All eyes are on President Obama as he embarks on the process of reversing America’s struggling economy while dealing with international turmoil. So much so, in fact, that people are watching every move he makes — down to his phone of choice. A search for “Obama” and “BlackBerry” produces close to 12.5 million results — 2.5 million hits more than “Obama” and “bailout.”
While the public’s interest in Obama’s loyalty to his BlackBerry could be pushed aside as another human-interest piece to remind people that Obama is just a regular guy like us — a guy who buys his daughters a pet dog for Christmas and who uses a BlackBerry — it is more significant than that. Obama’s BlackBerry has become a symbol of his vision: to usher the government into the the 21st century, the information age. Obama has ambitious plans to improve the communication infrastructure of the United States by digitizing medical records, improving broadband internet access and increasing access to government information online.
But just as President Obama will face an uphill battle in setting the economy right, improving the government’s technology infrastructure will be a difficult feat. The federal government, except for some specialized branches such as NASA, has never had a reputation for being particularly tech-savvy. At the beginning of Obama’s presidency, news outlets reported that his staff was struggling to adjust to the somewhat antiquated technology available at the White House. There were several periods last week, in fact, when White House had no access to e-mail, according to media reports.
Bill Gates once said to Bill Clinton that the government works nine times more slowly than the technology sector — and he was right.
Many of the technological hurdles Obama faces are not only symptoms of administrative neglect at the hands of the Bush administration, but also a result of faulty thinking about how government should work. The advent of computers — and with them, the Internet — has had the largest impact on the way the government functions since the telephone was first invented. But there remains almost a sense of romantic fascination with old fashioned, time-honored ways in which the president works. Over the years, the topics he has had to deal with have changed, but little has changed about the structure and function of the job.
While it’s not really reasonable to expect the government to stay in sync with the most up-to-date technologies, the widespread importance of the Internet in today’s economy shows that the government is in dire need of a technological makeover. Obama’s technology plans to improve the U.S. infrastructure are on the on the right track. Although he did finally get his BlackBerry.