Tom Brokaw at MIT – 4.2.08

Brokaw started his comments with some self-deprecating humor and jibes at Harvard (where he was accepted but not given financial aid).

MIT, he said, is at the intersection of information technology, the personal computer and the Internet. While he doesn’t understand the inner workings of technology, he does recognize that the introduction of technology will fundamentally change the world. In fact, he sees this as the most transformative era of technology that he can imagine.

He likens this transformation to a second big bang; with all of us looking and trying to determine which of the new planets will support life, watching planets merge (or attempt to merge) and grow to play a larger-and-larger role in our digital life.

One of the things that is striking about the advances in technology, he said, is that it isn’t happening in the darkened cloisters of nerdish wonks. The advances are being driven out in the open by all kinds of people. The power of the transformation available through technology is limited only by our imaginations. As technology makes our planet smaller, it also makes the possibilities larger.

But, he went on to say that life can’t be a virtual experience. What happens, he asked, if we have capacity without compassion; or if speed outstrips reason. It will do little good, he continued, if we wire the world but short-circuit our souls. A bit overwrought perhaps but I got his point.

Brokaw went to to talk about the people whom he’s met who were the most interesting and he ran through a litany of the saints of power and influence. The most memorable people though, he said, were ones whose names he never know (he could have asked them or something – just sayin’): civil rights workers in the 60s, American doctors in Somalia, Chinese students in Tiananmen Square, NY firefighters after 9/11. What made these people memorable was that they were willing to put their lives at risk to make the world a better place for everyone; and, he said – perhaps again with more drama than was needed – technology was providing new tools for these people.

He went through examples of how technology is making a difference and cited Rwanda and Pakistan. He suggested that the tools being used need to always have a human face to help “lower the temperature of fundamentalist rage.” I think I got where we was going with this but not 100 percent. People of goodwill from around the world have been putting themselves at risk to help others for a very long time – often with nothing but a human face to present to the world.

If anything it seems that technology can – while making the process of providing support more efficient and effective – throw up barriers between people that even technology with a human face might now be able to surmount. His point was a good one though as he described the possibility of connecting technology with commitment to help define this generations contribution to the world.

He went on to describe the horrors witnessed during the 20th century and pointed out that we are now living on an even smaller planet where the limits of power have become increasingly apparent. He ticked off a list of the problems we’re facing today – the growing gap between the haves and the have nots, global warming, etc. – and suggested that while we had the technology to deal with these issues (which is questionable) we needed to find the will; and the attention span.

This led to his addressing concerns around the Internet. He feels that we need to think about the source and the integrity of what appears on the small screen (as, frankly we do with information from any source) and his message to the audience was to beware of the unidentified matter that comes from the edges of the blogosphere. Of course this assumes that the blogosphere – like the universe – has edges, which isn’t necessarily the case.

He expressed concern that there are “small media meteorites” that may be the product of imagination, error or malevolence bombarding us every day. And while how we receive information is changing the requirement that information be gathered and distributed by trained professionals remains. I suppose as someone who has spent his life in the traditional media this point of view is understandable; but clearly the rise of citizen journalism is in response (at least in part) to the frustration people feel with the main stream media.

Brokaw likes the democratic nature of the Internet for sharing ideas and opinions, for sharing information and connecting with others and for hearing voices that one might not otherwise hear. The access to information is powerful. He pointed out, however, that the possibilities for distortion, fraud and anarchy are there and that we need to recognize our moral, and intellectual commitment to leave the planet better than we found it by putting our boots on the ground while using technology as an extension of our hearts as well as our minds.

The whole of his comments lasted only 20 minutes or so (about the time I spent waiting in line to get in) and they were generally innocuous. There was nothing unexpected or profound in them (perhaps others would disagree) and they left me with the impression of an honorable man’s attempt to offer his perspective on a rapidly changing world.

[tags]Tom Brokaw, MIT, technology, media[/tags]

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