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The BlackBerry First Family

It's nice to see a first family that reflects how the rest of us increasingly live. The dedication to a smartphone is but one way that the Obamas embody changes in the way we live and work.
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Now it's official. Obama has made history. No, I'm not talking about the presidential re-swearing in, or becoming the first African-American President. I am talking about the fact that we now have the first-ever BlackBerry President. The president evidently won the first battle of his new administration after having declared, "They're going [to have] to pry it out of my hands." While the Secret Service and intelligence agencies may still have kinks to work out with a totally wired commander-in-chief, for the rest of white collar America, it's nice to see a first family that reflects how the rest of us increasingly live.

Today, cell phone "penetration" -- to use the industry term -- has surpassed 80 percent. Meanwhile, the usage of smartphones -- that is, email enabled mobile devices such as iPhones, BlackBerrys and Treos -- is still less than 10 percent but rising fast. Last June, for example, 35 million mobile phone users deployed their devices to access the internet. Among the professional class, penetration is much higher. For example, more than half of physicians now use internet-enabled phones -- a figure that is expected to approach three-quarters in the next two years.

The dedication to a smartphone is but one way that the Obamas embody changes in the way we live and work. They have now moved into what could arguably be called the nation's first (and certainly most important) "home office" -- otherwise known as the White House. More and more Americans are working from home. This trend really began back in the early 1960s, when urban artists who couldn't afford the rent on separate residences and studios started occupying post-industrial spaces that would come to be known as "lofts." In violation of fire codes meant to protect sweatshop workers, they painted, sculpted, danced and wrote where they lived, appreciative of the high ceilings and large windows that these former factory floors provided. The building codes issue came to a head on September 11, 1961, when New York averted a threatened artists' strike in protest of "raids" on the lofts. (I am sure city officials were quaking in their boots at the prospect.)

So as the family farm continued to recede into history, the home office was born from the mind of urban squatters. By 1969, the home-office movement gained steam with the publication of The Home Office Guide, by recent college graduate Leon Henry. Ten years later, the media latched onto the term, describing this strange new breed of accountants, sales reps, therapists and the like who plied their trade out of a spare bedroom, the kitchen table or any other nook of their residence. The complaints of home office professionals were the same back then as they are now: a lack of privacy, too many distractions, blurred boundaries and so forth. I am sure the Obamas could identify here.

With the birth of the personal computer, the number of folks who used their home as their principal place of business started to skyrocket -- increasing 56 percent over the 1980s and another 23 percent in the 1990s. Perhaps predictably, the IRS lagged behind society in this transformation and struggled with a series of court-cases on how to draw an increasingly moot line between work life and everything else. (Today, they are similarly trying to figure out how to treat company cell phones that are often used for both work and personal calls.)

The Obama White House will reflect how today's professionals live in other ways as well. Whereas Bush -- more akin to the man in the grey flannel suit of yesteryear -- liked to call it quits by evening, Obama has been known to dash off emails well after midnight. Whereas Bush likes to stay at home to eat, Obama is expected to eat out more (as we all have in recent years). And whereas Bush was married to a homemaker, the Obamas have had to balance the needs of their two young daughters with those of dual career professional parents.

So whereas the Obama household faces many of the same strains that millions of professional families do, they have shown leadership in how to handle these tensions: Instead of outsourcing their family needs to the growing market for nannies and other household labor, they have turned back to the strong African American tradition of three generation households. Namely, Michelle's mother will be moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as well. By having another adult family member to fill in the gaps and provide loving care to Malia and Sasha, they will ease the stress of the intrusion of work into every moment of their day and night. And then, maybe, President Obama will feel less guilt as he sneaks off another text message at the family dinner table.

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