Image: AFP

US President Barack Obama during Democratic National Committee event at the Austin Music Hall in Austin, Texas — PICTURE: AFP

 

As the first presidential nominee to ride the social media wave, US President Barack Obama was a fitting speaker at South by Southwest (SXSW), the geek conference where Twitter was launched.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, South By (as its known by its faithful visitors and locals in Austin, where it is held) remains the best brain food in a calendar packed with tech events.

Obama is the first sitting US president to speak at the conference, and his wife Michelle was also in the lineup, with a speech on education for girls around the world.

As befits the audience, Obama discussed digital inclusion, how technology can make voting easier, and civic engagement in the 21st century.

“We take pride in being the world’s oldest systematic democracy and yet we put up barriers and make it hard for our citizens to vote. It’s easier to order pizza, or take a trip, than it is to participate in the most important part of democracy and select who will represent you in government,” he told the audience.

“I’m here to recruit all of you. How can we come up with new approaches to solve some of the big problems we face today? It’s not enough just to focus on what’s the cool next thing.”

They are admirable sentiments, and something you’d love to hear from SA’s president.

“Technology brings together people who are at the cutting edge. It brings enormous opportunities but they are also very disruptive. It empowers individuals to do things never done before. We’re trying to find ways our government can be part of the positive changes, part of the broader civic communication in tackling our biggest challenges,” Obama said.

But he warned that technology “also empower[s] folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages” — an apparent reference to IS.

Though he didn’t address it directly, the FBI’s battle with Apple (over unlocking iPhones to access information in criminal investigations) came up during the questions. This hot topic has dominated tech news in the US since it emerged, especially in the past week, and will continue to be a burning issue for the foreseeable future.

Obama was interviewed on stage by Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith, who described the once-frontier state of Texas as “the hating-on-government capital of the western world”. He summed up the conundrum by saying: “We hate government so much we would have no government. But then we’d have no one to sue.”

This year SXSW, incidentally, also hosted TV stars on shows with political and technology themes and who will be familiar to SA audiences: Kerry Washington from Scandal (called The Fixer in SA) and geek show Mr Robot’s Rami Malek and Christian Slater. There was also a powerful keynote address by Brené Brown, whose profound thoughts on vulnerability have become the fourth most viewed TED talk.

Obama acknowledged the tech flaws in the launch of his defining legislation, called the Affordable Care Act, but known colloquially as Obamacare.

Despite years of resistance it was unveiled in 2013, “and then the website didn’t work”, he said to laughter. “My entire campaign was premised on using technology,” he said.

However, the government’s procurement processes were based on an age of buying boots, pencils and furniture, not software. “There was an example of an outdated system using bloatware that broke down.”

So Obama brought in a “swat team of friends” from Silicon Valley and the tech community to fix it, which he realised could help overhaul many of America’s antiquated systems.

“We are harnessing their digital skills so that millions of people can be helped.”

“As long as they feel they have a president and someone who is providing some air cover, there is no system they can’t get in there and work in and make it significantly better.”

If only President Jacob Zuma had the same sentiments as Obama’s. If only.

Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail

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