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Obama says technology is 'splintering' society

The former president, in a chat with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, says it could have big implications for the younger generations.

Former President Barack Obama, pictured in an October talk, spoke Thursday at the Dreamforce conference. No one was allowed to photograph or record the talk. 
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As a former president of the United States, Barack Obama has stayed in a lot of presidential suites. Though the rooms are beautiful and spacious, he says, they also exemplify a couple of things: People don't need that much, and technology can overwhelm them.

"Michelle once spent half an hour trying to figure out how to turn off an overhead light," Obama said Thursday, referring to the former first lady. The remark came during a talk with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff at the company's annual Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. For Obama, the story about the light wasn't just a funny anecdote, but a broader picture of the challenges in our society today. 

"We're chasing after the wrong things," he said. A desire for higher status is fed in part by social media and technology. "My life isn't better being in a presidential suite," Obama said. "If I was in a Hampton Inn with a bed and a shower, that works just fine." 

Dreamforce attendees lined up hours before the 10:30 a.m. PT talk to get a glimpse of the former president in the sprawling Moscone North conference hall. 

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Security guards and conference workers cheered people heading into the hall. The audience clapped when the big screen showed a woman wearing "I miss Obama" socks. The mayors of San Francisco and Oakland, London Breed and Libby Schaaf, respectively, were in the audience. 

For the appearance, Salesforce handed out strict guidelines. No one in the audience was allowed to take any pictures or record any audio or video. But unlike Michelle Obama's talk at Dreamforce in 2017, attendees were allowed to tweet and write about Thursday's conversation. 

Obama's presence at Dreamforce comes as the technology industry faces scrutiny and possible regulation for its business practices. During Obama's time as president, tech could almost do no wrong, but social media has been criticized over the past several years for its role in the spread of disinformation before and after the 2016 US presidential election. And the US Department of Justice has launched investigations into companies like Google and Facebook and has considered breaking them up.

Having "big disruptive" information technologies can sometimes be "dangerous," Obama said. "People don't know what's true and what's not and what to believe." Instead of uniting people, technology like social media is "splintering" them. 

"If you watch Fox News, you live in a different reality than if you read The New York Times," he said. "We're siloing ourselves off from each other in a way that's dangerous." 

This could have big implications for the younger generations, Obama said. He's worried about three things: climate change; the lack of a common culture and conversation; and "the rise of extreme inequality that is being turbocharged by globalization and technology."

"It amplifies inequalities," Obama told Benioff. "So much of the political turmoil has to do with people feeling insecure."

Shara Tibken contributed to this report.

This article was written as part of the Goethe-Institut's Close-Up journalists' exchange programme and Wunderbar Together- The Year of German-American Friendship. More information can be found at www.goethe.de/nahaufnahme and at #GoetheCloseUp and #WunderbarTogether.