Commencement Address

Hadas Zies (
Thu, 19 Jun 1997 16:32:31 +0200

To: BISC Group
From: L. A. Zadeh

For your information and comments, I am e-mailing
to you the text of my commencement address, delivered in
Berkeley on May 25, 1997.

With warm regards.

Lotfi Zadeh


May 25, 1997



Lotfi A. Zadeh*

On commencement days such as this one, it is customary to avoid touching
upon issues which are contentious or in dissonance with majority-held
views. I will take the liberty of departing from this tradition because
there are contentious issues that have to be addressed and serious
structural problems in our society that your generation is likely to be
called upon to solve.

To put my views in perspective, I should like to note the obvious -- I am
not a native-born American, as most of you are. But I consider it a
privilege to be a citizen of this great country -- a country of vast
expanse, immense wealth, great diversity, unmatched power and a world
leader in almost every realm of human activity. But to me what matters
most is that it is a country in which human rights are taken seriously,
governance is ruled by law, and decency, generosity and fairness are
national traits.

To say what I said does not mean that all is well. Our society is faced
with serious problems that are visible to all: drug addiction,
homelessness, extremes of wealth and poverty, alienation and ethnic
conflicts. But there are other problems which -- though less visible --
are likely to cause serious damage to the fabric of our society in the
long run. My brief remarks will be focused on two linked problems which
fall into this category.

Many of you will be taking jobs in Silicon Valley, the heart of our
computer industry, the industry that is the driving force behind the
economic boom that we are basking in now.

When I ask our graduates who are working in Silicon Valley if they are
happy in their jobs, the usual answer is: the pay is good and the work is
interesting. But one important element is missing: the sense of
security, dignity and collegiality. In Silicon Valley and, more
generally, in the computer industry, the working environment is the
environment of cut-throat competition. As they say, "In Silicon Valley
if you make the mistake of stopping for lunch, you will be lunch." You
are hired today but may be laid off tomorrow, with no farewell parties
and no regrets. The bottom line is the stock price and not human

Something is deeply wrong with our values when elimination of thousands
of jobs is greeted with applause by Wall Street, causing the price of
stock to go up and, not coincidentally, increasing the value of stock
options of company executives. In this climate, executives are not
expected to spend sleepless nights when downsizing leads to massive lay
offs. Indeed, any company that puts human welfare above profits and
efficiency risks serious damage to its competitive position
and, possibly,its demise. It is a sobering thought that profits have
become the driving force which shapes the dynamics of our society and
that money may become the determinant of values by which we live.
Perhaps we
should pause and ask ourselves if we are doing the right thing when we
exert pressure on other countries to follow our example and abandon their
traditions of protection of social rights in the quest for efficiency and
stronger competitive position in the global marketplace.

There is a linkage between this state of affairs and the growing
intrusion of advertising and commercialism into all aspects of our lives.
A disturbing prospect is that as we move further into the information age
and the multimedia, the linkage will become stronger and less amenable to

To many, advertising is the pillar of free enterprise. Up to a point,
advertising serves an essential purpose, but like any good thing that is
overdone, unrestrained advertising, with its high content of half-truths
and untruths, is becoming a force which is corroding our culture and
distorting our goals. The pervasive influence of advertisers on TV and
radio programming substitutes the size of audience for genuine concern
for quality of programs. Catering to the least common denominator leads
to programming which focuses on violence, sex, sports, scandal and human
interest stories. The amount of time devoted to serious news is
declining and the media -- driven by the quest for higher advertising
revenue -- are abdicating their responsibility to inform, educate and

In this climate of media manipulation and commercialism, it is not
surprising that our young people have become cynical and materialistic.
This calls into question our ability to serve as a positive role model
for the young in other countries and other societies. Indeed, it is
alarming to observe the degree to which intrusive advertising and
commercialism have led to a vulgarization of our culture and an
abandonment of moral values that led this country to greatness.
The not-so-subtle control of our media by advertisers has led to the
emergence of consumerism as the dominant influence shaping our culture,
our values and our perceptions.

What is disconcerting to observe is that the pop culture programs which
are mass produced by the TV, movie and music industries in the United
States are displacing -- in the marketplace of other countries -- their
own products. As in the United States, low-grade programs, intrusive
advertising and rampant commercialism have become the norm in TV
programming in Europe and other countries as well. It was Jay Leno who
in addressing a European audience had this to say, "We have succeeded in
ruining our culture in the United States, and now we are going to ruin
your culture."

I am touching upon these issues because they have a definite impact on
the outlook and aspirations of the young in our society. A telling
statistic is that despite the rising demand for computer science
graduates, the number of undergraduate degrees in computer science has
dropped 43% from 42,000 in 1986 to 24,000 in 1994. What this suggests is
that a declining number of students are entering those fields in which
hard work is required, and that acquisition of knowledge for its own sake
is increasingly replaced by a quest for education as a ticket to a
better-paying job.

I have used harsh expressions to make my points. The picture I have
painted is darker than it should be. I have done this with deliberation
to underscore that it is our collective responsibility -- and especially
the responsibility of your generation -- the generation that will shape
our future, to do whatever can be done in our democratic society to
prevent the corrosive forces of commercialism and consumerism from
encroaching on our culture and becoming dominant influences in defining
our values, our beliefs and our morals.

*Professor in the Graduate School and Director, Berkeley Initiative in
Soft Computing (BISC), Computer Science Division, Department of EECS,
University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-1776. Tel: (510)642-4959;
Fax: (510)642-1712; E-mail: