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Obama: We’re "chasing after the wrong things"

President Barack Obama, speaking at an Obama Foundation event
President Obama, speaking at an Obama Foundation event last month. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

"We need to stop believing that more and bigger is better. We are chasing the wrong things," former president Barack Obama told a Silicon Valley audience Thursday.

Why it matters: Obama's warning has an added layer of meaning here, where the tech industry has grown powerful and rich by mastering the art of "scaling up."

The big picture: Speaking at Salesforce's Dreamforce conference, Obama traced many of the problems in today's society to uncertainty fueled by globalization and automation, along with an underlying misconception of what it takes to be satisfied.

  • "What I also see is just this sense of anxiety and rootlessness and uncertainty in so many people some of which is fed by globalization and technology," he said. "So much of the political turmoil we are seeing right now has to do with people feeling materially insecure."

The bigger picture: Technology and globalization have "turbocharged" the anxiety, and we need to deal with the social issues that has created, he said.

  • "Part of the goal of solving big problems is not just a matter of finding the right technical solution," he said. "Part of it is also finding out how do we restore some sense of our common values."
  • "We're chasing after the wrong things," he said, adding that climate change tops his list of concerns. "There's such a thing as being too late."

Yes, but: Obama argued that we're hampered by lack of a common experience, which he said was easier when there were only three channels on TV. At that time, he said, everyone was watching Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley whether they were conservative or liberal.

  • "If you watch Fox News you live in a different reality than if you read the New York Times," Obama said. The internet had the potential to help people better understand one another, he said — and perhaps still does — but right now it is splintering us.