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iPads, Congress, and Partial Attention

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, December 16 2010

Photo credit: johncatral

Over on the American Prospect, Tim Fernholz comes out as supportive of the idea that members of Congress might, in the 112th Congress, be able to bring iPads and other technological devices onto the House floor, as Politico has reported is a possibility under Speaker Boehner. Tim cites the fact that such digital tools make a lot of sense as ways for members and staffers to better manage the considerable paper materials they carry around now, from background reports to hearing memos to statements they plan to deliver.

Just to throw in one additional point, as Tim notes, there's a ready critique against the role of digital devices in Congress that holds that they're simply too distracting. But right now members who find themselves insufficiently engaged in hearings or floor debates have other ways to dealing with that: by doing crosswords while furiously pretending that that's not what they're doing or by just not showing up at all. You can imagine a situation where it becomes all that more appealing for our elected officials to turn out for floor debates or hearings because they're not completely shut out from the outside world when they do it, by virtue of them having an iPad or some other big portal-type wired device with them.

With that sort of connection to the world, members of Congress might be able to constructively use their time -- to keep on top of their emails, read coverage in their hometown newspaper, or even Google for more information on whatever the gentlelady from Florida happens to be discussing at the moment. The cost of showing up drops.

The issues that the United States Congress considers are important, generally speaking. But the truth is that not every single moment spent discussing them is an important one. Partial attention is probably all that much of what happens in Congress honestly requires from our elected officials. It seems like there's a decent enough chance that by giving members and their staff the freedom to splinter their attention, they might be more likely to devote some of that attention to engaging in Congress' official business.