Stanford University has long been a Mecca for techno-optimists, a place where innovation, student idealism, and the tech elite converge. But Stanford’s 2019 commencement address struck a more sober tone, adding to a chorus of skepticism about the power and influence that the technology industry wields.
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivered the address Sunday, focusing on the responsibility that innovators have to weigh the consequences of what they create:
Lately, it seems that this industry is becoming better known for a less noble innovation. The belief that you can claim credit without accepting responsibility. We see it every day now with every data breach, every privacy violation, every blind eye turned to hate speech, fake news poisoning our national conversation, false miracles in exchange for a single drop of your blood. Too many seem to think that good intentions excuse away harmful outcomes. But whether you like it or not, what you build and what you create define who you are.
Cook is in the habit of taking Apple’s tech industry peers to task over privacy violations and data breaches. He was a vocal critic of Facebook during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which allowed political operatives to access user data without their consent.
“If you built a chaos factory, you can’t dodge responsibility for the chaos,” Cook said during the Stanford address. “Taking responsibility means having the courage to think things through and there are few areas where this is more important than privacy.”
As the tech lash grows, the industry’s titans are bracing for regulation. While Apple positions itself as a privacy champion and Microsoft pledges to partner with regulators, other tech companies are taking their own tact. Amazon, for example, has been correcting politicians who criticize the company on Twitter. It’s a dramatic shift from a company infamous for keeping its head down and avoiding public comment.
Increasingly, Apple is using its reputation for stronger privacy protections as a selling point, as is Microsoft. Their business models make that possible; neither company relies heavily on advertising revenue, as Google and Facebook do.
As for the next generation of innovators? Cook wants them to slow down and think about the consequences of their actions.
“If you want to take credit, first learn to take responsibility,” he said.