Every year in a Texan Spring, tens of thousands of people descend on Austin in search of live music, parties, new technologies, indie films and general topics of social interest. Fortunately there is much to find in each category thanks to the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Conferences and Festival. 2016, however, brought even more intrigue to SXSW as, for the first time ever, a sitting American President sat down on a festival stage to keynote speak to attendees. President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking talk revolved around civil engagement in this new technological age.
South by Southwest began in 1987, strictly as
a music festival. Its organizers expected only
150 attendees, but in fact over 700 arrived.
It was the first sign that the event was destined
for bigger things.
The president’s main purpose of sitting down to speak in Austin was to talk about the importance of involving oneself in good works at a time where “technology, globalization, our economy is changing so fast,” and where individuals possess the power “to do things they could have never dreamed of before.” The keynote was wide-ranging, however, touching on topics from Big Data’s place in civic participation, to the role of a positive government, to the recent dust ups on the issue of ISIL & privacy. On that last topic, Obama declined to comment specifically on the FBI’s case against Apple, but took to a center position in giving warning to “absolutist” views for or against.
Obama v. Apple
But most of the discussion centered around how technology can interact with civic life in a positive way. As President, Mr. Obama appropriately focused on government, specifically how the tech word could align with government to improve systems and in turn improve lives. The examples were varied, ranging from digitalizing financial aid applications and Social Security administration to revamping the failed Affordable Care Act website.
The latter example, in President Obama’s view, showed how disparate entities in tech – slight, sleek and fail-fast – and government – “big, bloated and frustrating” – could work together despite their differences and do big things. In recruiting the best and brightest from Silicon Valley & Austin to leverage technology to improve government services, the President hopes to have created a pipeline “where there is a continuous flow of talent that is coming in to help shape the government.” The idea is that even people who are ideologically opposed to the government will be able to “harness their skills towards a greater purpose, helping millions of people.”
First Lady Michelle Obama also made an appearance at SXSW, speaking on an initiative to improve access to education for young girls worldwide.
The President’s message, collected with the First Lady’s message, spoke to that greater theme of involving everyone in a bigger purpose. The model of American representative government is dependent on that ideal; collective voices, in Obama’s words, “making government more responsive and work better.” Of course, this requires reaching out to those not involved, those under-represented. And this, too, can be helped through the power of technology.