Does Obama Secretly Hate Technology?

Buckle your seat belts, Cringe fans, it's time for more Obama drama.

Yesterday, in a commencement address to graduates of Hampton University in Virginia, the president made a few comments about the distracting nature of technology that have been caroming around the InterWebs ever since. Here's the money quote:

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. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Cringely thinks the feds may be on to Apple's bad behavior. | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

As I write this, the number one Google News story on this speech comes courtesy of Fox News ("Obama Warns Grad of iPad Perils"), which links to a New York Post story titled, incredibly, "iPad is Bad for Democracy, Obama Tells Graduates." I quote:

Lobbing more grenades than the popular "Call of Duty" video game at targets like Apple, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, Obama described the companies' most popular offerings as distractions that are putting unnecessary pressure on the country.

Obama also lamented the spread of social media and blogs through which "some of the craziest claims can quickly claim traction."

You can say that again.

The part that seems to have garnered the most attention, however, were those eight words in the middle -- "none of which I know how to work" -- a seemingly huge admission for our allegedly tech-savvy president. There's just one problem with the Post's account: Obama was making a joke, which anyone reading the full 2,517-word transcript (available on Time Magazine's Swampland blog) would realize, because that transcript contains parentheticals like "(laughter)" and "(applause)." It was one of about a dozen jokes in the speech.

The New York Post conveniently left audience reactions out of its report, which was broadly picked up by the right-wing blogosphere and by some tech sites with headlines like "Obama Mystified by iPad," "iPad and Xbox are Enemies of Democracy," and "Why President Obama Hates Your iPad."

Does anyone honestly believe Obama doesn't know how to operate an iPod or an iPad? Anyone with opposable thumbs can work one of those devices -- that's why they're so popular.

Talk about your crazy claims quickly claiming traction.

Obviously this speech was written by someone else, and the president was just reading it. But regardless of how you feel about Obama personally and/or his policies, the flap over whether our BlackBerry-loving president knows how to operate an iPad proves at least part of his point: The Web is the great magnifier of the trivial, the inane, and the inaccurate.

Personally, I am heartened by the fact our president does not spend his limited leisure time playing Grand Theft Auto. Including the iPad alongside the Xbox and the PlayStation in that speech, however, was a bad idea. It's true the iPad currently is primarily an entertainment device. But it and other tablets may prove to be a great deal more, assuming they gain traction in schools. E-textbooks and ubiquitous mobile Internet access are here to stay.

Sadly, what's also here to stay: deliberately distorting someone's message to score political points, and then buttering those distortions all over the Web. That's why having a brain and knowing how to use it comes in handy -- the larger point many appear to have missed.

Are iPads a distraction? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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