Free Publicity: Who do we help?

I’m not a Democrat; I don’t much care about the scorekeeping of who has more seats in any given chamber of Congress. But I do think there are things that need fixing in this country, and one of the most important is acknowledging when things are going the right way. More to the point, we need to find a way to use our collective powers of amplification for something that helps us, instead of as a reward for distracting us.

Tonight will be the President’s State of the Union address. I’m very interested in what he covers, not least because the address will be the start of a two-way dialogue, as I outlined on the Expert Labs site. I think that’s a pretty big improvement over simply addressing our elected officials.

But the world I inhabit, at the intersection of tech and media, is far more obsessed with what Apple’s going to announce about its tablet. People who write about gadgets for a living gotta pay the bills, and I love cool stuff as much as the next guy. What leaves me at a loss, though, is how many otherwise sane and sensible people give their time and energy freely to help support a company like Apple that, despite its elegant designs and generally excellent products (I use many of them), certainly doesn’t need free PR from some of the most talented people on the web.

Though Apple is a reasonably progressive company, they explicitly don’t give a shit about poor people. (Let’s pretend I found a nicer way to say that.)

Who does need your help? I’d say the current administration does. Because the biggest difference between now and 18 months ago is not that President Obama has gotten elected; It’s that those who support his agenda have gotten lazy about helping in the effort. Remember “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for?” Well, it seems like a lot of people got tired and gave up on themselves. What if all the energy that went into free promotion for the Apple tablet went into free promotion for what’s been achieved so far, in the hopes of encouraging more achievements in the future?

The Feature List

I know, I know. the conventional wisdom is “Obama ain’t done nothin’!” But that’s clearly bullshit. Obviously, political opponents are going to parrot that idea, but I’m surprised that even supporters are lazy enough to believe it without fact-checking. Perhaps everybody’s attention spans have been a little too shortened by chasing the next Apple rumor, because the facts are obvious. In one year, here’s what I caught (you might have your own list):

  • The last U.S. Marines are leaving Iraq.
  • Credit card companies can no longer charge interest on fees, and can’t retroactively raise your interest rate on existing balances.
  • We know who visits the White House, and who they’re affiliated with.
  • There’s a quarter billion dollars more funding for National Parks, and $50 million more for the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • We responded, imperfectly but with heart and sincere effort, to the disaster in Haiti. Just as we wish we had after Katrina. Leadership matters most in emergencies.
  • Our current President readily admits when he’s made mistakes, respects the validity of arguments that he disagrees with, and has members of the opposing party in his cabinet.
  • The Department of Homeland Security now allocates its security spending according to threats, not by spending the same amount of money on Montana as it does on New York.
  • My 401k is up 30% since the current President took office.
  • Our President asked both corporations and individuals to reduce their electricity consumption. He asked politely.
  • Trains. There’s a plan to build more rails and more trains for transporting actual humans around the country.
  • The Matthew Shepard hate crime bill was passed.

Now, that’s just my list. These matter to me. Maybe you have your own list. Or maybe there’s only have a wishlist of features for an Apple tablet. The difference is this: Our current President is listening to what your requests are, and wants to hear them. Steve Jobs doesn’t give a fuck about you. I promise. I’m typing this on an Apple keyboard hooked up to a MacBook, and I don’t use Windows anymore, but I guarantee you that Steve Jobs is not going to get those last Marines out of Iraq.

And I know, I know, people will piss and moan about the stuff this administration hasn’t gotten done yet. So my question is this: What did you do to help? Did you do 1/10 as much as you did to get these folks elected? Did you do as much, today, as you did to help Apple sell billions of dollars of products that you get no stake in, that don’t help make life better for you and your friends and neighbors? What are you waiting for, somebody to ask nicely? I’m asking nicely: Please find a cause you care about, and beat the drum to stir up public sentiment to support it. Make it your wallpaper on your new tablet.

I’m not scolding you; I’m scolding me.

I had to ask myself these questions. Sure, I’ve got a bunch of tweets about Apple features that I want to request, and of course I’ll watch the Stevenote as rapt as when I watch the State of the Union. But we all have a choice to make about how we invest our time, attention, and passion. And I’ll bet in eight years, today’s tablet is gonna look an awful lot like a first-generation iPod looks today. Some efforts age better than others.

My goal here isn’t to browbeat anybody, or to lecture. I’m in the same boat as everybody else who loves technology. But my personal reckoning has just shown me that a bunch of libertarian-leaning geeks in Silicon Valley who refuse to engage with government and civic society at all are never going to make an impact on most of the things that actually make a difference in our lives. Everybody in Silicon Valley will tell you they have a gay friend, but they couldn’t stop Prop 8 or get the hate crimes bill passed. Probably everybody at Apple thinks “We should do more to support the arts!” but they weren’t funding the NEA. There will be no iTrain.

Right now there are a lot of hopeful, and possibly deluded, people in the old-line media businesses who hope that an Apple tablet will prop up their failing magazine, newspaper or television businesses. Those of us who are digitally savvy are probably having a chuckle at their expense, snickering at their wishful thinking. But Apple will invest a lot more in saving any given book publisher than they ever will in saving civic society, in protecting individuals’ rights, or in engaging in diplomacy to neutralize the threat of violent extremists.

I’m gonna try to spend at least as much time advocating for issues I care about as I do for the purchase of new gadgets. I hope that even those who disagree with me on those issues do the same. Maybe there’ll be an app for that.

Update: Gawker reposted this piece, kicking off an interesting conversation. William Saletan in Slate writes about politics vs. technology, choosing the “or” option when I think he could have focused on “and”. Finally, Alex Balk has a little darker take with Barack Obama Is Your New iPad over on the Awl, which is definitely worth a look too.

Note: This article is also available in Belarusian for those interested.