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The Goracle -- Al Gore, the Internet and the Future of American Politics

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The advent of global warming, the dangers of declaring war on Iraq, the power and reach of the Internet. Is there another American political figure who's been so right, so prescient, about so many things -- and, in turn, so loathed by a consistent vocal opposition?

No, there's only one "Goracle."

All eyes will be on Al Gore this week, as he attends the last days of the U.N.-sponsored climate change summit in Copenhagen. In recent years, it's been impossible to divorce Gore from the environment, what with the Oscar win for An Inconvenient Truth, the Nobel Peace Prize and the release of another book called Our Choice. "President of the planet," he's been hailed. "Alarmist" and "exaggerator," he's been mocked. But just as lasting and undeniable as his imprint in modern environmental history is Gore's early and sustained prophecy -- there's no other word for it -- for the inevitable impact of the Internet in our everyday lives. Starting with his years in the House of the Representatives and the Senate ("the Gore Bill" being just one of his achievements), and throughout his service in the Clinton administration (in developing what he called an "information superhighway"), the global warming crusader was also the government's biggest Internet advocate. Gore never said he created the Internet, though Vint Cerf, aka the "father of Internet," has said that Gore's "initiatives led directly to the commercialization of the Internet." Cerf added: "So he really does deserve credit."

These days, his two long-time interests are crossing paths. The man (Gore) and the message (our climate crisis) has finally met the medium (the Web) that can effectively help spread the word around, from one social network to another. To hear skeptics such as former vice president candidate Sarah Palin tell it, the global warming debate is far from over. To Gore, however, there is no more debate -- just an opportunity for fact-driven, practical-minded individuals to mobilize around the cause.
"You know, Web 2.0, which may gave way to Web 3.0 -- social networks, basically -- holds the great promise of empowering enough individuals who share that broad public interest in an issue like global warming to organize and express themselves with sufficient intensity and focus to overcome the special interests. We're already seeing that begin to happen, and I'm encouraged by it," Gore told me recently inside the headquarters of Current TV, his Internet-meets-television outfit in San Francisco, located just a few blocks from the offices of Twitter.

It was the beginning of a three-hour interview for Rolling Stone -- the first half in San Francisco, the second half in his solar-paneled, geothermal system-powered home in Nashville. And Gore being Gore, we covered a wide range of topics. (The transcript of the interview is here.) He was more casual than I expected, with a loose face and a relaxed voice. ("Hi, I'm Al, very nice to meet you," he said.") Wooden, he is not. This is more the Gore as seen in his recent appearances on The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live: funny, a tad sarcastic and altogether animated. Twice, he walked over to a white board and, ever the lecturer, drew a diagram, illustrating what transparency in local government might look like. "The computerization of the data, the sharing of the data, and creation of the kinds of 'clicks-and-bricks' hybrid model for absorbing and responding to the implications of the meaning contained in the data -- that's really where self-governance needs to go," he said, blue pen in hand. At one point, he took off his leather two-toned belt to illustrate the changing of a political system -- no joke -- as tied to a ground-breaking study of open systems by Ilya Prigogine, a Belgian chemist. Some people, especially politicians, talk in paragraphs, finding their way through soundbites, the digestible, quotable bits. This is not necessarily Gore. He talks in well thought-out, carefully considered chapters. Here are a few chosen bits, pared down:

Asked if government should fund journalism, as recommended by a recent study commissioned by the Columbia University Journalism School, Gore, a former newspaperman and a frequent critic of the press, said: "I don't think so, I don't think so...I think those who propose government-funding for the support of newspapers are overlooking the essential number of the relationship between the press and the government. And you think about Richard Nixon or George W. Bush. Dick Cheney. The first time some news organization that receives government support decides to be antagonistic toward the government. Whatever source of leverage the person in charge of the government has is a potential danger to the integrity of that news organization."

Asked if Internet access is a fundamental right for Americans and a basic necessity for kids -- just like water and electricity -- in order to be a part of a global, knowledge-based society, Gore said: "I think it should be, yes. But the process by which a new capacity graves into that circle labeled 'necessities,' well, it's not a simple process."

Asked if the Internet will eclipse television as the most influential source of information, following a report by Pew Internet last year which noted that more than 50 percent of Americans got their political news from the Internet, Gore said: "The Internet is on such an impressive upward trajectory that it will certainly play a much more prominent role in the 2012 election than it did in 2008. But that's not to predict that in only three years we will see Internet-based political communication eclipsed what's taking place in television."

