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You can't just say no

In a moment of calculated fogeyism yesterday, Obama lamented that "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."

Err, says who? And how come Obama has two video game systems, one portable music device, and one computer in this statement? It's a bit like someone of another age saying that with gramophones, board games and radio, information has become a distraction. It may be true that information is becoming distracting, but I'd hardly blame the gramophone for the content of the airwaves.

You'll also notice that Obama blames the velocity of information on hardware he doesn't understand rather than things like blogs, which he does understand. That's presumably because he actually uses things like blogs -- we've reported that Obama read Andrew Sullivan during the Iranian protests -- and so knows too much to caricature them.

Anyway, let me turn this over to Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I came up in a place and a time that I did not understand, and thus spent much of my youth translating. What little solace I had, I found in locales that were disdained by the larger culture. X-Men and Spider-Man taught me that it was OK to be different -- but comic books weren't "real reading." Hip-hop taught me the power of words and helped me better translate the world I'd been born into -- but hip-hop wasn't "real music." Programming my little Commodore-64 taught me about world-building -- but programming a C-64 was not "real work." D&D taught me about the power of imagination -- but D&D was devil-worship.

What saved me from the pronouncements of the broader culture was my parents. My dad was a comic-book fan as a kid. My mother once went so far as to roll a character and actually play a session with me and one of my brothers. My dad, for whatever reason, knew to listen to NWA, to listen to Ice Cube, to listen to PE, critique it, and then hand it back. Perhaps I have this wrong, but I don't think that's the normal way for most geeks. But given the sanctions of the larger culture, I don't know what I'd do without it. The world is suspicious of the new. But I didn't immediately know that Moby Dick, Picasso and Coltrane were genius. What would I have been without the bridge of those new languages, of those new ways of being?

You can be saved by comics and virtual worlds and Playstations or you can lose yourself in them. The difference, in many cases, is having guides, as Coates did. And that's why it's dangerous for older generations to simply declare themselves finished with new technologies and modes of experience. Younger generations aren't going to walk away from these products, but they'll be on their own in their attempts to navigate them.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 11, 2010; 11:46 AM ET
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Am I the only one who finds the WaPo front page to be b0rked?

Posted by: wiredog | May 11, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

He doesn't know how to work an iPod?

Do Presidents and future Presidents live in hermetically sealed boxes? This reminds of George W. Bush talking about 'the Google' or George H.W. Bush being really impressed by a supermarket scanner.

Posted by: justin84 | May 11, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Okay, I'm pretty disappointed in Obama for this, especially since it's well known that he owns an iPod. THIS is what pandering looks like. It's benign pandering, but it's still kind of gross to watch.

This seems to be a good week for fogeyism. You might have seen this video of Andy Rooney complaining about the fact that he stopped paying attention to music for 30 years and he has no idea who this Lady Gaga person is:

Posted by: HerooftheBeach | May 11, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Then Obama told those darned kids to get off his lawn.

It's a weird statement. And, at this point in time, distraction is not novel. I'm 41 years old--I had a play-at-home Sears videogame console when I was 10. That was 31 years ago. I had a TRS-80 Color Computer (still love it) when I was 12. And BBSes were distracting, when I could get past the busy signal. But I spent more time reading comic books and Stephen King than playing video games (which, back in the day, consumed enough of my quarters to pay for an X-Box, a Wii, a PS3 and an iPod, even so).

If I had been born ten or twenty years later, I would have spent my formative years distracted by mostly comic books and adventure novels or HAM radio or something. But there have been interesting and novel distractions since the beginning of the industrial age. Information has been unusually plentiful since the invention of movable type. There are a lot more ways to get up-to-date information, and socialize around that information, than there was 20 years ago.

That being said, it would be a blessing to have no idea who Lady Gaga is.

It may or may not be pandering, but I actually think it offers up an interesting avenue of discussion. Obama made very deft use of technology in his campaign, both to get the word out and raise money. Would he trade that for the 70s version of running a presidential campaign? Are people who barely know who the president is, but kick butt at World of Warcraft--are those people going to have been that much more engaged, in a world without Warcraft?

Arguably, modern news aggregation allows a person to view more news custom tailored to his personal interests and beliefs than ever before, so there's less and less to challenge pre-conceived notions, or let them know what's happening beyond the world of their personal interests (for example, I focus mostly on Tron Legacy related news, because nostalgia is just how a I roll).

And the iPad just came out. Are iPad's really providing some national distraction from public service or a broad and deep contemplation of the issues?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 11, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Another side of Obama:

Yes, this is transparent pandering. Were the remarks made at an AARP gathering?

Posted by: bjudson | May 11, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

president obama seems to have an inner sense of inner-discipline, work ethic and almost asceticism....that draws a line between work and pleasure. and i think that is where this comment comes from. he has made similar comments like this, before.
i feel bad for him, because this could be something that he would say across the dinner table to his daughters, but in the venue that he said it, it is now being examined and criticized around the world.
to hold the place in american history that he has, could only have been accomplished with a formidable sense of purposefulness and singlemindedness.
that being said, in the right hands and with the right guidance, technology offers limitless knowledge and creativity to a child, but when it is done in isolation, with a hurting and angry spirit and no-one guiding a child, it becomes another tool for losing oneself and separating from the world.
like almost anything.....used for good, technology will work for good....using it as a substitute for interaction and engagement....and using it for not-good purposes, it becomes a tool for not-good things.
children need love and care and guidance with all things.

