This October, the White House opened its doors to a few thousand people for South by South Lawn, a daylong event described as a “festival of ideas, art and action.” Both the event and its name were a nod to South by Southwest, the annual technology-and-music festival held in Austin, Tex., where Barack and Michelle Obama showed up as surprise keynote speakers earlier this year. The story goes that they were so impressed by their experiences, they decided to host their own microrendition before leaving office. Attendees at the White House version — the types of people who describe themselves in Twitter bios as “creator” or “innovator” — were told to dress casually, in clothes suitable for a picnic. The D.J. Beverly Bond, of Black Girls Rock, blasted Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power” and Parliament’s “Flash Light” across the lawn, which was studded with coffee carts, Lego sculptures and virtual-reality stations. Enormous stages erected for the occasion housed a rotating cast of musical guests and speakers throughout the afternoon. As the sun began to set, volunteers handed out plaid blankets so people could stretch out on the ground.
The event felt like the swan song of the first president who seemed to get it — “it” being the value of start-up culture. A friend in attendance that day told me that she thought Obama wanted us to feel “some ownership, that tech doesn’t have to be far away or out of our lives.” He wants to leave behind a “nation of makers,” she said. Megan Rose Dickey, who covered the event for TechCrunch, wrote that it left her “optimistic that maybe our country can change and learn to do the right thing.”
In many ways, Obama is America’s first truly digital president. His 2008 campaign relied heavily on social media to lift him out of obscurity. Those efforts were in part led by a founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes, who believed in the Illinois senator’s campaign so much that he left the start-up to join Obama’s strategy team. After he was elected, he created a trifecta of executive positions in his administration modeled on corporate best practices: chief technology officer, chief data scientist, chief performance officer. He sat for question-and-answer sessions on Reddit, released playlists of his favorite songs on Spotify and used Twitter frequently, even once making dad jokes with Bill Clinton. He stoked deep and meaningful connections with scores of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg.
Obama routinely pushed policy that pleased the tech-savvy, including his successful effort to keep broadband suppliers from giving preferential treatment to bigger web companies over individuals. Even his tech-specific fumbles seem unlikely to mar his permanent record: The rocky debut of HealthCare.gov, the online insurance marketplace that cost more than $600 million to build and crashed almost immediately after it went live, was later brushed off as a technical difficulty. And his administration’s pressure on Silicon Valley companies to aid its cybersecurity efforts hasn’t seemed to dampen their enthusiasm for him. Obama used his ties to the tech sector to foster diplomacy: Last year, he took Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, with him to Cuba as an economic endorsement of the revolutionary powers of start-ups to change the world.
South by South Lawn presented an image of America as a start-up and technology as a small-batch industry, full of dreamers and inventors. I was invited to moderate a panel, “How Do We Fix Real Problems With Technology?” As much as I enjoyed our conversation, the premise felt flawed. “Fixing” problems with technology often just creates more problems, largely because technology is never developed in a neutral way: It embodies the values and biases of the people who create it. Crime-predicting software, celebrated when it was introduced in police departments around the country, turned out to reinforce discriminatory policing. Facebook was recently accused of suppressing conservative news from its trending topics. (The company denied a bias, but announced plans to train employees to neutralize political, racial, gender and age biases that could influence what it shows its user base.) Several studies have found that Airbnb has worsened the housing crises in some cities where it operates. In January, a report from the World Bank declared that tech companies were widening income inequality and wealth disparities, not improving them.
For better or for worse, the last eight years have been defined less by the rise of small tech companies than by the expansion of Big Tech. We’ve seen the second Silicon Valley boom, with companies valued in the billions, including Facebook, Uber, Snapchat, Palantir and Dropbox. Established technology companies like Amazon, Apple and Google have expanded their reach and influence throughout the world. And while many countries have pushed back against that spread, our government has essentially left them alone. (In August, for instance, WhatsApp announced that it would begin sharing user data with Facebook, its parent company, and its suite of products — news that gave some Americans pause but caused German regulators to intervene on behalf on their citizens.)
As Obama's presidency winds down, Silicon Valley and Washington seem to be getting closer. Just a few days after South by South Lawn, The Washington Post reported that Facebook was quietly talking to White House officials about rolling out a controversial app called Free Basics. On the surface, Free Basics sounds fantastic: It promises free mobile internet for those who can’t afford expensive data plans. But only Facebook and Facebook-approved services would be available through the app, and the app can collect data on those who sign up, both to increase the company’s user numbers and maintain the growth needed to impress shareholders. The same service sparked outrage when Facebook tried to introduce it in India last year; officials believed it would create an unfair marketplace and the potential for discriminatory practices. Fusion recently reported that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram gave a company called Geofeedia access to information that helped law-enforcement agencies monitor and target minority activists. The close ties between our government and tech companies have led to changes that Farhad Manjoo, the New York Times technology columnist, told me “will have big effects for a long time, and we’ll say they started under Obama.”
None of this was mentioned at South by South Lawn. Instead, speakers heralded the power of the tech community. John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights leader, gave a rousing talk that implored listeners to “get in trouble. Good trouble. Get in the way and make some noise.” Clay Dumas, chief of staff for the Office of Digital Strategy at the White House, told me in an email that the event could be considered part of a legacy to inspire social change and activism through technology. “In his final months in office,” he wrote, “President Obama wants to empower the generation of people that helped launch his candidacy and whose efforts carried him into office.”
I left the event as the gorgeous afternoon unfurled into a balmy evening, still unsure what to make of it. But a few days later, during a speech at Carnegie Mellon, Obama seemed to reckon with his feelings about the potential — and limits — of the tech world. The White House can’t be as freewheeling as a start-up, he said, because “by definition, democracy is messy. And part of government’s job is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.” But he added that he didn’t want people to become “discouraged and say, ‘I’m just not going to deal with government.’ ” Obama was the first American president to see technology as an engine to improve lives and accelerate society more quickly than any government body could. That lesson was apparent on the lawn. While I still don’t believe that technology is a panacea for society’s problems, I will always appreciate the first president who tried to bring what's best about Silicon Valley to Washington, even if some of the bad came with it.
Image via WikiMedia
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