A Text Message From The President?

It's official: President Barack Obama will have use of his BlackBerry mobile smart phone during his presidency. The development is just one example of how much the new administration values being tech savvy. NPR contributor Mario Armstrong, host of the radio program The Digital Spin, discusses how modern tools are being used to bring updated technology to the White House.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, technology - Obama style. Just a few moments after his swearing in, President Obama wasted no time putting a virtual imprint on things. Whitehouse.gov, the official Web site for the executive branch, was re-launched with a new look and features. And one of the big stories out of the new press secretary's first press conference was that the president, famously addicted to his BlackBerry, would not be giving it up.

Now, this probably came as no surprise considering that from the very beginning the Obama campaign showed its tech savvy. The campaign used the latest social networking tools to connect with supporters. And during his inaugural address, President Obama gave a glimpse about how his administration would make use of technology.

(Soundbite of President Obama's inaugural address)

President BARACK OBAMA: The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost.

MARTIN: Mario Armstrong is here with us to tell us how technology might be used - sorry, how the administration might use the digital medium to further policy and keep in touch with the public. He's a regular contributor to NPR and host of the Digital Spin. It's a weekly radio program about tech issues. Welcome, Mario.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: Thank you so much for having me. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Let's start with the hottest issue from some people's perspective. As President CrackBerry is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Keeping his CrackBerry close at hand. He won that fight. Good idea or not such a good idea?

ARMSTRONG: I think it's a great idea. Some people think I'm crazy for saying this. Some people are calling it the BarackBerry. So if you're carrying a BlackBerry, maybe now it's called the BarackBerry. But I think this is as great idea for a number of reasons.

Number one, it continues his level of communication, the way he's used to campaigning and the way he's used to interacting. Now, as I understand it, he will only allow that communication to be with certain advisers on his staff, high-level advisers, as well as family and friends. Now, it is still all under the Presidential Records Act, so any of that information could be at any point subpoenaed, but I think it shows some great symbolism on his part to still be willing to take that added responsibility and added pressure on in order to keep that type of communication moving forward.

MARTIN: But it does raise the question of the fact that one of the reasons people were concerned about his having a BlackBerry is it isn't that secure. And a lot of people have BlackBerrys. So doesn't it point up some weaknesses in the technology that it's so hard to secure something, a mature device like that?

ARMSTRONG: You know, at a certain point, technology will always have its flaws, but we cannot run away from technology. We need to embrace technology. Now, I understand, this is the president. Now, this isn't your average BlackBerry. This is, from what I understand, a $3,000 BlackBerry that has been souped-up. It's not even created by the manufacturers of the company that creates the BlackBerry. So it has a super-encrypted package on here. You know, I'm sure some people would like to figure out how to hack into that device, but I'm taking the stance that I have high hopes and expectations that the people that are responsible for creating the encryption package know what they're doing and have numerous ways to be able to thwart any of those types of attacks or any of those types of issues.

MARTIN: There's also the idea of a chief technology officer. What would that job be about? What would that person do?

ARMSTRONG: In some ways, we don't know exactly what this person is going to do. We know it's been printed. We know it's been discussed. And I can go into some of those things, but just the symbolic nature of having this position that hasn't been in the administration before, its job is going to be at a minimum, making sure that the government stays transparent through technology - A.

Two, they are going to be looking at some of the hot-button issues that are on his agenda, things like net neutrality and access to broadband, global warming and these other science and tech-related issues. And then lastly, making sure that they are learning - that is, the federal government is learning from private industry and implement and integrate private industry solutions into the federal government.

MARTIN: One of the things that was interesting about that excerpt from the speech that we just played is the way the president integrated the idea of technological innovation along with the classic jumpstart, things like roads and bridges. But how exactly do you think he thinks that will work? I noticed that he talked about technology specifically in the realm of raising health care quality and lowering cost. Do you think that he believes that there is some sort of a digital cure?

ARMSTRONG: Well, I don't know that he believes that it's solely a digital cure. He clearly understands that this is part of the solution. Look, we're in the United States right now, and many people still walk around today connected to the Internet, and they feel that we as a nation are connected. The fact of the matter is, Michel, we rank 15th globally in broadband penetration, that is, people that connect to the Internet at higher rates of speeds. Twenty-three out of 100 Americans have access to broadband. And so when you have that disparity and people aren't accessing something as fundamental as broadband Internet access, it does limit the amount of opportunities for economic development, new businesses, research, science discovery. If we do not stand up on our broadband connectedness, we can continue to see our rank slip from 15th to worst.

MARTIN: I think some people might say, Mario, that you know what, it's great that there might be a chief technology officer who looks for ways to integrate best practices into the government's operations. It's great that the president still has a BlackBerry. But what does that do for the digital divide? Because there still are a lot of people who don't have access to the Internet.

ARMSTRONG: Absolutely right.

MARTIN: There are parts of the country where telephone lines are still relatively scarce.

ARMSTRONG: That's absolutely right. The issue becomes economics. For a long time, there are people who used to say, oh, it's that certain classes of people or certain ethnicities didn't understand the value of the Internet. So that old definition of digital divide doesn't hold true. What it is is an economic divide. So you're pointing to the exact problem. Will people have the funding? Do they have to make a decision between buying a new pair of shoes for their kid or investing in a computer?

And so, there has been discussion about tax incentives for, say, communications companies that could make maybe connecting to the Internet easier. I haven't really yet seen - and this is just me personally - haven't seen anything from, say, computing programs. But there are a slew of nonprofits to make sure people have programs that they can access to make sure that technology is accessible.

But I have to believe that if you, as the president, are embracing technology and still have a sense of what's happening from the grassroots communities and activists, that you would understand that there is a disconnect and those communities need to have the potential to buy and obtain the technologies to connect them to this digital society.

MARTIN: And finally, Mario, let's say you were to become this chief technology officer. What would your priorities be?

ARMSTRONG: Tough question. I think two. Number one would be access to broadband. I would want to have a national broadband policy. This has been talked about but has not been moved, and it's a shame that we do not have this policy in place. Number two and my last piece would probably be STEM education. This is science, technology, engineering and math. I would funnel a tremendous amount of dollars into our future generations to take our country further forward. So those would be my two main priorities.

MARTIN: OK, well, let's send him a CD of this conversation and maybe he'll listen to our audio file on his BlackBerry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMRSTRONG: I was going to say, hey, he's on a BlackBerry. Let's send him a podcast. He can pick up an MP3 file.

MARTIN: That's what I'm talking about. Mario Armstrong is a regular contributor to NPR and host of the Digital Spin, a weekly radio program about tech issues. He joined us from member station WEAA in Baltimore. Mario, thanks.

ARMSTRONG: Michel, it's been a pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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