December 07, 2019
Home Social Media Barack Obama in S.F.: ‘Strange times’ as tech, social media have polarized us – The Mercury News

Barack Obama in S.F.: ‘Strange times’ as tech, social media have polarized us – The Mercury News

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President Barack Obama in conversation with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff at Dreamforce at Moscone Center in San Francisco on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (Jakub Mosur Photography via Salesforce)

SAN FRANCISCO — Even as Barack Obama on Thursday acknowledged that technology helped propel him to the presidency, he also cited it as a contributor to political polarization and anxiety over inequality and globalization.

The former president of the United States spoke with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff at Dreamforce, the cloud software company’s annual conference, on the same day as public hearings in the impeachment inquiry into his successor, President Donald Trump.

“These are strange times we live in,” Obama said.

Obama told Benioff that technology allowed them both to be successful and to have reach — Obama’s was the first presidential campaign to take advantage of the rise of social media — but said it also highlights economic inequality and has caused political turmoil.

“Part of solving big problems is not just finding a technical solution,” he said in the hour-long conversation at Moscone Center before a crowd of about 7,500 people that included the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland, London Breed and Libby Schaaf, respectively; Salesforce employees; and some clearly excited schoolchildren who got front-row seats and whose hands the former president shook afterward. His talk was also live-streamed to three other places at the conference, which this year is expecting 170,000 attendees. “It’s about finding common values.”

He said the values he looks for in others — in his staff at the White House and now at the Obama Foundation, which aims to find future leaders — are what he has tried to impart to his daughters: “Be kind and be useful.”

“Right now in our culture, fed in part by social media and technology, we’re chasing the wrong things,” Obama added.

The former president’s comments come as the tech industry is coming to terms with the consequences of its reach and power, especially after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in which Russians were found to have interfered with the help of social media. Facebook, Google and Twitter have been under fire over their approach to misinformation.

“During the rise of a new information age — whether it’s the printing press, radio, TV, and now social media and the internet — it can be a dangerous moment,” Obama said. “People don’t know what’s true and what’s not.”

He also blamed the changing times and the sheer amount of information at our disposal, saying “it’s going to take a lot of work” for people to be able to find common ground.

What is he doing about it? His foundation is trying to help find leaders all over the world to deal with some of the problems he mentioned as pressing: climate change and extreme inequality within and among nations.

Besides the work he’s doing with his foundation, Obama is also finishing writing a book about his presidency.

“You’re still working on that?” Benioff asked.

“I thought I was done, but then Michelle’s did so well,” Obama said. “I thought I’d better do a rewrite.”

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