That's a constant theme during the interviews: television versus the Internet. This is an issue he's been exploring for decades. In college, his thesis was on television's impact on the American presidency. Years later, while in Congress, he became the Hill's walking encyclopedia on all things Internet, reading up on the latest software and meeting with the earliest thinkers of the medium. Speaking at a Web 2.0 summit days after Obama won, he called the victory the Internet's "collectively intelligent" decision.

Television, Gore has said all along, has had a very negative impact on politics -- not just on the politicians who end up spending most of their time raising money to buy expensive 30-second TV ads (the irony of the Obama campaign was that the money raised online was used to buy TV time), but also on citizens who've tuned out politics and find no room to express their views in the top-down, one-way medium that is TV. "You know the average American now watches TV five hours a day," Gore told me. "The average American in an average American lifetime spends 17 uninterrupted years -- 24 hours a day, 7 days a week --- watching TV. Seventeen years!"

And the struggle between the two mediums -- how they feed off each other but still remain independent of one another -- underlines what Gore calls "the transitionary period" that American politics is going through.

As a young "Atari Democrat" who headed the bipartisan Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future -- an in-house think-tank founded in 1976 -- Gore foresaw how a decentralized, more open, bottom-up network of computers (the Internet) will revolutionize the way we live, and participate in democracy. No political figure looms larger in Silicon Valley than Gore, who sits on the board of Apple and serves as senior adviser to Google. And he's such a techno-geek that a 3,000-word, heavily-footnoted article on Wikipedia is titled "Al Gore and information technology." Even young Web-savvy Republicans, taking lessons from Obama's winning online campaign strategy, sang Gore's praises at the Technology Summit hosted by Micheal Steele earlier this year. Andrew Rasiej, founder of the annual Personal Democracy Forum, the largest bipartisan gathering of online political thinkers, calls Gore "a godfather of this emerging movement."

Indeed, Gore is the "godfather" of the online political movement that's revolutionizing Washington -- and countries like Iran, China and Russia, where bloggers and tech-savvy citizens are rebelling against their regimes. "Look at what's happening beneath the surface in both China and Russia. In both countries, the broadcast media of television and radio, and the newspapers, are controlled. But in both countries, the attempt to control the Internet has largely, largely failed, because there are so many hacks that can work around the system -- first the digital elites, then others find ways to get the information," Gore said. "The political consciousness of the people, even in dictatorships, has been awakened by the Internet."

Here in the U.S., politics occurs on two levels. There's politics as framed by the mainstream media, reported (and largely) manipulated by the sometimes myopic, often horse race-driven, who's-up, who's-down, gotcha cable news culture. Then there's the politics that unfolding on the Web in real time, attracting online denizens of all ages, in disparate parts of the country. Save the Tea Party movement -- less a grassroots movement than an orchestrated play that's overwritten by the press -- this is the story of the GOP, as it ponders its future on little-known online hubs such as The Next Right. It's also the story of the Democrats, as the majority party in D.C. tries to re-awaken the online giant that Obama wielded so effectively last year -- 13 million e-mail addresses collected, nearly half a billion dollars raised just through the Web. There's a growing camp that believes that the Internet has greatly contributed to the ever-more partisan nature of politics. Gore, however, doesn't belong in that camp.

"When you went to the conservative blogs, you found the link to the liberal blogs. The common protocol is to embed links whether it's a liberal blog or a conservative blog. And what's happening is, we're still in this transitional phase -- it's a different transition, but it's still a transition era -- I think that the people who become the true believers and armor themselves with orthodoxy get the most attention. But I think beneath that there is a more powerful phenomenon where lots of people will come across a site that has one point of view and it's so easy to say, 'These people on the other side, just look for yourself at how stupid they are.' And you click on the link and a lot of them think, 'Actually, that doesn't sound stupid to me,'" Gore told me. "That takes the dialogue back and forth to the point where it begins to move toward a higher order, and the arguments become more sophisticated. And some of the most respected sites on both sides of the ideological divide find themselves responding to third or fourth counter-arguments and the debates become more sophisticated -- and both sides actually listen to the other and learn from each other."

He continued: "I see the Internet as a great source of hope for re-energizing representative democracy, and making it possible for people to really participate. We are seeing the emergence of a digital democracy, an Internet-powered, self-organizing paradigm. That's the key for this. It's not a Democrat thing, it's a not Republican thing, it affects everyone."

Including Gore.

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