I’m jealous of anyone graduating college today. You are stepping as a newly-burnished adult into an era of unprecedented promise, innovation, and opportunity. The world you will witness and contribute to can be fairer, wealthier, and more peaceful than any that people have ever known.
What makes all these glories possible is the exponential pace of change driven by technology. Your generation takes that for granted, and revels in it. But it makes those older than you deeply uncomfortable, and many simply refuse to see it. That puts a lot of responsibility on you.
If you put down your smartphone long enough to think about it, you’ll realize that your life has been radically different than that of anyone who has come before you. You’ve been using computers as far back as you can remember. If you’re a typical middle-class American, you’ve never known your parents not to have cellphones. From about fifth grade you’ve been making PowerPoint presentations for classes. You’ve never had a question you couldn’t look up on Google or Wikipedia. And since junior high school you’ve been yoked into a net of constant interaction with all your friends on Facebook. Not only can you reach out directly to any individual with a myriad of apps, you now have the ability to broadcast your experiences, ideas, and beliefs to lots of people through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, among many others.
All these things have given you a new power that people before you never had. You are an empowered being graduating into a world of similarly-empowered beings.
The question before you is whether you and your peers will use all this amazing capability to turn outward as cooperating citizens, or inward as — excuse the expression — self-righteous narcissists. The great promise of all the technology that surrounds and enables you is that you can help create an era of collaboration and collective progress that includes all the people of the world. But this isn’t inevitable. With power comes responsibility.
Here’s another reality of the world you are entering that nobody before ever had to face: It really is one world. All those tools you have become so familiar with are getting cheaper by the day, and as a result are going into the hands of billions whose lives otherwise would never have resembled yours. In fundamental ways the result is that the experience of tech-enabled empowerment is increasingly becoming a global one — as available to a child in a village in Gabon as to an American in Denver. But because that African child will probably be acutely aware of what makes her life less privileged, she will be willing to work harder than many of us to get the kind of life that Americans in recent generations generally considered their birthright.
We are now in an era of adaptation to this new inclusion. The next several decades will see an astonishing leveling of education levels, health, economic attainment and political participation for all the peoples of the world. Many, perhaps including you, will lose prerogatives they might in the past have taken for granted. But the positive flip side is that far greater numbers of people will gain prerogatives — the prerogative to live longer, know more, and be a full citizen in the global economy.
This is why I am so confident that, on balance, the world will be wealthier and healthier than ever before. As for the fairness and peace — that’s up to you. The biggest unknown about this era of adaptation is how those in the historically-wealthier parts of the world react as the vast billions of formerly-underprivileged demand to be included. Most people in the world will rise as the leveling takes place, but some — especially those in historically richer places–will fall. How will you react when a young worker in Bangladesh is willing to do your job for less? What will American and European voters do when voters in other parts of the world insist on regaining control of resources that we used to take disproportionately for ourselves?
Will the world find ways to share equitably? Will your digitized empowerment enable you to see more clearly the collective benefits of sharing resources with people no matter where they are? Or will you use it to organize with others of relative privilege to defend your prerogatives?
I bet firmly on the harmony scenario. One reason has nothing to do with morality or generosity. Again it’s because of my confidence of the power of the technology. More and more physical stuff that used to cost a lot of money is being sucked into that smartphone you carry. Maybe in the future it will look more like Google Glass. But you won’t need a camera, a stereo, a television, physical books, a typewriter, binoculars, stamps and envelopes, a desk, a GPS, a game machine, or the panoply of other single-function products and tools that will steadily get absorbed into the universe of virtualized experience. All those things will be as available to that kid in Gabon as to you. In some key ways, we will all need less to live good lives. Of course everyone will need food, clothing, and shelter. There’s reason to believe innovation can lower the cost and increase the availability of much of that as well.
But for all the plenty that the digitized world bequeaths us, nothing technology has proffered can substitute for empathy, brotherhood, and tolerance. Those are the things we must draw from inside ourselves to accompany technological progress.
The technology you know so well will continue to improve so quickly that it will astonish even you. You are blessed to live in a time of such abundance. What you need to do is work to improve your own and society’s empathy, brotherhood, and tolerance. Because you are so comfortable with change, facile with tech, and familiar with its benefits, you are uniquely suited to be the generation that blends both innovation and empathy. The world that can result will be far more astonishing even than the tools that will get you there.