Why Barack Obama should keep his BlackBerry.

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Nov. 21 2008 4:04 PM

Luddite in Chief

Why Barack Obama should keep his BlackBerry.

Barack Obama's BlackBerry. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama checks his BlackBerry

Imagine you're Barack Obama. You just ran "the most technologically sophisticated presidential campaign in history." Your operatives played social media like a fiddle while coordinating field operations via text message, e-mail blast, and iPhone app. You proved yourself to be a modern info-executive with your 3 a.m. e-mails and your preference for reviewing docs on your BlackBerry. (Sure, clipping the 'Berry to your belt was lame, but I assume that you did this to signal your gotta-check-the-inventory-back-in-Tucson regular-guy-ness. Nice.)

Now, you're preparing to enter the White House, and your BlackBerry is about to be ripped from your clutches because of privacy and security concerns. Savor the irony: You captured the Oval Office by making technological history, only to find that you're now required to govern like in the 19th century. Echoes of Lincoln, indeed.

The rest of the White House will have e-mail, of course, and Obama's aides will have BlackBerrys duct-taped to their forearms, but the thought of an offline president gives pause. In the working world, many of us have witnessed the moment when the office e-mail system goes down. People emerge from their offices looking dazed, spouting inanities—"There's nothing to do!" Forced hallway conversations ensue. Others gather for a premature visit to Starbucks. One determined soul shuts her door and starts making phone calls. Underneath the vaguely party-esque air, there's a deep unease, a sense of being stranded.

Obama is about to find himself on an island—no more congratulatory e-mails from friends, no texts from the kids, no more advice from Scarlett Johansson (!). President Bush, for one, looks forward to having this private channel back again: "I can remember, as governor, I stayed in touch with all kinds of people around the country, firing off e-mails at all times of the day to stay in touch with my pals." Bush gave up e-mail when he became president. Clinton preferred the cell phone for his late night tête-à-têtes, and while e-mail was introduced to the White House under George H.W. Bush, he did not use it. Now, though, Poppy describes himself as a "black belt wireless e-mailer." He likes friends to message him during Houston Astros games, where he sits behind home plate, and waves back on TV when he gets their note.

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What about the rest of the world leaders? Putin, like the good former KGB agent he is, rarely uses the phone, let alone e-mail. The Brits recently had an embarrassing diplomatic episode when an aide to Gordon Brown had his 'Berry filched by a woman at a Chinese disco. And, last summer, the French security service banned the French Cabinet from using BlackBerrys, partly for reasonable security issues and partly for the oh-so-French reason that "the BlackBerry system is based on servers located in the US and the UK." Nicolas Sarkozy also has a BlackBerry manners problem; the Telegraph reported that he "risked offending the Pope" by sneaking a peak at his 'Berry during an audience with the pontiff. Sarkozy has cut down on his public cell-phone and 'Berry use as part of a rebranding effort to "presidentialize" himself. This seems right—checking your 'Berry during a face-to-face conversation suggests a twitchy insecurity, while coolly placing it on the table and not looking at it suggests connected command.

Members of Congress were given BlackBerrys after 9/11 when it emerged that 'Berrys continued to work in the Twin Towers after cell service failed. Presently, as Daniel Libit reported in Politico, 70 percent of the Hill has a BlackBerry, with various levels of addiction. (Age isn't a predictor of 'Berry love: Sen. Ted Stevens, 85, apparently wandered the halls of power in a 'Berry daze.) Some congressmen love the buzz at their belts, while others worry that D.C. is no longer a refuge from constituents. The Politico article quotes Steve Frantzich, a professor of political science, who fears for the future of George Washington's "cooling saucer"—a metaphor the first president used to describe the Senate as the place where the frothier ideas of the House are tempered by deliberation. A Capitol Hill hopped up on push e-mail endangers the Obama "change" ideal. One of the chief appeals of e-mail, after all, is that you can avoid a face-to-face conversation. It's much easier to be partisan and dismissive with your thumbs.

On the campaign trail, Obama expressed frustration about his overscheduled day and noted the importance of setting aside time to think. So perhaps giving up the Blackberry won't be a hardship but rather the first, greatest presidential lifehack. Defeating your e-mail is the frequent dream of the productivity nerds, who counsel checking e-mail only twice a day and turning off new-message alerts. The unreachable lifehack ideal is an information flow that interrupts you only when it's important and necessary. We don't really want zero e-mail to get through—just the crucial ones. To that end, the White House is already designed (and perhaps best understood) as an information filtration system, with only the best and most urgent reaching Obama's desk. The success or failure of this system relies on the judgment of those he surrounds himself with.

Still, there's something niggling about Obama surrendering the 'Berry. Being the leader of the free world might have its compensations, but it has to be enfeebling to lack the power to hit the send button. This techno-awkwardness in the highest office brings up uncomfortable associations: an FBI with crappy computers, a government that seems backward, remote, and useless. You don't need to be a computer lover to see that smooth information flow might be a help in tackling the complexity of the financial crisis, Iraq, Afghanistan, education, and health care. Tech policy starts at the top. Obama should set a precedent by having the 'Berry at his side: Here is a government that is accessible, capable, and efficient. Plus, a man's gotta have BrickBreaker for all those long, boring meetings.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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