South By Southwest has grown considerably since its inception, and has turned into a truly high-profile mega-convention. A-list celebrities, athletes, and titans of modern industry make up the guest list.
And now, you can add Presidents to that list.
Called “[One of] if not the most special event in the 30 year history of SXSW,” by Hugh Forrest, Director of SXSW, President Barack Obama sat down with Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith for a conversation largely focused on how the tech world and government have to come together to solve problems.
“We are at a moment in history where technology, globalization, our economy is changing so fast,” President Obama began, noting three ways he’s hoped his administration could be part of bringing about chance by “convening and catalyzing” the private sector to be part of the broader civic community.
Firstly—how can we make government work better and more efficiently through technology and digital platforms? Obama touted progress in federal student financial aid as one of the ways in which the government has utilized technology to make things work smoother. But later on, he brought up the high-profile crashing of the government’s health care website, launched after the landmark Affordable Care Act legislation, a disaster that he admitted was particularly embarrassing given that “I was the cool, early-adopter president.” In response to the site’s crash, the government brought in what he called a “SWAT team” of experts from Silicon Valley and around the world, who helped modernize the site and get it back up and running. This experience led to the creation of the US Digital Service, which works across government agencies.
Secondly, Obama mentioned that he hoped that government and the private sector and non-profits could come together to tackle big problems in new ways, specifically mentioning cures for diseases. And lastly, the President hoped that society could use all the data, analytics and technology available to make civic participation easier. It was on this third point that the President seemed most passionate.
“We take enormous pride in the fact that we’re the world’s oldest continuous democracy, yet we systematically put up barriers and make it harder for our citizens to vote,” Obama said.
“It is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in democracy, and that is to select who’s going to represent you in government,” he said, riffing about how difficult and archaic voting in the United States is for many folks.
While it’s fair to assume, most agree that governments or the private sector can’t solve major civic problems on their own. Smith pointed out that the marriage between the two hasn’t always been the most seamless. Smith said that government would have to move in the direction of the tech world, which Obama said is currently happening. The President insisted he didn’t want to have all the best tech minds in the world come work for the government, but hoped the government could both create an environment where technology and innovation could flourish, and act as a matchmaker of sorts, convening companies, agencies, and non-profits to collaborate on solving pressing issues.
Another bit that Smith somewhat challenged the President on was the idea of digital inclusion. The President spoke about equipping all classrooms with Wi-Fi and better technology, and Smith countered by mentioning the high number of low-income families that do not have Wi-Fi at their homes. Isn’t there a disconnect between equipping students with modern technology in school if they can’t use it to do their homework when they’re home? Though Obama did tout investment in connectivity in his polarizing stimulus package and through the Connect Ed initiative, he did admit that it was an ongoing problem, and one he’d love to solve. In fact, he said: “I want to solve every problem.”
The final question was one many were figuring would be asked, about the ongoing Apple-FBI lawsuit. The President couldn’t comment on the specific case, he did speak to the very difficult balancing act between privacy and security. We often hear about the “value exchange” at play when brands have user’s data, but it’s a bit different when the government is dealing with potential terror plots or other dangerous activity. Obama toed the line, likely to the dismay of those who highly value civil liberties, but did say that he hoped most would avoid an absolutist view on either side of the issue. A perfectly encrypted system that could shield criminals from any law enforcement would be problematic, as would a world where there was zero privacy at all. It’s a view many likely share, but as with many touchy subjects, the loudest voices usually come from the extremes.
And a large theme throughout the talk was Obama’s—for lack of a better term—selling of government’s role in society and how it can and does do good things. “Everyday, government is delivering for everybody in this room whether you know it or not,” Obama said. “Part of our task is to tell a better story. Government is often its own worse enemy in that it has to be more responsive where people interact with it.”
Watch the keynote below: