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In a commencement address to new graduates at historically black Hampton University on Sunday, President Obama emphasized the importance of education in an economy where a high school diploma is no longer enough. And with that in mind, he then proceeded to call out a new enemy of the state: gadgets that have turned information into a "distraction" that hurts democracy.
"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," he told the students. "And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- 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."
Of course, blogs and commenters were quick to bristle with shock and dismissiveness. How could he insult the exalted iPad when he doesn't even own one? For shame! And earth to Obama: gadgets like this aren't bad for democracy; after all, it's got all those great educational apps! C'mon, Prez, everyone's saying, don't be such a technophiliac! Anyway, the iPad just came out - give it some time!
"He's basically saying we are getting too much information too quickly, and from 'unreliable sources.' Of course, he's referring to talk radio, blogs and other mediums that tend to disagree with his political views."
But as that kind of tired, politically-colored response helps to illustrate itself, Obama's point isn't about too many divergent views. It's about a serious lack of views. The way the internet narrows opinion to a few fairly predictable and easily reproducible one-liners. Reduces them to sound bytes. Amplifies the paranoia of American politics into the madness of the mob.
And yet Obama's point is bigger than the implications of the internet for political thinking. It's about what we care about period, and how group think impacts our consciousness of the world.
Remember how the personal computer was going to start a revolution to help us think different? It's hard not to appreciate the irony that a "movement" aimed at independent, rebellious thinking largely inspired a cult of gadgetry and a closed ecosystem that has a few observers making comparisons to Big Brother. (And I get it, but still: "think different" is bad grammar.)
But you don't need to compare the number of Google hits for iPad with hits for, say, the Supreme Court (the difference, in any case, is 30 some odd million, in you-know-which direction). You just need to consider the noise that our ever-increasing obsessions with gadgets and the growing stream of news flashes, blogs, video, photos, memes, personal updates and ads they bring us, amidst the already very noisy place where many of us spend much of our time.
If Obama's digital credentials need to be questioned (probably not) over his brave new skepticism, Max Palevsky's certainly don't. Pavelevsky was a pioneer of computing, and a founder of the computer-chip giant Intel. When he died last week, the Times wrote that
Mr. Palevsky remained skeptical about the cultural influence of computer technology. In a catalog essay for an Arts and Crafts exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2005, he lamented "the hypnotic quality of computer games, the substitution of a Google search for genuine inquiry, the instant messaging that has replaced social discourse."
He meant it too. "I don't own a computer," he told The Los Angeles Times in 2008. "I don't own a cellphone, I don't own any electronics. I do own a radio."
This isn't about whether gadgets or the internet are good for education or not, or whether a tablet computer deserves more respect than a video game console. But that the internet would miss the lesson here isn't very surprising. After all -- and the revolutionary feel of our new gadgets notwithstanding -- the medium on which we're getting the news about this speech doesn't often feel designed for rich, in-depth thinking. It's made for surfing lightly over the waves, or as Nicholas Carr says, skimming across them on a jet ski.
This is the internet, so it's easy to see metaphorical links between this gulf -- the gulf of data, the gulf between our worldly engagement and our internet attention -- and another gulf. Is the one we're floating on now slick with oil too? (Or is it covered in garbage?) If we're skimming along the surface so fast, would we even notice?
Of course, like all our fancy technology, oil is considered essential to our economy; without it, of course, we couldn't have the plastic that encases all of our new gadgets. But how much do we need them? How dependent are we willing to be on them, and at what costs?
A version of this article appeared at Motherboard