Obama on "iPods, iPads, Xboxes, and PlayStations": "Information Becomes a Diversion"

Obama BlackBerryPresident Obama gave a commencement at Virginia's Hampton University over the weekend, and used part of his speech to criticize, as he's been doing publicly since his fantastic smack-down of Republican House members, the torrent of incomplete information or downright incorrect information that flows so easily in the modern 24-hour news cycle. He added in what seems at first to be a little dig at gadgetry—but really, he's not criticizing the hardware or software so much as the content.

"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 all that high on the truth meter," Obama said at Hampton University, Virginia.

"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," Obama said.

Putting aside the fact PlayStations aren't exactly prime fighting ground for news outlets (certainly not as much as the President's own beloved BlackBerry), this isn't a gadget-bash at all. Obama isn't expressing a problem with the iPhone—the problem is that you can read about "death panels" on an iPhone whenever you want.

It's not a new problem, and maybe shouldn't even be looked at as a problem—there is a huge variety of content that's easily available these days, and while a lot of it is garbage, it's also incredibly easy to instantly get a balanced view from differing publications. Even more, while the democratizing effect of the Internet opens the door for nutballs like Glenn Beck, it also allows views independent of mainstream journalism that are often just as valid. Matt Drudge, Nate Silver, Wonkette, Politico—they all have valuable points of view, and without having to be filtered through a massive ancient publication hierarchy, they can express those points of view directly to the people. Obama's right when he says "we can't stop these changes, but we can adapt to them." We don't have to listen to Rush Limbaugh's podcast, or watch endless .gifs of Glenn Beck crying (although that last one is worth a look). Obama isn't swearing off technology, he's just reminding us to be careful what we listen to, read, and watch. Now back to Wikipedia to finish reading about Australian fauna. Cassowaries are seriously weird, you guys.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in San Francisco (no link for that one—you'll have to do the legwork yourself).

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  • Jan Leyland

    Come on, Rikard. It is about the content! Oh wait, I feel very disillusioned after reading your comment. What's happening to me??? Help!

  • Rikard Savén

    Dear Mr Nosowitz,

    Without reading or reflecting over any of the comments, I would like to offer these remarks to your misinterpretation of President Obama's statement.

    What Obama is talking about isn't at all the actual content - it is NOT a warning of the CONTENT we might come across as we use our device, whatever piece of hardware the medium might be. I believe that what he is actually referring to is something that Nicholas Carr talks about, that as we grow ever more "addicted" to the stream of information, we develop a "superficial relationship" to information as a commodity - instead of treating it like the reflection of reality that it actually is. In other words, that we develop a superficial relationship with reality.

    This is something that Marshall McLuhan was concerned about, and if you apply his famous quote "the medium is the message" to the iPad - it translates to the fact that the device, the medium, "wants" us to consume a lot of information, as it provides a somewhat pleasurable experience of doing so (whatever the format is).

    Thereby, the real issue is not the content - but the amount of it - restricting us from reflecting over the content of our consumption, something that is easily "outsourced" by reading the comments section...


  • Gary Sweeten

    We don't need no education; we don't need no thought control!

    Especially from Obama.

    Danny boy is a real, in depth journalist to find that Obama did not mean to control our communication.

  • Michael Cylkowski

    We also have access to his whining and duplicity 24/7/365 and those that his drink his kool-aid and then regurgitate it for us. He should know about the truth-meter, he's pegged it to the left so hard it's welded permanently in FALSE.

    M. Cylkowski

  • Bob Jacobson

    I don't engage in wiretapping or eavesdropping, or industrial espionage. You probably don't, either. But take it from someone who does: watch out for that iPhone, video console, or laptop! Guard yourself against the Internet! Avoid distractions! Do your work!

    Putting aside political cant -- I'm a lifelong Democrat dismayed by this President, because my expectations were higher for him -- it's remarkable for someone with the combined information resources at his fingertips of the CIA, NSA, DIA, FBI, NSC, OMB, GAO, Library of Congress, NASA, NSF, EPA, SEC, a dozen-plus Departments, NATO, OECD, the World Bank who knows how many individual agency research units, and 100,000-plus advisors, translators, and interpreters to lecture us on our information habits. Between the US Government and Corporate America, there's an information duopoly -- often synchronized via lobbying and think tanks -- that is difficult or in many cases, impossible to access, and that is used against us, the vast majority of the American people without great wealth or power. Information we find or generate ourselves is often all we have to work with.

    I'm not simplistic enough to believe that unfettered access to information will liberate us from anyone or anything. As Clay Shirky puts it so well, it's not an overload of information, it's an absence of filters that keeps us ignorant and inactive.

    The problem is, the generators of the overload and the imposers of the filters that do exist aren't us. We need political and media workarounds. They're slow in coming, but they are coming. Let's just hope they work for us and not, as do so many innovations (just ask Goldman Sachs), against us.

  • coyenator

    hmmm my take aways from the article are a bit different than most I've read here 1) full-tilt, all-out 24x7 information can become a distraction AND a tool of empowerment -- which leads me to the second take away 2) choose wisely.

