Obama at SXSW: Tech Isn’t Just About the Next Cool Thing; It’s About Creating Opportunity

At the annual conference in Austin, Texas, the president discussed ways that technology can help improve government for all Americans.

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Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, chats with President Barack Obama at the opening keynote during the 2016 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Long Center in Austin, Texas, on March 11, 2016.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SXSW

President Barack Obama arrived at the annual South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, on Friday to call on the tech industry and other digitally savvy folks to help with solving some of the country’s biggest problems.

Obama took the stage and fielded questions from Evan Smith, the co-founder and editor of the Texas Tribune. After they joked about the tacos he ordered at Torchy’s, an Austin landmark, the two got down to business and the president stayed on message. 

“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.

The core of the conversation centered on voting rights and digital access. “It is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single-most-important task in a democracy, and that is to select who’s going to represent you in government,” Obama said.

And in one of his few pointed jabs at the GOP, he noted that some people, such as those in power in Texas, want to trample voting rights by passing restrictive voter-ID laws. “The people governing the good state of Texas don’t want greater voter participation,” he said.

The president touted his initiative to put Wi-Fi and broadband Internet access in schools, housing projects and poor rural areas, noting, “We have to make sure, given the power of the space, everyone is plugged in.” And his overall message was that tech was not just about the next cool thing; “it’s about making the next cool thing into a way to increase opportunity.” 

Obama and Smith also discussed ways that government services can be made more efficient by being translated into online functions. But they also discussed government’s image problem, and Obama took responsibility for the tremendous snafus that occurred during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s services. He said that a team of experts from the leading tech firms across America was assembled to troubleshoot the issues and that upon making the online health care website functional and efficient, they turned their attention to other areas where the government could be more responsive to its citizenry. 

SXSW is having a first family week: First lady Michelle Obama will deliver the keynote address for the music festival Wednesday with a focus on her Let Girls Learn initiative.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter.

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