I would probably be too embarrassed to mention my graduation speech at the University of Michigan in May 1992 had it been a glorious success. As it were, gathering storm clouds over Michigan Stadium forced school officials to rearrange the program, pushing commencement speaker Carole Simpson of ABC News and other dignitaries in front of my speech. In addition to being the opening band trying to follow the main act, I was further thrown off when the wind blew off my my graduation cap as I was about to stand up, putting an exclamation point on the fact that we were all soon to get soaked. I rushed through the speech amid cat calls and growing restlessness. I remember my international affairs professor, Raymond Tanter, telling me later that I had a hard lesson in the fact that timing is everything. Yes indeed.
I only recently realized how much the speech suggested themes of Personal after digging it out of a box in my basement. I was outraged at the time that the label “Generation X” had been so successfully tagged to us by the media and others. At best, we were “materialistic and apathetic”, as I wrote; at worst, we had no name whatsoever. The speech was titled “On Defining a Generation”, and was a call to arms to my peers to take control of their identities and not let others define them individually or as a group. Here are a few excerpts that are eerily relevant to how I believe we are being represented by others who capture our data and define us by it, as well as the value of your intent data (your future behavior) vs. your historical data:
“…Until now, we have been shaped and defined by our parents, our schools, and the media. Today, it is our time to bring together where we have been with where we want to go, and in so doing, to define ourselves.
“…It is a dangerous thing to let others tell you who you are. No one can understand the complexities that make up the mind and soul of another individual. Such attempts to define a person usually fall short; they limit rather than capture essence…Do such attempts to simplify our diverse character affect us?
“…These diverse experiences are all part of our generation, and they show the impossibility of arriving at singular conclusions about our character. We should not attempt to stereotype ourselves, rather, we must reflect on these shared experiences and begin to understand and thoughtfully define our generation.
“…[I]dentity is not simply a composite of the past. We can be identified as much by where we are going as where we have been. This may be the more important task in this process, because it is the part over which you and I have control. What problems are we committed to solving? Are there goals and ideals that the majority of us share that give us distinction from other generations? Or maybe the discipline, will power, and most importantly, the tolerance, to accomplish our goals is what will set us apart.
“I encourage you to be active and thoughtful in defining our generation. Because if we do not define ourselves, experience has shown us that someone else will.”
I was obviously referring to the traditional “media” at the time, and not Google, Facebook or any of the data and technology-driven media companies of today who are defining us digitally by capturing all that we do on their sites and others. Little did I know that one of the co-founders of Google, Larry Page, was just behind me at Michigan and was soon to envision one of the greatest data collection and organization tools in human history, or that the quality of our lives would be increasingly shaped by our identities and reputations in the online world.
In his far happier commencement speech at Michigan in 2009 (as the main act, not the student warm up band), Page shared one of his favorite quotes, which I had not heard but really like: “Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.” Amen.
I think this would qualify by his definition: Help people understand how incredibly limiting and inefficient it is to be defined by companies using data they surreptitiously capture about us, and instead provide individuals with the understanding, tools, transparency and incentives to take control and do it themselves.