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Did The President Take A Swing At The SGU?

On Sunday May 9th, The President of The United States delivered the commencement address at Hampton University in Virginia.

Among his remarks were the following:

“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.”

I read the transcript of the entire address as it was delivered, along with the transcript “as prepared for delivery”. The only difference between them in this paragraph was The President’s comment “none of which I know how to work”. Otherwise, The President stuck exactly to this carefully-scripted paragraph of his speech. Nothing here can be taken as “out of context”.

As most SGU listeners know, we try our best to steer clear of politics, except when politicians try to thrust abominable legislations, policies, and actual laws upon the citizenry. We have confronted numerous political efforts attempting to introduce creationism into science school curriculums. We have called out politicians pushing bills to help advance unproven and non-scientifically based medical products and services. Astrology, remote viewing, UFOs, and other paranormal ramblings have popped out of the mouths of politicians, and we have, quite correctly, confronted these head-on. Politicians have tremendous power, and their words carry a great deal of weight and influence.

That being said, I find The President’s comments to be thoughtless, bordering on incoherent. Lumping iPods and iPads with Xboxes and Playstations, treating them as if they are all the same kinds of gizmos, is inaccurate at best, and ignorant at worst. Since when do kids or young adults derive media information via their gaming consoles? I admit that I am not the most “hip” person on the planet to know the finer workings of every game console, but I can’t help but cringe each time I read that line. Does The President have anyone advising him on technology?

As far as iPods and iPads go, these are devices that serve multiple purposes. Perhaps The President is sincere when he says he doesn’t know how any of them work – although it is an odd statement coming from a man who has an admitted addiction to his Blackberry. If the President is sincere in not understanding how these gizmos work, then how has he arrived at any sort of conclusion about how young people are ultimately utilizing these tools and toys?

Here are his words that bother me the most:

“ … information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.”

This is a false dichotomy. The term “rather than” implies an “either/or” choice. Is The President not aware that information can be entertaining and empowering at the same time? One example that comes readily to mind is The SGU. Podcasting is an excellent example of how iPods and iPads are vehicles of education and information. The President believes that in the hands of young adults, these devices are nothing more than diversions and distractions. As a provider of services that are utilized primarily by younger adults, just how am I supposed to interpret this comment?

The final sentence of his paragraph is puzzling:

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

How is the rapid flow and access of information “putting new pressure” on The United States, our republic (technically, the USA is a democratic republic, not a democracy), or any single citizen? Is The President asking the graduates of Hampton University to impose self-limits on their access to information for the greater good of the country? I’m having a hard time just understanding the concept of “putting new pressure on our democracy”. Is this just empty hyperbole?

I believe that people want access to as much information as fast as can be obtained. The wants and desires of the people is what helped drive the innovation and technology that created iPods, podcasts, blogs, and all of the other modern day tools we use to communicate our thoughts and ideas. I understand the quality of any given piece of information falls on a spectrum, and that there are reasonable limitations to the exchange of information that must be abided by responsible citizens (such as limiting access to illegal materials.) But whether The President knows it or not, when he broadly and carelessly attacks these mediums, he attacks the people that make it all happen.

So when The President of The United States takes an unprovoked swing in your direction, you can’t help but get up your guard and take notice.

12 comments to Did The President Take A Swing At The SGU?

  • plob218

    Yeah, the speech is curmudgeonly, but it’s no different than people in the 50s blaming TV and comic books for the decline of “the youth today.” Of course there is great educational content online (the SGU being one of the best!), but there is also a lot of garbage. People who don’t know any better see only the trash and throw the baby out with the bath water.

    As for the “democracy” crack, you’re just grasping at straws. I think Obama knows what kind of government we have, and democracy is widely-used shorthand. Saying he’s wrong on that count is like insisting that someone call The Origin of Species by its full title, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

  • plob – indeed, The President knows we are a republic. My point is that his statement is vacuous.

    My guess is that his speechwriter thought “pressure on our democracy” would garnish a more favorable reaction as opposed to saying “pressure on our republic.” If a person’s democracy is under pressure, it takes on a personal, more emotional tone. If the republic is under pressure, it invokes a less emotional response – at least in most people, and certainly to the majority of graduates in his audience.

  • durnett

    Evan, I disagree.

    I think that you are the hippest person on the planet.

  • curtcarl

    I thought his statement was especially silly, considering his own stated addiction to his Blackberry.

  • Lets go to the data – which I do not possess. My hypothesis: For the vast majority of users of electronic communication devices (iPods, iPads, Blackberries, iPhones, netbooks, etc.) the focus is is on entertainment/networking rather than on enlightenment. What percent of users access educational information? – what are the stats for SGU, Skeptoid, QuackCast, Astronomy Cast, SciAm, Skeptoid, 365 Days of Astronomy versus the other content deemed less informational/educational? I’m guessing that the audience of these sights are statistical outliers. I hope I’m wrong! iTunes data must be available on this and it may serve as some sort of microcosm.

    As for lumping communication devices with gaming devices, I’m wondering if the President is referring to the common belief that today’s young people are so connected electronically that the behavior may interfere with other important and healthy pursuits (e.g., exercise, just being outside, studying, reading books, interacting with real human beings in the flesh)? My anecdotal data (worthless I know) suggests that this perception reflects reality.

    I sense that you are being a bit sensitive. Perhaps you could draw together the skeptical community and gather data, content, and signatures and inform the president of our presence and the true power of this incredible format.

