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President Herbst to graduates: Surf, tweet, and post wisely without sacrificing human interaction

By Contributing Writer on May 19, 2013
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President Jeffrey Herbst delivers his remarks at the university’s 192nd commencement exercise. (Photo by Andy Daddio)

(Note: The following is President Jeffrey Herbst’s prepared remarks to the Class of 2013 for Colgate’s 192nd commencement on Sunday, May 19.)

It is a pleasure to speak before you on this special day.  Before going further, I ask all parents and grandparents to please stand.  Congratulations to you.  We are grateful for the support you have provided to your students and to Colgate.  While the students’ accomplishments are their own, they would not be here without you.  Thank you.

This ceremony is the last where Professor of English George Hudson will serve as University Marshall.  Over the years, George has played a critical role in the execution of this complex event and has allowed us to process with good cheer and aplomb.  George, thank you for your service.  We wish you a happy and healthy retirement.

Graduation requires that we not only look back at your four years at Colgate but also contemplate the world you now will enter and, over time, help shape.  A critical feature of the 21st century—your century—is the digital revolution and its many ramifications for how we will live, relate to each other, and form communities.  The extraordinary increases in computing, the creation through broadband of vast networks of people and new forms of communities, and the enormous entrepreneurship activity that has been unleashed is, overall, a good thing.  Or, more precisely, there is great potential in these developments to improve how we live, especially to shift power and initiative to the individual.

However, as the graduates know from their own studies of modernity, in any dramatic revolution in the basic dynamics of human interaction, there are bound to be repercussions that we must guard against.  It is one of these—the polarization of information, ideas and opinions—that I would like to speak about today.

Today, perhaps the most prominent feature of the ongoing digital revolution is the customized shaping of information and opinions to our preferences.  A Yahoo! vice president says, “The future of the web is about personalization. . . now the web is about ‘me.’”

Extraordinary efforts are now going into helping us (whether or not we ask) to manage our interaction with digital media.   Author and activist Eli Pariser notes, “The new generation of Internet filters looks at the things you seem to like—the actual things you’ve done, or the things people like you like—and tries to extrapolate.”  This is what Pariser calls the “filter bubble:  a unique universe of information for each of us.”  Of course, he remarks, in the past, people also tried to mold information and opinions they received, but now is different for at least three reasons:

First, we are each alone—the microtargeting goes to each of us individually as we look at the screen.

Second, what is happening is often undetectable.  You may be listening to a radio station with an explicit bias, but you do not know how the search engine’s algorithm that you are simultaneously employing is narrowing the scope of information you receive.

Finally, we did not, in many cases, actually ask for this.

Personalization is driven by several forces:

There is desire of many marketers to know who is on the internet and try to sell or influence that individual.  The famous New Yorker cartoon which featured a dog on a keyboard with the caption, “On the internet, no one knows you are a dog,” is now wrong.  A great deal is known about you as soon as you turn on your computer, unless you take extraordinary measures.

Our own desire to follow what we are interested in, and to go where our tastes lead, also produces a natural proclivity toward staying in a comfort zone.

Finally, one of the fundamental forces of the digital revolution is unbundling:  you don’t have to buy the whole record, only the single song you like, while a news aggregator can pluck out the single article it thinks you are interested in instead of buying the entire newspaper.  That granularity allows for precision personalization. The mantra of the day, inevitably, is “what you want, when you want it.”

We will benefit from this personalization in many ways; not least, it will hopefully help us to manage the massive amounts of information we are exposed to on a daily basis.  However, there are also bound to be losses.  Most importantly, increasingly, without ever really deciding that we want to, we can avoid encounters with ideas or information that we are not predisposed to favor.  This is extremely unfortunate because none of us knows all that we should know.

The narrowing of so many national conversations, and the, at times, palpable drift toward extremes is due, in part, to the polarization of information and the ability of each of us to live in a bubble for one.  We seem to be shouting more, our arguments have less nuance, and we are often less informed than before.  Too often the temptation is to ridicule or mock those who we may disagree with rather than argue with facts that are now readily at our fingertips.

