Tim Cook Talks Privacy, Accountability During Stanford Commencement Speech

Apple CEO Tim Cook said he believes Silicon Valley tech giants need to be held responsible for the consequences stemming from their innovations.


As the keynote speaker for the Stanford University’s 128th commencement ceremony Sunday, Cook offered a cautionary message to Stanford University graduates Sunday, urging them to remember that with great power comes great responsibility:

Stanford and Silicon Valley’s roots are woven together. We’re part of the same ecosystem. It was true when Steve stood on this stage 14 years ago. It’s true today and presumably it will be true for awhile longer still. The past few decades have lifted us together. But today, we gather at a moment that demands some reflection.

Fueled by caffeine and code, optimism and idealism, conviction and creativity, generations of Stanford graduates – and dropouts – have used technology to remake our society. But I think you would agree that lately the results haven’t been neat or straightforward. In just the four years you’ve been here at the farm, things feel like they’ve taken a sharp turn. Crisis has tempered optimism, consequences have challenged idealism, and reality has shaken blind faith. And yet we are still drawn here. For good reason; big dreams live here as do the genius and passion to make them real.

Cook said that the technology industry, despite good intentions, has failed to take responsibility for issues arising on privacy and hate speech, creating “chaos” by its inaction:

Whether you like it or not what you build defines who you are. If you build a chaos factory you can’t deny responsibility for the chaos. There are few areas where this is more important than privacy. If we accept this normal and unavoidable that everything can be aggregated, sold, or even leaked in the event of a hack, then we lose so much more than data. We lose the freedom to be human.

In a world without digital privacy, even if you have done nothing wrong other than think differently, you begin to censor yourself. Your generation ought to have the same freedom to shape the future as the generation that came before. Graduates, at the very least, learn from these mistakes. If you want to take credit, first learn to take responsibility.

While much of the speech was about Silicon Valley needing to accept responsibility, Tim Cook mentioned to the Stanford graduates the 50th anniversary of Stonewall to stress the importance of leaving a legacy for the future:

Whatever you do with your life, be a builder. You don’t have to start from scratch to build something monumental. And conversely, the best founders, ones whose creations last, and whose reputations grow rather than shrink with passing time, they spend most of their time building piece by piece. Builders are comfortable in the belief that one day their life’s work will be bigger than them. Bigger than any one person. They’re mindful that their effects will span generations. That’s not an accident, and in a way, it’s the whole point.

In a few days, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the riots at Stonewall. When the patrons of the Stonewall Inn showed up that night, people of all races, gay and transgender, young and old had no idea what history had in store for them. It would have seemed foolish to dream it. It was just 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 convicting that they deserved something better than the shadows and better than oblivion. And if it wasn’t going to be given, then they were going to have to build it themselves.

I was 8 years old and a thousand miles away when Stonewall happened. There were no news alerts, no way for photos to go viral, no mechanism for a kid on the Gulf Coast to hear these unlikely heroes tell their stories. Greenwich Village may have well as been a different planet; though I can tell you that slurs and the hatred was the same. What I would not know for a long time was what I owned to a group of people in a place I’d never been. I will never stop being grateful for what they had the courage to build.

In closing, Cook encouraged the Stanford graduates to be different and leave something worthy in the world, as well as know that they will one day have to pass it on:

Graduates, the fact is, when your time comes, and it will, you’ll never be ready. But you’re not supposed to be. 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 to the ribbon cutting without building anything worth ta damn.

Be different, leave something worthy, and always remember that you can’t take it with you. You’re going to have to pass it on.

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