South by Southwest Festival (better knowns as SXSW) is the place to be right now for fans who want to see up and coming bands, movie stars, and some of the best tech inventors. However, this year the center of attention in Austin isn't one of those, but an even bigger star: President Barack Obama.
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Obama is the first President to attend and speak at SXSW. In a speech held at the Long center for Performing Arts today, he talked about the ways that the government is using and encouraging tech innovation.
"First of all, I like excuses to come to Austin Texas," the President joked. "We are in a moment in history where technology, globalization, our economy is changing so fast and this gathering, SXSW, brings together people who are at the cutting edge of those changes. Those changes offer enormous opportunities but are also disruptive and unsettling," he added. "Part of my challenge since becoming president is trying to find ways that our government can be a part of the positive change that is taking place."
He also explained that the government has done quite a few things to make technology better, including making it possible to apply for social security online. Still, he hopes there is more that can be done.
"The reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you. It is to say to you as I’m about to leave office – how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches… to solve some of the big problems we are facing today," he said.
He then went on to talk about the admitted failure of the Affordable Care website. He admitted that "a little embarrassing for me because I was the cool, early adapter president."
He then went on to talk about the perception that the government doesn't work. “When government does great things, we take it for granted and it's not a story. And every day government is delivering for everyone in this room, whether they know it or not.” He continued, “Part of our task is to tell a better story about what government does.” He also said that government agencies like the IRS or state Department of Motor Vehicles need to adopt online tech solutions that would make it easier for citizens to interact with government.
He was then questioned about the digital divide, where a large percentage of minorities don't have regular access to the internet. Obama answered, “We have to make sure, given the power of the space, everyone is plugged in.”
“These are solvable problems but it is not a matter of us passively waiting for somebody else to solve them,” the president said. “That’s part of the mindset I am trying to break. I tried to break it back in 2007, 2008 when I ran for this office.”
He then talked about a highly contentious topic, the government's issues with Apple.
“I am of the view that there are very real reasons that we need to make sure that the government cannot just get in willy-nilly to people's iPhones, people's smart phones,” he said.
However, he did go on to ask that if encryption makes personal devices impenetrable, then "how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we disrupt the terrorist plot, what mechanisms do we even have available to do simple things like text enforcement," Otherwise, he warned, "everyone would be walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket."
"My conclusion Obama said, "is you cannot take an absolutist view on this."
“I am way on the civil liberties side of this thing,” he explained. “I anguish a lot about the decisions we make when it comes to keeping this country safe… but the dangers are real, maintaining law and order and a civilized society is important. So I would caution against taking an absolutist view on this.”
He even went so far as to mention Edward Snowden, who raised the awareness of government surveillance. He said, "the Snowden issue vastly overstated the dangers to U.S. citizens in terms of spying."
Before ending his speech, the President returned to civic engagement, saying: “We cannot solve the problems in government... unless we, the people, are paying attention. In an age when people are getting information through digital platforms, through the internet, it is critical that all of you, who are shaping this environment are spending time thinking about how we can get people engaged."
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According to The Hollywood Reporter, Michelle Obama will also give a presentation on March 16 about the "Let Girls Learn" initiative, which helps worldwide education for girls.