Gates: Tech just tool for making human connections

May. 12, 2013 @ 06:46 PM

Melinda Gates really connected Sunday to her audience at Duke University’s graduation ceremony, calling communications technology a remarkable tool, but saying that the ultimate goal is to link with humanity.

“Technology is just a tool,” Gates, co-chairwoman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told 5,000 graduates at Wallace Wade Stadium. “It’s a powerful tool, but it’s just a tool. Deep human connection is very different. It’s not a tool; it’s not a means to an end. It is the end.”

Gates, who earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and economics at Duke in 1986 and a master’s degree in business administration from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in 1987, said the biggest difference between her years on campus and today’s world is how students communicate.

“One popular way to describe this generation is to say you’re connected,” Gates said. “Some refer to you as Generation C, but others say you’re increasingly disconnected from the things that matter – that instead of collecting friends, you spend time collecting friend requests.”

But Gates doesn’t fully embrace either camp.

“The people who say that technology has disconnected you are wrong,” she said. “But so are the people who say that technology has automatically connected you.”

It’s about how technology is used, she suggested.

With the Internet’s ability to connect the world, she said, it’s now possible for the planet to be a neighborhood.

“It’s often hard to see others whose lives are different from yours as three-dimensional beings who need and want the same things that you do,” Gates said. “If you can really believe that the seven billion people on the planet are equal to you in spirit, then you’ll take action to make the world more equal for everyone.”

Martin Luther King Jr. called this concept “a brotherhood,” and hoped that college students would make it a reality, Gates said.

“I think we are finally creating the scientific and technological tools to turn the world into a neighborhood,” she said. “And that gives you amazing ethical opportunities.

“So what will you do?” she asked. “I hope you will use the tools of technology to connect – to make this world a brotherhood and sisterhood, and I can’t wait to see what you do.”

Also speaking was Duke student Andrew Tower Barnhill, a candidate for a master of divinity degree.

Barnhill quoted former Duke President Terry Sanford as saying that Duke is a place “worthy of outrageous ambition.”

“He had this deeply Duke idea that doing what has been done before is just not good enough,” Barnhill said. “And I hope that we will be seized by an impulse to go into the world” and live a life of innovation.

One newly minted graduate is 21-year-old Ashley Alman from Boca Raton, Fla. Alman got her degree in political science, and is headed to a job with The Huffington Post in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve absolutely loved my years at Duke and in Durham,” she said. “Much more than an academic institution, Duke has been both a network of inspiring individuals and a home away from home. It’s been a better experience than I could have imagined it would be, and it’s really hard to say goodbye!”

Brandon Locke was running late for graduation, but agreed to a quick interview as he bolted up a flight of steps.

Locke, who also got his degree in political science, is headed to Brussels to study and work in foreign affairs. He said his years at Duke were unforgettable.

“There’s been some ups and downs,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it was a really fun ride.”