A memorable image from Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign showed the future president, reclined on a couch. His chief campaign strategist David Axelrod appears in the foreground, and “Change we can believe in” signs rest casually in the back. In then-Senator Obama’s left hand, he holds a sheet of paper. In his right, a BlackBerry.
Obama was famously attached to the device. (Back in 2008, the iPhone was a year old, and the BlackBerry was hardly outmoded or uncool.) Just after the election, The New York Times reported that recordkeeping requirements might force Obama to relinquish his beloved device. Eventually, a compromise allowed him to “keep his cherished gadget.”
It was an early sign that Obama would be the “first high-tech president,” as he has sometimes been called. 47 years old when elected to the office, Obama falls in the space between the Boomers and Gen X, allowing him to chameleon into either group as needed. He was addicted to his handheld like everyone else. Once installed, Obama created the first U.S. Chief Technology Officer, endorsed the modernization of federal government services online, and, of course, became the first social-media president, @POTUS.
In 2016, by contrast, both Hillary Clinton, 69, and Donald Trump, 70, appear to know about as much about information technology as stereotypes would expect of folks of that age. Trump famously minced words about “the cyber.” And neither Trump nor Clinton appear to know how to use a computer.
In retrospect, Obama wasn’t the first high-tech president just because he had a personal relationship with technology. He was also the president who oversaw Silicon Valley’s reincarnation, from industrial accessory of the PC and E-commerce era to information sovereign in the age of iPhone and Facebook. The Obama administration mostly supported the tech sector, implicitly or explicitly, and for worse as much as better.
Now that Trump is heading to the White House, things are likely to change. And Silicon Valley is worried. In July, a hundred tech-industry business leaders condemned Trump publicly, largely on social justice grounds. After his election, fear of a Trump presidency sent the tech industry into a tailspin. A prominent investor called for California to secede from the union. But once the dust clears, Trump might prove eminently compatible with Silicon Valley’s ongoing project. And if that’s the case, the technology industry’s mask of affable, harmless progressivism is about to be pulled off forever.