May 23, 2014

The Fulfillment Filter

Lee Rainie's commencement address for the PhD and master’s degree recipients from the University of Maryland iSchool

Dean Preece, distinguished faculty and staff, honored guests, family and supporters; and … above all … members of the class of 2014 …

I can’t believe I am lucky enough to spend this special time with you. Thank you for such an honor.

You have reached the end of the iSchool version of “Real World” — month after month locked away in HBK with no access to outsiders or to Adderall — and, still … you look amazing.

I’m told, though, that you guys totally screwed up your end of the reality-show deal by being the most drama-free … and most avid sharing-and-bonded group ever to attend the iSchool …

Even though you have met all the requirements to graduate, I have three last assignments for you.

The first is to ask you graduates to stand up … and wave your thanks … and love … to your families and supporters in the audience.

The second assignment is to pull out your phones right now — I know you have them turned on … and send thank-you texts to your favorite iSchool professors and tell them what they meant to you.

Finally, point your phone towards me, take a picture, then Vine it, Tweet it, Facebook it, Instagram it or Snapchat it and describe how sensational this speech has been so far … using the hashtag: #RainieIsKillingIt.

Now that you are part of the 1% — that is, the small fraction of those who REALLY know what the heck is going on in information spaces — people will expect you to solve the greatest challenges that the digital age has tossed in our path.

One of the biggest is information overload, a phenomenon that began to be chronicled by psychologists during World War II.

One well-documented episode involved a Chindit soldier in Burma who literally fell asleep as machine-gun bullets splattered around him. Researchers discovered later this hadn’t been caused by fatigue. Instead, it resulted from the soldier’s information-overloaded brain circuits. 1

A more 21st Century version of information overload was covered by The Onion in a 2006 story:

“The introduction of the 24-hour news cycle and increased info-missions [information emissions] from the Internet are taxing the American attention span like never before. … If Americans continue needlessly paying attention to current events at this rate, our nation will completely run out of attention-paying capacity by the summer of 2012.”

If you believe The Onion and also listen to my friend, the wonderful communications analyst, Clay Shirky, the real problem here isn’t so much information overload as it is a “filter failure.”

We don’t have the right mechanisms to sort through the hyper-abundance of information to get to the good stuff — the stuff that will make us smarter, help us make better decisions, and allow us to nuzzle up even closer to wisdom and truth.

How do you build filters for wisdom and truth? I have no earthly idea. For Pete’s sake, that’s why you have PhDs and master’s degrees now. You’re supposed to figure it out.

The good news is that we’ve built fabulous filters before in situations of information overload:

  • once words became too abundant, we alphabetized them
  • once books became too big, we gave them tables of contents and indexes
  • once too many books came into the market, publishers specialized by subject and by genre
  • once too much knowledge in too many subjects became a problem, we first created encyclopedias and then Dewey Decimal-ed all those subjects
  • and, more recently, once data became too plentiful, we data-based the bits and bytes and began to love search engine algorithms

As you think about new filters for this new age, there is at least one clue from our Pew Internet data: You’ll need to build those filters around social networks and new social processes like crowdsourcing, open-source mechanisms, transparency practices and platforms that are enabled by the internet.

Traditional cataloguing and sorting systems can only get you so far when more than two-thirds of the people in this country are themselves creating content. Or, again, as The Onion noted this past February:

Online Content Creators Outnumber Consumers 2,000 to 1

And I quote:

“For every one viewer, there are dozens of fully staffed companies churning out articles, videos, blogs, vlogs, and countless social media posts hoping to lure that person to click.”

It’s a very sad world where all these content creators spend their days “repeatedly hitting the refresh button to see if anyone else has looked at their work.”

As you build new filters, be very careful not to OVER-filter by designing systems that minimize users’ access to accidental discovery and enchantment.

We are all victims of the bias that behavioral economists describe as “What You See is All There Is.”

It’s a universal human trait that we create definitive — but flawed — judgments from too little information.

One story highlighting this trait comes from Eduardo Galeano (Gal-EE-Ano), the journalist, writer and novelist, who was for a time a political prisoner in Uruguay in the 1970s. As he told it in his Memory of Fire:

Uruguayan political prisoners may not talk without permission, or whistle, smile, sing, walk fast, or greet other prisoners; nor may they make or receive drawings of pregnant women, couples, butterflies, stars, or birds.

One Sunday, Didasko Pérez, a schoolteacher, tortured and jailed for “having ideological ideas,” is visited by his daughter Milay, aged five. She brings him a drawing of birds. The guards destroy it at the entrance of the jail.

On the following Sunday, Milay brings him a drawing of trees. Trees are not forbidden, and the drawings get through.

Didasko praises her work and asks about the colored circles scattered in the treetops, many small circles are half-hidden among the branches: “Are they oranges? What fruit is it?”

The child puts her fingers to her mouth: “Ssssshhh.” And she whispers in his ear: “Silly. Don’t you see their eyes? They are the eyes of the birds that I’ve smuggled in for you.”

I hope you’ll find ways to make filters that are good smugglers — filters that will help people unearth hidden gems.

If I could twist the dial for the optimal smuggler filter I’d turn it to the setting marked “Maslow Stage 6” — the setting for the most sublime human interactions.

As you may recall, the great 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow is famous for creating a 5-stage pyramid that he called a “Hierarchy of Human Needs.”

He was trying to explain what drives people’s behavior as they progress through stages of life and as civilizations advance.

At the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy is what he called “Physiological or survival needs” … He argued that people can’t think about anything else until they have been fed and sheltered.

At the second stage, humans are motivated to address “Safety” concerns. They want law and order.

The third stage is “Belongingness and love needs.” Once humans are fed and safe, they can find new fulfillment by connecting to others and groups.

After people establish group affiliations, they can then move to the fourth stage — and attempt to meet what Maslow called “Esteem needs.” He saw that humans strive for greater happiness through gaining recognition and achieving things.

For you, graduating from this program today is a huge part of your Stage 4 game plan.

Finally, Maslow noted that after humans are fed, safe, connected, and successful they often try to jump to a fifth stage — what he called “Self-actualization” … or a point in life where they seek fulfillment of their personal potential.

Think of this as your avocation — the thing that really lights you up.

That’s where many textbook entries about Maslow stop — at 5 stages of the pyramid.

But there has been interesting scholarship noting that before Maslow died in 1970, he began to argue there was a sixth and even higher stage of human motivation and activity.

He referred to it as “Self-Transcendence” … and by that he meant that even beyond fulfilling their personal passions, humans reach their highest aspiration when they find a cause beyond themselves to serve … and … activities where they can unite with others beyond the boundaries of the self and ego.

The Maslow Stage 6 filter setting would bias the information you get towards deep understanding of how service to others is the transcendent human state.

Some have estimated that only 1% of the population achieves Stage 6. Think how much better things would be if just 2% of people — instead of 1% — could be like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, The Bodhisattvas, Vedat Diker and Paul Jaeger.

One extra design feature I’d stick in this Fulfillment Filter is a BS detector so that people wouldn’t believe everything they read in The Onion. Not long ago it had this bogus headline:

90% Of Audience At Graduation Ceremony Involved In Heated Family Argument

It described family members yelling at each other over the unexpectedly high cost of the hotel, whose fault it was that the family was late to the ceremony, and how to use the zoom function on the camera.

Well, I do not see that here today. I see joy. And it is well earned.

Congratulations and God-speed to you all. Thank you.


  1. This story is repeated in Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, Bantam Books, 1970 p. 177