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Obama and Distraction

“Information becomes a distraction, a diversion… ” With those few words, President Obama recently created a stir about technology’s effect on our lives.

During his commencement speech at Hampton University, Obama said: 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. 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. … We can’t stop these changes, but we can channel them, we can shape them, we can adapt to them.”

Bloggers lambasted the president as a “technophobic old fogy” and implied hypocrite for critiquing the very gadgets that were used to propel him to office. But many technorati were so shocked by his seeming criticism of the gadgetry that they missed the president’s important points about our 24/7 media environment. (And perhaps some of the grads missed these points, too, given that at least a few right behind him on the podium were texting during his remarks. Check it out on YouTube.)

First, was he really criticizing iPads? No, he wasn’t singling out gadgets or calling them “bad” or “good.” He was citing the tools that bit by byte in total create an escapable 24/7 info flow that often distracts us from what’s important in life. Luddite? No, Obama was taking an important, needed stand on a trend that, as he said, puts “new pressure on our country and on our democracy.” Simply put, deluges of accessible info don’t automatically produce good thinking. Tech-fluency doesn’t always equate with the ability to create knowledge. We are mistaken if we think that simply having the tools and the access to information will put our country and our young ahead in coming years.

Why? First, being barraged by info makes people “check out” – they are literally paralyzed by choice. That’s been proven again and again in psych studies. This is one reason why whatever pops up first on Google is “good enough” for many of us. One small but in-depth study by the Associated Press found that consumers 18-34 were “snacking on the news,” unable to go beyond barrage of daily sound bites and headlines – despite a hunger for a deeper understanding of current events.

Second, ease of access is not an end point. To read or research or think critically involves discomfort – confusion, uncertainty, effort. And those are precisely the kinds of states of mind that are devalued in today’s point and click world. When we’re literally enveloped in information, it’s easy to become sated with what comes easily. And it’s easy to gravitate to the fluff – the celebrity or self-help trivia that diverts us from learning how to green the earth or battle racism. Obama was correct: info-tainment is the new soma.

Finally, the info-stream can’t help us, if we can barely pay attention. It’s important to remember that the personal context of our information-gathering is splintered, fractured and hence, corrosive to learning. We rarely pay attention to one thing, so it’s no wonder we can’t separate the wheat from the chaff in the info-floods. The students texting behind Obama’s back are a sad emblem of our inability to focus on the thorniest problems of our day – and on each other.

I’m not trying to pick on students in general; most that day were obviously riveted and engaged. Besides, haven’t we always tuned out when we’re tired or bored? Absolutely. Haven’t students always passed notes or whispered during lectures? Of course. We didn’t invent inattention in 2010.

But watch the texters listen to Obama – laughing as he made a serious point, eyes glazed over as he spoke of the pressures facing educators and students in the 21st century. Perhaps you’ll wonder, as I did, if a student – whatever his or her political affiliation – can’t sit on a podium with the U.S. president and fully attend to 20-minute remarks, then what can capture that student’s uninterrupted attention? They may even have been texting or tweeting about the speech. But that still adds up to split-focus – a diminishing of the attention needed to fully digest his words.

If the real-time, in-the-flesh president is a distraction, then perhaps our addiction to technology is threatening – not just pressuring – our democracy.

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  1. Feb 6, 201111:47 am