In his wide-ranging keynote interview at South by Southwest, the music, film and tech festival in Austin, Texas, President Obama focused on technology’s role in civic life.
Obama, who was interviewed by Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, cited low voter turnout as an area in which technology could improve citizens’ participation in government. He said it was “easier to order a pizza than to vote” and said we need to think about how to “redesign our systems so that we don’t have 50 percent or 55 percent voter participation in presidential elections.”
Calling on government and private companies to work together, Obama said it’s vital to “create systems that make government more responsive and make it work better.”
When asked about people who are ideologically anti-government, the president pointed to the collective good, saying someone checking the weather on a smart phone is benefiting from government services.
“When government does great things, we take it for granted and it’s not a story,” he said, citing roads, geosatellite systems, armed forces and other public benefits as evidence.
Smith also asked Obama about the “massive digital divide” in the U.S., pointing to the fact that minorities have significantly less access to the Internet, which makes it more difficult for them to be engaged citizens or even do their homework.
Obama responded by describing a program called the Opportunity Network, which installs Wi-Fi in low-income housing and rural areas. He acknowledged that this was only part of the answer, saying “I’m trying to solve every problem.”
But, Obama said, solving problems requires cooperation. He said the country needs to re-imagine the relationship between government and the private sector “so that we use technology data, social media in order to join forces around problems.”
If the U.S. does that, he said, “there’s no problem that we face in this country that’s not solvable.”
At the end of the interview, when asked about the ongoing legal battle between Apple and the FBI over accessing data on the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooters, Obama declined to comment specifically, but urged against “absolutist” views on either side of the issue.
The president said that while there must be some concessions to personal privacy (he cited airport security as one such existing concession) he said he was “way on the civil liberties side” of the debate. Obama said technology is evolving so rapidly that there are questions being asked now that have never been asked before.
“We’re going to have to make some decisions about how we balance these risks,” he said.