President Obama delivered the commencement address at historically black Hampton University on Sunday where he launched an assault on technology and media. This crazy, new-fangled digital world, he said, is turning information into entertainment instead of a tool for enlightenment.
While in some contexts there is a certain amount of truth to that, it seems to me the President’s words show a startling lack of understanding of information technology and a very Luddite-like attitude I didn’t expect from our first post baby-boom President. After all, it was his innovative and modern campaign that communicated and raised hundreds of millions of dollars by leveraging many of the digital tools the President now disparages.
The term “Luddite” originates from a movement born in England’s textile industry in the early 1800’s in which workers sabotaged new, wide-framed automated looms out of fear they could be operated by unskilled labor and, therefore, put skilled workers out of jobs.
Ned Ludd is the name of the fellow who literally destroyed some then “modern” equipment back in 1779. As this even more modern textile technology came on line in the 1800’s, protestors took his name as a symbol of their resistance.
Today, the term has come to mean general rejection of new technology and it would appear our President is among those who could be described as “Luddites.” Here’s a key excerpt from the commencement speech:
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.
Too Many Lies
In his first sentence, the President argues there’s a lot of information out there that doesn’t rank high on the “truth meter.” This is new? This wasn’t also happening at the dawn of the Republic? When pamphleteers published scathing lies, rumors and innuendo during election campaigns in the 1700’s and 1800’s?
If he’s referring to those who disparage him on everything from his birth certificate to his “socialistic” leanings; he’s right- they are lies. He is not a socialist; more of a moderate-left pragmatist. The “birthers” are more about hatred of his policies and possibly the man. But there’s absolutely nothing new about the lines of attack. Americans have always been exposed to these extreme types of rhetorical assaults. They are absolutely par for the course in American politics.
Deconstructing the Obama Argument- Cable TV and Talk Radio
If he’s referring to the Fox News’ and Rush Limbaugh’s of the world that some argue espouse right-wing political ideology- well now we also have MSNBC which regularly weighs in from the left- and here, the President is right. Mass media today offers obsessive partisans the precise opinions they want mirrored back to them. But that’s not the media’s fault. There are still objective sources of information out there and because of the digital age we live in- those sources are more available than ever before- at the touch of a keyboard. Is it the media’s fault many people do not avail themselves of objective sources of information?
The President is blaming technology when the real problem is people. They line up like lemmings on the left and the right, rooting for their respective ideologies like they might root for the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys or some other sports team. There are lots of sociological studies on political partisanship and its roots. They show parental influence, environment, upbringing and regionalism are more responsible than the media for cementing a person’s political views.
The Evil Tools of the Digital Age
But it was the list of technological devices the President enumerated that left me wondering if the White House bubble has now captured, isolated and imprisoned him. Tell me how these fit into his arguments about distorted information overload:
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.
The I-Pod: Revolutionized the world of customized music and yes, it’s used for the spoken word as well, but for the minority who use it for information, opinion or talk, all I can tell you is that some of the most downloaded material on I-Tunes is content from National Public Radio. How is the I-Pod to blame for the dissemination of irresponsible lies?
The I-Pad: While its ultimate fit in our lives is still a work in progress, I believe this device plays only a few basic roles at the moment; easy, touch-screen access to the internet, beautiful graphics for downloadable video and as a reading device that will probably put the Kindle out of business someday. How is the I-Pad to blame for the dissemination of irresponsible lies?
X-Box: I have one. This is the device I use to watch movies from Netflix. My son sometimes uses it to kill bad guys in war game scenarios. I’ll admit I’ve spent a few hours using it to play Tiger Woods Golf. How is the X-Box to blame for the dissemination of irresponsible lies?
Play Station: Ask George W. Bush about this one. Rumor has it he was pretty good with Play Station during those long off days at the Texas ranch and at Camp David. But I don’t see Play Station as in any way to blame for the dissemination of irresponsible lies.
Perhaps most telling is the laugh-line he delivered with a certain sense of perverse pride:
And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations — none of which I know how to work….
It appears the one technological device he does know how to work is the Blackberry, which, interestingly enough, did not make it onto his list of evil modern technologies. But really, Mr. President- get with it, man!
Check out the I-Pad- it’s an amazing and beautiful device that when cheap and refined enough, could be the next line of personal computers that overtake the world.
I am positive your own daughters can teach you how to use an I-Pod and an X-Box. And check your oval office desk again. I know Bush-43 left you a private note when you first arrived. Check in one of the drawers; he may have left you instructions for the Play Station too.
Yes, we live in an age of potential information overload. Yes, there is a lot of both Right-wing and Leftist propaganda. But the examples he uses to back his case are non sequiturs. And the real problem is that he’s blaming the messenger. This would be like John Adams denouncing the evils of the printing press because a pamphleteer was critical of the Alien and Sedition acts.
If you’re looking for the causes of extreme partisanship and political zealotry- bloggers and talkers and wingers are a bit like gasoline on the fire. But the original blaze itself comes from some other place. Where does partisanship come from? And how does that prism affect your view of what is truth? Those are questions with no easy answers and certainly not simple ones like “blame media.”