Tony Stark Addresses Harvard Engineering Class of 2010

I used to hate doing these things, getting up here and giving the last compulsory speech to kids like you about to experience real freedom for the first time in your lives. It always seemed a little insane and condescending for someone like me who came up breaking all the rules and doing everything I could to exploit my position of privilege to lecture to kids who fought tooth and nail just to get the chance to tug at the collar of a hideous robe in sweltering heat with a flask of vodka strapped to your chest that you just cannot wait to break open. I never used to write these speeches either because I never had a single honest thing to tell kids like you before today. I had Cornell grads for that.

That didn’t matter in the Clinton years either. I was here to smile, wave, and wish you well in a world that was eager to hand you money. I saw David Simon earlier, who’s here to talk to some journalism grads. I have no idea what he could possibly tell them. Ten years ago he would make them laugh and then get real serious and you know do something like make it clear that if they gave up a source or pulled a Stephen Glass, he would find them and murder a pet or family member. That was the extent of our concerns about journalism. Now, he has to get up there and explain to them how it could possibly have been worth it to do incredibly reckless things in the name of their GPAs like take amphetamines to cram before an exam when all they’re going to have tomorrow morning is a hangover, a piece of paper, and a crushing debt load in a world that is not only in steep decline, but has jettisoned journalism as an institution almost entirely.

You’re the spawn of the Clinton years, that great little era when we still thought we could sustain the hologram America for as long as we wanted. Move the jobs overseas, borrow heavily, and create entire industries around moving money that does not even exist yet. When you were coming up, engineering was being thrust on you as the next best thing based on the Segway. Dean Kamen is a great role model, educators thought. Well, I’m here to tell you that Dean Kamen is an asshole. I punched him at a party one time, but I’m fairly certain it had nothing to do with the Segway. He did some great things like invent the first insulin pump, but no one knows that. Mention the name Dean Kamen and the only thing you hear about is the Segway, the biggest blight on engineering the world has ever seen. Smart people like Steve Jobs once said that it would revolutionize society, and to this day I have no idea why anyone would think that.

Everyone who's seen Highlander 2 raise your hand. Right, okay, I'm getting old then. Now keep that hand raised if you can tell me how a Segway is of any use to anyone in that world. Just to be clear here since maybe fifty of you even raised your hands in the first place, Highlander 2 takes place in a so called future where the sky is completely black and it’s just basically a broken shit hole. There’s no sun light to speak of and it’s just a miserable place in general. Now how would a Segway improve your life in the slightest in that time and place?

It wouldn’t, and the reason for that is that the Segway is a solution desperately seeking a problem. We lived in a world that was so sure that it had all the problems licked that it had to start inventing solutions that didn’t have problems to solve. It’s the Bush Doctrine for engineering, I suppose. Look at where we are right now. Do we need Segways with the barbarians at the gates and Rome in flames? What I want to impress upon you here today is that the paradigm of engineering that you were raised on- making things just because you can- is dead.

Engineering- true engineering and not this phony business of creating things that nobody needs or coming up with pie in the sky let’s put a tinfoil dome over the North Pole nonsense- is the fine art of problem solving. Specifically it’s making things with your hands to solve the major problems of life. For much of my early life, I made things just because I could, and the world loved me for it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I had an epiphany that changed my outlook on engineering forever.

As I’m sure you know, I was was kidnapped a few years ago by terrorists and held in a cave for weeks. Myself and another captured colleague were presented with the first real engineering problem of our lives. There was a piece of shrapnel from a mine that detonated near me lodged deep in my chest and working it’s way towards my heart. Lacking the necessary tools to extract it surgically, we created a magnetic apparatus that repulsed it powered by a car battery. That’s when I stopped building things to destroy and started building things towards more productive goals.

Being reactive, solving problems as they come along is a fine thing, but it’s not what is going to see us through what is going to probably be an awful decade. It’s our ability to identify the problems we are going to face in the future and begin developing solutions for them now. We don’t have time to sit around drawing up plans for massive geo-engineering projects that require technology and money we don’t have. We need to learn to use what we have now to solve tomorrow’s problems by yesterday. We cannot rely on politicians to sustain us on a diet of hope and change. They will not deliver us because they are cheerleaders, people who are very good at delivering very bad news and not much else.

Only us, the engineers can save the world now. But we have to stop dicking around and act like real engineers to do it. Stop tinkering on some bullshit new take on the Segway that you think will make you more money than I could spend in ten years, because it won’t happen. Go outside and look at how people are living and what they’re saying. I do that a lot. I go out and I put on a bunch of ugly shit I bought at Eddie Bauer and I buy a bowl of soup at the kind of diner where you stand up to eat. It’s not civilized or particularly dignified, but it’s what you learn to live with when you live elbow to elbow and hand to mouth in New York.

That’s the kind of place you go to find the real problems that need solving, you go to where the real people, the end users, are and you listen. The minute we stop doing that, paying attention to what the world really needed and how a product would function in the real world is the minute we become redundant. I remember hearing this one story about a kid that built some kind of portable shelter for homeless people and a few media outlets made a big deal out of what kind of a genius he must be. What they didn’t cover was that the damn thing didn’t last a day because the kid failed to account for the assholes who kicked it down just to mess with the poor bastard trying to sleep in it.

We have this tendency as Americans to get addicted to grand narratives, as if we need to be given a role in some giant stage production in order to get anything of note done. If you feel like you really need one, I’ll give you all one for free here today because you are not going to be getting one anywhere else. Your grand narrative is that you need to start making things for a world that looks like Highlander 2. Sure, you’re being undercut now by cheap third world shit because people do not want to pay for quality, but as we circle closer and closer to the drain, it is going to become critical at an equally fast rate. You need to do more than just make America spend it’s money inside it’s own shores again, you need to make America believe in quality for the first time in fifty years. This is your moment. Go out and seize it because if you don’t, there probably won’t be anyone left to pick up the pieces.


Anonymous April 16, 2010 at 10:58 AM  

That sounds nothing like the character. You should work on the run-on sentences. Too many words also destroy an otherwise alright attempt - almost no one actually talks like that. It's an artiface that is better off avoided.

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