2016 Commencement Speech — The George Washington University School of Business — May 13, 2016
Thank you Dean Livingstone for your kind and generous words. It’s awesome to be back here at GW! I would like to begin by expressing my deepest appreciation and admiration to the leadership of this great university, especially President Knapp, Dean Livingstone, Vice Dean Spencer, Associate Dean Choudhury, Associate Dean Jabbour and Ave Tucker from the Board of Trustees and for the honorary doctorate in public service bestowed upon me. My warmest welcome to the families and friends gathered here today to celebrate this momentous occasion. This is your day too and you must be incredibly proud.
And most importantly, I would like to extend huge congratulations to the Class of 2016! We are gathered here today on this marvellous campus at a centre of the world’s power to celebrate you, and your remarkable achievements, and to contemplate the future. You are now officially the makers of that future, endowed with the wisdom of this great institution; we await the amazing things you will create, the organisations you will build and the better world you will lead.
Coming back to GW has been a surprisingly emotional homecoming for me. I’ve never been one to look back or take time to appreciate achievements. In fact, I’ll confess to you here today, that I didn’t even attend my own graduation ceremony. I just packed up my car and headed west to California. The digital revolution was just beginning and I was in very much of a hurry.
Being in a hurry can be a good thing. An unrelenting drive and quick-response thinking has, without question, often given me the edge. But it’s also meant that sometimes I’ve missed out. And over time, I have realised that appreciating an important moment like this is an art worth preserving. It gives you time to reflect, to thank all those who helped and supported you and to contemplate the role you will play in the future.
And fortunately for you, 2016 is an absolutely remarkable time to be alive. The world, in spite of all of its challenges has never been more free, more open, more educated, healthier or safer and our personal capacity to change the course of the future is unmatched. We have never had better tools to make a difference.
In 1987 when I graduated from GW, the world was a very different place. It was the height of the Cold War, just weeks before Ronald Reagan made his historic speech at the Brandenburg Gate where he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” Ironically, twenty-nine years on, there is talk of building new walls, about isolating ourselves and keeping people out.
There are many factors driving this rhetoric — a decade of powerful economic head winds, the recent spate of deadly terror attacks and millions of desperate migrants on the move, fleeing war and conflict zones; an incredibly divisive US presidential race amplified by social media is reverberating around the globe; and, the UK is contemplating an historic referendum vote that could threaten to balkanise the European Union. There are indeed, dark clouds on the horizon.
And yet, this all seems a bizarre paradox considering that we have spent the last three decades building the technology that has connected the world. In fact, we are accelerating into an even more connected and interdependent future; one that is shaped less by the boundaries of nation states and more by platforms and services that connect us all beyond borders.
Today, there are over three billion people online; that’s nearly half the world’s population communicating with and learning from each other, andexperiencing life in previously unimaginable ways. That’s a remarkable achievement.
But during times of great change, there is a natural human instinct is to preserve the status quo, to protect what we have, to isolate ourselves — even scapegoat others for our misfortunes. And there is no denying that intolerance and ignorance of a dangerous kind are creeping into mainstream media and online social discourse; redefining what is acceptable in terms of the extremes. Social media has become an echo chamber of fear mongering and intolerance.
In March, Microsoft launched an artificial intelligence Bot experiment on Twitter and with the help of natural language processing and machine learning technologies, the Bot learned to hate in just 24 hours. They launched it again a few days later to see if this was some kind of anomaly but within hours its learned racist and abusive language reached unacceptable thresholds and its profile was suspended indefinitely.
In free and democratic societies, even the worst zealots and bigots are entitled to their opinions but what has changed is that the Internet gives them a platform to take their hateful messages and violent provocations to millions.
Extremist groups like Daesh or the so-called Islamic State have been quick to leverage the scale and reach of social networks to wage a digital insurgency and to disseminate propaganda aimed at hijacking the minds of vulnerable young people in privacy of their homes.
Criminals with a sexual interest in children join forces with other offenders online to abuse on a mass scale. Encryption provides the perfect cover and crypto-currency mechanisms obfuscate their transactions.
These are unforeseen consequences enabled by technology. Consequences that challenge our very humanity.
