Speaking to Hampton University graduates last week, President Obama ignited a debate when he told the students that a 24/7 media environment, and technology such as the iPod or iPad, can be a distraction, “rather than a tool of empowerment.” Putting aside the mixed signals delivered by the Blackberry-loving president who gave the Queen of England an iPod; is our current media environment a source of empowerment?
The case being made by the president is that a steady stream of information flowing through emerging mediums is dangerous without the context given by a community, or in his case, by him. But the point the president is missing is that the plethora of technologies and media sources are in fact the creation of community empowerment, when before none or little existed.
Take the Tea Partiers. This is a group the president would probably label victims of this media environment. He wants you to believe they are misinformed by a barrage of blogs and commentaries that “don’t rank all that high on the truth meter.” But the opposite is the case. A self-selecting group of mostly independent voters used technology and media coverage to empower their voices.
Tea Partiers use technology to organize, to share research and analysis and to spread what they have learned to others in their network. They sift through truth and fiction, data and studies and work together. In years past, the politics of this movement would have been organized in Washington or state capitals, but today, people who barely know one another can join forces to add volume to their cases against government largesse and extremism. Would the president prefer that these individuals move back into organized party silos, incapable of debate among themselves?
But focusing solely on politics in this technology debate would ignore how people are otherwise empowered by the media environment the president attacks.
Take artists and musicians. The president sees the iPod as a distraction. But would emerging musicians have more or less of a chance of their work being heard if they had to rely on record labels and music stores? Today, musicians can share their art globally, and if they’re talented, the web of technology will push their efforts into the mainstream. An artist’s YouTube video can be seen by thousands and empower them into a life they desire rather than years of wondering ‘what if?’ These people are empowered.
Take consumers. The average consumer stands little chance of fighting behemoth utilities like Verizon, AT&T or Comcast. But when their complaints are made public on Twitter, and these companies have built a reputation of respecting that medium, then their voices are empowered. The company feels an obligation to address the individual concern, and understands the marketing benefits of ensuring others aren’t similarly inconvenienced. These people are empowered.
Take public advocates. Without a steady stream of news and information coming through Facebook, Twitter, blogs and television, would we know the story of five kids being kicked out of a California school for wearing shirts that bore the American flag? Would we be able to advocate for them without it?
The same goes for senior citizens being denied the right to pray before supper in a state-controlled nursing home, or voting irregularities on Election Day. The ability to instantly send and receive this type of news empowers us all to take stands on local issues that twenty years ago would never have filtered across our nation in time to affect change. Twitter allows local outrages to be met with national exasperation, where users can say #enough.
Take public safety. Amber Alerts would be ineffective without multiple vehicles for delivery. News of a train crash, traffic backup, suspicious package or weather event would require transistor radios without the mediums we have available today. Would the president hope that we revert to this nostalgic past, or are the distractions he preaches only what distracts him personally? Citizens are empowered.
You get the point. We are indeed empowered by technology. We can choose multiple sources of information and draw conclusions for ourselves, rather than rely on the government, or one media personality on the nightly news. We are empowered to the point that liberals in government are now examining broadband access as a fundamental right. Of course, the government and liberals have pretty broad interpretations of what rights we are endowed, but the debate itself certainly ignores the president’s warnings.
President Obama was right to encourage graduates to become responsible and active members of their community. However, he sadly left them thinking it was harder than simply logging in online and getting started.
You can follow Rory Cooper on Twitter @rorycooper