Monday, February 23, 2009

Presidential Technology Use Not New

During February the news programs and newspapers were overflowing with references to the similarities between our new Commander in Chief, Barack Obama, and our sixteenth President, Abraham Lincoln. Commentators and reporters have discussed ad nauseam how the two men inherited extremely difficult national issues and how they both tried to reach out to friend and foe alike to forge a truly representative administration. The
ability of these men to effectively communicate is another attribute that they share. While we may think of this communication as verbal, you might find it surprising that both embraced some very cutting edge technologies.

President Obama’s “Blackberry” affinity is already become a topic of many commentaries and even some legal maneuvering within the government. He can continue to use it, albeit with great restriction. Just as it was during the campaign, now as his administration picks up momentum, we see the extensive use of the web and social networking tools like “MySpace” and “Facebook” being used to communicate with a new generation of engaged citizens. Even news events are chronicled and delivered at light speed using all form of new technologies from video on the web to cell phone instant messages. Truly the Obama administration has fully embraced the new technologies of the times.

I have to admit that up until about a year ago I would never have thought of Abraham Lincoln as a technology maven, but after reading a book by Tom Wheeler titled “Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails,” I became fascinated with how well he understood and made use of the new technologies of his time.

Well before Lincoln began his presidency, Samuel Morse was developing his invention for using electrical sparks to distribute messages over wires spanning long distances. In fact, it was in 1843 that congress appropriated funds to string a telegraph wire from Baltimore to Washington, DC.

Skipping ahead to Lincoln’s time in office we learn that he was the first president not only to use the telegraph but that he had a telegraph installed in the Whitehouse. During the Civil War it was reported that he regularly spent considerable time with his personal telegraph operator receiving real time reports from his generals on the battlefields and sending back orders. The latter was most likely not always appreciated by the Generals.

Lincoln also understood that with the telegraph breaking down distance and geography barriers, he could no longer rely on the same speech for all occasions. Since the telegraph enabled a report of a speech made in Washington to be printed in the newspaper in Baltimore that very day, he could not give it again two days later when he traveled to Baltimore.

It is fascinating that although some 150 years separates these two men, the similarities remain remarkable.

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