A Virtual Reality

Adam L. Penenberg
Reed College Commencement Address, 05.99

PRESIDENT KOBLIK, TRUSTEES, FACULTY, STUDENTS, REED Staff, Family, Friends, Reed Dogs and especially-ESPECIALLY-the graduates of the Class of 1999, the last graduating class of the century:

I’ve had more than a few frightening moments in my life. After all, I’m from New York. I’ve received death threats for stories I’ve written. One year, during Ramadan, I bicycled in Morocco, from Tangier to Fez, and practically the length and breadth of Israel in 125 degree heat. I’ve bungy jumped off bridges, ridden on the backs of camels and elephants, and hitchhiked through southern Africa. In Guatemala, I was bitten by a poisonous spider and almost died.

But speaking to you today is by far the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I am honored to be here. Actually, I’m more surprised than anything. I can see by the expressions on the faces of some of my former professors I’m not the only one. Look! There’s Professor Ed Segel, my former advisor. Hey, Ed. I guess Hell DID freeze over.

I must admit I can’t blame Ed, or any of my former instructors, for being surprised by my presence on this podium today. In the interest of full disclosure, I was a terrible student. So for all you slackers in this graduating class-and there appear to be quite a few judging by the buzz (and I’m not talking that kind of buzz)-this speech is for you.

I first heard of Reed College from Max Gordon, the late owner of the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York. I was 17 years old, an overly serious jazz trumpet player. Max seemed about a thousand years old at the time-“5 feet tall and about as old as dirt,” as one of the waitresses used to say behind his back- but I guess he was in his 60s. I’d slip in the Vanguard’s back door with the musicians and sneak around the club, soaking up the tunes and the vibe of the joint while avoiding Max’s salty stare. Until he’d toss me out.

Eventually, Max got tired of this spastic ballet and left me alone; sometimes he’d actually talk to me. Since I was college age, he told me about his days at this place called Reed. He talked about living in a place called the Old Dorm Block, writing his thesis on Balzac, the effect Oregon rain has on leather shoes.

Later, one of the musicians told me, “That Max sure did love that Reed College. But you know, he never graduated? He never did his gym.”

At some point I realized I was never going to be Miles Davis, so I quit music, escaped from New York and, remembering Max’s words, transferred to Reed in January 1984. Little did I know what awaited. After wading through my very first homework assignment for German History class, I trudged to Professor Christine Mueller’s office. I told her I didn’t understand the reading. First off, it was more than 200 pages. It was dense, incomprehensible. The worst part: the vocabulary.

“The German words?” she asked. “No,” I said, “the English.”

I was bounced from the History department because nobody wanted to be my advisor. Now I know why: My eventual advisor-in economics-died shortly after reading my thesis. It was the last one he ever read. For a long time I thought I’d killed him.

In my senior year, I spent more time co-editing the Reed College Quest and hanging out with my girlfriend than I did researching and writing my thesis, so if any of you have an urge to check my thesis out of the library, please don’t. And although I myself was voted onto the commencement committee and helped choose the speaker that year, I didn’t attend my own graduation. I wish I had so I could get a sense of how I’m doing now.

I recently had dim sum with a bunch of Reedie classmates in New York’s Chinatown, and we were brainstorming ideas for this speech. You know, What was I going to tell these fresh graduates of our neo-sensitive, post-modern liberal arts college? What precious morsels of advice could I impart that could serve to make their personal journeys richer, more fulfilling. Most importantly: What message does Reed’s asking me to speak today send to these graduates of the Class of 1999?

You know how Reedies are: In all the pork bun chaos, it was tough to get a word in edgewise. But here’s what we came up with. Think of it as a gift from “Old Reed” to “New Reed.”

You too could cut class, get mediocre grades, write a crappy thesis and still be invited back to give the commencement address.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my time here, and truth be told, got a lot out of it. I’ve been a lot of places, done a lot of things, and have written for a number of brainy publications-The New York Times, Wired, Forbes Magazine. But to this day, I can honestly say I have never been in a more intellectually stimulating environment than Reed College.

On a regular basis I’d hear people spew words like “zeitgeist” and “weltanschauung,” “illocution” and “perlocution,” “dialectics” and “flocciniaucinihilipilification”-and that was just in the coffee shop.

I learned how to research, to digest mountains of material and be able to make sense of it. I learned how to structure an argument. I learned how to write. And along the way, I also learned to believe in myself. For instance, I found out I could research and write 3 research papers in 48 hours fueled only by microwaveable burritos and Mountain Dew. In short, to coin that dreaded old Reed College cliche, I learned how to learn.

As a magazine journalist and online columnist, this is pretty much what I do today (minus the burritos and Mountain Dew). Which is why I have found my liberal arts education indispensable. I tell anyone interested in becoming a writer, or who wants to get in on this massive ponzi scheme we call the Internet economy, the best possible education is a liberal arts one, especially the kind you get here.

A college cannot keep up with the pace of technological change. But Liberal Arts is forever. And for all of you soon-to-be graduates, whether you majored in history or English, bio, chemistry, physics or video games, because you have a liberal arts education, because you have the tools, the know-how, the intellect and (hopefully) the drive to dig up precious nuggets of data, you can thrive in this information economy.

