President Obama, iPad Skeptic

By  |  Monday, May 10, 2010 at 12:22 am

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.


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14 Comments For This Post

  1. Brian Swartzfager Says:

    I think I know what Obama was trying to get at. Computers used to be tools that empowered us to perform tasks more quickly and efficiently, allowed us to produce and accomplish. The devices he listed are computing devices that are geared towards letting us consume information and toward providing entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that in moderation, but I think his concern is that the younger generation is spending too much time consuming rather than doing, absorbing passively rather than actively creating or actively thinking about that information.

  2. Devin Says:

    I think he, much like myself, is also worried that the younger generations are relying too heavily on technology to do tasks for them. Technology is great for assisting humans when completing tasks – but it starts to become a problem when humans can’t do the tasks without technology.

    Basic math, for example, is one area that is on the decline due to technology. Basic grammar and composition is another. The emails I read on a daily basis are atrocious – even with spell-check.

  3. Keith Says:

    Who needs information when all we really need is a government-sized teat on which to suckle. Of what possible use could information be to people willing to enshrine their Beloved Leader? He really does know better than we do. He is all we need.

  4. Tom B Says:

    I wouldn’t read too much into it. It sounded like a throw away line.

  5. joe c Says:

    He was just exaggerating a little to make a point. He only mentioned popular devices known to be used for entertainment a great deal rather than say iPhones and BlackBerrys. (To his mind, anyway.)

    But it would be funny to take away HIS beloved personalized BlackBerry that he refused to let go of when he took office and watch the fireworks fly. 😉

  6. Chris Says:

    Liberals are responsible for the dumbing down of America; they write the textbooks and Unionized the robotic teachers; of course Liberals do not want technology that can be continuously updated. Our kids may find out America fought in 2 world wars!

  7. Ed Says:

    The issue here is not technology as the Internet is the next major world changing event since the invention of the printing press.

    President Obama was just showing how any technology can be improperly used and that we need to be self conscious of that and to take a relationship to how we use these new technological tools. For the person who is not self conscious, to give that person a hammer, they will sees everything as a nail.

  8. Jake Says:

    He may been going for something like the idea that with all these devices competing for people’s attention, the presenation of information becomes just another entertainment vehicle (“infotainment”). That changes how news is presented, and it also means people only choose the news outlets that they enjoy and never expose themselves to uncomfortable or challenging ideas. And that’s how it puts new pressures on our democracy. (Sure, there have always been things like the New York Graphic, but did people get *all* their news from such sources?)

    I don’t know if that’s what he meant, but I think the argument has some validity, and it fits in with things he’s said before. But I also think it’s not worth reading too much into what was really just “eat your vegetables” advice for students.

  9. John Says:

    I have the distinct impression that President Obama does not want to join his brother Nobel winner on Apple’s board. But then he is addicted to his Blackberry so he may be campaigning for a seat of Research In Motion’s board.

  10. IcyFog Says:

    Sounds like something W would say.
    Two dumbasses in a row.

  11. Tom B Says:

    “Liberals are responsible for the dumbing down of America”

    Spoken from the Party of Sarah Palin?

  12. Jim B Says:

    Shame on Obama
    When the iPad first came out, it was the Kindle™ killer so another source of books and learning.
    iPad has made connections with many media outlets as a mechanism to enhance the survival of print media to distribute news and information.
    Obama is attempting to censor the newest tool for Democracy and liberty, if one thinks in terms of a well informed voting base. The truth will set you free and iPad and other Internet devices can and will supply that.

  13. Hugo Kugiya Says:

    Mr. McCracken – with all due respect, you are missing the larger point of the speech by focusing too much on the specifics of each device. 1.) Lumping the devices is not much of a leap at all given all the overlap between their capabilities. It’s fair to say they all are entertainment/information devices since the line is blurry anyway, and since most have internet access. I know plenty of people who listen to news programming (podcast) on their iPods more than they listen to music. 2.) Yes, while it’s true that mass media has always been a distraction, is it not obvious to you that the depth of that distraction, the power of that distraction has increased exponentially?
    THAT is the point of the speech. We’ve always had media, it has always been a distraction, it has always blurred the line between entertainment and information, but now we are essentially under siege from mass media. The very fact that I spotted your article and am now commenting on it is proof of that, whether I read it online, on my iTouch, my iPad, my web TV, my iPhone, or the 100 other ways we are nearly force fed the stuff.

  14. jg Says:

    Would the have been such a huge deal if it had not mentioned apple products?

    Sorry iPods/iPads/iPhones are the answer to the universe’s problems…

    Yes some portion of idevice users use for productivity, but I believe the great majority use them en entertainment device.

    Just let me know when your productivity device gets a printing function…

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