Which is more important: politics or technology?

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 26 2010 11:59 PM

Apple vs. Obama

Which is more important: politics or technology?

See images from Obama's first year in office, as well as past presidential speeches, from Magnum Photos.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

When the White House announced that President Obama would deliver his State of the Union message on Jan. 27—the same day Apple was planning to unveil its new tablet computer—many of us at Slate cringed. "What is Obama thinking?" one of my colleagues joked. "He's going to be totally overshadowed."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The idea of a product rollout trumping the president's annual speech to Congress does seem funny. Maybe the tablet will be a bust. Maybe Obama will rock the world. But the opposite is at least as likely. This isn't Obama's fault. It's just the way the world is going: Technology, as a driver of social change, is overtaking politics.

Look around the globe. One of every three people in China  now uses the Internet. The same is true in Iran. Hundreds of millions of users are on Facebook, often communicating across borders. Four billion people now have mobile phones. India has nearly 400 million; Bangladesh  has another 50 million. And phones are getting smarter. Apple has sold 50 million  iPhones and iPod Touches. Another 25 million  people use BlackBerrys. In the United States, the number of text messages sent each month has passed 100 billion.

How powerful is wireless communication? Consider this: Three years ago, we upgraded the software of two vehicles on Mars. On Earth, we're mobilizing people and solving problems at unprecedented speed. Last month, the U.S. government put 10 red balloons in random places around the country and challenged contestants to find them. The winning team, using social networking, succeeded in less than nine hours.

Gadgets have swept the world before, but mobile computing devices are different. Through applications and upgrades, they can acquire new powers. Apple alone offers more than 100,000 apps and has delivered more than 2 billion downloads. Phones are becoming maps, TVs, libraries, shopping tools, video cameras, car keys, and credit cards.

In more and more places, machines are running the world. On stock exchanges, high-speed computers armed with trading algorithms and superior pattern recognition are thrashing human competitors. Airline autopilots have become so reliable that human pilots can check out. In cars, software is beginning to assume responsibility for steering, braking, and parking. Drones are patrolling our borders, catching humans  who try to sneak in. Computers are telling child-welfare agencies whether to take kids away from parents. Programs are running "virtual call centers," measuring the output of dispersed salespeople and routing customer phone calls to the best performers. Computers don't just work for us anymore. We work for them.

Thanks to connectivity and mobile devices, terrorists can do more harm. Scouts in Europe use the Internet to recruit jihadist warriors for Iraq. Insurgents in Afghanistan use cell phones to detonate bombs. A year ago, terrorists slaughtered scores of people in Mumbai with the help of BlackBerrys, satellite phones, GPS, aerial image files, and voice-over-Internet-protocol. But networked devices also help us thwart such plots. In Pakistan, remote-controlled CIA drones hunt al-Qaida and Taliban commanders. U.S. military strategists are laying contingency plans for cyberwar. There's even an iPhone app  being developed to help soldiers monitor enemy positions.

Networks also multiply our power to help each other. Through the Internet, African entrepreneurs are obtaining microcredit loans. People in developing countries are using phones to research candidates and monitor elections. Doctors in India are diagnosing patients in Ethiopia. In the week after Haiti's earthquake, a campaign for $10 text-message donations to the Red Cross raised $25 million. That's 2.5 million responses. *

In cyberspace, a new world is unfolding. People are paying real money—$5 billion a year, by some estimates—for avatars and other virtual products. Google has just patented a system for selling ads that would appear as billboards and posters not in the physical world but in the cached online world  of Google Street View. And Israel, one of the world's most hard-nosed countries, recently released 19 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for video of a captured Israeli soldier. The deal wasn't for the soldier. It was for the video.

What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens online has real effects. Drivers engrossed in cell phone calls and text messages are crashing real cars and killing real people. Meanwhile, millions of Americans have married or developed long-term relationships  with people they met online. People are dead, and new people have been born, because of what happens in cyberspace.

Over the long term, politics can't compete with technology's power. Look at Obama's latest proposals  to make college more affordable. They're a pittance compared with the cost-cutting force of online education. Millions of Americans are taking college courses through the Internet for $200 per credit or less. MIT, the Princeton Review, and other heavyweights are extending this option  to more people here and abroad.

Or look at medicine. While Obama struggles to cut costs, the health care industry is engaging networked monitoring devices, tracking software, and two-way video cameras  so that doctors can supervise more patients in less time. Better yet, the latest wireless implants allow doctors anywhere in the world to look directly at what's going on in your body. The same goes for surgery. Last year, doctors in this country removed 80,000 prostate glands indirectly, by operating consoles that control surgical machines. Insert a broadband connection, and those surgeries can be done remotely.

Politics can harness technology and sometimes influence it. Obama owes his election in part to digital microtargeting, online network-building, and a list of 13 million e-mail addresses. But more often, technology overwhelms politics. Around the world, information networks are shaking the foundations of authoritarian regimes. In Iran, cell phone cameras have exposed state brutality  [warning: violent imagery], and e-mail chains have relayed incriminating videos  out of the country. In Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, tweets and text messages have mobilized mass protests.

Governments are trying hard to control this technology. And they're failing. Flash drives, memory sticks, and smuggled satellite dishes have foiled Cuba's efforts  to block Internet access. Egypt, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand have resorted to old-fashioned arrests, hoping to intimidate dissidents they can't isolate online.

The most aggressive censors, China and Iran, use filtering software  to monitor Web content and block sites they don't like. China also has an army of human censors 40,000 strong. But no army or great wall can stop a viral epidemic. Through downloads, e-mails, and instant messages, troublemakers abroad continue to supply Chinese and Iranian citizens with software that lets them sneak out. By routing their queries and messages through foreign proxy servers, these citizens can see and communicate with the outside world. Their bodies are trapped inside their nations' firewalls, but their minds roam free.

Will the Apple tablet overshadow Obama? I don't know. But here's my bet: If January 2010 ends up being remembered for a political speech, it won't be Obama's. It'll be the speech Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered Thursday. Clinton denounced Internet censorship around the world as an "information curtain" akin to the Iron Curtain of the Soviet era. She championed the "freedom to connect"—an updated, online version of freedom of assembly. And she outlined a place for politics in the march of information technology. "On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress," she observed. "But the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas."

That's a pretty good manifesto for the next century. We don't have to be bigger than tomorrow's machines. We just have to teach them and their users to play well with others.

Human Nature's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

Correction, Jan. 27, 2010: I originally miscalculated this number as 250,000. I should have used a computer. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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