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Internet, Media, Responsibility in a Commencement Speech

Steve Bratt · June 13, 2010

I had the great pleasure of watching my daughter graduate from Dickinson College a few weeks ago (I could say much more about the emotional and financial aspects of this milestone). The commencement speaker was Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek magazine and Pulitzer Prize-winning author — one of the most insightful, humorous and articulate speakers I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to.  Just one section of his speech gave me pause:

“Technology … has created the means by which voices, often anonymous, can be heard saying things they would not be brave enough to say with their lips. With power comes responsibility.  But too often the Internet has divorced the two. Now anyone can say anything with impunity. …  May your generation be the one to stand up to reflexive extremism and on-line hyperbole … and say enough — this will not stand”.

What do you think?  For context, first listen to his entire address, which was eloquent and succinct.  You can find the entire speech starting at 49 minutes 50 seconds of the clip below (select the play arrow at the bottom (not middle), then drag the progress bar at the bottom to the desired time).  The quote above starts around 51:40.  Sometimes that video feed is slow…  so you can also see a large fraction of the speech on YouTube (with the quote above starting around 1:46).

Mr. Meacham suggests that the Internet is partially to blame for a loss of professionalism, authenticity, and attribution within the media, and within human discourse in general.  This is not a new or baseless assertion.  The 3 elements of his words that bothered me most were:

  • Mr. Meacham did not acknowledge that there might be some virtue in providing more people on the planet with a voice —  distributing a power once possessed by a relative small, educated and largely-responsible minority in traditional media (newspapers, magazines, TV, radio)
  • He did not acknowledge that many of the problems he cites have been with us for years through traditional media (but on a smaller scale): “anonymous” assertions, lack of responsibly-exercised power, people saying things in print “they would not be brave enough to say with their lips”, etc.
  • Most importantly, I was disappointed that he could not envision the possibility of giving more people a global voice through the Web, while leveraging that technology to address more complete the problems cited in the previous bullet.  Perhaps the Web could be leveraged to improve our ability to assert and assess truth, to encourage and find quality, to skim the surface and dig deeper, to couple power to responsibility; and do these things in ways impossible through traditional media.

If I could re-write — with impunity — the tail end of Mr. Meacham’s above remarks, and do so for graduates of “Web University”, I would say:

“May your generation see a time when all people on the planet have the power to write, read and and collaborate on the Web, and that this collective power fosters an age of growing understanding and compassion, of improving lives and communities, and of solutions to this world’s greatest challenges.  May your generation, not fear or blame technology, but harness it to help each person make their own (or collective) judgments about what is true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, and safe or dangerous.”

OK, that was really geeky — but this is Web U.  Let us know your thoughts.

Jon Meacham

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