Every generation feels the weight of its time but whilst my generation got to dream about a utopian digital world, your generation has to deal with its new complex realities. In this interconnected world where companies count their users in the billions, no one company, or country for that matter, can solve these problems alone, it takes us all.
And if this past year is any indication, when the world comes together, we have cause for great optimism. A global effort brought the Ebola Crisis to resolution in just ten months. The world signed an historic climate change agreement in Paris that has finally put us on course to a safer and more stable world and the UK hosted the global refugee summit and secured donor commitments of $11 billion in a single day.
Three years ago, I founded an organisation called WePROTECT. Our mission is to eradicate online child sexual exploitation. We leverage the power of technology to rescue victims, thwart criminals and bring perpetrators to justice. With the support of Prime Minister David Cameron and the leaders of 63 other governments, law enforcement, tech companies and NGOs, we are making great progress and we will never stop until every child can use the internet without fear to dream, create and reach their potential.
As former President Jimmy Carter said, “We must adjust to changing times and still hold on to unchanging principles.” I couldn’t agree more. Change is the new normal and we need to embrace it by being certain of our own actions.
And we have to be more human too. At a time when we are obsessed with harnessing the power of data and making machines more intelligent to serve us better, I think its incumbent upon us to ensure that human intelligence, empathy and compassion are always factored into the equation.
Our digital lives are without a doubt easier, more convenient, and more efficient but in exchange for all of this, we give up something too. We cast an ever-expanding digital shadow that reveals our wants, desires and intentions to machines that, as a result, sometimes understand us better than we understand ourselves.
Yet, in spite of the headlines and anxiety that consumes so much of the public debate on privacy, in general, if you ask most people, they really aren’t that bothered. Maybe that’s because we are coming to terms with our digital lives and we are comfortable with these trade-offs.
So comfortable that you might be as surprised as I was recently to learn that one of the biggest threats of harm we face in our daily lives is not gun violence or terrorism, it’s accidents resulting from the use of a mobile device when walking or driving! I am not kidding — we are going about our lives mesmerised, like tethered zombies. We can’t put our phones down long enough to do anything these days. The eyes of our children are bright with that persistent glow and one of the biggest complaints in marriages is mobile interruption in the bedroom. Are we possibly a bit too connected — to our devices that is?
Even though I have lived it and participated in the digital revolution and the amazing time of human achievement and optimism that has followed, I still find it surreal at times. I think that’s because we often view ourselves as bystanders and we don’t quite comprehend the magnitude of the changes happening around us or, until long after, the definitive role we have played.
I have learned that success is not a coincidence or a stroke of luck. It’s a determined process. It’s about understanding context and recognising opportunities. It involves interpreting data logically and rationally and combining that with a good dose of gut instinct. I hope that today will be just the beginning of acknowledging your achievements and recognising your success.
And if can make one last suggestion — try getting lost from time to time. Be open to an occasional departure from your planned path.
Today, I work for Her Majesty’s government as the Under-secretary of State and Minister for Internet safety and security. You must be thinking how on earth did that happen? How does someone from a little town in Pennsylvania who studied here at GW become a Baroness in the House of Lords? Well I must say it’s not a scenario that I could have ever imagined or planned.
And though it sounds a bit like a fairy tale, I can assure you it was anything but. Raising my son as single Mom and balancing a high-powered career 3500 miles from family and friends — there were times when I honestly felt that my life and career were dangling from some castle high-tower. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. In fact, I have discovered that when the unexpected happens in life, that’s often where the magic begins.
As you move into this next phase, look for opportunities to explore untraveled paths. A fork in the road may look like a detour, but diversions, and how we react to them, can end up charting the course of our lives and defining who we are.
All of this incredible innovation will continue to transform our lives and our world but in the end it’s the human bonds that define us. The transformational moments in life like this one have always been and will always be about people.
I have always believed that our best outcome of the digital revolution is that one day we might understand each other a bit better. And I still do. As the English poet John Donne said best, “No man is an island unto himself”. The technology that was developed to unite us must never divide us.
As leaders of the next phase of our interconnected world, it’s your time now. The future is yours. And like all those who had faith in the generations before you –We have faith in you.