Obama, iPad, and the value of information in 21c democracy (and business)

U.S. President Obama raised eyebrows on Sunday with comments about new media, the iPad, and the challenge of getting good information.

U.S President Barack Obama raised eyebrows on Sunday when he warned a group of college students that the proliferation of new forms of media and consumer gadgets like the iPad are additional pressure on citizens trying to find reliable information, and can even serve as a distraction that undermines a well-informed citizenry.

In his commencement address at Hampton University in Virginia, Obama told the graduates:

"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 all that high on the truth meter. 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."

While Obama's remarks have some legitimacy — it definitely is more difficult to sort through a larger swath of news sources and the rise of news-as-entertainment clouds the picture — it's still odd coming from Obama, who is the first U.S. president to be glued to a smartphone, to appoint a federal CIO, and to push the government toward cloud computing. The naming of several specific products was also odd, and probably not very wise, since it could negatively impact U.S. companies Apple and Microsoft.

However, at least Obama was wise enough to realize that we can't put this genie back in the bottle. He told students that they were living in a time of "breathtaking change" and that they needed to adapt to those changes to become better citizens. Obama even peppered the students with a bit of wisdom from Thomas Jefferson about why they needed to avoid distractions and stay informed:

"What Jefferson recognized [is] ... 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 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."

Obama's argument boils down to the fact that big media is shrinking and the barriers to entry for publishing have been drastically lowered in the past two decades. That means that there are lots of bloggers, podcasters, and other free-wheeling individuals and teams popping up all over the place with new new content that can quickly gain an audience and an air of legitimacy.

That's ultimately a good thing, because it democratizes the dissemination of news and analysis so that it cannot be controlled by a few big players, who can all be influenced by the same big forces — government, corporations, etc. — but that does place a greater responsibility on today's citizens to do their own research to find trusted sources who will give them a balanced view of what's happening in the world. This is basically an information overload issue, and it puts even greater value on the agents you trust to filter that information.

The same debate is also raging in business. Today's business leaders have a firehose of data pouring at them. But, at what point does all that data actually become a detriment, or even a distraction? I've have executives tell me that the data hasn't changed anything, and that the best executives still make decisions based on their gut reactions. But, try to tell that to UPS or Dell or Wal-Mart.

The bottom line is that businesses have to deal with the data-overload issue in a different form. And again, it puts even more value of the agents you trust to filter that data. In the case of business and IT, that means BI, DW, and other dashboard software, for example.


Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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