South By Southwest is still the best brain food


As the nominee who first rode the social media wave, it was fitting that US President Barack Obama spoke at South by South West (SXSW), the ultimate geek conference where Twitter itself was launched.

Celebrating its 30th year anniversary, South By (as it is known by the faithful and Austin locals) remains the best brain food in an annual calendar packed with tech events.

Obama is the first sitting US president to speak at the conference, and his wife Michelle were also due to give a keynote this past Wednesday, addressing education for girls around the world.

As befits the audience, Obama discussed digital inclusion, how technology can make voting easier, and civic engagement in the 21st century.

“We take pride in being the world’s oldest systematic democracy and yet we put up barriers and make it hard for our citizens to vote. It’s easier to order pizza, or take a trip, than it is to participate in the most important part of democracy and select who will represent you in government,” he told the audience in Austin, Texas.

“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? It’s not enough just to focus on what’s the cool next thing.”

They are admirable sentiments, and something you’d love hear come from our president.

“Technology brings together people who are at the cutting edge. It brings enormous opportunities but they also very disruptive. It empowers individuals to do things never done before. We’re trying to find ways our government can be part of the positive changes, part of the broader civic communication in tackling our biggest challenges.”

But, he warned, technology “also empower folks who are very dangerous to spread dangerous messages” meaning the spread of ISIS. Although he never directly addressed it, the FBI’s battle with Apple came up during the questions. This hot topic has dominated tech news in the States since it emerged, especially in the last week while I have been here; and will continue to be a burning issue for the foreseeable future.

Obama was being interviewed by Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith, who described this once-frontier state as “the hating-on-government capital of the western world”. He summed up the conundrum by saying: “We hate government so much we would have no government. But then we’d have no one to sue.”

This year SXSW, incidentally, also hosted TV stars on shows with political and tech themes; and who will be familiar to South African audiences: Kerry Washington from Scandal (called The Fixer in South Africa) and geek show Mr Robot’s Rami Malek and Christian Slater. There was also a powerful keynote by Dr Brené Brown, whose profound thoughts on vulnerability has become the fourth most-viewed TED talk.

Obama acknowledged the tech flaws in the launch of his defining legislation, called the Affordable Care Act, but known colloquially as Obamacare.

Despite years of resistance it was unveiled in 2013, “and then the website didn’t work,” he said to laughter. “My entire campaign was premised on using technology,” he said. However the government’s procurement processes were based on an age of buying boots, pencils and furniture, not software. “There was an example of an outdated system using bloatware that broke down.”

So Obama brought in a “swat team of friends” from Silicon Valley and the tech community to fix it, which he realised could help overhaul many of America’s antiquated systems. “We are harnessing their digital skills so that millions of people can be helped.”

“As long as they feel they have a president and someone who is providing some air cover, there is no system they can’t get in there and work in and make it significant better

If only President Jacob Zuma had the same sentiments as Obama’s. If only.

This article first appeared on Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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