Doctor Bill…


Sort of. After a ceremony today at Anglia Ruskin University’s Chelmsford campus I how have an Honorary Doctorate of Arts, which is a very fine thing. You can read the citation over on the ARU website. It’s very sweet.

Speaking at ARU

Speaking at ARU

I was asked to address those who were graduating today after actually doing some work and passing some exams. This is what I said (mostly).

Vice Chancellor, honoured guests and students

I’ve lived in Cambridge for over thirty-five years, and Anglia Ruskin University has played a significant part in my life. I’m old enough to remember the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology and the Anglia Polytechnic days – I don’t go back quite as far as the foundation of the School of Art, but it’s not *that* far before my time!

Back in 1998 I worked with Professor Stephen Heppell in the Ultralab here in Chelmsford, exploring the educational implications of the technologies that many of us now take for granted and which most of you will have switched off before you came into the hall.

I’ve taught evening classes in database development, given lectures on the development of computer art, attended the openings of amazing degree shows – especially the children’s illustrators – watched performances, sat in libraries, and taken advantage of the place as much as I can without actually being a student or having a proper job here.

It’s therefore a great honour to be awarded this doctorate from a university I know so well and with whose excellence and ability to get the best out of people I’m very well aquainted.

I should also say that it’s not something I ever anticipated. In my Twitter bio I describe myself as a ‘hack and pundit’, and we don’t generally get noticed. Listening to the citation I had the usual out of body experience of wondering who was being praised so fulsomely. It turns out it’s me.

Apparently I’ve done something useful with my life so far. So I think I owe it to you to explain a little about what took me from the banks of the River Tyne in the North of England and a council estate in the Northamptonshire steel town of Corby to this stage and these robes.

Mostly, I think, it’s because I refuse to believe that we can’t unbreak things, however serious the situation may look. I retain an optimism about our species and its capabilities that energises me and demands that I look for places and spaces where I can make a difference.

It’s not hard to find things to feel positive about – last month I watched as Rosetta made its last rendezvous with Comet 67P, and every time I look up and wave at the International Space Station, I remember what we can do when we decide something, and it heartens me.

I hope you can all feel equally optimistic, because the world you are moving out into as ARU graduates is filled with challenges, especially as the United Kingdom seems of the verge of irreversable political change that could challenge the openness many of us hold dear, and which has brought some of you to this university and this country.

I’m probably supposed to point out that the world is also filled with opportunities, but the challenges are more interesting, imminent and, crucially, often unignorable.

An opportunity can be missed. A serious challenge, whether personal or global, has the habit of presenting itself in a way that demands attention. Each of you now has no option but to pay attention, because the world demands it of you as graduates.

Some of the big things, like anthropogenic climate change, will force themselves on you rather quickly – and I’d like to apologise on behalf of my generation for leaving you with that inheritance.

Others may be some way off, like the way we’ll cope when the first non-human consciousness emerges from current AI research and recasts our view of ourselves as profoundly as Darwin did.

But whatever subject you have studied, whatever careers you are planning, and however well you may have done in exams, you have been through a process here that has trained you to observe, to learn, to plan, to be flexible, to adapt, and to maximise your chances of succeeding in anything you attempt.

It doesn’t mean you will always succeed, nor that it will be easy. But having come through the last few years, the odds have shifted in your favour, which is all any of us can ask.

We live in a post-revolutionary period, after the point at which digital technologies and systems based around miniaturised electronics came to provide the substrate on which the the world is based, replacing many of the mechanical, electromechanical and manual tools that had supported human endeavour since our species emerged.

Nothing typifies this for me more than a self-driving tractor using GPS and radar to plough straight furrows for precision agriculture, maximising yield, reducing the use of chemical additives and augmenting human farming skills to feed us. Forget Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat, this is the way the world works now.

Or consider the enormous potential of the new medium we still call ‘video games’ – and whoever manages to introduce another term for the interactive entertainment/education format will have my respect for ever, especially as it now moves into virtual and augmented reality modes.

Game development brings together computer science, engineering, art, narrative and new forms of user interaction that allow us – for the first time since television was invented – to ask new things of the storytellers, developers, producers, marketers, retailers, and accountants who will drive the modern media.

These two sides of the ‘digital revolution’ complement each other – if only because I’ll learn how to drive my GPS-enabled tractor in a VR simulation – but they are merely two aspects of the ongoing wave of innovation that will affect every one of you, whatever direction you choose.

The world you move out into is different from the one I grew up in, but our essential human nature remains constant. The world is there for you to shape according to your desires, and you leave here today with a key tool to enable you to do that. I congratulate you all on your achievement, and call on you to ensure that this is the first step on a journey that transforms the lives of others for the good of us all. That’s what I’ve tried to do with my life.

Thank you

With the Vice Chancellor

With the Vice Chancellor