Obama vs the iPad (information overload)

At a recent speech at Hampton University, President Obama had this to say about our web 2.0 information age:

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.

There is simply no worse argument for or against something then the fact you’ve never used the thing.

And although I agree with him, without trying something yourself, it’s silly to have confidence in your ability to discern its value. I criticize twitter, but I use it just the same to see if maybe I’m wrong.

For decades we bet that the information age would come and solve all our problems. The information age is here, and it has solved some problems, but:

  1. There are some problems information does not solve
  2. There are some problems created by our easy access to information

I can’t blame an appliance if I choose not to put it down. But the simple fact is just as America is physically obese because of bad eating habits (34% of Americans are obese), we are mentally overloaded because of bad information habits.  I can’t blame Apple, anymore than I can blame McDonalds. They are corporations and their prime directive is to sell.  The problem is us, not the devices.

I’ve written about this before  in Attention and Sex and more recently, in the cult of busy, where I point to our misguided cultural value around busy people, as the cause. The web, the iPad or whatever is next is just another way for us to manifest that (misguided) value.  It’s no longer hard to seem busy, it’s incredibly easy and signifies nothing.

Dan Lyons at Newsweek had this to add:

Remember when computers were supposed to save us time? Now it seems just the opposite. The Internet just keeps giving us more ways to do nothing.

We have more information than ever before. We’re never away from it. The air around us fairly hums with it. Computers are all around us too—they’re on our desks, in our pockets, on our coffee tables.

And yet I can’t shake the sense that we are all becoming stupider and stupider—and that we are, on average, less well informed today than we were a generation ago.

Information is cheap.  Entertainment is cheap. Social interaction online is cheap.  It begs the question: what is not cheap? What does not change in the face of new media? If the problem of information access has been solved, which it largely has, what are the real problems we need to solve? Whatever they are, they’re the real things that matter – it’s just harder and harder to get down to the core, given how awash we are in irrelevance.

18 Responses to “Obama vs the iPad (information overload)”

  1. Simon

    Yes you’re right, it’s us that needs the re-boot. It’s appealing to blame technology for its distractions, but it is our need for distraction that needs addressing. What do you think are the root problems that need solving and how do you attempt to get down to the core?

    1. Scott Berkun

      Simon: I think, certainly in the U.S., we have a consumer culture. We believe in retail therapy and at least behave as if the important things in life are those that you buy. Many of us know this isn’t true, but we still behave as if it is (Christmas in America is an interesting example of this). And since our economy hinges on consumption, there is a curious cycle – we mostly work for companies that mostly make things we don’t need and don’t completely make us happy as people. It’s hard to find a way to get off. Information consumption is just another kind of the same thing to me.

      I think the solution starts with a media fast. Turning everything off for an hour, or a day, or a week, and see what happens. The world won’t end. There are other things to enjoy and do. And only then can you see easy access to information for what it truly is, good and bad. But without turning things off, it’s easy to forget there are other ways to interact with the world and that there are choices anyone can make that will likely make them happier.

      But that’s just my answer. There are many answers, and I think people asking themselves these questions is the important part.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I just find it very hard to blame a tool for anything. It’s fun, it draws attention, but it’s not the problem.

      The obesity comparison argument is the one i find most compelling. The solution is not to close McDonalds. They have every right to make and sell food people want. And by the same token Apple and Google should make whatever is people want to buy.

      But the problem is we need to separate what Apple and Google think is most important in our lives, what actually is important in our lives. It’s cliche, but the important stuff are the things no one call sell to us. So there are no $50 million marketing campaigns behind them, which makes it all to easy to forget they’re even there.

  2. Ethan

    I completely agree, with both your posts. I think Carr has some good points but in general you’re right; the problem isn’t Google, it’s how we use it.

    Of course, I don’t have a hard time believing that spending hours flipping around the net rewires certain parts of our brain to be more impatient, but I would say in the bigger picture, brain rewiring probably isn’t that important. What’s more important, (I’m tempted to say, what’s always been more important) is finding a healthy balance between using information as a distraction and using it as a “tool of empowerment.”

  3. Simon

    Yes, I think unplugging from consumerism is a way around such a problem. However, maybe the distractions from society prevent us from being left alone with our existential angst, and its the fear of being left alone with this beast that is also to blame?