  • tortorific

    I am delurking to disagree. The president is saying there is a problem with the information out there, that a lot of the information we see is false or misleading and better education is the key to being able to find the truth. A few paragraphs after your quote is:

    “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. 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. Your education has honed your research abilities, sharpened your analytical powers, and given you a context for understanding the world. Those skills will come in handy.”

    To me this is much more an endorsement of critical thinking and skepticism. It seems a little pedantic to pick on the fact that he lumped in playstations and xboxes with ipads and ipods. I think he is quite clearly saying that information becomes a distraction when it doesn’t “rank that high on the truth meter”.

    He could have done a little better, it is kind of implied in his words that ipads/ipods contain more bad information than other media (I think garbage is everywhere) and that entertainment doesn’t generally convey useful information as opposed to real education (whereas entertainment is an important part of education) but in order to get to this criticism you really need to nitpick about the exact words used. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize a speech to that degree, often the speaker missed those interpretations and they do not reflect the meaning they are attempting to convey. The opinions you are accusing him can be implied from his words but they aren’t explicitly stated and could simply be poor word choice, at worst he can be accused of a lack of clarity.

  • eean

    Yea I agree with ptblo on democracy vs republic. It really annoys me when people make this distinction. Yes I know you learned about the Greek Democracy and the Roman Republic in 11th grade, but clearly in common (and even academic) usage a republic is an implementation of democracy.

    Anyways I think Obama was just talking about the threat posed by being constantly connected. It was also in the context of talking about all the bad information on the Internet, which certainly iPods, iPads and the rest are conduits of. Isn’t that exactly what the resurgent skeptical movement is reacting to as well?

    And one needs to have some sympathy for Obama here, given how he’s been so viciously libeled online for the past few years.

    I would agree that not hat-tipping the constructive things happening online was odd. But this wasn’t a policy speech.

  • statueofmike

    What the hell is the SGU?

    I’m not a regular reader. I stumbled on your post. It seemed interesting, but the entire time, I couldn’t completely figure out what you were talking about. Sorry.

    So, seriously, what’s the SGU?

  • SpicyCupcake

    Information is often not practical. Many of us have this Idea that information would be real news, science, and well… good information. However the tabloid style distribution of information (in my opinion) is really becoming a problem. It is contributing to the credulity of the press and out culture of following all of our friend’s life and following politicians and movie stars every move is really straining the ability of society to ever get to the valuable information.
    So no I don’t think he was taking a shot of the SGU or that type of information. I think it is the extraneous information that is out there. You should not feel like you have read the news when you pick up a couple of headlines from tabloids or your friend’s post a comment about current events on their face book. To many people that I talk to cannot keep up in a conversation and the reply I get is “Yeah I saw something about that on face book, but I don’t know what’s going on with it.”
    To clarify the statements about the Xbox and PS3, both of these disseminate massive amounts of information. The Xbox bombards its users with games news and the ability to download news on gaming. I consider this to be distracting information. The PS3 has news feeds (RSS style) that deliver real news as well as gamer news. The WII also has this feature. At the same time I know the WII has a channel that lets you vote on news and questions like it’s a game. I cannot promise the WII has face book, but both xbox and PS3 can interact with major social networks. We really are swamped in a world of infotainment.
    I think that the SGU is a great example of striking a balance between entertainment and REAL information. Unfortunately, this balance is hard to find in the most popular media. The history channel is a great example of the degradation of balance between information and entertainment. Crypto zoology and the history of ghosts have replaced documentaries about specific situations in wars and specials about important figures. Shows like the SGU are invaluable and if we showed a little more discretion in our pursuit for information, I think the SGU could be more then norm than an exceptional example. Since it is an outlier, thank you for doing what you do!


  • Chris


    So, seriously, what’s the SGU?

    Scroll to the top of this page. Read the subtitle under the words “The Rogues Gallery.” You will find the answer there.

    If you are still not clear. Look on right hand side menus. See the links listed as “Affiliated Sites.” See which ones include the initials “SGU.”

  • David M. Brooks

    Obama,and the key members of his regime, are hard core leftists, who like the left all around the world, and would be dictators of all stripes, hate when people have the power to communicate independently. To the left, “democracy” does not mean a process described in civics class where everyone has an equal voice, it means the opposite, a Leninist-style control of all centers of power, communications, culture, education in a society.

    So when Obama, or TOTUS, says that the Internet and uncontrolled information is putting pressure on “democracy,” he means that the Internet is a threat to the power of his regime.

    And Obama is not just complaining about “the distraction of [not under his control] information” he and his allies are taking actions.

    There are a number of initiatives by the Obamaites and his allies to bring independent voices, talk radio, cable-TV, and the Internet including blogs, to heel, including regulatory proposals at the FCC and several pieces of legislation.

    One example:

    From Banning Books to Banning Blogs
    How the DISCLOSE Act will restrict free speech

    Bradley Smith & Jeff Patch | May 18, 2010

    The Obama administration has announced plans to regulate the Internet through the Federal Communications Commission, extending its authority over broadband providers to police web traffic, enforcing “net neutrality.”

    Last week, a congressional hearing exposed an effort to give another agency—the Federal Election Commission—unprecedented power to regulate political speech online. At a House Administration Committee hearing last Tuesday, Patton Boggs attorney William McGinley explained that the sloppy statutory language in the “DISCLOSE Act” would extend the FEC’s control over broadcast communications to all “covered communications,” including the blogosphere.



  • David, I am no expert but I believe that you may be on the right track. Things are changing rapidly, and not for the better. SGU and similar groups are generally apolitical but the definition of “dangerous” or “subversive” will shift to include anyone who questions authority.

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