During Stanford University's 2019 commencement ceremony, Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook cited the Stonewall Inn riots to impress upon the graduates the need to act as builders of something greater than themselves.
Cook explained that while the patrons of a New York City gay bar didn't know they would help kick off the global gay rights movement in 1969, they seized upon the opportunity to create something that would last well beyond their years.
"When the door was busted open by police, it was not the knock of opportunity, or the call of destiny," Cook said. "It was just another instance of the world telling them that they ought to feel worthless for being different.
"But the group gathered there felt something strengthen in them, a conviction that they deserve something better than the shadows and better than oblivion."
Grateful for the courage to build
Cook's mention of the Stonewall Riots coincides with the event's 50th anniversary on June 28, marking the day when police raided Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn. The bar’s patrons, tired of enduring police abuse, fought back against the officers. The uprising is recognized as the beginning of the gay rights movement, and is being celebrated throughout June as part of Pride Month.
During his speech, Cook, who grew up in Alabama and publicly confirmed he was gay in 2014, said he was only 8 years old during the riots.
"There were no news alerts, no way for photos to go viral, no mechanism for a kid on the Gulf Coast to hear these unlikely heroes tell their stories," Cook said. "Greenwich Village may as well have been a different planet, but I can tell you that the slurs and hatred were the same."
Though he was far removed from the riots by distance and time, Cook said he owes the people gathered at the site during the events, as well as those who continue to push for the recognition and rights of LGBTQ individuals.
"What I would not know for a long time, was what I owed to a group of people I never knew in a place I'd never been. Yet I will never stop being grateful for what they had the courage to build."
Hammering the tech industry
While Cook was sure to mention Stonewall, the bulk of his speech was meant as a warning to the Stanford graduates about the potential impact the loss of privacy could have on their freedoms.
Cook argued that Silicon Valley has not done enough to protect user data, and has refused to take responsibility for the kinds of systems that allow for the spread of hate speech, fake news, and more.
"If feels a bit crazy that anyone should have to say this, but if you've built a chaos factory, you can't dodge responsibility for the chaos. Taking responsibility means having the courage to see things through," Cook said.
The Apple CEO has been among the most outspoken critics of the technology industry, and social media in particular, for its use of user data as a means to build fortunes through advertising.
To that end, Cook implored the graduates to build something that will last beyond themselves, while ensuring they take responsibility for their creations regardless of the outcome.
"Builders are comfortable in the belief that their life's work will one day be bigger than them. Bigger than any one person. They are mindful that its effects will span generations. That's not an accident. In a way, that's the whole point."
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Email Daniel Howley at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.