Barack Obama just wouldn’t back down. They told him it simply couldn’t be done, but he said he would find a way. That’s just how trailblazers roll.
No, I’m not talking about the presidential election — that would be very cheesy. I’m talking about Obama’s decision to do what a president in this age simply must do: stay connected. After winning the election, Obama was told his texting days were over. Citing security concerns and the Presidential Records Act — which theoretically makes all presidential correspondence subject to public review (eventually) — commentators were pretty certain that Obama would be handing in his BlackBerry.
Bucking that expectation, Obama has become the first emailing president, though he’s using a smart phone you and I can only dream of — allegedly a $3,350 National Security Agency-approved, supremely secure and encrypted device called the Sectera Edge.
The popular opinion is that this is a great step forward for the presidency and our democracy. I have to agree that there’s no reason for a man to change who he is the moment he becomes president and Obama has shown that he understands that. And yet I can’t help but wonder about how this will affect the stalker society we now live in.
Any public figure should think twice about texting or emailing after seeing the example of disgraced ex-Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his decidedly revolting (yet groundbreaking) “text-sex” scandal. Justice was served in Kilpatrick’s case because he had a texting device and exercised zero judgment in using it. The justice part is all well and good, but do you recall the morbid, sickening rapture with which that scandal played out?
Maybe that’s a bad example. (Then again, can you imagine a Bill Clinton presidency in the age of texting?) One would certainly hope that we’ll never (again) have a president that will have things so disgusting and unethical to text about. But still, that one bad example is no exception. From Michael Richards’s racist tirade at the Laugh Factory to Christian Bale’s psychotic meltdown on the set of the new Terminator movie (“What don’t you f@#!in’ understand?”), we have plenty of examples of how technology is making public things that otherwise would have stayed private.
While there hopefully won’t be any wild parties or illegal firings for Obama’s White House staff to text about, there will be plenty of important information being exchanged. Obama himself might have a James Bond-esque device that is presumably safe from hackers and wiretappers, but his top staffers almost certainly won’t. In one form or another, those texts will get out.
Perhaps you’re among the majority that see nothing wrong with that. After all, all the examples I have provided are of technology uncovering wrongs that otherwise would have slipped under the radar. But may I suggest that there is a limit to how much we should know about the detailed, day-to-day inner workings of our government? Or is that a hopeless argument for all you Facebook stalkers out there?
Interestingly, I recently read commentary suggesting that a texting presidency will be bad for our country for reasons entirely unrelated to personal human privacy. In a post titled “Obama’s BlackBerry threatens history,” blogger Mark Everett Hall lamented the fact that so much of Obama’s electronic correspondence will be digital, deletable and inaccessible to historians. While I fear for what might be revealed, Hall fears for what might not.
In a way, our opposing viewpoints don’t disagree, but just show that we’re talking past each other. For example, I agree that much of Obama’s correspondence will be worthy of documentation for historical purposes, but I doubt very much that any of his texts or emails might be so important.
As a society, we’ve come to respect the work of bloggers, stringers, eye-reporters and YouTubers as crucial to an open, functional democracy in the digital age. But with that must come the grounding revelation that government is still government and there are things about it that ought to not be known. I know most readers will greet those words with a scoff of virtuous disagreement and that’s why I am afraid.
President Obama must have his smartphone because texting is a fact of life. But while he can have all the encryption in the world, the only thing that will truly protect the vital, core intimacy of a functional government is a conscious effort on our part to draw a line.
But, of course, that’s the whole problem: Stalkers don’t understand boundaries.
Imran Syed was the Daily’s editorial page editor in 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.