Tim Cook to Stanford grads: 'It's our humanity that got us into this mess and it's our humanity that's going to have to get us out'

Commencement speech focuses on themes of responsibility, humanity

Apple CEO Tim Cook takes the podium as the guest speaker at Stanford University's commencement on June 16, 2019, when he commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Photo by Sinead Chang.

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.

Related content:

Stanford graduate-to-be, 70, hopes doctorate degree will inspire his peers


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23 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 16, 2019 at 5:32 pm

Is he talking about Mark Zuckerberg, the king of privacy violations and fake news?

12 people like this
Posted by Another Rotten Apple
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jun 16, 2019 at 6:45 pm

Correction. It's our greed and self-importance that got us into this mess.

15 people like this
Posted by Downfall
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 17, 2019 at 10:58 am

I find it appalling that Cook is so preachy in his commencement speeches, pointing the finger at Facebook and others while there is no mention of the harm Apple has inflicted on our society.

Many of the kids coming up through the schools today are screen addicted and lacking in fundamental social interaction skills largely in part to the devices made by Apple.

8 people like this
Posted by Jane Gill
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 17, 2019 at 12:39 pm

I’d love to see Tim Cook and Apple show some real backbone in the face of leftist activist groups. They could do that by hiring Sarah Sanders to an executive spokesperson position at Apple.

Heads would spin if they did that. And it would be a much-needed breath of fresh air!

19 people like this
Posted by Lies damn lies statistics
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 17, 2019 at 2:25 pm

- Sarah Sanders

Why would apple hire a demonstrable liar? She also quit giving press briefings.

Dereliction. Lies.

Odd choice. Want leftest heads to explode, hire a competent conservative who can effect change.

Not a loser with no track record.

2 people like this
Posted by DC Waving Goodbye To Sarah
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 17, 2019 at 2:47 pm

Isn't Sarah Huckabee Sanders considering a run for the Arkansas governorship? Her father Mike was once governor of that state.,,a very conservative, bible-belt mentality.

13 people like this
Posted by @Jane Gill
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 17, 2019 at 5:36 pm

"I’d love to see Tim Cook and Apple show some real backbone in the face of leftist activist groups. They could do that by hiring Sarah Sanders to an executive spokesperson position at Apple."

1) WHY would anyone hire Huckabeast, the person most likely never to tell the truth if their lives depended on it?

2) Before throwing stones at other people's houses, clean up your own, Gill. After all, the bigots/racists/thugs aren't where you claim they reside...

2 people like this
Posted by Kenny
a resident of University South
on Jun 18, 2019 at 9:10 am

"2) Before throwing stones at other people's houses, clean up your own, Gill. After all, the bigots/racists/thugs aren't where you claim they reside..."

You are right, people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

After reading all the racist posts on this forum over the years, especially against Asians, Palo Alto is in no position to criticize others. The same goes for the lack of compassion shown towards the poor, and also the indignant elitism. The liberals here are little different than the conservatives they criticize.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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