Stanford University's 128th commencement ceremony on Sunday touched on timely themes of data privacy, humanity and responsibility for the world around us.
Commencement speaker and Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke frankly about technology's local and global impact — the good, the bad and the ugly. He pointed to the many invaluable innovations that were born in Stanford's backyard, Silicon Valley, commenting that "lately it seems this industry has become better known for a less noble innovation: The belief that you can claim credit without accepting responsibility.
"We see it every day now with every data breach, every privacy violation, every blind eye turned to hate speech," Cook said. "Fake news poisoning our national conversation. The false promise of miracles in exchange for a single drop of your blood. Too many seem to think that good intentions excuse away harmful outcomes," he said.
But at Stanford, and particularly so on graduation day, optimism and a belief in the "human capacity to solve problems" still thrives, he said.
"Generations of Stanford graduates and dropouts have used technology to remake our society," Cook said. "But I think you would agree that lately the results haven’t been neat or straightforward. In just the four years that you've been here at the Farm, things feel like they've taken a sharp turn. Crisis has tempered optimism. Consequences have challenged idealism. Reality has shaken blind faith. And yet we are still drawn here, for good reason."
Cook, who has advocated for Congress and the Federal Trade Commission to take steps to regulate tech companies to protect users' data, described the dangers of a world without digital privacy.
"In a world without digital privacy, even if you have done nothing wrong other than think differently you begin to censor yourself. Not entirely at first. Just a little, bit by bit. To risk less, to hope less, to imagine less, to dare less, to create less, to try less, to talk less, to think less.
"The chilling effect of digital surveillance is profound, and it touches everything," he said. "What a small, unimaginative world we would end up with."
He urged the graduates to approach whatever they choose to pursue after Stanford, whether or not that's in the tech industry, with conscious responsibility and a humility for a greater purpose beyond themselves.
"Our problems in technology, in politics, wherever, are human problems," Cook said. "From the garden of eden to today, it's our humanity that got us into this mess and it's our humanity that's going to have to get us out."
Cook, who in 2014 became the first CEO of a major company to come out as gay, commemorated the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, when members of New York City’s LGBTQ community clashed with police outside the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar. He described the protests as "another instance of the world telling them they ought to feel worthless for being different, but the group gathered there felt something strengthen in them — a conviction that they deserved something better than the shadows and better than oblivion.
"If it wasn't going to be given," Cook said, "then they were going to have to build it themselves."
Cook was at the time an 8 year old living in Alabama, a place that couldn’t have felt father away from New York City but where the "slurs and the hatreds were the same," he said.
"What I would not know for a long time was what I owed to a group of people I never knew in a place I'd never been. Yet I will never stop being grateful for what they had the courage to build," Cook said.
He also mentioned one of the world's most famous builders — his predecessor, Steve Jobs, who gave a Stanford commencement speech 14 years ago. Cook described the loneliness he felt after Jobs died in 2011 and feeling suffocated by the expectations others had for him in the wake. It was then he "learned the real, visceral difference between preparation and readiness," Cook said.
"When your time comes, and it will, you'll never be ready. But you're not supposed to be," he told the class of 2019. "Find the hope in the unexpected. Find the courage in the challenge. Find your vision on the solitary road. Don't get distracted.
"There are too many people who want credit without responsibility. Too many who show up for the ribbon cutting without building anything worth a damn. Be different. Leave something worthy."
Graduating seniors displayed their creativity, snark and memories of Stanford during the annual Wacky Walk tradition at the start of commencement. References to Stanford abound, from a student dressed as "the Stanford bubble" (complete with a bubble machine) to a Marguerite bus.
While some costumes were just plain wacky — students dressed up as cows, cups of boba tea or a long caterpillar train — others used the walk for more serious commentary, including signs about the civil war in Sudan, environmental advocacy and lacking campus mental health services. One senior referenced Job's 2005 graduation speech — but instead of his well-known advice, "Stay hungry, stay foolish," the graduate wrote on a sign, "Stay thirsty, stay foolish."
President Marc Tessier-Lavigne urged the graduates to reflect on Stanford's founding purpose, which was rooted in founders Jane and Leland Stanford's loss of their teenage son, Leland Stanford Jr. Tessier-Lavigne found inspiration in Leland Stanford Jr.'s journals, which are on display at the university’s Cantor Arts Center. The pages detail the young man's many and varied interests, from anthropology and art to arithmetic and historical artifacts. Leland Stanford Jr. died of typhoid fever at 15 years old in 1884.
"In the depths of their grief, when it would have been entirely understandable for the Stanfords to look inward, they looked outward," Tessier-Lavigne said. "They devoted themselves to creating a university that would create both fundamental knowledge … but would also help countless other students build their own platforms and launch their own lives of purpose."
Like the Stanfords and Cook, Tessier-Lavigne asked the class of 2019 to look outward rather than inward and to "use your gifts to change the world for the better."
"We are here to generate excellence for the sake of all humanity," he said.
Stanford conferred 1,792 bachelor's degrees, 2,389 master's degrees and 1,038 doctoral degrees on Sunday morning.
View more photos from Stanford University's 2019 commencement ceremony here.