To those graduating today, I must seem old, ancient even. I’m 36, the youngest commencement speaker in school history, I’m told. I mention this because I am a prime example of how technology and the Internet can make a career-and it doesn’t have to take long. Outside of the Reed College Quest, I didn’t publish anything until I was 28 years old. I got lucky. My first story was for The New York Times. Gee, I thought. This freelance writing is a breeze. Of course, then I practically starved for years.

I know if it weren’t for the emergence of the Internet, I’m not sure I’d be a journalist today-and I certainly wouldn’t be up here talking to all of you.

I got into Internet news Thanksgiving 1996. Wired Magazine was about to launch a daily news site at wired.com, and fellow Reedie Kevin Kelleher was the managing editor. He invited me on board to cover breaking news. Back then, even porno was scarce on the Internet, and the information superhighway was a mere back road. I wrote more than 70 stories in 5 months.

Other news organizations followed suit, getting online in a big way, and after five months with Wired, I took a staff reporter’s job with Forbes magazine’s Web site. It took me about a month to get into trouble. I wrote an inside look at the music piracy scene over the Internet.

The day my story was published I received a death threat, and not one of your letters-cut-out-of-a-magazine-and-glued-to-a-piece-of-plain-paper-and-mailed with-no-return-address kind of death threat. It was an E-mail death threat, sent a thousand times. Six weeks later, I followed up with a piece on software piracy gangs on the Internet, and received another death threat from the same person. “Write one more article,” the note said, “and you’re dead.” The bogus return address: Kazcinsky@unabomer.gov.

Think about it: Have you ever heard of a technology reporter getting death threats?

Was I scared? You betcha. But I also realized I was on to something. It prompted me to keep digging into the various subcultures hiding in the dark, seedy corners of cyberspace. It’s become my specialty, my beat.

We live in a time when the pace of technological change has us hanging on by the seat of our digital pants; a time of 20-something millionaires who founded companies out of their parent’s garages; a time when companies with that magical, mystical dot-com suffix can be “worth” billions without having earned a nickel in profit. Of course, whether this economic cyberbubble will eventually burst or not is anyone’s guess.

It sure is exciting. But there is a downside to the unfettered spread of technology.

Last May, a 15-year-old kid from suburban U.S.A. was watching news coverage of India detonating a series of nuclear blasts. I won’t tell you his real name, but his computer hacker “handle” was t3k-9-all lower case, “because it looks cool.” t3k-9 thought, Some country that can’t feed its own people was jumping into a nuclear arms race with Pakistan? This stuck in his craw. He decided to do something about it.

So this skinny teenager with a bobbing adam’s apple and raspberry patches of acne traipsed up to his room, fired up his computer and surfed over to India’s premier atomic research center in Bombay-called Bhabha. He accessed a password crunching software he found on a hacker site on the Internet, and within 45 seconds he broke in and was joyriding around the center’s massive computer network.

t3k-9 read E-mails brimming with scientific jargon, physics papers, accounts of the blasts. Some of the documents were labeled “Top Secret.” Many of the E mails were encrypted.When t3k-9 realized what he was doing, he freaked-but not before downloading some souvenirs, including the whole password file.

Then t3k-9 did what any self-respecting teenage hacker would do: He bragged, posting the whole password file on the Internet, where hundreds of hackers downloaded it and ended up “wilding” through the system for a week. They explored the farthest reaches of the network; they trashed servers; they stole documents; they tore down Bhabha’s Web page and replaced it with their own.

No one knows what was taken; no one knows whether anything sensitive was compromised; no one knows if any of this information ended up in the hands of some rogue, terrorist state.

But for every t3k-9, there are 10 people doing good in cyberspace. There’s the Electronic Disturbance Theater, for instance, a group of artist activists who hold “virtual sit-ins” on the Internet against the Mexican Government for its war in Chiapas. At an agreed upon time, hundreds of computer activists click on a special button on the Web site that sends out a “java apple”-basically a piece of software that performs a specific task.

What does this particular applet do? It peppers the search engines on the President of Mexico Zedillo’s Web site with questions like, “What is justice?” “What is egalitarianism?” “What is peace?” “What is humanity?” With Zedillo’s site spitting back “That term not found on this site. That term not found on this site,” until it slows to a halt: Voila! A virtual sit-in.

The group also targeted the Pentagon, which fired back a hostile java applet of its own. This is probably the first recorded example of a cyberattack carried out by the Pentagon against a target on American soil.

Then there’s Dan Haig, a guy out in the Bay Area who trains Tibetan refugees in technology so they can bring Internet access to Tibetan communities around the world. This way, a people who have been pushed and kicked and forced off their land can reach out to one another and keep their culture alive-no matter where they are.

You don’t need to know the difference between a URL and UFO to realize we live in a time of unprecedented opportunity. So my last piece of advice for those of you graduating today is this:

Although the next few years may suck for many of you because you’re not sure what you want to do, or you can’t find meaningful employment, or you keep running into rejection, don’t panic. Welcome to the club. It happens to almost everyone-me included.

Follow your passion, whether it is journalism or academia or web design or designing women’s shoes. There is no reason to settle for anything less than spending your life doing something you love.

Some graduating classes are the end of an era. You, on the other hand, are the end of a millennium-and as such are a piece of history.

Congratulations, and welcome to the real world.

Copyright 1999 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)