Al Gore is at South by Southwest. You can tell by the length of the line. The former vice president is so popular here that hopeful attendees are stretched around two sides of Austin’s cavernous convention center. A docent inspects the ranks, explaining to those at the back that the hall is already full. But the crowds don’t care — they join and wait anyway, chatting idly among themselves and sending their youngest members on the beer runs. In the end, the event’s staffers are proven correct: Gore makes his speech to a ballroom packed to the rafters, and the thousands who had been warned camp outside the closed doors, watching the simulcast on their iPhones.
The title of Gore’s speech is “The Future,” and he draws the main themes from his book of the same name. As one might imagine, scaremongering about climate change weaves in and out of his presentation. From time to time, the usual enemies are brought out for applause: Congress is impotent and “does nothing” until it “gets the okay from special interests”; shadowy groups run the country, he claims, having “hacked” its democracy and corrupted its “operating system,” the Constitution. And the NRA, which defends a key part of that “operating system”? “A complete fraud,” Gore explains, “because it is financed by the gun manufacturers.”
Gore’s progressivism is orthodox, but his solutions are not. “We need to move everything to the Internet as quickly as we possibly can. If we do that, the future will belong to a well-informed citizenry.” One is left wondering how the United States coped for the greater part of its history.
As for the future, will the Information Age really lead to an Informed Age? In truth, most pertinent political information is already online, but, rather than having flung open the doors of the Library of Alexandria to a grateful populace, the primary consequence has been a rise in cheap sensationalism. Aldous Huxley worried, in an under-noted opposition to George Orwell’s prediction of information’s becoming rare, that the future would bring “the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant.” Do we doubt that so many of those who speak of technology as a panacea have, as Huxley warned, “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”?
And “informed” in what? An atomized media environment by no means helps to heal our polarized political environment. We have, as Roger Simon argues, “been digitally Balkanized.” Whatever were the limitations of the 1950s, politically and culturally there was something to be said for having three television channels that everybody in the country was forced to watch. One suspects that Gore understands this at one level. Having laid out his vision of an Internet-centric world, he shifts emphasis, articulating libertarian worries about government, stopping a few inches short of endorsing Rand Paul’s anti-drone filibuster, and griping convincingly about our “stalker economy.” People, he claims, are reaching the “gag point” with surveillance. He specifically criticizes the construction of a $2 billion data-storage facility in Utah that will allow the National Security Agency to look through e-mails and texts. The crowd, libertarian on privacy but little else, goes wild.
Al Gore is an unlikely rock star, but a rock star he is. In the twelve years since he lost his bid for the White House, he has amassed a cult following and a fortune of over $300 million. Red-faced and bloated, he has a peculiar air. When he is insistent or excited about an idea, his eyes flame and his face rearranges itself into anger. He is easily mockable, but he knows his audience and he holds his crowd. Still, like many an established celebrity, Gore has grown unaccustomed to being challenged. This is made painfully obvious when his interviewer, the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, rather frankly asks Gore about the propriety of his selling Current TV to the government of Qatar. Why, Mossberg presses, did you sell your company to “basically a big, nothing but an oil producer” of the sort you routinely lambast as destroying the planet? “How could you do that?”
Gore doesn’t answer the question. Instead he says that he “did extensive diligence and found some pretty remarkable things” about Al Jazeera. Such as? “It has won major awards around the world for integrity in journalism.” Mossberg isn’t satisfied with the evasion, and he pushes further. “I don’t ask you why you continue working for Rupert Murdoch!” Gore snaps, turning red. Mossberg quietly retorts: “Last I checked, he’s not in the oil business.” Without missing a beat, Gore quips that Murdoch is “not strictly in the news business either.” Everyone laughs and their hero lives to fight another question, but it’s a cheap answer and the more astute know it.
At times the conversation becomes downright odd, ranging into a brief discussion of genetic engineering. “You can’t farm spiders for a number of reasons, so people are taking the genes from spiders and splicing them into goats,” Gore tells a bemused crowd in a tone so deadpan that for a split second I wonder if he is joking. “They look like goats, then these spider-goats secrete silk through their udders,” he continues. It is, he explains, easier to separate silk from milk than it is to farm spiders. Then he pauses and looks around, injecting a touch of genuine levity into the room. Is “everyone okay with that?”
The question is rhetorical. Nonetheless, he leaves no doubt as to the correct answer: “It is not necessarily a bad thing,” Gore tells us, pouring water on the skeptics. “There’s a difference between scary and creepy. Creepy is not fear; creepy is pre-fear. It’s like something is going on — and you don’t know what it is.” The crowd breathes a sigh of relief: Genetic engineering is okay. So, what does scare him? “Our country is in very serious trouble,” Gore argues. Technology is taking away jobs, facilitating spying on the populace, and destroying the environment. Democracy is in “peril.” But the very same technology is also a great source of “hope.” And how should we navigate this “peril and opportunity”? Funny you should ask, for Gore has laid it out in his latest book — and he’ll soon be in a town near you with all of the latest solutions.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.