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Obama Cautions Grads Against Getting Tangled in Tech

Obama Cautions Grads Against Getting Tangled in Tech

President Obama warned graduates that becoming too immersed in tech gadgetry could be a barrier to fulfilling their potential. He specifically mentioned iPods, the iPad, Xboxes and PlayStations -- no doubt causing some heartburn at Apple, Microsoft and Sony. "Information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation," Obama said.

By Katherine Noyes
05/10/10 11:23 AM PT

President Obama on Sunday delivered a commencement address that included warning graduates of the "distraction" posed by technologies like Apple's iPod and iPad devices.

Delivered at Virginia's Hampton University, Obama's speech began by reflecting on why "people went to such trouble to found Hampton and all our historically Black colleges and universities."

Specifically, "the founders of these institutions knew, of course, that inequality would persist long into the future," Obama said.

Not only that -- "they also recognized the larger truth -- a distinctly American truth," Obama went on. "They recognized, Class of 2010, that the right education might allow those barriers to be overcome -- might allow our God-given potential to be fulfilled."

In other words, "they recognized, as Frederick Douglass once put it, that 'education ... means emancipation.'"

'A Distraction, a Diversion'

Amid such opportunities, Obama also warned students of the dangers of technology.

"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 asserted.

"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," Obama said. "So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy."

'You Can Get Easily Overwhelmed'

Though it might not have been delivered as well as it could have been, "I think his thesis was valid," Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst with the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

Specifically, "the common sense is that you can get easily overwhelmed," Enderle explained. "With devices that feed you Internet news, Facebook and Twitter," for example, "it's increasingly difficult to tell what's real and what's fiction."

Those who do get overwhelmed, meanwhile, "can't form a legitimate opinion and so can be manipulated," Enderle noted. "That's what he was getting at about destroying the democracy. So much of what's out there is untrustworthy."

'A Worthwhile Wake-Up Call'

The speech was "a worthwhile wake-up call of sorts," said Charles King, a principal analyst at Pund-IT.

"In the tech world, certainly for the last 30-something years, there's been a difference between high-tech toys that people play with and high-tech tools that people create with," King told TechNewsWorld. "That's certainly apparent with the evolution of computer gaming -- it's highly sophisticated, requiring increasing interaction, but at the end of the day, you're still just entertaining yourself."

There is, of course, "a place for entertainment and relaxation," King added, "but I thought Obama's quoting Frederick Douglas -- saying that education is emancipation, not entertainment -- that's a good message to take to kids that are being bombarded with a host of entertainment stimuli from almost every angle.

"It's important to remember the role and importance of education in moving forward the opportunities for people of every color," he said.

'He Skipped Maybe Three Decades'

As for Obama's mention of specific technology products -- perhaps most notably, two from Apple -- "I'm pretty sure Steve Jobs is calling him up as we speak," Enderle said.

Obama's list of products to mention was less than ideal, however, Enderle noted.

Specifically, "the Xbox and PlayStation are really not information-consumption vehicles," he noted.

The iPod and iPad, meanwhile, "pretty much do the same things as a PC," he added. "It looked like he skipped maybe three decades in technology."

Nevertheless, the speech probably appealed to people who don't want to use such technologies anyway, Enderle asserted.

"I doubt it's going to have much impact," he predicted. "He picked a lousy set of products and undermined his message rather badly."

Consumption vs. Creation

Indeed, it's even unlikely anybody will remember such details next week, King predicted.

"I do think it's an interesting point," King noted, particularly regarding the iPhone and other such devices. "Whether or not people become distracted by these technologies, the fact is that they are easier to take with us than ever before."

The iPad, for example, is one "Apple has positioned from the beginning as a work tool, but frankly its design makes it more appropriate for consumption than creation," he said.

"I don't have a problem with Obama mentioning that -- it's the highest-profile device of that sort that we've seen in years," he explained.

Looking ahead, however, will such tablets "hold the promise of more user empowerment," he wondered, "or will they simply be another toy people can distract themselves with any time or place?"


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