    In the UK you are also pushed to consume and consume, although like the US, we realise that the pursuit of the next best thing won’t bring happiness, and yet we still buy things hoping that they will satisfy some need.

    It’s an interesting point that only when you unplug and get some space from things that you can find a way forge a new path – it’s like that quote from Postman where he says that man is an animal that likes to chew the cud of twenty-four hour news again and again – we tend to get hypnotised by the culture. I think when you unplug from the media you realise how much of it is “noise” and how much of it, as Palahniuk says, has us chasing things that we don’t want or need.

    I think also a way to get a sense of our core would be to take a leaf from your Myths book and to start producing, rather than consuming things. Like you say in Myths “use exhaust from one system to drive another” – take the anxiety and use it to create.

  4. Jay Zipursky

    I cannot remember on which blog I read this idea, but someone wrote that most of our information consumption these days is actually entertainment. Like most TV shows, the info is soon forgotten (unless you actually need it).

    If we equate information with entertainment I think we need to reconsider our new habits. How many of us keep a TV on at all times of the day – even at work? Hopefully very few, yet this is what we are doing with Twitter, Facebook, or our frequent web browsing.

    I think I’ve just convinced myself to turn this stuff off.

  5. Sean Crawford

    One of the little answers I’m happy about is that I am OK with driving with “radio silence.” While commuting I used to forget the radio was off until I realized, when I was almost at work, that I had forgotten to check the weather. When I shared my amusement about this with co-workers they would have furrowed brows, and so then I realized they were radio dependent. (Now I get weather off the web.) My DVD’s, by the way, I mostly save as a treat for road trips.

    You may recall, Thoreau noted in Walden that people kept asking too much for the news.

    Another answer is to “know thyself.” After a stint on something, if I feel hollow, then I know I was distracting and avoiding. The zen trick is to become faster at knowing.

  6. Phil Simon

    Good posts and comments.

    I just find it very hard to blame a tool for anything. It

  7. Steve Upstill

    Good analogy between obesity and information gluttony. Like cheap fast food, the free, not to say promiscuous, availability of information is a classic example of an ostensible problem (access) going away only to reveal the real problem underneath. In the case of fast food, it’s our genetically-prescribed appetites. In the case of information, it’s our poor skills at recognizing and pursuing value: thinking, more or less.

    History is in part a succession of events where progress mainly functioned to remove constraints and revealed flaws in human nature. Be careful what you wish for…

  8. Rob Dolin

    To your question about what is not cheap: Information synthesis. Making meaning out of information. I remember picking-up one of our Seattle weekly newspapers (the Stranger) and reading a great story about how a 15-person drug bust in Pioneer Square only really netted one serious dealer and the rest of the folks had only trace amounts of both drugs and cash. The information was out there, but it took digging to find the relevant information and synthesis into a cear story.

  9. Elisabeth

    I don’t think it’s an issue of information overload, but rather, a better way to organize/manage the information that we choose to absorb. This “better way” is supposedly Web 3.0, according to this video, which does a great job of explaining the Information Overload problem and attempting to sort-of kind-of maybe propose an answer to it.
    I’m still wrapping my head around “ontology” and the ideas proposed in the video…and expect to listen to it many more times…


  10. Jennifer

    I disagree with Scott’s opening salvo against President Obama. One doesn’t need to jump off a bridge to know it’s a bad experience. President Obama should be credited and emulated in knowing when he’s at his overload threshold and not indulging in mindless consumption. It’s called discipline, folks; seems as a society we’ve forgotten about it.

  11. Scott Berkun


    First, I didn’t say he was wrong. My point is if you are going to argue X is bad, and you’ve never tried X, its harder to take you seriously. If instead, Obama or anyone could say “I tried to use X for a week, but I discovered….” it’s a much more credible argument.

    Regarding the bridge – that’s an unfair comparison. Some things are easier to judge than others. Yes, if you offered to poke me in the eye, I’d decline even if I’d never been poked in the eye before.

    But regarding inventions and life experiences, it’s much harder to judge from the outside. But often when we’re confronted with something we don’t understand it’s easy to reject it as stupid or bad, when really it’s just different.

    Have you ever, in your life, been surprised by something? Perhaps something you didn’t think you would like, but it turned out you did? Or something you expected to enjoy, but didn’t? Maybe 5% of the time? 15%?

    Its possible you are always right about your judgments for things you haven’t done or seen, but that would make you unlike any person I’ve ever met.


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