Commencement: Computers Cannot (Really) Hear You

Our Western culture has too few rites of passage. I’ll never forget the first Bar Mitzvah I attended, because the expectations on the young man being celebrated were extraordinary and unambiguous. It’s harder to take manhood lightly when, in order to achieve it, you had to learn Hebrew, exegete a passage of the Torah, play violin for a synagogue full of family friends, and then sit in adult conversations for the rest of the afternoon.

I look at commencement ceremonies through that lens. It may come late as a passage into adulthood, but it’s one of the best rites we offer young people. University of Oregon and Lane Community College have mid-June graduations, so they haven’t announced their commencement speakers yet. When they do, there may be protests. Protesting commencement speakers has become a springtime hobby for people who don’t like jogging or chasing birds with binoculars.

I’ve delivered a couple of commencement addresses myself, so I always have one handy. You never know when a protested speaker might back out at the last minute.

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Thank you for inviting me to speak. I believe every speech should set its length by how comfortably the audience is dressed. What could be less comfortable than single-use polyester gowns and mortarboards? So this will be appropriately brief.

Please recall the funniest story you’ve ever heard. Let’s be silent for a moment, while you imagine me telling that story. (Pause.) Now, with that out of the way, let me get to my three recommendations as you begin — “commence” — whatever is ahead for you. You’ll be pleased to know that two of these tasks can be done on your smart phone.

First, just once and in a single sitting, read the terms and conditions for software that you use. If it’s Apple’s iTunes, that’s 15,066 words. Facebook has fewer words, but incorporates ten additional pages of further agreements. When the King of England read the Declaration of Independence (1,337 words), he knew exactly what he was getting into.

It may take you an hour to read one of these agreements entirely. It’ll make you mad — partly because it would take so much longer to actually comprehend it, and partly because you have no choice. The efficiency of the Internet requires that everybody play by the same rules. One of the rules is pretending that you understand the rules.

They’ll tell you that individual expression is flourishing on the Internet and it is, so long as your individual expression is the same as everyone else’s.

So second, turn off Auto-Correct. You can take out your iPhone now, if you don’t already have it out. Go to Settings, then General, then Keyboard, then slide Auto-Correction to Off. Now your phone won’t make you look smarter than you are, and that’s a good start.

Auto-Correct doesn’t understand the value of mistakes. I misspelled “capital” on my first day as a copy editor. Do you think I’ve misspelled it since? Nothing could be further from the truth — which I know, because I once used “farther,” when “further” was correct. We learn from our mistakes. We must not let our computers take that away from us.

Mistakes make us better. They also make us unique. I could always tell when notes from my children contained lies, because their spelling — only then — was impeccable. If you want to be understood but not known, then conform. Don’t call attention to yourself. Auto-Correct promotes conformity. It helps computers understand, while it’s keeping us from being known.

Knowing is deeper than understanding, and only people do it well.

Which brings me to my final point today. Pick up a pen or pencil and master your own handwriting. It’s simple. It’s everywhere. It’s part of you.

No matter what the future brings, you express yourself every time you jot. Whether it’s a thank you note, a ransom letter, or the grocery list in your pocket the day you die, you leave a mark. It’s noticed by others, whether they know it or not. Those lines on paper shape your voice in the world. Make that voice your own.

Now good luck.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs