As politicians go, President Obama has a reputation as a reasonably tech-savvy guy–or at least one with a deep-seated appreciation for his BlackBerry. But during the commencement speech he gave on Sunday at Hampton University in Virginia, he sounded more like a technophobic old fogy:
You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations — none of which I know how to work — (laughter) — information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it’s putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.
Class of 2010, this is a period of breathtaking change, like few others in our history. We can’t stop these changes, but we can channel them, we can shape them, we can adapt to them.
I get the the part about the 24/7 media environment and being bombarded with information. But what’s this about information as “a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment?” Mr. President, that’s been true of much of what claims to be information for as long as there’s been mass media. (Random example: The New York Graphic in the 1920s.)
Lumping the iPod, the iPad, the Xbox, and the PlayStation together doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The Xbox and PlayStation aren’t about information-as-entertainment–they’re about entertainment, period. The iPod is mostly music, just like everything from the Walkman to the Victrola. Unless you’re referring to the iPod Touch, in which case you’re essentially talking about a tinier iPad.
And the iPad reference is the one that really threw me. Like a book or a magazine, an iPad is a receptacle for content–content that can be informative, distracting, diverting, entertaining, right or wrong. And at the moment, at least, virtually no content is iPod-specific–it’s the same stuff we’re consuming on PCs–and, oftentimes, in books, magazines, and newspapers. In what sense does it put new pressure on graduating seniors, the country, or the democracy?
As an information device, the iPad isn’t much more than the Internet in a convenient portable form. The Internet isn’t perfect, but some of us think it’s been a boon to the nation, and the best tool yet for informed citizens.
Reading too much into one commencement address is a mistake–especially given the odds that the words were written by an uncredited speechwriter. But when elected officials (of any political persuasion) carp about the media (of any sort) it leaves me unsettled. And though it’s unlikely that the president will grant an interview to Technologizer anytime soon, I’d love to see somebody ask him to clarify his thoughts.