In a wide-ranging discussion at the Oktane18 technology conference in Las Vegas, former US President Barack Obama spoke about the role technology can play in an increasingly globalised world, the lessons he learnt making difficult decisions during his presidency, and the issue of major companies storing huge amounts of personal data.
When the keynote kicked off at just after 6pm, Mr Obama joked to the thousands of attendants: “Some of you, I know, just woke up – it’s Vegas.” Okta, the identity security company, hosted the event and its CEO Todd McKinnon started the conversation by asking what “identity” means in today’s world.
“I think that we live in a culture today where everybody feels the crush of information and the collision of worlds – it’s disruptive in a way that previous generations just didn’t experience. For most of human history you were born in a very specific location with very clear rules and expectations, maybe you knew 100 people; that’s how our brains are wired,” said Mr Obama.
“Everybody is trying to shape our work, our relationships and our ability to absorb information in ways that can be confusing. The big challenge we have today is how do we maintain the sense of common purpose and join together rather than splinter and divide,” he added.
Concerns about how technology giants use, or as is often the case misuse, customer data have been growing in recent years. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal highlighted the ways in which social media companies use customer data and how governments across the world have been slow to create regulatory structures to keep fast-developing technological solutions in check. Mr Obama believes that political systems are not being as responsive as they should be in this area.
Mr Obama continued: “A perfect example, which I know Okta works on a lot, is the issue of data collection and how data is used – what happens to my personal data and how does it get commercialised. Creating a framework that is agreed upon, is transparent and people understand is a challenge we should welcome and do in a structured systematic way, as opposed to in a spasmodic way. There’s been a data breach, people are outraged and they feel they don’t know how their data was used, so then there’s a scramble to catch up to the headlines.”
Mr Obama went on to explain that public sector organisations and private partners can work well together, but governments still have a great deal to learn in terms of technology. “The truth is that the public sector has extraordinary talent and does a lot of hard things that the public sector can’t or won’t do. But one area there is a huge gap is technology. The difference between the type of service, responsiveness and nimbleness in government IT services, for example, compared to what you see in the private sector is vast,” he said.
Mr McKinnon closed the conversation by asking Obama what was the most valuable piece of advice he received before going into office: “Maintain your humanity. In any position of power, certainly in Washington, people who are given great responsibilities with great privilege, wealth or power, start losing a sense of what’s important. We did not lose that, we came out intact.”