When people today actually encounter someone who holds a contrasting opinion on a controversial issue, they are often astounded that they can be reasonable and knowledgeable, far from the stereotypes poured out in social media by those at the extremes. And, I see many smart people losing debates because they are not prepared to truly discuss, as opposed to mock and ridicule anonymously on social media, an ironic consequence of readily available ubiquitous information.

Colgate’s program of study with its long-standing and distinguished core curriculum is in many ways the antidote to the filter bubble, although it was obviously developed long before that concept took form. In particular, I am struck by the number of students I have met at Colgate — including many of you in the great Class of 2013 — who have ended up majoring or studying something that was completely unanticipated when you arrived on campus in August 2009.

In part, this is because we offer subjects not found in high school—neuroscience, and philosophy and peace and conflict studies, to name only three—but also because there is an intellectual climate and gentle academic guidance designed to force you out of your comfort zone and experience more than you imagined.

Unfortunately, from this point forward, you are not likely to have the time, the environment, or requirements that have encouraged you to choose from a rich and previously unknown intellectual menu.  Now, you transition to a digital world that is designed to narrow your views and make you as comfortable as possible.  Even if you go to graduate school, as many of you eventually will, the intellectual atmosphere you will encounter by definition is different, as these programs of study are designed to give you depth, not breadth, to prepare you for your chosen profession or discipline.

However, there are steps you can take to counter the forces of parochialism and thereby take advantage of the riches of the digital revolution as they were originally promised.

First, be the ones to determine context.  Some of you, I know, do take elaborate measures to enter the web anonymously and therefore exact greater explicit control over the information you receive.  Shielding your identity and protecting your preferences will undoubtedly become easier as concern about the filter bubble increases.  Your Colgate education taught you to always understand arguments in historical, intellectual, and political contexts and you must carry those lessons into this digital century.

Next, take control of the information you consume by deliberately and systematically seeking out alternative opinions.  For instance, my family subscribes to both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.  Both are outstanding journalistic enterprises, but their editorial boards have, by American standards, opposing perspectives and their reporting covers somewhat different topics.  Sometimes, after reading both, I feel that I better understand the world, and other days, I wonder if I am straddling two different planets.  The point is, at least I have tried to diversify the information I receive, and, I believe, I am a better citizen for the effort.

Third, try to counter the polarizing aspects of anonymous social media.  Because so much is written without attribution, the digital landscape is filled with loud voices that brook no argument or nuance, are often shrill, and are filled with bigotry that would never have been acceptable in what was once called “polite company.”  Anonymity encourages the shedding of social constraints and the need to be accountable.

Therefore, a simple suggestion:  ignore any post or commentary that has been made anonymously and give greater credence to writings where the author identifies him or herself.  This does not mean you have to agree or believe that author.  Plenty of people put their names to things that are wrong.  However, explicit authorship suggests at least someone who wants to be taken seriously.  Give them at least a modicum of credit in return.  Similarly, you diminish your own contributions and contribute to our isolation when you post anonymously.

Finally, recognize that face-to-face conversation — or even telephone calls with fellow humans — will maintain their places as the best ways to express complex ideas and gain empathy.  Of course, such conversations are not always possible but you should not assume that they are completely anachronistic simply because of the shiny machines we now possess.  So many problems could be avoided if we simply talked to one another.  The success of Colgate’s educational program is based in good part on the very human interaction between faculty and students and amongst students that allows us to discuss complex and difficult issues in a community where we know and recognize each other.

By dint of what is now a technically easy and relatively cheap connection to the internet, you have access to a world of riches unimaginable to anyone before 1990.  I welcome that world.  My message is not nostalgia for the past; the democratization of information that we are witnessing can be a great force for good.  However, you—the people previously known as the audience—still have to make your way through this world.  It would be a shame if you ended up simply ratifying over and over again the knowledge, perspectives, and opinions you have now by conversing with the same people in an endless loop.  Surf, tweet, and post wisely, with care and without sacrificing real human interaction.

Congratulations, Colgate seniors, members of the lucky Class of ’13.  We say goodbye to you today but hope you will return often.  In the meantime, we look forward to see how you will shape our world for the better.

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