  • Daryle Hier

    Only in this day of government media control would the statement; "information becomes a distraction, a diversion ..." be touted as anything more than subversive to our way of life. The DC mob doesn't want you know what you know. And about this "garbage" - the non-factual based "mainstream media" that spews opinion on front pages is just the thing our founding fathers hoped it wouldn't be ... a propaganda tool.

    Whether you agree with what talking heads say is your choice, but the fact remains, current mainstream media can't keep people watching because what they opine isn't truthful and people have learned that with information. And why doesn't this writer come up with facts as to why Rush and Beck are "nutballs". Name-calling? How about some facts - oops, they're not on your side, huh.

    Be careful what we listen too? What country are we living in? The information age will save this country from the DC mob despots currently running the show.

  • Jim Peake

    What does he call the budget deficit to the government and the $4.1 Billion per day tab we have to pay it, a "diversion?" The war in Iraq? A diversion. The war in Afghanistan? A diversion. The gulf oil spill? A diversion. Give me a f'ing break. http://www.brillig.com/debt_cl...

  • David Dawson

    Can you imagine what the media reaction would have been if Bush had said that he didn't know how to use four of the biggest tech devices on the market?

  • Otto Geiseman

    It’s interesting that your position supposes only conservatives lie or miss-represent truth and liberals only tell 100% of the real truth with virtually no spin. It seems that this is the kind of dishonesty many are so fed up with. The inconvenient truth is that Gore (he admits this: “…Given that starting point, I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations….”) and scientist deliberately contrived or fudged data or perpetrated lies to advance their agenda and billion dollar business. Clearly the current admin does this routinely. As such this means that Gore, Maddow, Olbermann, Grace and other are, as you say, “nutballs”. Even this article that purports truth would seem to be in the nutball category.

    By the way, is this article practicing the art of deception? That is, watch what I'm doing over here while I'm doing something else. Is this article that supposes truth a diversion? Don't pay attention to net taxation efforts. Only lies get taxed? The audacity of truth is very painful when its directed at you so why would you want it? Unless you get to define the truth. But then, by definition, isn't that a lie?

  • Timothy Pecoraro

    Dan, you seem to have a position that is obviously not hidden as well as you would suppose. I like FAST COMPANY. Please don't turn it into a publication that foolishly takes sides. Hey, that would be like the guys you referenced in your article. If you reference one side be sure to reference the other. That would help to clean up the "Information Diversion."

  • Timothy Pecoraro

    Dan, you seem to have a position that is obviously not hidden as well as you would suppose. I like FAST COMPANY. Please don't turn it into a publication that foolishly takes sides. Hey, that would be like the guys you referenced in your article. If you reference one side be sure to reference the other. That would help to clean up the "Information Diversion."

  • Tim Johnson

    I agree that it does look like Obama has a problem with the free flow of information. No president has ever gotten down in the mud to try and discredit his detractors the way this one has. I, too, find it appalling that a leading business magazine would devote so much energy dissing a demo that makes up such a vast portion of its readership. The innovation you claim to support is mostly non-partisan, and even if you want to take a partisan approach to business, real innovation tends to flow from the right, not the left. Left-leaning "innovations" such as global warming, government-controlled healthcare, government bail-outs (er... takeover) of the financial industries, will put you guys out of business just like it will put the rest of us out of business. You really ought to make some attempt to be objective, and to try and understand business, especially when it comes to wantonly alienating a large segment of your audience.

    Tim Johnson, President
    Coactive Brand Lab
    Brand Designer, Marketing and Communications Expert


  • Steve Lee

    For some reason it seems this president is intent on controlling information and information sources.

    Sound familiar? Look into history and see what leaders controlled the flow of information and what impact they had on the world.

  • Mr. Lucas Brice

    One question, ignoring the ad hominem attack of Glenn Beck, just how does "the democratizing effect of the Internet" open the door for him? He's on cable TV.

    One of the reasons that I'm not renewing my subscription to Fast Company is that it's full of jerks with political agendas like Dan Nosowitz who keep their leftist ideology from leaking out all over the magazine. One day Nosowitz will wake up and wonder what happened to his job. Oops, just another magazine out of business.

  • Gary Sweeten

    Fast Company hates the Left Wing so much it supports the Left Wing's oppressive desire to stop free speech?

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their
    own conscience.” -C.S. Lewis

  • Jim Murphy

    @David Tubbs--make up your own mind? That's crazy talk! You don't want to expose yourself to multiple viewpoints some which may-gasp-not be in lockstep with Obama or the other political party, do you? Good thing that Mr. Hope and Change is here to protect us from actually thinking for ourselves! Thank God our brave leader has warned us of the danger posed by a diverse amount of content and opinions! What would we do without Washington?

  • Robie Wood

    There has never been a President more concerned with his "brand" than with actually leading. That's why he has problems with things he can't control. And of course he believes we're all lemmings who can't think critically for ourselves in terms of what we read and hear about. If you're going to throw Beck, et al around, how about mentioning the Daily Kos or is that right up your alley?

  • Mr. Lucas Brice

    Obama is really bemoaning the fact that he can't control ALL the media, which is the goal of all dictators. If information is allowed to flow freely, that information includes criticism of the government and its actions, which is something that drives Obama crazy (and let's face it, it's a short drive).