Alan Kay, '05 Columbia College Commencement

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is my pleasure to present to you LMK  the
degree Doctor of Letters honoris  causa with all
the rights and privileges  appertaining here to
thank you so much  now
honorary degrees are nice but the  real ones
that you've earned today are  much nicer so let me congratulate you
talks are usually full of  advice but
there is such a wide  diversity of human styles that
each  person really needs something special  there's
a great scene in the movie city  slickers where Billy
Crystal plays a guy  in a midlife crisis
who goes on a cattle  drive to find himself
Jack Palance is  the old cowboy who says you
city folks  just don't get it the
secret of life is  just one thing
and billy crystal says  what is it what is it
the old cowboy  said that's what you
have to find out so  I'm going to avoid giving
advice in this  talk
there are even jokes about  commencement
Doonesbury did a Sunday  comic about it
President Bush thought it  would be funny to point
out that one can  go far in the US with a sea average
a commencement a few weeks ago he  said literally
look what I've  accomplished with my fluency and  language
and grammar
what a role model
mr. books Bush's remarks do point up
  the enormous distinction between just  getting
a degree and getting a real  education
the shocking start of
real education  happens when you realize that
you not  only don't know very much
compared to  the good stuff that's known but
what you do know is known in a very weak  way and
the problem with starting
on  this path of education this this doesn't  change
as you get better educated the
more you learn the more you realize you  don't know and
the more you realize you  understand it in a week
way people say  but
I want to know everything and
I want  to be absolutely sure of it a
lot of  people do this by
living inside their  heads with stories they choose to
  believe in but it uses an
ancient  version of know that really means
the  same as believe and it misses most of
  the important ideas about
400 years ago  a new
way of living outside of our heads  a little bit
was invented science
changed the meaning of know so  drastically that
it would have been  better
if a new word had been coined we
  still used no science
fiction writer  Robert Heinlein gave us a Martian
word  for this new way of knowing called it  grok
in part grok
understand things in a way that  minimizes
our human genetic and cultural  biases
this is known a long time ago
the  talmud says we see things not as they
  are but as we are rock
means to try to  see things
not as we are but from  stronger points
of view the most  critical
ideas of humanity have happened  when somebody
is realized that the world  is not as it seems that
most of the  important stuff is quite invisible
to  our nervous system and belief structures
is something you know about because  making the invisible a little more  visible
is what artists have always  tried to do
  and grokking
became the newest of the  Arts
was one of the great art forms
of  the last century
another early part of  this new way
of thinking happened when  democratic
Republic's like ours were  invented that tried to
take into account  our biases and prejudices
in 18th  century America
the title of Tom
Paine's  Common Sense was a play
on words because  it was really
an argument against  common-sense ideas about
governments for  example having a king in those
days  seemed quite natural it
was a natural  extension of having a father be
the head  of a family but pain said
and let  instead of having the King be the law
  let us have the law be the king and
he  meant that people can invent a form
of  government that is better for
most  people than what seems natural Tom Paine
  really meant uncommon sense
Thomas  Jefferson at a letter in
1820 said I  know of no safe depository
of the  ultimate powers of
the society but the  people themselves and
if we think them  not enlightened
enough to exercise
their  control with a wholesome discretion the
  remedy is not to take it from them but
  to inform their discretion by education  this
is what education in America really  means
inform their discretion by
  education means not helping Americans  learn a job
or facts but helping them
  learn to grok few
years back my wife  Bonnie mcbird who
incidentally was the  original writer of the movie
Tron that's  how we met
had a nice argument with Vice  President Al
Gore over the haves and  have-nots
he was worried about the  digital divide
in the United States but  she pointed
out that most of the  important knowledge of
the world was  still in books and available
in free  public libraries she
said that the real  haves and have-nots are those
who have  or have not the discretion to make
use  of these free resources the
real start  of education is to gain that discretion
  a survey a few years ago indicated
that  only about twenty percent of american  adults today
can read and understand the
  simply written pamphlet common sense by
  tom paine this includes many college
  graduates so the safe repository
of the  ultimate powers of society is not
so  safe these days our
main job as adults  now usually
that I found that the most  popular advice in a
commencement talk  was to follow your
bliss or do what you  really
love and so forth and that is  actually good
advice but it's it's to  individual
it's two
in cognizant of the
fact that we live in a society it's our  main job as
adults especially as college  graduates
is to try to help all of the  children of
the world grow up to think  better meaning
grok better than we do  and
we were involved in the new
media  can make a big difference here that's
  you Nicholas Negroponte and
I Nicholas  is the founder of the Media Lab at
MIT  he and I are involved in
a serious  project underway right now
to make and  distribute an under
$100 laptop
for all of the children in the world  that has
multiple billions of children
this is possible to do
mcluhan pointed  out that we shape media
but then the  media turn around and reshape
us so what  kind of content will
you make for this  new medium
Nicholas and I are making the  machine but
it's up to you to make the  content what kind of content will you
  make for the children of the world
30  years ago
I attended a conference on  mind and body
held at the Zen Center in  California
the monks would often
clasp  their hands together and pause
for a  moment
eventually worked up the courage  to ask them why
they did this they said
  Buddhists believe that the world of the
  senses is an illusion which most of
the  time we have to pretend is real like  when
of we're walking into a path of a  bus
maybe an illusion but we better get  out of the way
but during the day there  are occasions
at a meal
starting to do  work at a ceremony
like this where we  pause for a moment to
reflect that we  are incredibly finite and limited
beings  and reality
is much larger than we can  take in at
any one time I think this is  a wonderful practice
to pause several  times a day and
think for a second about  all
the things we aren't thinking about
  so congratulations again and
thank you  very much for pausing
to grok the real  significance of this