Thoughts on Obama's Weird Laugh Line About the iPad

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In a speech to Hampton University graduates on Mother's Day, President Obama chided the technophiles in the crowd by claiming that he thinks their newfangled hardware is getting in the way of knowledge:

And meanwhile, 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 -- (laughter) -- 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.

The online commentary community exploded (predictably) in indignation. The Atlantic's Niraj Chokshi has some reaction and commentary here. Thing is, Obama's line doesn't make any sense as a criticism of information technology. After all, the PlayStation has little to do with the 24/7 media environment. iPods are cassette players with memory cards. They don't change the nature of information; they just make it easier to switch from Justin Bieber to Vampire Weekend. Sure, bloggers and cable news anchors can twist the truth, but we can access their fibs via our old-fashioned desk tops and non-flat TV sets. The hardware isn't the point. Obama's paragraph only makes sense a criticism of procrastination, which isn't technology-specific.

So the president made a lazy laugh line that the Internet community turned into an argument about Ludditism in the White House. Let's not get our Xbox video cables in a twist over a paragraph in a commencement address. After all, this is a president who uses a Microsoft Zune and refused to give up his BlackBerry. Deep down, he likes shiny new gadgets. Just like us.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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