Health IT, Policy

At #SXSW2016, Obama’s embrace of technology tinged with angst

“Fetishizing phones above every other value can’t be the right answer.”

obama sxswThe SXSW festival got its first keynote discussion with a sitting U.S. President in the form of a fireside chat with Barack Obama. A wide-ranging conversation with The Texas Tribune Editor in Chief Evan Smith illustrated just how much technology excites and unsettles Obama and other government officials.

The president championed the collaboration between government and the tech community to fix the myriad problems with the website. But he also noted that technology on display at SXSW can be disruptive and unsettling. “It can empower people to do things they never could do before, but also empowers people to do dangerous things and spread dangerous messages.”

He also said there was no room for absolutists in the debate between protecting personal information and national security, referencing Apple’s showdown with the U.S. Justice Department over the data contained in the phone of one of the San Bernadino shooters.

“Fetishizing phones above every other value can’t be the right answer.”

Obama acknowledged the embarrassment of the website not working and blamed outdated software procurement practices. He noted that one good thing that came out of the failings of is that it led to the White House assembling a “swat team” of tech experts to fix it.

“We realized we could build a swat team, a world-class tech office in the government working across agencies and we have done that with digital services from Google, Facebook.” He noted people from companies like these do a residency of sorts from six months to two years.

“The reason I am here is to recruit all of you…How can we come up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches to develop skill sets?”

Obama suggested that if government could improve the online experience for things like the Department of Motor Vehicles to the Internal Revenue Service, it would improve negative perceptions of government, even in places like Texas, which Smith pointed out has the lowest voter turnout in the country.

Smith also questioned the effectiveness of improving government services online given the digital divide that exists.

“Shouldn’t the government make sure that everyone is in the digital space so that we can do the things that you want to do?”

For Obama, public-private partnerships are the ideal solution for most technology issues. When he was questioned about the Apple-Justice Department case, he declined to comment directly on it. But he expressed concern about the evolution of encryption.

“If it’s technologically possible to make an impenetrable device so there’s no key, no door then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, disrupt a terrorist plot? We have an engaged tech community to help solve problems but my conclusion is you can’t create an absolutist view on this.”

Photo: Stephanie Baum