Posted by: jkaren | May 11, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I think he's just trying to sound like a trenchant social critic for the graduates. I bet as soon as he got off stage, he immediately started tickling his Blackberry.

Posted by: TomPhilpott | May 11, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse


You're missing the real meat of this story and that is that when the buzz is not in his favor and the new media is criticizing him, only NOW is he not in favor of information.

Like Hugo, he thinks it might be OK to regulate what you hear.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | May 11, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I had a somewhat heated debate the other day with a friend regarding Roger Ebert's pronouncement that video games are not now, nor will they ever be art. He basically admitted to not knowing about games or caring to learn more. It's not so much that he's wrong, though he is, it's that his "get off my lawn" attitude just makes him, at best, irrelevant to the discussion, but at worst an actively negative force against something he doesn't know anything about.

Posted by: MosBen | May 11, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

You may find this slate article ( on the history of media technology scares interesting.

Here's the first paragraph:

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both "confusing and harmful" to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an "always on" digital environment. It's worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That's not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.

Posted by: sterlinm | May 11, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

1) He has an iPod. He's told us what's on it. It was a news item. Was that just guessing?
2) Does he really have no idea how archaic this makes him sound? He doesn't know how to use ten year old hardware that sixty million Americans own? Or that somehow the Xbox or Playstation are harder

This is Bush-league uncuriosity.

Posted by: adamiani | May 11, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

1) He has an iPod. He's told us what's on it. It was a news item. Was that just guessing?
2) Does he really have no idea how archaic this makes him sound? He doesn't know how to use ten year old hardware that sixty million Americans own? Or that the Xbox or Playstation-- which have a wide variety of games available for even very young children-- are somehow complicated pieces of machinery?

This is Bush-league uncuriosity.

Posted by: adamiani | May 11, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

MosBen: I disagree with Roger Ebert on videogames, but I think Ebert has earned the right to be a curmudgeon. He's been providing thoughtful reviews and commentary for about 100 years now.

He just gave what can only be considered a thoughtful review of "Human Centipede", when a true curmudgeon would have just demanded to know what sort of filthy garbage they were trying to play on his movie screen.

Also, he doesn't have a lower jaw and can't eat, drink (or taste) anything ever again. He wants to say video games are without redemptive value, then cool. He ain't saying I can't play 'em, so more power to him.

Myself, I find the Mario and Zelda games just aesthetically beautiful.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 11, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

I have a kinder take on what the president was saying. The reason to pick the iPad/iPod and gaming systems that the rate of change is high on these devices. There are, of course, many other examples as well.
With the pace of incoming information, be it news, entertainment, or subject specific knowledge the human brain requires us to take in this knowledge and then absorb and understand it.
These new devices (of which I can and do use all of the ones he mentioned) are capable of consuming 100% of our time/brain power with bringing in new information.
I think the President was noting the importance of taking the time to understand the information that is coming in.
To paraphrase what I heard the President say: The challenge use to be getting enough information, now the challenge is understanding and sorting all of the information we have access too.
If this is what he meant, and I am not just misunderstanding, then I agree. Learning to think critically about what we see/hear will become the differentiating skill for the next generation.

Posted by: chrynoble | May 11, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

When you pull just one sentence out of the speech, you lose the context. Here is a slightly longer quote from the transcript of Obama's remarks:

"Meanwhile, 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 rank all that high on the truth meter. With iPods and iPads; Xboxes and PlayStations; information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment. All of this is not only putting new pressures on you; it is putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy. It’s a period of breathtaking change, like few others in our history. We can’t stop these changes, but we can adapt to them. And education is what can allow us to do so. It can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time."

I don't think he was criticizing technology at all. I think he was saying that media and technology without education are diverting rather than empowering. The point of the speech was to stress the continuing value of higher education, even in a world where technology and media are progressing at an accelerating rate.

This was not an "old codger screams get off my lawn" message at all, and it is unfortunate that bloggers like Ezra and Ta-Nehisi Coates are portraying the message of the speech as a critique of the X-Box.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 11, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

*THIS is what pandering looks like. It's benign pandering, but it's still kind of gross to watch.*

Matthew Yglesias understands the dynamic of this stump-speech trope that Obama uses very well. Obama is normally lauded for telling urban poor school children to "stop distracting yourself with electronic devices and pay attention and do your work and read a book every now and then," but it causes a public outcry when he tells an audience of yuppies with their fun gadgets to do the same thing. We want to see the president scold "those people" - then we praise him for his bravery - and not "us."

Posted by: constans | May 11, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

So we are supposed to only listen to the "right" information?

I do not need the President to tell me what to watch, listen to or read. I am a big girl and I can make this decision on my own!

Posted by: heathergreeneyes | May 11, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

"So we are supposed to only listen to the "right" information?

I do not need the President to tell me what to watch, listen to or read. I am a big girl and I can make this decision on my own!"


The President wants you to watch, listen to or read whatever you want. The President is saying that education is helpful in making sense of the things that you watch, listen to or read. The speech was about the value of education in the modern world, where we have so much information and technology available to us.

So you missed the point. But sincere congratulations to you on becoming a big girl.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 11, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse

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