internet dead. Fortune 500 executives— particularly in the media and communications business—were thrilled that their monopolies were safe from what appeared to be a very real threat. They and the press declared the revolution stillborn. They wrote the Internet off as just another distribution channel and, for a while, it seemed that was a pretty safe assumption.

But a funny thing happened around the time this graduating class applied to SIMS—Google began turning a profit. Yahoo, Amazon, and even Priceline shook off the snows of 2002 and began to grow again. And the collective wisdom of thousands of geeks began expressing itself in myriad and wondrous ways—in new photo tools like Flickr and in new social networking applications like LinkedIn.

And millions of people kept using the Internet, and millions more joined. As they used it, they changed it, making it their own and building a medium not only in their own image but in the likeness of the culture they were becoming. It’s a culture driven by knowledge and shaped by relationships and community. In short, while most folks weren’t paying attention over the past few years, the Web was reborn, not as a repository of information, but as a creation engine of knowledge.

Most graduates face the world with an equal sense of optimism and trepidation—this ceremony, after all, marks a major transition for you all. But now comes the rest of your life, and with it uncertainty and the terrifying joy of starting all over once again.

My advice to you, insofar as I can give any, is simple: Hold onto this feeling you have right now. Rinse and repeat as often as you can. Get used to it but don’t take it for granted—it’s how the world is evolving. Every few years, if you’re not leaping into a new project, a new and challenging startup, or a new challenge at a larger company, then you’re not really exercising the skills you all so clearly demonstrated with your Masters projects. The world wants more projects like yours, and it stands ready to fund them, tweak them, embrace them, and inspire you to build them again and again.

You are, all of you, entrepreneurs, deciding what vision to follow and what path to take toward it. It’s a rather addictive feeling, and I, for one, hope you keep making new stuff for the rest of your sure to be very long careers.

As I said earlier, the world of media and business you are entering is very different from that of just five years ago. The Web 2.0 world is defined by new ways of understanding ourselves, of creating value in our culture, of running companies, and of working together.

Companies in this world are run more like artist studios or graduate projects—they are lightweight – they leverage the work of thousands that came before them and potentially millions who use their products or services over the Web. Craigslist, for example, is challenging the entire newspaper industry not by hiring thousands of workers and taking on publishers on their turf, but by reorganizing how people find, create and use classifieds. How they turn information into actionable knowledge. A very simple idea, but also very powerful.

These companies thrive by innovating in assembly—they find new ways to sort, organize, and present options to their customers. Information is a commodity, after all. Knowledge is king. If you can help someone refine information into knowledge and if you help them make sense of the world, you win. And it takes a special kind of person to do that—a knowledge architect—exactly what you all have chosen as your field of study, and, I hope, your careers.

I’ve noticed that the best companies and ideas are driven by these knowledge architects who realize that in an information age, the best business to be in is that of refinery.

Each of you has the chance to make this your life’s work. I say, well done—and don’t let us down. For as Nikola Tesla, hero to Google co-founder Larry Page, once said:

Of all the frictional resistance in the world, the one that most retards human movement is ignorance, what Buddha called “the greatest evil in the world.” The friction which results from ignorance can be reduced only by the spread of knowledge … No effort could be better spent.


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