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01.26.10

Obama Needs a Killer App

If only passing legislation were as easy as introducing new products from Apple. Lee Siegel on how Steve Jobs is ruining politics.

It may be just a coincidence that Wednesday, the day of President Obama’s first State of the Union address, was also the same day that Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s new tablet computer. But the coincidence is a telling one. Steve Jobs, the king of technological instant gratification, is destroying American politics.

Our iPhone and our proliferating apps—soon there will be one for every human appetite, no matter how eccentric, sordid or refined—make the whole idea of waiting for policy to be hammered out not just absurd, but an insult to our impatience. When you can click instantly on an app called ShyBladder, which “offers three different sounds of running water” for people “who have trouble getting things started in the restroom,” why should you wait months for health-care legislation?

The problem is that even if, as we like to say, we “buy” Obama’s speech, we won’t have anything to put in our hand afterward to feel that we are in control of his promises.

We know rationally, of course, that politics is politics and that an iPhone is an iPhone. But we know rationally when we are driving and water suddenly splashes onto our windshield that we can’t get wet, yet we still instinctively raise an arm in defense. All this accelerating technology is creating new instincts, which are creating new expectations.

The new expectation, for example, that politicians must fulfill our desires rapidly and in toto ensures that our constituents remain voters and that our politicians never rise to the level of statesmen. Nowadays, a political race never ends in a decision. We regard the status of our elected representatives as being constantly in play. It’s easy to understand why. A race keeps us involved, keeps our finger at the ready, as it were—at any time, we can voice an opinion with great intensity, get on a blog and vent, attach our emotions to Olbermann or O'Reilly and experience the illusion of holding the fate of our public officials iPhone-like, in the palm of our hands.

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So it’s no wonder when, just over one year ago, the fate of the nation depended on a November election, we are now turning our attention away from the very issues that animated that election to yet another November election, even though it is many months away. That’s the way we like it. Digital culture is participatory culture and the only time our public life becomes participatory is during an election. So we see to it that our politics is all elections all the time.

Our extremist politics itself conforms to our new technological reflexes. A high-tech gadget makes it easier to negotiate our way around reality; makes it easier, in fact, to have our way with reality. The same goes for right-wing and left-wing extremism. Fanaticism makes it easier to deal with reality; it offers the illusion of bending reality to your will. And reducing issues to one side or another also keeps the election mind-set going.

A new technology is a new story. On Wednesday, Jobs will attempt to sell his new tablet computer by spinning a tale about its capacities and possibilities, and a lot of people will be thrilled, or at least relieved, to hear a new narrative about a new future. That evening, Obama will be speaking to a nation expecting precisely the same thing. The problem is that even if, as we like to say, we “buy” Obama's speech, we won’t have anything to put in our hand afterward to feel that we are in control of his promises. We will have to take the president’s vows on faith, be patient, leave the implementation of his ideas to other hands, to other technologies. If we buy Jobs’ pitch, though, we can just go out and buy his new gadget. All his promises will be up to us to fulfill by using our finger. This is why we like to remain voters, and like to keep our statesmen as politicians. We can keep our fingers on an imaginary voting lever. We can maintain the illusion of a gadget-relationship to our politics.

The strangest thing about this situation—which grows stranger every day—is that for all our speeding new technology, driven largely by Jobs, the Apple CEO and his behemoth corporation still dominate the market. We may curse the evil Wall Street bankers, yet we allow a tyrant like Jobs to control the very rhythms of our public life. But maybe it’s not so strange. Digital technology may have undergone several revolutions just over the past five years, but our politics is the same as ever. Maybe keeping us all gently, comfortably, gratifyingly in our place is the purpose of all this wondrous new technology, after all.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.