Obama Is Wrong: Why iPads and Xboxes Will Save Our Youth

Yesterday, among the challenges and inspiring messages in President Obama’s commencement address at Hampton University, was something a bit unexpected: a dig at modern technology.

It was surprising because most things we’ve heard so far from this administration has been pretty pro-technology. But this is what Obama said:

[Y]ou’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 — (laughter) — information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.

So okay, it’s a pretty standard argument. But it’s also wrong. Here’s why the President is mistaken in his belief that technology is more distraction and diversion than tool for good.

The Web Encourages Critical Thinking

It’s true that we are swamped with information and opinions today. And it’s also true, as Obama said, that a lot of what we read online is, if not untrue, then frequently inaccurate. But here’s the benefit.

Years ago, many people would read one newspaper and assume it was true. Yet today, people read news from many sources, and by doing so, they witness how different outlets report on the same facts in different ways. People who spend a lot of time online are used to wading through tons of information, and they quickly get good at separating what’s useful and what’s less so. You kinda’ have to.

Sure, it can be annoying when someone says “oh this article is just fanboy bias”. But it shows that people are more actively seeking and calling out bias than ever before. The unexpected upside to all this information is that people are now familiar with the idea that there are multiple ways of looking at things and no single version of the truth – and you can credit ‘being bombarded with information’ with that step forward.

“New Ideas, Just By Chance”

The other thing this constant stream of information does is expose people to ideas they may have never heard before. Why? Well, the web works through links – and we get bombarded with them. Through Twitter, Facebook, blogs – it’s unending.

But as you careen through all that information, you occasionally stumble upon something new and something different. You don’t really remember how you got there. And it isn’t the kind of thing you’d engage with normally. But by accidentally arriving outside your comfort zone, you experience something new.

What the web and its constant flow of information does is to make that kind of serendipity much more common and everyday, exposing people to more of what the world has to offer. These unexpected journeys into new ideas can only mean that the web allows for chance discovery of new and different ideas in a way that just wasn’t possible before.

Even Distracting Tech Is A Gateway to Bigger Things

Sure, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, video games – all of these things can, like anything else in life, be distracting and pointless. But just because they can be, doesn’t mean they always are; quite to the contrary, they can lead to much better things.

Almost everything I know about tech first came about from trying to make games work on my PC when I was a kid.  I mean, back then you had to fiddle with ‘stacks’ in your config.sys file or enable expanded memory just to get a title to work. From there, it just snowballed, and my interest in both tech and web was created and initiated by those ‘distracting’ pursuits.

In much the same way, millions of people who started off with Mario or BBS’s – or are starting with Halo, Tumblr or Livejournal now – have now moved on to web development or game creation because fiddling with those things forces you learn how they work.

Just because something is entertaining, doesn’t mean you aren’t picking up new tools and skills along the way – and almost of all of Silicon Valley will attest to this fact.

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Tech and Games Have Inspired a 'Maker Culture'

It was probably a coincidence that Sony announced LittleBigPlanet2 the day after Obama’s speech. But it sure is a handy one. Just take a look at the trailer above and tell me: do video games seem like a force for passive distraction?; or an active world full of creative possibility? Sure, LittleBigPlanet is the anomaly – but at 3 million sold, it’s a pretty big anomaly and you can bet that everyone in the gaming world is trying to follow suit.

The point is that modern technology has made it much easier for people to, well, ‘play, create and share’. From YouTube to social networking to video editing to audio engineering – current technology has made it so much easier for people to create and share things with the rest of the world . Yes, of course, give millions of people the tools to create and there will be a lot of crap out there. That’s just life. But it also means there’s way more good stuff out there than there was before.

By lowering the barriers around creating content, the internet has inspired a culture of ‘makers’, people who create relentlessly – and for a culture like ours that worships both creativity and entrepreneurship, that can only be a good thing.

What Obama Got Right

While I disagree with his overall assertion, the President is correct in this- we are still figuring out how to deal with the glut of information we have. And trust me, as someone who teaches at a university, I know all too well that people are having trouble figuring out what’s a good, reliable source and what is not (don’t quote Wikipedia on your essays,  kids!).

But to decry this new technology as primarily a distraction is a mistake. Today’s tech is precisely a tool of emancipation because it frees people from the need for expensive equipment to express themselves and share their ideas with (sometimes literally) millions of people. Even before people get to sharing their ideas, tech and games can inspire them to become creative, all the while exposing them to new ideas and opinions that challenge the way they think.

So don’t worry about iPods or Playstations, Mr. President. In the long run, they’ll likely be the very tools that will inspire the youth of America to empower and emancipate themselves.

Written by Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang

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  • Gareth Mun

    I agree with your assessment of the internet as a means of empowering people to be more adept critical thinkers, but of the four items President Obama cited in his speech, only the iPad boasts the use of the web as one of its’ primary functions.

    As a gamer, the attack on the Xbox’s & Playstations is obviously not something I agree with completely, but I don’t believe the example of your own gaming experience – manually running system files to launch a game – is a relevant case for the modern press-a-button-put-a-disk-in gamer of present. Most gamers will not become developers, they are more likely to become obese & distant from the real world. Not that I’m criticising technology’s ability to keep you in touch with others outside the ‘meat world’, I did, after all, find this article via a friend’s post on FaceBook.

    Finally; the point that Little Big Planet is a creative outlet is a valid one if you do not consider the fact that the speech was given to university graduates, who should, hopefully, be past the developmental stages benefited by such a game.

    But it was delivered to university graduates. So I will, mostly, have to agree with President Obama as far as; the majority of the functions of the aforementioned applications of technology are distractions for the audience he was addressing.

    I do, on the other hand, agree with you, Navneet, on how the use of the internet can lead to more well rounded, critical thinkers. Although, considering President Obama’s admission that he could not work these devices, I’m not convinced he knows they have web surfing capabilities, and therefore may not have included the internet as one of the culprits. In which case, we may be arguing with someone who agrees with us, but is just ill-informed.

    • Those are excellent points Gareth.

      I would disagree, however, with two of them: first, gaming has moved from a niche hobby to a mainstream one. To say that most gamers will become obese and disconnected is to repeat the myth that gaming is something pursued by lonely teenagers in their basement; but as Nintendo’s Wii has shown, gaming is a mainstream pursuit engaged in by middle-aged moms, seniors, university students and adults in the workforce. Secondly, it would be a mistake to confuse the childlike aesthetic of LittleBigPlanet for the tone or potential of the game; quite to the contrary, most of the levels are made by people who show impressive skill and mature commitment.

      There was a time when young girls were chastised for ‘wasting away their days, reading novels’. But now we’d argue that reading novels (in moderation, of course) is a net benefit because it exposes a person to new, complex ideas and also helps their facility with language. The same, I think, will be said about video games in the future.

  • You make a lot of great points, but your article needs to be proof-read again because there’s still some little mistakes throughout.

    Otherwise, this is an excellent post I want to spread around to the anti-tech people in my life.

    • Thanks for pointing that out, Brett. I have gone through and (hopefully!) corrected all the errors. Feel free to share with everyone now 🙂