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Obama and Democracy: The iPad is Hardly the Problem

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, May 10 2010

Yesterday, President Obama gave a commencement address at Hampton University where he offered graduates some tempered thoughts about the ways that new technologies like the iPod and iPad were affecting the democratic discourse. Unfortunately, those remarks have been blown up, by selective quotation, by some on the Right, into assertions that Obama had "declared war on technology" (NY Post cover story today) or that he had asserted that "The iPad threatens democracy" (Patrick Ruffini). (To my regret, yesterday I retweeted Patrick's tweet without comment; when I went back to read the full text of Obama's speech, I realized my mistake.)

Here's the gist of Leonard Greene's over-the-top report in the Post:

BlackBerry buff President Obama declared war on technology yesterday — singling out Apple’s super-popular iPods and iPads for criticism.

Obama — whose election was credited, in part, to his skillful use of modern media, from smart phones to Twitter to Flickr -- yesterday told college graduates that high-tech gizmos and apps are straining American democracy.

"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 said at Hampton University in Virginia....

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

"All of this is not only putting new pressures on you," Obama said. "It is putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy."

"We can't stop these changes," Obama said, "but we can adapt to them. And education is what can allow us to do so. It can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time."

....Yet in a speech before members of a generation that never knew life without a computer, Obama came close to declaring technology -- and the information it spawns -- the enemy.

"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," Obama said.

"Let's face it -- even some of the craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I've had some experience with that myself. Fortunately, you'll be well positioned to navigate this terrain."

Let's start with the obvious; this is hardly "a declaration of war on technology." Even the partial quotations included in the Post's story make that clear. (But what else should we expect from the NY Post?)

But is Obama saying that the iPad in and of itself "threatens" democracy? As I read his remarks, he isn't saying that, he's raising an older argument: that the more we are distracted by entertainment, and the less we work at fully informing ourselves, participating in self-governance and holding our leaders accountable, the greater the threat that our democracy will perish. The iPad (and other toys like xBox and PlayStation), he says in this speech, can be "a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation." Quoting Jefferson, Obama noted, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” he wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be.” He added:

What Jefferson recognized, like the rest of that gifted founding generation, was that in the long run, their improbable experiment –- called America –- wouldn’t work if its citizens were uninformed, if its citizens were apathetic, if its citizens checked out, and left democracy who those -- to those who didn’t have the best interests of all the people at heart. It could only work if each of us stayed informed and engaged; if we held our government accountable; if we fulfilled the obligations of citizenship.

This is all pretty inarguable. If all you do with your gizmos is play games, and ignore the big public questions facing the country, democracy withers. The only thing that Obama maybe should have said, but didn't, was that he recognized that these new technologies could also be tools for being better informed. But here's what bothers me more: in his Hampton speech he repeated what is becoming a familiar critique from him, one that treats blogs, cable media and talk radio as one undifferentiated mass:

With so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs, and 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. Let’s face it, even some of the craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I’ve had some experience in that regard.

Obama, New Media and Democracy
While I think the Right has completely misconstrued Obama's remarks about the iPad, there's a deeper question still worth discussing, which is how Obama is trying to frame our thinking about technology's impact on public life, and how he views the free flow of information in a democracy.

I think it's fair to say at this point that Obama's view of new media is pretty well settled, and badly skewed by how many elites see the democratization of communications. That is, he doesn't see much good about it. His campaign and his communications operation in the White House both see it as 1) a delivery system for messages they want to project directly to supporters, getting around commercial media filters ("like television, only better" in David Plouffe's words) and 2) an adversarial environment where negative messages often thrive that they must combat with more of 1).

While Obama is right to raise serious questions about how our new, hyperconnected media system may be dumbing down democratic discourse, he--and the people advising him--seem to have no understanding of how the networked public sphere can collaboratively filter information in positive ways, strengthening democracy in the process. If they did, his remarks about marvels like the iPad would be more nuanced.

A strong democracy certainly requires an active, informed citizenry. It also requires elected leaders who believe in the free flow of information. Unfortunately, when someone becomes President, he also enters a world that values control of information and secrecy above freedom of discussion and debate. While one side of Obama's administration is trying to foster openness, transparency and participation (the geeky side; you know who I'm talking about), another side is turning out to be as bad or worse than his predecessor.

Obama's Justice Department recently indicted a Bush-era NSA whistleblower for leaking information that exposed serious problems with waste and bad analytical work at the agency (this is only the fourth time in US history that a government worker has been prosecuted for leaking facts to the press); at the same time he insists that we all look away from much more serious crimes against democracy committed through illegal wiretapping and torture of detainees in recent years; and he has chosen to cut secret deals with various industries in pursuit of legislative goals like health care reform instead of conducting the business of government in the open, as he had promised during the campaign. To take just a few examples of Obama's approach to sensitive information.

And other than a few experiments early in his term in using the Internet to open up greater give-and-take with the public, we haven't seen Obama using the web for much more than broadcasting his message (like posting his weekly radio address on YouTube). His heralded plan to involve the public in watch-dogging government stimulus spending via Recovery.gov has also gone nowhere. So much for reinventing the bully pulpit for the networked age.

While Obama offers lectures to the next generation about its role in strengthening American democracy and how they use technology, I think it's fair for us to also ask him: will you use the presidency like all of your predecessors, and manipulate information to suit your ends, or will you usher in a more open and accountable government, even when that means losing control and risking sharing power with others, like your fellow citizens?

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