Ode to a School of Information

These are the remarks I delivered to the graduating masters in information management and systems class of 2017 at the UC Berkeley School of Information as the elected student commencement speaker.

I’d like to take a moment to thank Dean Anno Saxenian, our distinguished faculty, the wonderful staff, and our invited guests, especially our family members. My parents, Gary and Nora, and their partners, my brother Dylan and my beautiful fiancé Mollie. Thank you all for getting us to where we are today.

I’d also like to specifically thank our classmate Emily Witt. Emily and I were partners on virtually everything over these last two years, from InfoCamp to our final project. We stood on this podium together as IMSA co-presidents just a year ago, and she has every right as I do to be before you today. Thank you Emily, none of us, especially me, could have done what we’ve done without you.

I am going to talk about beauty and truth.

When we MIMS students came to Berkeley, we had divided ourselves, knowingly or not, into seekers of beauty and seekers of truth. Designers or engineers. Product managers or data scientists. UX researchers or policymakers.

We arrived and put ourselves into these buckets. Some of us sought beauty in the interactions of humans and computers. Others sought truth under mountains of observations.

But at the I School, we try to add beauty to the truth. Our program unites the truthful, unfeeling beauty of the sciences with the beautiful, rigorous truth of the humanities and arts. We visualize, present, and experience truth and try to bring it to others.

We now all know the beauty of a clean user interface, and the beauty of a slick, efficient algorithm. We find truth in a well-run experiment, and truth in the experience of a user. We know the beauty of an accelerating adoption curve, and the truth of a convincing explanation. The beauty of a well thought out categorization, and the truth of a compelling legal argument.

There’s a reason we became obsessed with Sketchnotes and the affordances of paper. There’s a reason that a well-organized closet turns you on. We are a rare breed that’s able to not just take pleasure in these small, beautiful truths, but to study, prod and understand them. Replicate them and take them to the world.

We recoil at privacy violations and bad experiments because they lack beauty. We reject pie charts because they lack truth. We must reject discrimination in our industry because it is true, but not beautiful.

The I School has taught us to do something that’s incredibly hard in practice: be the person who says no. The great idea is illegal. The great thought is illogical. The company cannot be saved in this way because it would sacrifice the dignity of the users. The team cannot be the best it possibly can without a diverse set of voices, spoken and heard. We have our ideas and our ideals. Beauty and truth. Those cannot be denied.

Our better angels will push us to aggressively accept these concepts, beauty and truth. We admire the designer who puts a graphic of a hamburger as a menu icon. We follow the reporter who chronicles his understanding in a notebook and sends daily update photos. We marvel at the simplicity of encryption and tremble before the complexity of its implementation.

But we can’t expect that these concepts will carry us home on their own. So often the push for truth and the inspiration of beauty let us remove ourselves from ground reality. We must consider people with different beauties and different truths. They have different needs and operate in complete social systems. They cannot be forgotten.

We came to Berkeley not as an add-on to our jobs. Not for a credential to tout at our next review. We gave up our lives, left our homes and devoted ourselves for two years to the exploration and betterment of ourselves and these concepts.

We can now step out of our buckets and share the language of truth and beauty. To know that there’s no design that’s not engineering. To know that there’s no data science that’s not product management. To know that there is no beauty that is not true.

And today, as we embark from here to our next adventures, we must not only be inquisitive, and mindful of the tussle. We must not only be accountable for our creations, responsible for our code, and wary of the power of defaults. We must also remember: there is a truth of beauty, and a beauty of truth.

Thank you.