President Barack Obama made South By South West SXSW history today as the first sitting president to ever speak at the Austin-based tech, music and film festival. In conversation with Evan Smith, Editor-in-Chief and CEO of the Texas Tribune, POTUS delved into the process and policies needed to increase and better civic engagement in the 21st Century.
Calling on innovators, entrepreneurs and civic activists to mobilize their talent to apply technology and connectivity to strengthen ties between citizens and governments, President Obama said: “it’s not enough to focus on the cool next thing… It’s how to harness the next cool thing to make sure everybody in the country has access to opportunity.” The president conceded that governments are often too big, too bloated and too slow to adapt to new technology to solve problems, and called on private sector and social enterprises to join forces with local and federal policymakers – and that the SXSW audience and participants are the perfect candidates to do so. “We are at a moment in history when technology, globalization and our economy is changing so fast, and SXSW brings together people who are the cutting edge of these changes that empower individuals to do things they could never do before,” he explained. “I’m trying to find ways our government can be a part of the positive changes, and convene and catalyze the private and civic sector to mobilize citizens to engage.”
Talking about the lack of civic engagement in America, with Texas in specific having one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, President Obama joked that “We’re the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote. It’s easier to order a pizza or book a trip!”
“We cannot solve the problems of government unless we, the people, are paying attention. If you remember, my slogan was ‘Yes, WE can’,” quipped the president to a packed auditiorum at Austin’s Long Center. When challenged by Evan Smith on the fact that many underprivileged American in the US do not have access to the internet at home, pointing to a digital divide that sees Latino and Black communities especially marginalized, president Obama admitted that there’s still much to be done, but pointed to the Recovery Act which had embedded within it “a massive investment in making sure communities that had been left out of broadband connecticity were reached,” as well as ConnectED – an initiative that’s on track to make sure that 99% of American classrooms have access.
When challenged on the ongoing FBI-Apple privacy quarrel, the president declined to comment on the case in specific, but said “I’m totally on the side of civil liberties on this one… [However] if it is technologically possible to make an impenetrable device or system then how do we apprehend the child pornographer or disrupt a terrorist plot?”
Finishing up his conversation with a bang, Obama hinted at his plans past his presidency: “I’m not going to stop being involved in promoting the best, most prosperous, most tolerant and most ecologically responsible America I can.”