With all the justifiable excitement about America's first black president, it's easy to forget that Barack Obama is also the nation's first digital president. Or at least he could be if his aides don't take away his BlackBerry and his Twitter account.
The president-elect with BlackBerry and David Axelrod
According to the New York Times, Obama, who like most of the people who are reading this post, has been communicating regularly via cell phone, IM and email for years, may be forced to give these up because of fears that his digital communications could be hacked, subpoenaed, or published in the National Enquirer.
Enquiring minds may want to know what Obama is texting, but they won't be able to read it at the supermarket checkout
Many of us, like the president-elect, are firmly planted in the digital world. Like those bitter working-class Pennsylvanians who cling to their guns and their religion, we hold on to our mice and our keyboards with a steely grip, and we're not giving them up any time soon to go back to pencils and pens. Barack Obama shouldn't have to sacrifice his choice of writing technologies just to be president. We shouldn't handicap the new president by making him use outdated communication technologies when everybody else is online.
It took thousands of years for writing to catch on: at first no one wrote anything down – laws, constitutions, declarations of independence – because writing could be hacked, forged, or turned against the writer. Once we learned to trust writing, it took hundreds of years for the printing press to "revolutionize" that writing, because print could be hacked, or faked, or it could make public what needed to be kept secret.
But it took only a generation for pixels to replace pencils, and despite our fears of hacking, fakery, and outing what should stay closeted, today communication happens by laptop, mobile, and the 'Net, or it doesn't happen. We've come to the point where, if it's not on line, then either it didn't happen, or it's not important enough to read about.
That's the environment Barack Obama, our first digital president, has come of age in. Alaska's soon-to-be former senator Ted Stevens thought the internet was a series of tubes. John McCain admitted that he's so digitally inept that his aides have to do his googling for him. And Sarah Palin, when her own email wasn't being hacked, was too busy shooting moose, watching Russia from her backyard, and shopping at Neiman Marcus to text anyone.
In contrast, Barack Obama conducted his presidential campaign as much on the internet as on television and at live rallies. He could only visit one swing state at a time, but Obama was everywhere on Facebook and YouTube, and if the text messages I'm still getting signed Barack, Michelle, Joe the Veep, and David Plouffe are any indication, he mobilized voters even more by mobile phone than he did on line.
Obama's not the only politician to prefer keyboarding to handwriting. Though Al Gore didn't claim he invented the internet – what he actually said to Wolf Blitzer in 1999 was, "I took the initiative in creating the Internet" – he was about as close as a politician could be to a computer geek – one of the original "Atari Democrats" – and he did craft vital internet-enabling legislation. But Gore was thwarted in his bid to become a digital president by Florida's paper ballots, with their hanging chads, and an equally analog Supreme Court.
George W. Bush gave up the chance to digitize the White House by giving up email when he took the oath of office – something to do with executive privilege, the imperial presidency, and not being able to type and chew gum at the same time.
Fears about the stability and security of digital files are real but overblown. Those of us who have lost files to computer crashes, wiped a disk with a high-powered magnet, sent impulsive or mis-addressed emails, or dropped an iPhone into a bowl of soup, have come to think of digital text as more vulnerable than paper, which holds up pretty well so long as there are no floods, fires, strong winds, bright lights, spilled coffee, or pickpockets. But a well-cared-for silicon chip and its contents should last as long as a treasured bit of paper or a cuneiform clay tablet.
As far as security is concerned, it's still harder to hack a file than purloin a letter. And the government's paper records, just like its electronic ones, must be preserved, disclosed if necessary under the Freedom of Information Act, and be produced in court if a judge so orders.
There's no reason that top secret emails can't be made "eyes only" or "burn after reading." And so far as preserving digital files that might be embarrassing, the Bush White House managed to lose plenty of emails, and let's not forget Richard Nixon's Watergate tapes and their infamous eighteen-and-a-half minute gap.
Richard Nixon's secretary, the multi-tasking Rosemary Woods, demonstrates in 1973 how to accidentally wipe sensitive White House information from an audiotape
True, electronic documents present new challenges for preservation and security (viruses, lost laptops, highjacked credit information, the infamous Nigerian email scam). But that hasn't stopped ordinary people from depending on them for most of their educational, work, and leisure writing and reading. Our business and financial institutions can't go back to a paper-and-pencil world, and neither can our government agencies.
Plus, why should the president be more restricted in how he communicates than Joe the Plumber, John Q. Public, Jane Doe, or Arianna Huffington? After all, we elected Barack Obama because he actually has something to say, and he's a pretty good writer as well.
Obama and his aides must realize that presidential emails and txts can be made as secure as presidential Post-it notes or national intelligence estimates. President Obama shouldn't have to change how he communicates in order to bring change to Washington. Take away Barack's digital tools and he might as well be writing on clay.
If they take away his laptop and his BlackBerry, Barack Obama might as well carve his presidential "papers" on clay tablets