President Obama, who ran the most tech-savvy presidential campaign in history, took a surprisingly hard line against Apple products Sunday in a graduation speech that touched on the importance of education in a world being revolutionized by technology.
"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," Obama told graduates at historically black Hampton University in Virginia on Sunday.
"All of this is not only putting new pressures on you. It is putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy."
Obama is certainly the most tech-savvy president we've had. His presidential campaign used YouTube, mass texting, Facebook and blogs to energize grass-roots support in an unprecedented way. During the campaign, Obama was photographed using an iPhone (he now uses a BlackBerry), and his wife, Michelle, said she bought the family MacBooks so they could stay in touch while he was on the road, an Apple fan site gleefully noted.
All of which makes it surprising that Obama not only suggested he didn't know how to use iPods and iPads in his speech, but also criticized them for turning users into a powerless audience that consumes instead of creates.
Obama's remarks echo those of some technology critics when the iPad went on sale in April. Canadian tech blogger Cory Doctorow called the device "infantilizing," and media critic Jeff Jarvis said it was controlling consumers by turning them back into a passive audience. Both dislike that the company sells only Apple-made applications, instead of using open-source software.
"That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing [the iPad] so fervently," Jarvis wrote, "because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn't create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them."
Obama's campaign website ran on open-source software, but his swipe at Apple is probably more about Apple products' role in channeling the 24-hour media culture he often criticizes than a philosophical debate about technology.
By blaming gadgets for turning information into entertainment, Obama expands his ongoing criticism of the 24-hour news industry, which he says spreads misinformation and polarizes the public in its quest for higher ratings.
"With so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs, on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult at times to sift through it all; to know what to believe; to figure out who's telling the truth and who's not," he said in the speech, encouraging graduates to use their education to arm themselves against misinformation.