Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama's Blackberry and the Affective Life of Media

There has been endless media fascination with and speculation about the issue of whether President Obama would be allowed to keep his Blackberry.  That issue has now been resolved. Obama will be allowed to have a specially designed model, approved by national security officials. He has also agreed to abide by a certain set of rules on how he can use it and whom he can communicate with.

The arguments for and against allowing him to keep the Blackberry have focused on information and communication. Obama has argued that the Blackberry will allow him to keep in touch with people "outside the bubble" so that he will be able to make more informed decisions as president. His security advisors have argued that Obama's email communications via the Blackberry would be vulnerable to hacking, thereby creating a risk that the nation's enemies might obtain confidential information that could jeopardize the nation's security. The compromise solution employs both behavioral protocols to limit who Obama can communicate with and technical protocols that limit the information that Obama is authorized to receive and that unauthorized parties are able to obtain (I use the term "protocol" here in the sense outlined by Alexander Galloway in his excellent book of that name). 

What this limited solution makes evident, however, is another, perhaps more fundamental, reason that Obama was so insistent on keeping his Blackberry--his affective engagement with the device itself.  In my recently completed book manuscript I detail "the affective life of media." I argue that our media devices participate in everyday affective interactions with us, that we are affective cyborgs who distribute our affectivity in something like feedback loops among our embodied selves and our media devices. 

While the compromise solution of a constrained Blackberry and a constrained Blackberry user might seem to miss the mark of keeping Obama in touch with the world outside the presidential bubble, to offer Obama only a limited and therefore less attractive Blackberry experience, what it leaves unchanged is Obama's physical relationship with the device. What really matters is that he remains in touch with his Blackberry. Interestingly, in the debate over the Blackberry, Obama has repeatedly said that the Blackberry would have to be "pried out of his hands." Aides have speculated that it would be impossible to get the Blackberry off of Obama's belt.  These comments, and others like them, emphasize without recognizing it, the embodied, affective character of Obama's relationship with his Blackberry.

While much speculation about the presidential Blackberry has focused on the communication security engineered into the device, and the precise limitations on the information that the President will be allowed to obtain, what would be most interesting to know is what, if any, changes will be made in the device's affective affordances, in the way in which Obama relates affectively to his Blackberry. It would also be interesting to know whether other elements of the interface will change, thereby modifying Obama's affective interaction with the software. No matter what changes are engineered into the new presidential Blackberry, my guess is that the key embodied affective interactions--wearing it on his belt and holding it in his hand--will remain unchanged. This would help to explain why Obama would accept the limitations on the information he is able to obtain via the device and the people with whom he is able to communicate. 

[NB: Andrew Engel, a doctoral student at Wayne State, argues persuasively that mobile phones can be understood as "companion species," in the sense outlined by Donna Haraway in two recent books. In this light, it is interesting to see Obama's fight to keep his Blackberry as analogous to his daughter's insistence that the family get a dog for the move to the White House--although this connection has, as far as I know, gone unnoticed in print, televisual, and networked media.]

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