Obama's information distraction riff: A real issue?

President Obama says information can be a distraction and singles out the iPad and iPod. He could have included any smart device. Is information distraction a real issue?
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

President Obama raised a bit of a ruckus over the weekend: He dissed the iPad (along with the iPod, Xbox and PlayStation) for becoming an information distraction, a diversion where entertainment replaces education.

Obama made the remarks during his commencement address at Hampton University in Virginia. Here's the quote that got tech in a tizzy:

"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. 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."

Now there's some subtext here---politicians don't like it when there are too many information outlets to control and spin---and most folks caught onto those worries. But there is a larger issue here: Information can be a distraction.

This isn't about information overload per se. It's about managing data in your own lives. Anyone that has any kind of device knows how it's easy to hop around to snack on data and information. Even reading a book on the Kindle, which is supposed to disappear like a real paper book, has its distractions. Why? It has a crappy Web browser that at least allows to me to check stock quotes.

Here's the dynamic on your device (almost any device):

  • Launch app;
  • Read headlines;
  • Check Twitter;
  • Oooh that's funny;
  • Let me check email;
  • Back to book;
  • Ah but what about Facebook;
  • Oh I see someone lost a dog;
  • Poor thing;
  • Let me check stock quotes;
  • Back to that book;
  • Where's Andrew Mager on FourSquare;
  • What was I doing again?

Let's face it; I'm not sure there's a lot of education going on in the process. You've learned nothing in that process. But you sure did snack on a lot of information junk food.

Obama realizes that the genie can't be put back in the bottle, but you can see his argument. In my personal time, it's telling that most of my critical thinking---strategy, arguments formed, stories outlined, my real thoughts after listening to all the crap thrown at me---is formed away from a device. If all we do is snack on information when does that critical thinking happen?

Perhaps that's what Obama was getting at. As Jason Hiner, notes this information distraction issue also touches on business technology. You can analyze every data nugget your company has to offer, but that hardly translates to insight.

Here's Obama's full speech:

Editorial standards