Where the media end and you begin

In the information ether, choices proliferate - and the accumulation of choices made is world-changing.

Excerpted from a graduation address given May 1 at Adrian College in southeast Michigan by Stephen T. Gray, managing publisher of The Christian Science Monitor.

My family and Adrian College have ties going back more than 120 years. My great-grandfather graduated from Adrian in 1883 and came back as a professor in 1905. In 1910, my grandfather graduated from Adrian, too, and then went into journalism.

In 1927, he and a partner bought the nearby Monroe Evening News. My dad followed in his footsteps as a reporter, editor, and president, as I did, before moving to The Christian Science Monitor in Boston.

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Our lives were - mine still is - completely wrapped up in the media. But your lives are, too. The media saturate your lives far more than any previous generation. This will affect you more profoundly than you can imagine. Today I hope to give you a glimpse of your future.

I'll be talking about the media - the whole chaotic soup we live in, including print, electronic, and so-called "new media" like the Internet, e-mail, text messaging, video-streaming and so on - all the channels that carry information.

And by information, I mean all types of content - news, general knowledge, entertainment, shopping, and educational information - even movies, music, advertising, video games, and sports events.

All these channels, and all this content, constitute today's information environment. It's omnipresent, like the air we breathe. It's like the story where one fish says to the other, "I understand what they mean when they talk about the rocks, and I know what they mean when they talk about the seaweed. But what do they mean when they talk about 'the water'?"

"The water" - information - shapes and defines our very being. What comes into your consciousness drives your thoughts, which determine your actions. Because information is the only thing that causes people to change their behavior. People will go right on doing what they're doing - until they get new information.

When I heard Morris Shechtman, a management consultant, say that, my first thought was, "How obvious!" But then I realized how profound it was.

You will keep eating the same foods until you learn about a new, more delicious food, and living in the same city until you hear about a better opportunity in another city. All it takes is new information about something that will improve your life, and change happens.

This is the equation for all personal and global change: New information drives choices, and choices drive change.

Change is happening all over the world, this instant, because people are discovering new choices. And it's been going on through history - but when information multiplies as it is today, the pace of change goes wild.

Everything is changing faster than ever: consumer goods, technology, and lifestyles - even the world's economic, social, and political structures.

People make choices one at a time, but when a lot of people do it at once, the impact is huge. The Rose Revolution happened in the nation of Georgia in 2003 because people knew their election had been stolen, and so did those who joined the Orange Revolution in Ukraine last year.

To see how the information environment has changed, look at Adrian in my grandfather's day, when people got new information from just a few sources: a daily newspaper, word of mouth, letters, books, and an occasional national magazine or mail-order catalog. That's it: No radio, TV, cable, Internet, or cellphones - even telephones were new.

You got hardly any new information in a day - and, so, life barely changed for decades. Most people had one job all of their lives, lived in one town, had one spouse. In Adrian today, there's still one daily newspaper, but there are 25 or 30 radio stations and hundreds of TV channels via cable or satellite. Everybody has cellphones. And you can jump onto the Internet - broadband, of course - and instantly search the largest aggregation of information humanity has ever known. And more is on the way. Digital TV broadcasting is coming soon, allowing up to seven or eight times as many channels. Satellite radio is here, and digital radio soon may quintuple the number of stations. Websites multiply with no limit. And there'll be more.

With so much more information - so many more choices - change will come faster. Add the rest of the world and it's even more dramatic. Half of humanity lives in information conditions like those of Adrian 100 years ago. Roughly a quarter lives in information conditions like those of Adrian in the '50s or '60s. All of these people are trying desperately to catch up, realizing that better information is the path to better lives. As they do, change will accelerate in their world - and ours.

These changes are dramatically reshaping cultures and societies right now. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported on changes in family structure in China where, for centuries, life has centered on a strong family unit. The eldest male has been the family decisionmaker. With all generations living together in a single household, he decided what work everyone would do and whom everyone would marry. But in major Chinese cities, that's being swept away in a single generation. Spurred by huge growth in manufacturing jobs, China's young people are making their own career decisions, choosing their spouses, and living on their own.

With massive poverty and a third of the world's population, China and India plan to leverage their people into the 21st century through information and technology. And they are proving it can be done - progress some Americans fear will come at their expense. But if someone asked you what single global resource is the key to future human progress, what would you say? Energy? Raw materials? Technology? The answer is the vast reserve of human intelligence, creativity, and productivity that goes wasted every day. Why? Because billions of people can't get enough information to develop their native abilities.

In this century, those reserves of ability will be tapped as never before. Billions of people will get connected, and they will use new knowledge to develop their potential. This will spur the fastest advance in human freedoms and quality of life in history. And, as people around the world gain skills, they will also gain the kinds of jobs, technology, and earning power we have in the West. This will drive huge growth in the global economy even as it reshapes lives, jobs, companies, industries, and governments.

This kind of change may not be easy for us - but we can't deny that it is right for it to happen. And besides, no one has the power to prevent it. This is because, amazingly, no global power, government, or corporation has control of this information tsunami. It's happening precisely because the new information technologies move control of information away from the few, into the hands of the many.

When the information sources were few - think Adrian in 1910 - only a few people owned them, and they decided what you would receive. Today there are plenty of big media owners, but there are so many information sources that they control just a tiny share of the flow. Then who holds the controls? You do - at the receiving end. You decide what you want to know, and you go get it. And nobody can stop you. This individual power is unprecedented.

But wait - if billions of people suddenly can get any information they want, won't they make a lot of bad choices? Yes, they will. Everyone does, at one time or another.

Even so, we can be confident that the world emerging will be a better place than before. It is fundamentally healthy, intrinsically right, for people to be able to choose their own information and make their own choices. Why? My newspaper's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, put it this way: "God has endowed man with inalienable rights, among which are self-government, reason, and conscience." Those are the basic tools of human progress; we all have them. Give us better information, and most of us, most of the time, will make better choices.

What does this mean for you? The greatest source of human progress in this century will be the release of pent-up human intelligence, creativity, and productivity. You are the cream of that untapped reserve. You have crucial assets and advantages:

• An excellent education.

• Freedom of choice in a free society.

• Unlimited access to global information resources.

• A strong, stable economy with more kinds of employment possibilities than any other in the world.

A final overlooked asset is that you have learned how to learn. Maybe you thought you'd be done learning once you received your diploma. In this fast-changing century, you'll need your learning skills all your life. Change will come upon you again and again, wanted or not, and learning will be your most effective response.

You can make it easier by deciding right now that change isn't your enemy, but your friend, because it invites you to tap more of your ability. And you'll need to, because billions of others will be doing the same.

The fact is, you have skills and abilities right now that you have not yet imagined. You have barely begun to imagine what you can become if you continue to grow.

Of course, it's optional. You could get a dead-end job and play Party Poker four hours a day. The rest of humanity wouldn't know or care - but you would. Your powers of self-government, reason, and conscience would urge you in better directions. The best direction you can go is toward growth - and you're the only person who can make that choice for you. Growth is adding to your knowledge and skills, looking for what you find rewarding and valuable, and making progress at it.

Graduates, don't be afraid - all this change will come at you just one decision at a time. You have the education, the information skills, the self-government, reason, and conscience to handle it. You have the ability to make good decisions.

In this era of innovations and breakthroughs, you'll be able to explore more options than the most privileged members of past generations. And so we send you forth with our sincerest blessings, into a lifelong adventure. You have all the tools you need to make it rich, rewarding, fun, and satisfying.

Graduates, go make the world your own.

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