How the iPhone is changing the way Washington thinks

Virginia Heffernan
Machine Politics

The BlackBerry—for 13 years, that stalwart device has been teaching connectivity gluttons the ecstasy of solitaire thumb-wrestling with text.

Is it really going to vanish?

BlackBerry, stout, black, two-way pager, b. 1999. Extraordinarily good for email. With an excellent keyboard that can be used for writing novels, if necessary. First adopted by lawyers looking for roving billable hours. Then by government types. Finally by everyone with a job. The BlackBerry brought the nation a new and nervous literacy: prayerful, chipmunklike, addicted.

Once known as the "CrackBerry," the BlackBerry shook its reputation as a narcissistic time-waster as it evolved into the everyman's smartphone. President Barack Obama was praised for his unshakable commitment to it. When he brought his BlackBerry into the White House in 2009, he said, "They'd have to pry it away from me." Evidently, they haven't.

Yet the BlackBerry, and the manic literacy it engendered, is in peril. Even in Washington, where lawyers and dot-gov people made sure the BlackBerry held despotic sway for nearly a decade, the devices are disappearing.

So is the BlackBerry over in politics, seemingly its last stronghold? I put that question to Zac Moffatt, the digital director of the Mitt Romney campaign and an avid user of Instagram and other iPhone apps. "I hope so," he replied, with sangfroid. "I know I haven't used one in three years. Our volunteers don't use them. We use iPhones."

Moffatt went on to say: "Blackberries are highly efficient for people who are text-based. But people now communicate mostly in images, graphics and video. For that BlackBerry puts you at a severe disadvantage."

People now communicate mostly in images, graphics and video! Really? "We are visual by nature," Moffatt said, describing a paradigm shift as if talking about the weather. "All I can look at is the numbers. The majority of our traffic"—to Romney campaign materials and fundraising initiatives—"comes from the iPhone."

Research in Motion, the Ontario-based company that makes the BlackBerry, has for years been ceding market share—with unnerving Canadian politeness—to Google's Android and Apple's iPhone. Having commanded about half of the smartphone market in 2009, according to one estimate, RIM now claims about 10 percent.

"The demand for the House to service iPhones and Androids, and to provide access to services like Skype and Oovoo, are dominating our technology planning," said Jamie Fleet, the Democratic staff director for the Committee on House Administration. In 2009, members of Congress began requesting iPhones for themselves and their staffs, and not long ago the General Services Administration responded by initiating a "Bring Your Own Device" program. It means that Congress now allows thousands of its employees, who have been clamoring for iPhones and Androids, to use their own technology at work. The BlackBerry still dominates the House of Representatives—9,000 devices in use, compared to 2,000 iPhones, according to Dan Weiser, a spokesman for the chamber's chief administrative officer. But that's up from almost zero only a couple years ago.

Many in Washington have cobbled together a two-device solution: BlackBerry for work, iPhone for life, said David Almacy, the onetime White House Internet director for President George W. Bush. But for campaigns, the choice is clear. "Many mobile apps are designed for optimal use either on the iPhone or iPad," Almacy said. "For campaigns, the latest online tools and technology are essential assets and can possibly even make the difference in hotly contested races depending on how effectively they are used."

Two-devicing might just be a stopgap, then. "If given a choice," Almacy told me. "Several of my friends in the private sector choose to use just an iPhone and connect it to their work email accounts."

Naomi Susan Baron, a linguist and digital literacy expert at American University, told me, "I hear stories about people in Washington who are issued BlackBerries by their employer but simply refuse to use them."

Of all the explanations for the BlackBerry's demise—Apple is bent on world domination, Research in Motion failed to adapt—Zac Moffatt's account is by far the most ambitious and philosophically intriguing. If he's right, the turn away from the BlackBerry—as from blogging, email and the text-based Web—is a reckoning with our essential natures, and how we currently process, deploy and enjoy symbolic communication.

The image is ascendant. Maps, video games, and news video clips now show up on computers and phones where not long ago you would have expected text. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Dave Marash recently designated online video as history's first "universal language."

Moffatt and others cite the popularity of Pinterest and Instagram, two services that allow users to post visual digital artifacts like manipulated photos, as examples of how voters and volunteers are connecting through images. The increasing use of photos in text messages—in response to a question about how something looks, for example—is another form of visual discussion.

But is this the truth of human nature coming out, or is this an odd contingency of mobile technology?

In short, the iPhone lacks a physical keyboard. This is widely considered to have been a design choice by Apple; the one-button operation and broad, sleek touch screen had a loveliness that a device with fussy little keys and dirty crevices couldn't approximate. So the iPhone—and then the Android, which followed suit with a touch screen—is relatively hard to type on. At the same time, the iPhone has an extremely good camera that takes beautiful pictures, images made more beautiful still when they're filtered and polished on Instagram.

"The camera is the biggest thing for me," Moffatt said.

Could it be that Steve Jobs's obsession with sleek design led him to create a device that was accidentally word-negative and image-positive? And then people, who bought it for the music and the photos and the flash, just gave up on text? And slowly plugged themselves into new ways—visual ways, imagistic ways—of communicating?

It wouldn't be the first time technology changed how humans swap symbols. When telephones were invented, people wrote fewer letters, and handwriting suffered. When email first appeared, people stopped talking on the telephone so much; phone manners deteriorated while online literacy soared.

Maybe the big victor in this election cycle won't be a set of issues or a candidate—but the way the electorate envisions these things, and shares its thoughts about them.

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo News. Her column, "Machine Politics," explores the intersection of technology and the 2012 election.

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