Jennifer Urban, board chair of the California Privacy Protection Agency and clinical professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law, gave the following address to the School of Information graduating class on January 16, 2022:
JENNIFER URBAN: Congratulations, Class of 2021! I’m deeply honored to address you on this important occasion.
As I was considering these remarks, I also happened to be noodling around with GPT-3—the autoregressive language model created by OpenAI (now licensed to Microsoft). I decided to ask it what you should know as Berkeley Information School Graduates. At first it was hesitant, telling me that the question was vague—fair enough! That’s ok. I didn’t expect much. But then I got curious, and started entering prompts related to degrees and graduations. And, as it turns out, GPT-3 was quite skeptical about degrees, and downright cranky about the concept of graduation rituals. It claimed not to “understand” why humans would hold a “self-congratulatory” celebration.
Well. Perhaps it’s a good question. Perhaps we shouldn’t bother. This is an unsettled time, rife with challenges of such complexity, interrelatedness and contradiction that they qualify as “wicked” problems. Some of you work, or will work, on wicked problems—cybersecurity policy, for example, with its technical, social, political, legal, behavioral and geopolitical dimensions. Some of you work, or will work, on other problems—user interface design, for example, or data modeling for apparently discrete questions—that at first appear more targeted but in actuality implicate deeper and broader social and political issues.
These are hard problems, and the stakes are high. But I am optimistic—and I am optimistic in part specifically because of you and the skills and knowledge your degrees represent. In working on these problems, you will bring with you the professional traditions and understandings of information science—library science, data science, social science, and technical expertise–and the gift of the I School approach, specifically.
I’d first like to celebrate the fact that you have earned today either a professional degree or an academic PhD from a program that considers professionalism to be of deep importance. The I School’s commitment to ethics, and to surfacing the values that underpin and are reflected in technical systems, data science methods, and design, fosters true professionalism.
But I’d like to focus on two other, interrelated aspects of professional identity: knowledge and community. Professionals acquire and work with specialized, often esoteric, knowledge, and are expected to continue developing that knowledge throughout their careers. And professionals rely on practice communities—the ancient guilds and their descendants—to develop and transmit knowledge. Unfortunately, in practice, this historically has earned the professions a deserved reputation for erecting barriers that prevent competition, exclude many people, and close the profession off.
When you joined the I School, however, you joined a community—but not a closed guild. Instead, the I School creates a truly multidisciplinary community, with experts from data science, library science, social science, law, computer science, and more.
With an I School degree, you move through the world as a member of your own specific practice community—but also as a member of this multidisciplinary community. This gives you capacity. It makes you a connector across disciplines and ways of thinking. It will help you understand more dimensions of those wicked problems than you could from just your own practice community; it will help you solve those problems. We live in a mixed-methods world, where there is no way to develop meaningful solutions without combining forces. But most people still aren’t trained with deep multidisciplinarity as you are.
This brings me to knowledge. A professional community’s breadth and inclusiveness is closely bound up with its ability to acquire, use, and share knowledge in a way that can move society forward. The old guilds hoarded knowledge, and they rejected knowledge from “outside.” To truly address today’s challenges, professional communities must adopt an expansive theory and practice of knowledge, one that crosses the boundaries of discipline and background and that invites in experiences and forms of knowledge that are unfamiliar. They must expand the lens.
This is hard. Many of you experienced this in your classes. It is hard to share knowledge across the boundaries of discipline, each with its own vocabulary, assumptions, and methods. And it can be hard to absorb perspectives and experiences outside your own.
At the same time, it is urgently necessary to do so in a time when technological change interacts with all aspects of society. I will give one brief example. I am the Chair of the Board of the new California Privacy Protection Agency—the first agency with full administrative power focused on privacy in the United States, created by California voters just over a year ago. We have work to do—the law directs us to “protect the fundamental rights of natural persons with respect to the use of their personal information,” and also to give attention to the effect on business. It asks us to consider the effects of profiling Californians using their data, to craft regulations on algorithmic decision-making, to address businesses’ need to use data in order to maintain security, and to consider numerous other issues related to the use of Californians’ personal information. These are issues with technical, political, business, and social aspects, among others. They cannot be addressed without multidisciplinary perspectives, and they cannot be addressed without the input of all communities.
With your degrees, and the experiences and learning they represent, you all—individually, and as a multidisciplinary community—are poised to help address these issues, and the many other complex issues—and opportunities—confronting society.
These are some of the contributions your degrees make possible. Now, I haven’t really addressed GPT-3’s attitude about graduation celebrations. It sounds a bit too-cool-for-school-slacker-adolescent-Internet-denizen-circa-early-2000s, and, given GPT-3’s training data—much of which, I understand, is from the Web—maybe that’s what it is. I don’t know! GPT-3’s ways are opaque.
But there is, perhaps, an important question in there. Why pause and focus on a graduation? The answer, in my view, is unlikely to come from any language model, no matter how dense its training data or how clever its deep learning techniques. Answering the question requires expanding the lens—looking for and inviting other forms of knowledge.
Commencement is a celebration of your accomplishment, but also a moment in time, a pause, a chance to take stock and reflect on the meaning of your degree, its current and future value, and how you will deploy it in the world. It’s a time to remember.
It’s important to honor the fact that you’ve accomplished this in a time of tremendous loss. You’ve earned your degrees in the midst of uncertainty, illness, and hardship. The Berkeley campus is, once again, unnaturally quiet, as the Omicron variant has allowed Covid to regain the upper hand. We are not meeting to celebrate in person today; likely, some of us are ill, are isolating because we’ve been exposed, or are caring for others who are ill. Some may be suffering the effects of Long Covid. Some of us have lost loved ones. All of us have had expectations upended. All of us have had decisions large and small destabilized by uncertainty.
Today, we pause to remember this.
Many of you came to the I School as accomplished professionals, and have juggled family and work along with your courses. All of you have handled classes and developed a community remotely, during this pandemic, with grace.
Today, we pause to remember this.
And most of all, in this moment, we pause to remember your success in a difficult endeavor, the community you’ve built, and both the achievement and potential your degrees represent.
You have accomplished a great deal—for yourselves, for your profession, for Berkeley—and I am excited for what you will accomplish next. Congratulations!