Posted by: Eddie | May 9, 2010

Information as Distraction

A Mashable article has a quote from President Obama in which he worries that the iPad and other devices make us treat information as a distraction:

“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,” the AFP reportsObama saying during a talk at Hampton University in Virginia.

“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.”

In addition, he mentions the more typical criticism that there is much FUD and downright inaccurtae information on the internet, and it is hard to distinguish between that and more accurate sources.

A quick perusal of the first batch of comments looks to me like people are misinterpreting what he was emphasizing when he used the word ‘distraction’.  He’s using it to mean information as an “amusement”, not information as something dividing our attention.  My comment I posted on Mashable was:

In addition to the usual points about accuracy of information found on the internet, etc., President Obama is making an interesting observation that is very astute. A bit of pruning to one sentence shows his point:

“information becomes a … form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment”

I think that’s the most interesting point he’s making: that all of these devices are encouraging us to approach information as nuggets of amusement rather than actually paying attention to the content. It’s “distraction” in the sense of “that which amuses, entertains, or diverts; amusement; entertainment” rather than “distraction” as taking our attention away from something else.

And, looking at it that way, I think he’s on to something: we approach real news about things happening in the real world as just another ‘distraction’ in the form of another morsel of entertainment: we play a game, watch a tv show, read about a earthquake killing thousands in China, and then go to Facebook. That real life event of great significance just becomes another stop in our “grazing path” on our device of choice.

I think he mentions the devices he does for good reason, because they are devices we use just as much (if not moreso) for trivial diversion as we do for gathering of information to use in our lives for “empowerment” and “emancipation” as he puts it. When we sandwich the important information within the trivial, are we at risk of trivializing that as well merely by the context we see it in?

Unfortunately, people are focusing on the wrong meaning of the word “distraction”.  Even though President Obama clearly makes the point using the word “entertainment” too, people are ignoring that, and reacting to the points he made that are far less interesting and far more common.  They’re used to considering those points (level of inaccuracy, info overload, etc.) and in their quick reading of his comments they are missing his most salient and perceptive point:

We are at risk of trivializing information about serious things as just another form of entertainment when we use it in a context on these sorts of devices that places it directly between other items that are just lighter diversions and “distractions”.  We may not be aware of it, but are we distorting our view of these things by constantly seeing them within this context?

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