Luddite President: Obama on Communication Technology

So we all know that institutions are conservative by their nature as are the old people who typically occupy their venerable posts. The American Presidency is no exception and Obama, though he runs a comparatively tech savvy White House, alas, does not Twitter. The Economist has come out against his technophobia, but really how opposed is the President to new communication platforms?

No doubt the White House and State Department’s effort to outfit their agèd institutions with the newest technologies is a directive from below. More than likely it is the underlings in the Obama administration whose relative newness to the earth makes them more suited to contemporary communication technologies. Indeed each time the White House does a live Internet broadcast there is usually a trio of youngin’s circled around an Apple laptop.


But Obama’s comment, picked up by The Economist, that new communication technologies are a distraction rather than a boon to democracy is a question worth considering. The president’s apparent charge is that too many people are saying too much, or rather, too little, and instead of enriching the market place of ideas, short, glib comments on Twitter and elsewhere are diluting it. To an extent, the British magazine is right to say that the problem lies with human nature, but that’s only partly true. It is true that people have always engaged in gossip, but only recently has gossip been given a global interconnected network and only recently have people started to pass their lives away before a computer screen.

Television had the same promise. It could have educated everyone for almost nothing, but there are hundreds of worthless channels and bad made-for-TV movies. It’s much the same with the Internet: plenty of unfulfilled potential. That space of unfulfilled potential is human nature, but so too is our ability to create the potential in the first place, which is no negligible feat.

Newspapers have editors for a reason: someone must be accountable for what gets published, printed and put on websites. The government may be (a representative) democracy but why should the distribution of information seek to mimic the process by which government officials are elected? The point of news is not to have your views represented—that is what the dinner table and the bar and the political meeting and the ballot are for. The point of news is to create informed citizens who are more equipped to make decisions for their country.

A solution to the fear Obama has of a market place of ideas filled with junk stores is to have more online editors filtering out the hot air. It’s a tough job and one that the sillier ranters and ravers on the Net will say sounds like a propaganda chief, or something hyperbolic like that, but we’ve always trusted newspapers to edit content, so why aren’t we asking for more editing on the Internet? Is our love of democracy so singular and bovine?

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