President Barack Obama, the first sitting president to appear at South by Southwest, issued a technological call to arms Friday at SXSW Interactive, the tech industry spinoff of the popular music and film festival.
He kicked off the session, set up as a sit-down conversation with Texas Tribune Editor Evan Smith, by discussing the digital future and how Americans can use technology to solve problems.
As the afternoon’s keynote speaker, he implored the approximately 2,000 in attendance at the Long Center for the Performing Arts to use their talents for social goals broader than mere novelty.
“I’m here to recruit all of you … How can we come up with new approaches to solve some of the big problems we face today,” he said. “It’s not enough just to focus on what’s the cool next thing.”
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He talked about the problems that initially crippled the website for the Affordable Care Act and how they were repaired by specialists from the tech industry. Other government-related issues that he said could benefit from a wider array of voices include voting and engaging young people who might be tempted by online extremism.
Smith asked him about the current debate over whether Apple should allow the FBI to access a phone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists, Syed Farook. Obama responded that he couldn’t talk about the case specifically but advanced the idea there has to be some middle ground.
“You cannot take an absolutist view on this,” Obama said.
“If your argument is strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should create black boxes, that, I think, does not strike the kind of balance we have lived with for 200, 300 years, and it’s fetishizing our phones above every other value.”
He continued that he’s “way on the civil liberties side on this thing” and that he agonizes a lot over the issues.
“But the dangers are real,” he said.
As part of his response, Obama said that “the Snowden issue vastly overstated the dangers to U.S. citizens in terms of spying.”
Advances in technology “offer us enormous opportunities, but also are very disruptive and unsettling,” Obama said. “They empower individuals to do things that they could have never dreamed of before, but they also empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages.”
Tieless in a dark suit and purple shirt, Obama seemed comfortable on a SXSW stage, a place where many pop-culture luminaries and newsmakers — including Mark Zuckerberg, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Mark Cuban, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden (the latter two done remotely) — have appeared over the years. But, according to SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest in his introduction, Obama’s appearance was “the most special event in the history of South by Southwest.”
The president arrived about 20 minutes late, having stopped at Torchy’s Tacos along the way with Austin Mayor Steve Adler. He said he ordered three tacos: the Democrat, the Republican and the Independent. His motorcade passed throngs of well-wishers as well open-carry protesters as it headed to SXSW.
First lady Michelle Obama was in Simi Valley, Calif., on Friday for the funeral for former first lady Nancy Reagan. On Wednesday, she’ll be in Austin to deliver the keynote address at SXSW Music, and talk about her Let Girls Learn initiative, promoting education for girls around the world.
This report includes material from Bloomberg news service.