Everything President Obama Said About the Digital Divide During His SxSW Keynote

By Sameer Rao Mar 14, 2016

President Barack Obama had a lot to say about tech and government during his keynote interview Friday (March 11) Austin’s annual arts and tech conference South by Southwest (SxSW).

Interviewer and The Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith asked President Obama questions about digital equity for marginalized Americans, particularly people of color. The president answered those questions by talking about initiatives, particularly ConnectED and The Opportunity Network, that are designed to bridge the digital divide in public schools and low-income households. 

Here’s the excerpted transcript on those points, courtesy of The Boston Globe:

Q: What you’re preaching, Mr. President, again—nobody will take issue with the idea of more civic engagement in a digital age. But the question is whether everybody, all of us in this country, are in the same digital age, right?

You’re in a state that is seeing rapid changes in its population. We’ll soon be Hispanic majority. Well, in this state, as in a lot of other states, the digital divide—access to Wi-Fi, access to devices continues to be an enormous problem. Fifty percent of adults in Hispanic households have no access to Internet at home. Fifty-four percent of African Americans have access, but 46 percent do not. Many more White households have access to the Internet than do non-White households. We know that we have this massive digital divide in this country, in Texas and elsewhere. Shouldn’t the government, before we start providing all the civic engagement through the digital space, make sure that everybody is in the digital space first? (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Which is, actually, exactly what we’ve been trying to do over the last several years. When we passed the Recovery Act—the stimulus that was very controversial at the time and that continues to be criticized by the other party, despite the fact that unemployment is now below 5 percent—(applause)—and we avoided a Great Depression. (Applause.) Thanks, Obama. (Laughter and applause.) But embedded in that was a massive investment in making sure that communities that had been left out of broadband and Wi-Fi were reached. And we have made enormous progress in extending more and more Internet access—high-speed Internet access to communities all across the country.

A second example—we set up something called ConnectED, where our goal—and we’re on track to meet this by 2018—is that 99 percent of classrooms have access to high-speed wireless. And the way we’ve done that, in part, is through federal spending, but what we’ve also done is we’ve partnered with an array of companies.

Q: Right, private industries.

THE PRESIDENT: Private industry has really stepped up. And so part of the task—you’re right that we’ve got to make sure that, given the power of this space, everybody is plugged in. But one of the great tricks to all this is making sure that whatever government is doing is then supplemented with and enhanced by a private sector and nonprofit sector that are ready to step up. And it’s not just, by the way, getting a line in or Wi-Fi there. It’s also training teachers. We’ve set up something called—well, open book? Somebody out here—


THE PRESIDENT: There you go, Open eBooks. (Laughter.) I knew there was somebody in the audience who’d know about this. (Laughter.) To make sure that kids in places that don’t have a lot of books that suddenly they have access to this enormous e-library, and that that becomes folded into the mechanics and the infrastructure that’s been set in place.

Q: Mr. President, very good, it’s important to have wired classrooms, but part of the problem is that 70 percent of homework assignments by one measure, given by teachers, require some Internet access. So it’s one thing to wire classrooms; the problem is homes.

There was a story in The New York Times about a month ago that had a couple of kids from McAllen, a brother and sister, standing outside their school building into the wee hours of the night having to do their homework on their phones, using the Wi-Fi from the school after hours because they had no Wi-Fi at home. This is 2016. It just seems crazy.

THE PRESIDENT: Which is why we’ve set up something called Opportunity Networks that is going to go into public housing, rural communities, low-income communities to make sure that access is available precisely so those young people can do the work.

Q: You’re going to try to solve this problem?

THE PRESIDENT: I am trying to solve every problem. (Laughter and applause.) But here—

Q: You’ve got to have a goal, I understand.

THE PRESIDENT: But here’s the point that I want to make. These are solvable problems, but it’s not a matter of us passively waiting for somebody else to solve it. And that’s part of the mindset that I’m trying to break. I tried to break it back in 2007, 2008, when I ran for this office. As you will recall, the slogan was not "Yes, I Can"—it was "Yes, We Can." And we could sit here and you could list out an array of problems, inequities that have to be addressed. What I’m saying is, number one, government actually works better in so many areas than we give it credit for because we tend to focus on those areas where it’s not working as well.

Number two, part of the reason that government doesn’t always appear to provide a satisfactory solution is because government has to take on the hardest problems. The private sector doesn’t have to figure out how to educate the poorest kids. The private sector doesn’t have to figure out how to protect us from a terrorist cell. If you have aging, sick veterans, the private sector may not serve them as well, or to figure out how do we get homeless off the streets.

So the toughest problems are government problems. And finding solutions to those things can take time. And so you’re never going to get 100 percent satisfaction the way you might get that perfect cup of coffee, the perfect latte, or the perfect—the lowest price on your ticket to Cancun—(laughter)—because these are harder problems.

But the third point that I’m trying to make here is that if we can reconceive of our government so that the interactions and the interplay between private sector, nonprofits, and government are opened up, and we use technology, data, social media in order to join forces around problems, then there’s no problem that we face in this country that is not soluble. And the key is to have incredible talent, as is gathered here, to focus on it.

It’s not enough just to focus on what’s the cool next thing. Part of what we have to do is to figure out how do we use and harness the cool next thing to make sure that everybody in this country has opportunity. And to make sure that we’re dealing with our environment in an effective way.

These quotes underscore a much-bigger conversation about the role of private industry, especially the tech industry that’s found a big home at SxSW, in uplifiting government’s ability to serve people well. You can see video of the full interview here

First Lady Michelle Obama will deliver another keynote on Wednesday, March 16. 

(H/t The Boston Globe, NPR