Tis’ the season… of commencement speeches that is. All over the nation special guest speakers are imparting words of wisdom to this year’s graduates.
Some are inspiring, others prudent and prophetic; most are predictable.
Listen: [audio: satullo20090517.mp3]
Today, I give my first commencement address. I’ve been doling out advice in print for 20 years, so this should be a snap, right?
But I’m intimidated. Mind if I try a few thoughts out on you here? That way, you’ll be spared watching me make a fool of myself this afternoon at the Lutheran seminary in Mount Airy.
Ever since the mortar board was invented, graduation speakers have flattered the assembled scholars by calling them a special group thrust into the world at a special moment.
It’s a tired cliché. But in 2009, it also happens to be true. This is an extraordinary moment, rife with possibility, rife with risk. The rising generation can either master the moment, or be mastered by it.
This is, among many things, a Gutenberg moment.
Back in 1455, when that Bible first rolled off of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, it triggered sweeping changes that cascaded across centuries. Inside that moment were the seeds of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution.
Today we ride the leading edge of a wave that’s just as powerful, and far more swiftly moving. It goes by the funny name of Google.
Just 15 year ago, I had a colleague who had on his office wall a poster with a diagram of the World Wide Web. A diagram! Just 15 years ago, there was no Wikipedia. No Amazon. No Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. Politicians could safely make jokes to rooms full of supporters. If you wanted a date, you went to a bar with ferns. And newspapers were raking in revenues, hand over fist.
It’s a revolution all right. And revolutions are tricky. They can liberate, but they can also devour their own. In a revolution, things get blown up. Some of what gets broken deserved it. But some of what gets lost should have been treasured.
Change is sometimes progress, sometimes not. Wisdom lies in the struggle to see the difference. The Web specializes in creating close calls. It’s an engine of liberty, but also of narcissism and cruelty. It creates rousing new forums, and it spawns distorting digital cocoons.
There’s no escaping this revolution. You must fight your way through the fog, seeking provisional wisdom as you go. Never oppose the new mindlessly, as though it were all suspect. Never discard the old thoughtlessly, as though it were all worthless.
The job of the citizen, the moral person, the new graduate, will be to learn to navigate inside the gray, to puzzle out wise choices inside this enthralling, this appalling Gutenberg moment.
And no, iPhone, there’s no app for that.