Sunday, February 01, 2009

Talk to the Hands

The New York Times has been following the story of President Obama's new Blackberry in "New Symbol of Elite Access - E-mail to the Chief," which notes that several of his top advisors do not have the e-mail address that reaches Obama's device. Vice President Biden apparently has it, along with his own secure Blackberry, but many of his cabinet members do not. Keeping a limited list of e-mail correspondents is one way to limit potential problems with hacking and spamming. (The article reports that the private Clinton fax number was often vulnerable to the latter kind of attack from political interest groups.)

Because the president's computer security experts have to "add" you to the list of those who can send and receive, one obvious effect of this exclusivity is that it limits what has been called the "equalization effect" of e-mail, where those who are disenfranchised socially are able to reach authority figures and policy makers. It makes e-mail somewhat more like a social network site in which parties are "friended," but one in which selectivity is prized rather than more generally defined popularity. I'm not sure that the limited e-mail circle will necessarily hamper deliberative activities. As a way of effecting change through whistle-blowing, I point out in the Virtualpolitik book that e-mail is often more important after the fact of a disaster or scandal as a sign that warnings were ignored than it is as a way to get the powerful to change course. The reason for this, I argue, is its status as evidence rather than testimony, which was clearly in the minds of the Bush administration, where correspondents were concerned about the Presidential Records Act.

While reading the article, I wanted to hear more about the other functions that Obama is using on his Blackberry and how he is incorporating ubiquitous computing into his interactions with his daily routine. Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg argue in "Place: The Networking of Public Space" that such practices lead to inhabiting multiple spaces simultaneously.

What applications is Obama using other than Google searching? Are the geographical sensors in the phone turned off for security reasons, so that he actually has a less powerful device than the average consumer could buy rather than a James Bond-style super gadget?

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