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.
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."
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.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.