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Obama: iPod, iPad don't empower

In a commencement speech at Virginia's Hampton University, the president offers that gadgets turn information into a distraction. He also says he doesn't know how to use an iPod, iPad, Xbox, or PlayStation.

Revolutions are difficult things. One person's change is another person's threat. One person's magic is another person's incarcerating sorcery.

Please forgive me for sounding deeply philosophical, as opposed to the usual shallow caliber. But I have been moved to more profound thought by the words of President Obama to the students of Hampton University.

In a commencement speech Sunday, he warned them about the superficialities that are engendered by gadgets.

"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," he told his audience, according to the AFP.

I worry that some of these students will have been tweeting his words from their cell phones as he spoke them. However, what is clear is that the president is concerned about the quality and tenor of information that is being disseminated via technological wizardry.

"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," he reportedly said. The concern, he added, is that such a proliferation of dubious information is "putting new pressures on our country and our democracy."

The president is concerned we are becoming entertainment freaks, rather than serious citizens. CC Beth Rankin/Flickr

It's hard not to sympathize with his sentiment. Instant access to instantly concocted information does put additional pressure on everyone's critical faculties. Yet it also allows people better access to opposing points of view, to opportunities of verification, to asking their fellow humans for help and guidance.

Naturally, it's up to humans to choose to use gadgets that way. It's up to humans to want to be more empowered, more emancipated, more entertained by the notion of self- and world-betterment.

And though iPods, iPads, and the like are quite shiny fall guys for society's shortcomings, shouldn't we also wonder what example politicians are setting?

The president invoked Thomas Jefferson in his speech, specifically the notion that democracy can only work if "each of us stayed informed and engaged, if we held our government accountable, if we fulfilled the obligations of citizenship."

But what kind of incentive to participation do people feel when politicians eschew thinking and doing in favor of crude party-dictated posturing and pork? What kind of incentive to serious debate do we have when elections are fought and fraught with base accusations, rather than thoughts for improving the world?

I don't actually believe that people only use their gadgets for mere entertainment. But if they do, do they turn to them for entertainment because they are innately shallow animals, seeking only to be shallower each day? Or do they turn to them because so much of the rest of their world doesn't offer the sorts of participation in which they feel welcome, the sorts of participation in which they feel they can make any difference whatsoever?

And while I have become seriously empowered and engaged by the deeper topics of the day: how is it that an avowed BlackBerry addict claims he doesn't know how to use an iPad?