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iPad, or e-Distraction?

iPad, or e-Distraction?

iPad, or e-Distraction?

It's not yet clear whether the iPad will become the next hot 'must-have' gadget or just another flash in the digital pan. But this much is certain: it's now at the center of a heated national debate - one that involves technology, responsibility, and President Barack Obama.

Presidential commencement speeches are traditionally devoted to inspiring service, encouraging excellence, and perhaps giving the newly-minted graduates a little pat on the back before showing them the door.

In this, President Barack Obama's recent address to the graduating class of Virginia's Hampton University was no different. An historic, predominantly African-American college, the President told the audience of the many advances made since Hampton's founding in 1861, and the many challenges that remain.

But it was his brief comments regarding, of all things, iPods and PlayStations that won the lion's share of media attention...and subsequent criticism.

"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," Mr. Obama said. "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 Hates the iPad" blared the headline at "Obama's Self-Hating iPad Atttack" is how characterized it, complete with an illustration of the President shooting laser beams from his eyes at the dread device. And these were among the calmer comments - tech-bloggers couldn't type out their criticisms fast enough.

So was Mr. Obama off-script with his comments, or did he have a point?

"It's hard not to sympathize with his comment," wrote Chris Matyszczyk in his "Technically Incorrect" blog at "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."

Matyszczyk isn't just a technophile; his principle occupation is as creative ad director. Speaking with VOA, he says that experience of crafting creative content has taught him how to look at questions from many different perspectives.

"He's trying to remind them of some of their social responsibilities, and that's entirely understandable," Matyszczyk says. "We always get distracted by shiny things, and of course things like the iPod and the iPad, they're beautifully designed, so there's an extra sense of attraction towards them."

Mr. Obama's comments set off rounds of online commentaries and arguments. Those sympathetic with the President's message compare it to Newton Minnow's famous "Vast Wasteland" critique he leveld at television in the early 1960's.

Among those critical of the President's comments, some took issue with Mr. Obama's understanding of developing media, while others saw a political agenda at work. Matyszczyk brushes aside the political as missing the point, and ultimately says while it's clear Mr. Obama touched a nerve, it's unlikely even the President will be able to change people's behavior.

"At the end of the day, these are things we can either put down or pick up, and use in whatever way possible. Certainly some people are connecting with each other in ways that they couldn't do before. But it's ultimately our choice."

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.